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article imageProfessor reveals why we believe in Gods

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     May 1, 2009 in World
Professor J. Anderson Thomson talked about why we believe in Gods at the 2009 American Atheist convention in Atlanta, Georgia. This talk has now been posted online for all to see.
Andy Thomson, as he likes to be called, starts his talk asking how many people in the room were religious believers at some point in their lives. It turns out to be most of them. He then asks why his mind and our minds generate these religious ideas and accept them.
We are getting tantalizingly close to a comprehensive, cognitive neuroscience of religious belief, he says, and this turns out to be the main point of his talk: showing that we do have enough elements to start postulating a coherent and comprehensive hypothesis. Interestingly, near the end of the talk, someone in the public proposes the creation of a computer program (model) to show how this is done. (1)
Before he continues, Thomson thanks all the people who made the event possible and he especially thanks Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett and Ayaan Hirsi Ali who, by publishing their books, they are literally putting their lives on the line, given that there are people who feel threatened by what they say.
This a long talk, so I will mention only a few of the salient points.
Darwin’s theory of evolution is not only the only workable explanation we have for the design and variety of all life on earth it is also the only workable explanation we have for the design and architecture of the human mind, and in that architecture, the pieces that generate religious belief.
He then combines this with the work of Watson and Crick (the structure of DNA) and takes us to the modern genetic synthesis, and he quotes Donald Symons:
An organism is an integrated collection of problem solving devices –adaptations- that were shaped by natural selection over evolutionary time to promote, in some specific way, the survival of the genes that directed their construction.
This also applies to our brains, and Thomson shows that much of what it does is automatic, unconscious. We look at him giving his talk. He is projected upside-down in 2D on our retinas. Yet, specific adaptations turn these images upright and interpret them in 3D. Even though we do not know it, we have very complex social cognitive adaptations, some of which contribute to religious belief.
We now know that we are risen apes, not fallen angels. We arose in the African savannah from a small community of hunter-gatherers. Humans are the last surviving hominids.
Homo erectus left Africa about 1.5-2 million years ago and conquered half the world, process that was essentially finished around 1 million years ago. Because of that, the most challenging part of the environment that drove our own evolution was probably the hominids themselves, and this is the origin of our complex social cognitions.
This is important because religious ideas are just an extraordinary use of everyday cognitions, such as social cognitions, agency detection and precautionary reasoning.
Religious ideas are the by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed originally for other purposes. There are other such by-products, such as reading and writing. We do not have reading/writing modules in our brain. They are a by-product of fine motor skills, vision, and language. Music is another example.
Religious ideas are an artefact of our ability for imagined social worlds.
Every religious idea is a human concept with some slight alteration.
Then, Andy Thomson asks two very interesting questions: how many people like Big Macs, and how many people have cravings for broccoli? The reason he asks this, he says, is that if you understand the psychology of the Big Mac meal, you understand the psychology of religion.
What are some of the cognitive mechanisms?
Decoupled cognition – our ability/tendency, for example, to think of something that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future, all while paying close attention to the speaker on the stage. It allows us to have complex social interactions with unseen others. From there, it is only a small step to talking to dead ancestors. Communicating to a God or Gods, is just one step further.
Hyperactive agency detection (HADD) – All of us will mistake a shadow for a burglar. We will never mistake a burglar for a shadow. Getting from here to a supernatural agency seems far-fetched, but it is not. Just look at the picture: our minds fill in the missing lines through intuitive reasoning.
This underlines the essence of religious ideas, which are Minimally Counterintuitive Worlds (MCI’s). These are an optimal compromise between the interesting and the expected.
All religious ideas have a supernatural template
They have a counterintuitive physical property, e.g. ‘God is everywhere’, but otherwise, he is mainly just a man
They may have a piece of counterintuitive biology, e.g. the ‘virgin birth’ but otherwise, Mary is just a girl
They have counterintuitive psychology, e.g. ‘God knows what I am thinking’, but if he knows what I am thinking, why do I still have to talk/pray to him?
In other words, while there is a supernatural element, the basic assumptions about humanness are still all intact, and this is why we will start to believe these ideas and why they stick in our heads.
There is always, always, an attribution of mental states.
Some of these vulnerabilities are seen most clearly in children, who, from a very early age, are ‘Common sense dualists’. This means that when, for example, you present a box to a five month old and make it move like a person, the five month old will be startled. He will not be startled when a person behaves the same way. Children come into the world with these systems in place; this is not learned behaviour.
It is natural, from very early on, to think of disembodied minds. Half of the four-year olds have imaginary friends.
We see that a belief in some form of life, apart from that experienced in a body is the default setting of the human brain.
Children are causal determinists. This means that they will over-read causality and purpose:
“What are birds for? To sing.”
“What are rivers for? For boats to float on.”
“What are rocks for? For animals, to scratch themselves.”
It is very easy for us to imagine intentional agents that are separate from ourselves.
Children will spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention. The mechanisms that we are born with make us very vulnerable to religious ideas. Religion is the path of least resistance. It is cognitively harder and it requires more effort to understand concepts such as natural selection.
