Born believers?

The latest issue of New Scientist features an article by Michael Brooks on the evolutionary origins of religious belief. Brookes spends most of the article considering the relative merits of the two main contending hypotheses. On one view, religion is an adaptation selected for its role in promoting cooperation; on the other, it is a by-product of other mental modules which are themselves evolutionarily advantageous. Towards the end of his piece, however, Brookes briefly addresses the implications of this research for the epistemic status of theism. As Brookes writes,

if religion is a natural consequence of how our brains work, where does that leave god? All the researchers involved stress that none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods: as Barratt points out, whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it.

Barring non-realist interpretations of religious discourse, it is undoubtedly the case that these studies do not impinge on the truth of religious claims. (It is not clear to me what would non-realist theologians, such as like Don Culpitt, say about this research.)  Yet the interesting question concerns, not the truth, but the warrant of theism in light of scientific findings about why people believe in God.

Such findings can, I believe, undermine theism, in at least two different ways. First, they may provide a rival, superior explanation for a belief which was previously thought to be best explained by a supernatural hypothesis. Secondly, they may show that belief in God arises not as a result of attention to arguments or evidence, but as a contingent accident of our evolutionary past. Let us consider these in turn.

Of those who have had mystical or religious experiences, many claim that they constitute evidence for a personal deity. On one interpretation of this claim, religious experiences make God more probable because they are best explained by His existence. The success of such an argument, however, depends on the explanatory merits of the explanations on offer. Other things equal, an explanatory hypothesis is better if it is better supported by the evidence. So when a new scientific finding confirms some hypothesis, this may have the result of making it the best explanation of some phenomenon. If this phenomenon is religious experience, the result is the undermining of an argument for God, and with it the weakening of theism.

Admittedly, the New Scientist piece was concerned with religious belief rather than with religious experience. Still, though not as often as religious experiences, religious beliefs are also used as the basis of an argument for the existence of God. "The fact that people do in fact believe in God confirms the hypothesis that He exists," some people sometimes argue. Yet, since many theists will readily agree that this is a rather weak argument, it seems that the findings discussed in the New Scientist cannot do much to undermine theism in this way. Let us then turn to the other way in which theism may be threatened by progress in the scientific explanation of religious belief.


The Essay Prize. With the generous help of an anonymous benefactor, Oxford's Philosophy Department has decided to award a prize for the best undergraduate philosophy essay. Matriculated students of any accredited university in the world are eligible for the prize. A distinguished philosopher, Prof. White, has been chosen to evaluate the essays submitted and pick a winner among them. A thousand essays are submitted. After reading all the essays, the distinguished professor picks, as the winner, an essay written by a student named Joey. As it later transpires, Joey is the son of Prof. White’s secret mistress. A scandal ensues. After an academic investigation, Prof. White is summarily removed from his post.

Why is Prof. White’s conduct seemingly problematic? The answer seems to be twofold. First, Prof. White appears not to have chosen Joey’s essay because it was the best, but rather because it was Joey’s. Secondly, by having chosen in the way he did, Prof. White was unlikely to have picked the best essay.

Return now to our main discussion. Suppose that, in the light of some new scientific finding, it strongly appears to be the case that people believe in God, not because God exists, but because they are hardwired to do so. In parallel to the problems with Prof. White’s decision, there appear to be two problems here. Religious believers are not forming their views in the way they should. And, because they are not forming their views properly, they are likely to hold false views.

Consider this last problem first. Why is forming one’s beliefs in this way likely to result in false views? In the case of Prof. White, the answer is that each of the students was equally likely to be the child of his mistress. Since he picked the winner by picking the student that was in fact her child, there is only a one in a thousand chance that this kid is the author of the best essay (ignore, for simplicity, the possibility of ties). Similarly for religious belief. If the empirical hypothesis is true, religious believers are forming their beliefs not by looking at the merits of the case for theism, but by acting on their hardwired propensity to believe in God. Since alternative evolutionary histories could have equally resulted in different propensities (say, a propensity to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster), the probability that these believers have true beliefs must be very small indeed.

But suppose a miracle happens and the religious believer does in fact believe the truth. (Cf. Hume:"the Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.”) The first difficulty still remains. Prof. White would be morally blameworthy for having picked the winner without looking at the actual essays even if he happened to pick the best one by accident. Similarly, the religious believer should be blamed epistemically for having formed his beliefs without looking at the evidence, regardless of whether his beliefs are actually true.

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5 Responses to Born believers?

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    Why isn’t the hard-wiring itself evidence of the existence of God? The hard wiring is part of creation. Where the hard wiring fails, the argument might be made that the devil did it. Of course, then comes the dismal swamp of theodicy.

  • Dennis, there is no antecedent reason to think that God would hard-wire His creatures to believe in Him. On the contrary, given the importance that many religions place on free will and free choice, there are positive reasons to think that He would *not* have created the kinds of beings that, in light of these recent findings, we now know we are.

  • M. says:

    Suppose that we are hard wired to read causal relations out of repeated associations. Would that give us less reasons to believe causal statements?

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    The “Old Testament”, especially in the writings of the prophets, is full of the claim that all that occurs is caused by God — part of God’s plan. So, if I do something bad, that must also be part of God’s plan and not the result of free will. This is consistent with and hence some evidence for the existence of God. Not proof of, but evidence for.

    On the other hand, this may all be wrong. The prophets misunderestood the message they were transmitting. All that occurs was not planned, only foreseen, by God. The point of free will is this: Man should have the chance to choose God freely, choose to be good freely, etc. But the game might have been tilted a little bit in favor of goodness, etc., by laying down in the brain a predisposition to believe in a god.

  • Michelle Hutchinson says:

    Dennis – How much tilting in favour can count as truly giving us freedom? If God really cared about our making a free choice to believe as much as many religious people seem to assume, surely God would have made us fully free to make our own choice, rather than biasing our decisions (even if that leaves us with some possibility of not believing)?
    Also, it’s my understanding that different people are “hard-wired” to believe in God to different extents. Wouldn’t that be giving some people an unfair advantage, rather than beneficently giving everyone a helping hand?

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