Friday, May 30, 2008

Born to Believe?

The Pew Trust has a report on "How Our Brains are Wired For Belief." What follows the short article is a transcript of the fourth annual "Faith Angle Conference." Among the highlights:

So how does this work? Why is it that God doesn’t go away? I think religion and spirituality, when we look at these in very broad terms, help us in the same ways that the brain tries to help us, in terms of maintaining ourselves and transcending ourselves. When you look at the vast amount of literature and data that has been collected, we find religion often is extremely supportive of our behaviors: It helps us in terms of our mental health, our ability to cope with various issues and problems, and therefore it tends to be pretty good at helping us maintain ourselves.

It also happens to be pretty good at providing a system by which we transcend ourselves. When you look at most religions, there are a number of points along the way, as you go from birth to adolescence and marriage and ultimately old age, there are approaches and processes in place that enable you to transcend yourself from one moment to the next. The ultimate expression of this self-transcendence may be that we all can achieve some greater being: We can do something a little bit better; we can become better than we are, and transcend ourselves in that way. - Andrew Newberg

Of course, the unspoken question here, which is beyond the scope of neurology is "Did God put the need for belief in our brains through an evolutionary process?" or "Does that area of the brain suggest to us that we believe in a higher power, real or imagined?"

David Brooks writes about religion:

But the other moral precept in this is a very measured view of human nature. We’re not exactly next to the gods. The human mind – especially the human mind – is this jerry-rigged creature with very old things and a few new things built on top of it. It’s a very imperfect little organ. And so, it leads to a very problematic human condition because nature has this old stuff; it doesn’t need to invent something new and efficient; it just piles the new stuff on top of the old stuff.

That carries over into the social belief that every religion that exists must have served some purpose. So you have these theories of spiritual selection, that there were all these thousands of religions, and the ones that died off must have done so because they were ineffective, and the ones that survived, like Islam or Judaism or Christianity, must serve a purpose. They must be superior.

I’m not sure that’s actually testable. But that’s taken on faith because of the power of the Darwinian mindset.

To which Andrew Newberg responds:

Can I just add something to that real fast? For my own personal approach to this, we did used to talk a lot more about the evolutionary basis of religion. As I’ve heard more and more of those arguments, I find they become less and less tenable because there’s – People say, “Religion came into play because it was a way of dealing with the environment. It was a way of bringing people together.” And to some extent, that’s true. But I think it becomes very hard to perceive how we evolved with that ahead-of-time in mind. It becomes a much harder argument to make.

The problem here is that there is still the need to apply philosophical naturalism to every new study. If we preclude the idea that there is a God, then of course religious belief is only a product of neurochemical pathway reactions, irrespective of what put those pathways there in the first place.

It is long and involved, but a good read.


  1. Of course, the unspoken question here, which is beyond the scope of neurology is "Did God put the need for belief in our brains through an evolutionary process?"

    Exactly! Great blog!

  2. Thanks. In some ways, the whole sociobiological notion of religions reminds me of the Jesus Seminar a decade or so back. If you automatically preclude the possibility that Christ performed miracles, or was God then the words ascribed to him HAVE to be fabricated, right?