The attachment mechanism
The attachment mechanism in humans was laid out by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby. This is the fundamental care taking system in mammals. This is what happens in religion: when someone is in distress, he or she turns to a caretaker, an attachment figure.
The attachment system is not only crucial for belief, it is also what makes it so hard to give up belief, and Charles Darwin himself is a prime example of this. When he came back from his voyage on the Beagle, he started to condense his ideas; he drew a first vision of the tree of life (1), and wrote this in one of his notebooks:
“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a great deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.(2)
We should remember that he was a creationist when he started the voyage on the Beagle. Darwin now realized that species evolve, but he did not have a mechanism, something that started to change when he read Malthus’ essay (3).
In November 1838, Emma, his fiancée, wrote this in a letter to him, obviously in response to something Charles Darwin had told her in the fall of 1838:
My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us.
Charles and Emma married in January 1839. In February 1839, Emma wrote this in another letter:
May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved …
After his death, the letter was discovered with a note by Darwin himself:
When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C. D.
By the 1840s, Darwin accompanies his wife and children to Church, but he no longer enters with them, and goes for a walk instead. It is reasonable to think that fear for rupturing this bond, is the very thing that kept Charles Darwin from publishing his theory for twenty years.
This fear of loss of attachment can be seen in one of the modern apologists. Karl Giberson wrote this in ‘Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution’:
I have compelling reasons to believe in God. My parents are deeply committed Christians and would be devastated, were I to reject my faith. My wife and children believe in God…Abandoning belief in God would be disruptive, sending my life completely off the rails.
We see that attachment is both crucial to religion and one of the barriers to giving it up.
Theory of mind
All of us know that other people have a mind with intentions, wishes and desires that may be different from our own, and that we have to ‘read’. These capacities come online when we are about three to four years old.
Using a demonstration, Professor Thomson shows that we have a separate system to interpret eye gaze.
Another part of theory of mind is ‘Intensionality’ (with an s) in which we have several orders:
1st order: I think
2nd order: I think you think
3rd order: I think you think that I think
4th order: I think you think that I think that you think
We can go to five, sometimes six orders. This is crucial to social interaction and it is an extraordinary piece of cognitive software. In the case of religion:
1st order: I believe
2nd order: I believe that God wants
3rd order: I believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent
4th order: I want you to believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent (social religion)
5th order: I want you to know that we both believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent (communal religion)
We can see how religions utilise this cognitive adaptation that is crucial to our social interaction.
The presentation now turns to neuro-imaging evidence for the cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief, something that was presented by Dimitrios Kapogiannis et al in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in March 2009.
The reason that this research is important is that it shows us that religion is processed in the brain by the same mechanisms that process reality. It shows that religiosity is integrated in brain networks used for social cognition and not in some specific religious circuits. This supports theories that say that religious belief occurs in evolved adaptive mechanisms.
Dead bodies
There is a conflict between our theory of mind modules and natural cognitive modules. This is illustrated when we see the dead body of a loved one. While we know that the person is quite dead, our mind does not accept it, and keeps talking to the dead person. It is also what incites us to prepare our own funerals. From there to the idea of a soul and a life after death, is a very small step.
This is a concept discovered by Freud, the fact that we base current relationships on previous ones. This is also hijacked by religion, especially parental transferences.
Childhood credulity
A concept strongly advocated by Richard Dawkins. Natural selection designed our brains to soak up the culture around them. A child cannot tell the difference between good advice, such as ‘don’t swim with alligators’ and bad advice, such as ‘sacrifice a pig for the new harvest’.
Deference to authority
All of us are far more deferential to authority than we like to believe. The famous Stanley Milgram experiments showed that we will, under pressure of some authority, do things that we know on some other level we should not do.
Reciprocal altruism
All of us keep in our heads an account of what we owe to some people, and what we are owed. Religions utilise this: make a sacrifice, receive something in return.
Romantic love
We have circuits in our brain for romantic love. This is also used in religion.
Moral feelings system
All of us have inferential moral systems that come online as early as age 1. It is very hard for us to know the origins of this, and this is what religions hijack by claiming it comes from them. They recruit these systems to lend plausibility to gods, to link commitment and solidarity mechanisms, and to add a morally competent witness to our actions.
Andy Thomson thinks that this is a useful way to think about the difference between genuine morality and religious morality:
Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what we are told.
Religious dogma is doing what we are told, no matter what is right.
Altruistic punishment
We are willing to punish social cheats at a cost to ourselves. It is crucial to social interaction. Suicide terrorism is just one step further.
The phenomenon of mirror neurons. When Thomson lifts his right hand, some circuits in his brain light up. We look at him, lifting his right hand, and the same neurons are lighting up in our brains, except that we inhibit the response. Religions hijack this as well.
Thomson shows a picture of Christ nailed to a cross, and talks about the distress this causes us distress and that religions hijack this empathy to induce feelings of guilt and obligation.
