The Science of Religion

I recently watched this really nice video of a talk given by Andy Thomson at the American Atheists conference that briefly goes over some of the reasons Why We Belive in Gods.

If you don’t wish to watch the video, I’ve recorded the primary arguments below (or skip right to the last bullet for the big conclusion):

  • Darwin gives us the only naturalistic explanation of how we’ve become who we are. Together with genetics, his theory can explain religion. Our brains have evolved, with piecemeal mechanisms, to solve problems of social interaction.
  • We are risen apes, not fallen angels. As part of our collective development, our frontal lobes have rapidly expanded. Once the development of language and tools allowed us to conquer our physical environment, the most challenging aspect left, and what probably drove the expansion of our brains, was dealing each other.
  • Religious ideas are the extraordinary use of everyday cognitions. They hijack the systems responsible for social cognition, agency detection, and precautionary reasoning. They are a by-product of mechanisms developed for other purposes. They can be characterized by ordinary constructs with slight alterations, and are an artifact of our ability to imagine alternative social worlds. They hijack these systems with super-normal stimuli.
  • Decoupled cognition. We are able to think of conversations with others (past and future) while conducting one at the moment. We can imagine having a conversation with people we’ve never met, such as The President. In this way we can interact with unseen others. It’s but one step to continue talking to a loved one recently deceased, and one further small step to talking with a god.
  • Hyperactive agency detection. All of us with mistake a shadow for a burglar, but never mistake a burglar for a shadow. We defaultly assume that agency is involved, filling in any gaps with intuitive reasoning.
  • This leads us to Minimally counterintuitive world, which optimally compromise between the interesting and the expected, creating stories that are attention arresting and memorable. Jousha Trees can walk around, but only under a full moon. God is just a guy, he understands my language, etc. but he’s omni-present. These counterintuitive properties can be physical (omni-presense), biological (virgin birth), psychological (pray and talk to him even though he’s omnipotent). There is also the attribution of mental states: God feels angry, he’s a jealous god.
  • We can see this in children, 5-mo old is startled when a box is able to move by itself. They know the difference between inanimate objects and people, they know about intelligent agency. They can also think about people’s mind without having to observe that person’s body. About 1/2 of 4 yr olds have imaginary friends. A story of a mouse eaten by an alligator results in negative responses about the mouse’s physical attributes: eating, drinking, etc. but positive responses for mental state: wanting, desiring, hoping, etc.
  • So the Belief in some form of life apart from the body is the default setting of the human brain.
  • Causal determinism and Purpose. We are also prone to attribute purpose and design where there is none: rivers are for floating boats. The easy way in which we find ourselves thinking of evolution as an intentional agent.
  • All this means that we will naturally invent a god.
  • Social Attachment. Distressed persons turn to a caretaker, this is absolutely necessary for early childhood development. We naturally take care of each other. This results in the assignment of God as the parental figure in our life is very, very difficult for a believer to give up, esp when encouraged to have “a personal relationship with Jesus”. We also fear loosing the love of those who share the belief, our parents, friends, community.
  • Theory of Mind. We each read into others intentions and desires. We have dedicated systems to read and monitor eye gaze, and can reason about 212 complex and sophisticated emotional states from black and white pictures of only eyes. We can also reason about the state of knowledge of others. I think you think that I think that… to I believe, I believe that God wants… The use and appeal to God can help to keep us in social control: We both know that God wants…
  • Neuroimaging. fMRI’s of brains taken while people are given statement about religion (God controls the world. God has views about marriage. etc..) All participants shared common regions of the brain for questions about religion. These were coincident with regions that process Theory of Mind, and Abstract Semantics and Imagery. The components of religious belief are served by well-known neural circuits which mediate evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions: Religiosity is integrated in the brain, and arises from the ordinary mechanisms used for social interaction.
  • Death. Theory of Mind conflicts with the physical evidence that our loved one is dead, so we continue talking to them. This gives us Souls and continued life in heaven.
  • Transference. We base new relationships on old ones, God replaces our natural father.
  • Childhood credulity. Children naturally absorb all information from their environment, and don’t have appropriate bullshit filters. They cannot disbelieve what religious ideas they are fed.
  • Deference to Authority. Stanly Miller showed that we are all capable of actions we wouldn’t ordinarily take if we are instructed to do so by an authority.
  • Reciprocal Altruism. We all keep a ledger in our heads about who owes us and who we owe. Religion uses this: sacrifice now for a nice mansion in the afterlife.
  • Romantic Love; natural Moral Feeling Systems recruited to ‘prove’ the existence of God; Altruistic punishment the willingness to punish social cheats at a cost to ourselves
  • Empathy When we observe someone take an action, the corresponding neurons in our own mind activate in a mirror image. Religion hijacks this with images of Jesus’ suffering, to guilt us into belief and obligation.
  • Rituals Demonstrate hard-to-fake signals of commitment, communicate our intentions, tie us together as part of a greater whole.
  • Kin psychology priests=brothers, nuns=sisters, pope=holy father.
  • He ends the talk with a discussion of the atheist agenda. Reviewing the Scopes and Dover trial, reminding the audience that our position in all court cases thus far has been that there is no conflict between Religion and Science. We now have enough evidence that we know this to be false. Our understanding of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience demonstrates this conflict. It won’t be long before this knowledge is important enough that it finds its way into a High School Textbook; resulting in litigation. Bring it on!

All of this really shows why it is so difficult for people to move from a position of religious belief to one of atheism. It also shows why logically dissecting the Biblical inconsistencies, and pouring over the mistakes in the ‘proofs’ of god’s existence is mostly futile. I hope that it also gives powerfully compelling evidence for Richard Dawkins’ assertion that ‘Religion is child abuse’. Fortunately, though, some of us, such as Dan Barker, grow to have doubts, and slowly drift away from religious belief. So the best strategy for atheists is to promote secular culture, continue to publicize our existence and to welcome converts from religion with open hearts.

In the end Religion will lose out because: Science can explain Religion, but Religion cannot explain Science.