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April 9, 2010

Were We Born To Believe?

Rationalists such as Philip Pullman underestimate mankind's built-in hunger for the sacred, argues Matthew Taylor.

By Matthew Taylor
08 Apr 2010

Philip Pullman's new novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is opening another chapter in the often acrimonious debate between religious believers and atheists. This is not, of course, a new argument, but it is one that was given new life by the religious justifications offered by the September 11 terrorists, and there is little sign of it abating.

Although Pullman's attack is more on organised Christianity than faith, the aim of other strident atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Daniel Dennett, is to use the hammer of science and rationality to break the chains of religious superstition. Indeed, since the Ancient World, intellectuals have predicted that faith would wither away in the face of expanding human knowledge. But the prediction was wrong. Demographic trends suggest that the proportion of the world's population who follow a major religion will rise to about 80 per cent over the coming decades. Even in countries with low religious observance – such as Britain – there has been no decline in the number who say they believe in God.

The resilience of religion has been a spur to scientists interested in understanding the evolutionary, developmental and neurological basis of faith. Among evolutionists, the big debate is between those who argue that religious belief has helped human beings prosper as a species, and those who see faith merely as a by-product of other aspects of our development.

The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson is perhaps the most prominent advocate of the adaptationist view, arguing that religious belief helped make groups of early humans comparatively more cohesive, more co-operative and more fraternal, and thus better able to fight off less organised foes. And as human needs changed, so did the content of religious belief. In close-knit tribal cultures, there are many gods residing in nature, but in modern mass societies, where it is harder to enforce social norms, a single all-seeing God helps keep us on the straight and narrow.

Adaptationist accounts are far from universally accepted. Richard Dawkins describes the group selection theory that underlies Sloan Wilson's account as "sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity". But whatever is happening at the group level, there is something about the way individual human beings develop that makes us susceptible to religious belief.

Clues to this lie in the study of child development. It appears, for example, that at a particular age – usually around 10 – children become fascinated by big questions about life, death and the origins of the universe. At earlier ages, as children begin to apply language to the world around them, they seem to ask questions for which religion has answers.

We appear, for example, to be natural creationists. A child's account of nature relies on what developmental psychologists call "immature teleology". This is the idea that something exists because of the function it provides for the child: the river is there so I can swim in it, the tree so I can climb it. If something has a purpose, it must have been created for that reason.

The attraction of religious explanations to young minds doesn't explain their persistence into adulthood. Grown-ups don't believe in fairies. But while we may rid ourselves of childhood myths, our susceptibility to belief in the supernatural persists. This goes beyond not walking under ladders. In one experiment, married couples were offered a hundred dollars if – after having an exact replica made of their wedding ring – they would keep one, not knowing if it was the original. Most declined.

Similarly, we would rather wear a dirty item of clothing with no past than a laundered item we are told belonged to a mass murderer. Yet this requires us to believe not only that evil infects clothing, but that it is contagious. On a more everyday scale, nine out of 10 of us say we know when someone is looking at us from behind, but such a faculty would require supernatural powers.

As well as supernatural tendencies, a sense of the sacred is also alive and well among those of no religion. The anthropologist Scott Atran has studied the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The sacred beliefs he finds – about land, nationhood or political principle – are characterised by what might be termed anti-instrumentalism; if we are offered money or other material gain to give up these beliefs, we tend to adhere to them even more strongly. Thus, our beliefs are qualitatively different from the kinds of rational, tradeable preferences that would be accounted for in economics or game theory.

For many reasons, and in many ways, human beings are made to believe. Even if Pullman's powerful novel encourages some to abandon organised Christianity, it is likely that their hunger for the sacred will soon find some other expression.