Big Claims Follow Small Findings


Sept. 16, 2009

Research launched this week that seems to indicate that human beings are naturally superstitious and irrational was cheered by some religious sources. They concluded that if religion is part of human nature, then atheists are fighting a losing battle against the basic hardwiring of homo sapiens.

Meanwhile, another scientist said that religion might be useful in tackling the climate change crisis because people might change their wasteful ways if they are told that if they don't, God will punish them. This theory has been spun by some religionists into the conclusion that belief in God has many advantages and should therefore be encouraged.

But an awkward question then arises: if it is true that belief in God is hardwired into the human brain, why are there so many atheists?

The research looked at the way children's brains develop and at the workings of the brain during religious experiences. It suggested that groups of humans with religious tendencies began to have an evolutionary advantage because of those shared beliefs – perhaps because they tended to work together better and so stood a greater chance of survival.

This inevitably caused the Sunday Times to invoke the bogeyman: Richard Dawkins. In its report, the paper claimed that the findings "challenge campaigners against organized religion, such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He has long argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood indoctrination".

(Actually, Dawkins has already accepted that religion probably has some kind of evolutionary significance, but let's not get sidetracked by the facts.)

As you read the Sunday Times story, it soon becomes apparent that the people who carried out the research haven't come to the same conclusions of the  journalists and religious activists.

One of the researchers, Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, said, "Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works. As they grow up they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches; but, the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion."

Hood, who presented his findings at the British Science Association's annual meeting this week, sees organized religion as just part of a spectrum of supernatural beliefs. In one study he found that even convinced atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer because of a superstitious belief that an individual's personality could be stored in their organs. "This shows how superstition is hardwired into our brains," he said.

Ah, superstition is hardwired, not specifically "faith in God," as the religionists would have it.

Meanwhile, at the British Science Festival, Lord May said that using punitive gods as a means of control may have helped primitive societies survive as co-operative entities. He said that though religion may once have been useful in stabilizing society, the rise in fundamentalism has removed its advantages and may now make it harder to do what is necessary to save the world from environmental collapse.

In his presidential address to the conference, May said that global co-operation between people will be needed more than ever in the coming decades, but added that he feared in order to make sure it worked there had to be some kind of mechanism that punished those who cheated others. In the past, the ultimate punisher was God.

He said that punishment was much more effective if it came from "some all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful deity that controls the world," rather than from an individual person.

"In such systems, there is unquestioning respect for authority. Faith trumps evidence," said May.

But if indeed this is broadly the explanation for how co-operative behavior has evolved and been maintained in human societies, it could be very bad news. According to May, "…such authoritarian systems seem to be good at preserving social coherence and an orderly society. They are, by the same token, not good at adapting to change."

Lord May – himself an atheist – said authoritarian religion had directly undermined attempts to achieve global co-operation on climate change. "People who believe in the End of Days, who believe the world is going to come to an end, don't care about climate change. I think there is quite a strong connection between the religious right and climate change denial."

In absolute terms both these stories are bad news for religion. The fact that religious belief is a biological accident vastly increases the probability that man invented God rather than the other way round. And the ancient usefulness of religion for controlling small communities doesn't work in a globalised world – indeed, it becomes a liability.

This didn't stop the religious enthusiasts from quickly turning the whole thing on its head. In the Daily Telegraph, the Rev. George Pitcher, the paper's religious affairs correspondent, wrote:

"It will, nevertheless, be great fun to see Prof. Dawkins & Co take on these new findings. Will they        approach it with the reverence they profess to possess for all scientific discovery? Will they–heck. They are ideologues, religious about their disbelief. And to accept that there is a scientific premise for religiosity would mean all is lost, not least some lucrative careers…"

"But this much we can celebrate: Prof. Hood and Lord May have this week made religious faith feel normal for once. Those of us who have a faith can be wearied by the patronizing abuse of a certain breed of atheist, for whom we'll always be gullible weirdos… "

Pitcher thinks he has created a no-win situation for Dawkins – if Dawkins respects science then he must respect these findings, even though they are against what he believes to be the truth. And, indeed, Dawkins has often said that he is prepared to change his mind in the face of evidence.

But simply misrepresenting (or misunderstanding) the findings of scientific research and then demanding that real scientists accept your own wishful thinking about those findings just won't do.

What was that you were saying about being a "gullible weirdo," Mr. Pitcher? In this instance, it's a case of "if the cap fits"… 


(Terry Sanderson is the president of the National Secular Society (U.K.). He is also the editor of the weekly NSS Newsline, in which this article first appeared on Sept. 11, 2009. This article is republished by permission of the NSS.)