According to C. S. Lewis, personal religious experiences come from within us. From where within us precisely? Surely not from our gynecomastia, islets of Langerhans, or pelvic girdle. No, religious experiences can be traced back to the brain. The brain is the conduit of all our experiences.
That anatomical fact alone tells us nothing about whether the experiences are genuine or purely imagined, but it raises a big question. Is there something about how the human mind works that might give rise to spurious religious experiences or make us prone to bogus religious beliefs?
Absolutely. Let’s start with an observation made in my book Religion Refuted, that we are all natural-born animists. The developmental psychologist Kathleen Stassen Berger reported the following:
Attempts to measure children’s animism find that many children simultaneously hold rational and magical ideas (Mescheriakov, 2005). This was evident in a series of studies in the United States that explored children’s understanding of death (Bering & Bjorklund, 2004). Young children saw a puppet skit about a sick mouse that was eaten by an alligator. When questioned afterwards, nearly all the children asserted that the mouse was dead and would never live again, but most of those under age 7 thought the dead mouse still felt sick: almost all the children thought the mouse still loved his mother.[i]
Note the facility with which children attribute minds and emotions to puppets. Studies conducted by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom reveal that infants attribute personalities even to triangles, squares, and circles that move in animal-like ways.[ii] Note as well the quasi-immortality of the mouse’s consciousness.
Animism is the natural state of mind for children. This is one reason to be skeptical of the anthropologist David Eller’s notion of natural atheism. Childhood animism diminishes as children mature, or at least it gets eclipsed by higher reasoning.
Even as college-educated adults, we exhibit lingering traces of animism when we say that computer programs “want” to write data to hard drives or when we, like Frank Sinatra, plead, “Luck, be a lady tonight.” People drawn toward abstract thought may embrace Henri Bergson’s élan vital or the design argument. They may perceive wispy shadows of a deistic conductor lurking behind the evolutionary process, infusing evolution with a larger purpose, the je ne sais quoi vaguely intimated by the self-identified agnostic Robert Wright in verbiage that masterfully grants him plausible deniability.[iii]
Those prone to think in personal terms conjure up a mysterious consciousness wafting through the atmosphere, such as the benevolent New Age spirits that infest the movie Avatar or the markedly unfriendly Caspers haunting the Michael Keaton movie White Noise. The movie Ghost tempted even a skeptic like me to briefly entertain the possibility that there is a hidden realm of invisible spirits. Who has not replayed memories of the face, voice, or mannerisms of a deceased person and been at least momentarily spooked?
Stressed-out people are especially prone to identify non-existent patterns in grainy images and to fall for conspiracy theories, attributing motives where none were present. In 2008 Adam Galinsky and Jennifer Whitson reported in the journal Science how test subjects naturally, without being prompted, seek patterns in their daily experiences. A subsequent study confirmed that anxiety increases one’s inclination to see motive and purpose behind the universe and to endorse theories of intelligent design.[iv] We hear whispers on the breeze and spot human likenesses in Martian rocks. The neurotransmitter dopamine intensifies our propensity to see such patterns.[v] Schizophrenics exhibiting symptoms of their illness are more likely to express belief in God.[vi]
An article in Intelligent Life magazine reports, “If a rat is faced with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60% success rate…When Yale undergraduates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat…”[vii]
Gambling casinos exploit this innate tendency to see nonexistent patterns. According to games designer Chris Brune, “The [slot] machine may have had this [random] series of payouts in the past,” but drawing inferences about future payouts is merely “the human brain playing a trick on you.”[viii] Users of the Apple iPod complained that the shuffle function did not randomly shuffle songs.[ix] Users cited the shuffle function’s tendency to sometimes play a string of songs by the same artist. In reality, such strings of songs do occur in a random sequence. Regardless, Apple modified the shuffle algorithm, actually making it less random, in order to satisfy users’ misconception of what constitutes a random distribution. Our innate pattern-recognition faculty runs in overdrive and is sometimes too aggressive for our own good.
Michael S. Gazzaniga explains, “It is the [brain’s] left hemisphere that engages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, that tries to fit everything into a story and put it into a context. It seems that it is driven to hypothesize about the structure of the world even in the face of evidence that no pattern exists.”[x] Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has reported that a patient with a split brain (severed corpus callosum) may have a left brain that is atheistic and a right brain that believes in God.
Your ability to detect consciousness, motivation, and agency in your fellow humans is a generous gift you get from your brain’s right temporal parietal junction, a walnut-sized region above and behind your right ear. Deciphering our fellow humans’ thoughts and feelings is essential to our survival, given that we are social animals. Being naturally adept at social politics, we may not appreciate how much intelligence it requires or how many of our waking hours are devoted to it.
The forensic psychiatrist J. Anderson Thompson argues that by the time Homo erectus evolved, nearly two million years ago, the most challenging aspect of their environment was one another. According to Robin Dunbar, anthropologist at the University of Liverpool, two thirds of human conversation is devoted to social gossip.[xi] Steven Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, recommends that we keep a journal of our daily activities and then see how many of our thoughts and activities throughout the day would be relevant if we lived in isolation from others rather than being social creatures.