Hard to fake, costly honest signals of commitment
We are shown a few examples of this. All religions utilise this. Suicide terrorism is also a hard to fake signal of commitment. This is also connected to religious rituals.
Religious rituals
Religious rituals tap into our threat response system. They are compelling and rigidly scripted, and have usually to do with cleansing and order. Religious rituals enable and elicit scrutiny of hard to fake signals of commitment. They communicate intentions, and they are used to inculcate doctrines and to forge alliances. Rituals are also used to create hope and solace, to excite and entertain…
Religious rituals are also divorced from the original goal of protection; they delimit sacred spaces and the exploit the Gestalt Law of the Whole. In order to illustrate what this means, Thomson shows us a V-formation of flying birds. We tend not to see the birds in these formations, but rather the V-shape itself. Religions exploit this by creating attention arresting and often intimidating spectacles.
There is also motivated reasoning (we doubt what we don’t like), confirmation bias (we notice data that fits our beliefs), and mere familiarity.
Kin psychology
All of us have mechanisms to identify and favour kin. Religions hijack this. Just look at the Catholic Church: priests are brothers, nuns are sisters, and the pope is the Holy Father.
This is only a modest list, and not a complete list of all the cognitive mechanisms that come together to create religious beliefs and ideas and that make us vulnerable to believing them and passing them on.
Although we experience consciousness as a seamless whole, it is really built from very specific parts.
A historical note
In 1918, 80 years after Darwin had figured out natural evolution, William Jennings-Bryan began his duel to the death with the theory evolution, culminating in the 1925 Scopes trial. Evolution survived, Brian did not, and he died five days later. Everything remained quiet for about 40 years, and then started a number of court cases, of which Professor Thomson gives a fairly long list, ending with the Dover case. Science and evolution won all of these cases.
In 1925, during the Scopes trial, Dudley Malone gave what was considered the best speech of the trial in which he pleaded academic freedom of speech and the teaching of science and evolution, but he said that there was no conflict between religion and science.
In the 2005 Dover case, Kenneth Miller said that intelligent design was not science, but that there was no conflict between religion and science.
Andy Thomson has a different opinion:
I think this audience knows that there is indeed a conflict between science and religion.
If I have done my job well, I hope I have shown you that we are on the threshold of a comprehensive cognitive neuroscience of religion and it deepens the conflict between science and religion. This is not only about the science of evolutionary biology, which Charles Darwin started, but also about the science of the mind, something Charles Darwin also started:
Psychology will be based on a new foundation…(4)
It is not long before any psychology textbook, to be up to date, will have to include this cognitive neuroscience of religion, and it is not long before a ‘John Scopes’ or a ‘Jane Scopes’ moves to teach the cognitive neuroscience of religion in a high school class in a public school.
There will then be litigation brought on by the religious right. Andy Thomson hopes that we all feel about this litigation the way he feels about it: ‘Bring it on!’
Question and answer session
The presentation was followed by a short question-and-answer session. Just a few impressions:
Given the multiple systems making us vulnerable to religious thought and belief, what systems do we have that have challenged those other systems and enabled us to become non-believers?
Prof. Thomson believes that besides the unique experiences of each individual, education and intelligence are involved here. It is cognitively harder to reach disbelief and this is one of the reasons that the more educated and the more intelligent tend to be non-believers.
Regarding Guantanamo, Andy Thomson predicts that the people coming out of there will be more devout than ever. We are more vulnerable to religious belief when we are powerless, and tend to look for an attachment figure and a sense of community.
Theists tend to use the same information and turn it around to say that God created the brain and made all these mechanisms possible, that we are programmed by God to belief he exists and that this is in itself evidence of his existence. How do you react to that?
Andy Thomson thinks that Christopher Hitchens has the best answer to this when he states that God just sat there with folded arms while humans (genus Homo) lived for about 2 million years, short, brutal lives, and that suddenly, God decides to intervene among a couple of illiterates in the desert. Neuroscience shows us that there is a gradual evolution and that many of these mechanisms have been shown to have their precursors in chimpanzees and other primates.
Another questioner suggests that we humans are not the last step in evolution, but simple the latest step in evolution, leading to the next. Thomson thinks that this is not so because there are too many of us, and that this makes it very unlikely that we will continue to evolve.
One questioner proposes that we could use the knowledge Thomson presented to create a computer program “Let’s build a religion” that would use all the mechanisms found so far to show how Catholicism, Judaism, reformed Judaism, cannibalism and others can evolve.
(1) Interesting to note is that Charles Darwin did not only think of the ‘tree of life,’ but thought that the ‘coral of life’ was more accurate, since the bases of the branches are dead.
(2) This quote is not entirely correct. Although the error does not alter its meaning, I feel I should put the correct quote here (pages 196 and 197 of Charles Darwin’s ‘Notebook C’, written between February and July 1838):
Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy the interposition of a deity, more humble & I believe truer to consider him created from animals.
(3) The work referred to is the sixth edition of Malthus’ ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’.
(4) Page 488 of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, 1859. This is the full quote:
In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.
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