I certainly would not have written my book Religion Refuted if I never expected to interact with others, nor would anyone have ever read it. My book is therefore a monument to the same impulses that helped give rise to religious belief—Damn!
Hyper-active agency detection (HAAD), as described by Kurt Gray, Daniel Wegner, and Pascal Boyer, is far less detrimental to our survival than is an under-active instinct to detect agency. It therefore makes perfect sense that evolution would have endowed us with a bias toward seeing agency and consciousness even where it may not exist. Seek (or not) and ye shall find.
It is similarly easy to understand why we and other vertebrates use our own minds as a template for understanding other minds. When monkeys watch other monkeys perform physical feats, the same regions of their brains that control the physical actions (premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, primary somatosensory cortex, and inferior parietal cortex) begin to fire, allowing the audience of watchful monkeys to “feel” the actions performed by their compatriots.
I once witnessed a blue jay attacking its reflection in a glass window pane. The attacks were launched tirelessly, day after day, for two weeks. I don’t know why the attacks finally ceased, whether because the blue jay decided to move on to new territory where the opposition wasn’t so relentless, or whether it retired to mend a pulled neck muscle. It seems unlikely that someone finally persuaded the blue jay that the being he was so focused on was only a reflection of himself. Similarly, committed animists will never be persuaded that the being they are so focused on is only a vague reflection of themselves.
The dogged insistence by some humans on an animistic conclusion reflects a deep truth, not about the cosmos, but about the psychology of social animals. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles identifies in human nature a religious impulse that seeks a greater consciousness.[xii] For that reason he assures us that atheism will never achieve a total victory over the mind of man. I agree with the rabbi that our species is predisposed toward a religious perspective, but I get no particular delight from knowing that we suffer this cognitive bias.
Our uncritical impulse to seek some greater consciousness is a toxic by-product of our evolutionary history. Fortunately, it can be counteracted through education, just as we use education to repair our false intuitions regarding the physics of projectiles, statistics, and geocentrism.
Recognizing that our innate predispositions can mislead us is admittedly humbling. Overcoming these predispositions is difficult and at times disorienting. Such self-correction is, however, the only path to intellectual and emotional maturity.
The weepy-eyed avowal that we can directly feel the presence of God is the ultimate hubristic folly of the unrepentant animist. William Lane Craig, in a book oxymoronically named A Reasonable Faith, says that “the experience of the Holy Spirit is… unmistakable… [A] person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence…to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God…Such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself.”[xiii] Craig is quite explicit that the feeling of the Holy Ghost overrides all intellectual critiques and that “with most people there’s no need to use apologetics at all. Only use rational argumentation after sharing the gospel and when the unbeliever still has questions.”[xiv]
These words are from a man widely recognized as the intellectual standard-bearer of modern religionists. He explicitly relegates rational argumentation to the fallback strategy. If you are shaking your head and wondering why he would do this, he provides the answer. There is general agreement, in Craig’s words, that “the person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or, at best, agnostic.”[xv]
Modern religious apologists do not view arguments as crucial for discovering the truth. Arguments are, instead, expedient tools to win converts. If you just caught a whiff of something rotten, it’s the corpse of natural theology. It is being gang-raped by theologians who smile and invite you to join them in having a “personal experience.”
[i] Kathleen Stassen Berger, The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence, p. 273.
[ii] Paul Bloom, “The Moral Life of Babies” (The New York Times, May 5, 2010)
[iii] Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2001)
[iv] Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design (Tracy, Hart, Martens; 2011)
[v] OINTS (Old Issues New Thoughts), Patternicity, Causality and Distress: Why we make mistakes in stressful times, June 20, 2010, www.oints.wordpress.com /2010/06/20/patternicity-causality-and-distress-why-we-make-mistakes-in-stressful-times/
[vi] Mental Health, Religion & Culture (Vol. 5, #3, 11/1/2002), p. 267-284.
[vii] Ian Leslie, “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum”, article from Intelligent Life magazine, May/June 2012 (online at www.moreintelligentlife.com/node/4463)
[viii] Chris Brune, interviewed by the Cambridge mathematician David Spiegelhalter, “Tails You Win: The Science of Chance” (BBC television documentary), www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdcD3UY4ZI4
[ix] John Fuller, “How the iPod Shuffle Works” (How Stuff Works, cited February 17, 2015), www.electronics.howstuffworks.com/ipod-shuffle2.htm
[x] Michael S. Gazzaniga, Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, (Harper Collins, NY, 2011), p. 85.
[xi] ~45 min. into Nova video “Evolution: The Mind’s Big Bang”, www.youtube.com/watch?v=29u6XRY51Bk
[xii] David Wolpe, “David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens: The Great God Debate”, March 23, 2010, John Hancock Hall, Boston, MA., www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdQIaGhMxEo&NR=1&feature=endscreen
[xiii] William Lane Craig, A Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Crossway Books; Rev Sub edition, July 1994), p. 43.
[xiv] Ibid, p. 57.
[xv] William Lane Craig, “Advice to European Christian Apologists: Tips to budding European Christian apologists.” (Reasonable Faith, 4/3/2001?, cited 12/19/2013), www.reasonablefaith.org/advice-to-european-christian-apologists