A buddy of mine suggested a NatGeo series to me called “The Story of God” awhile back. When he first said it, I just looked at him weird. Then he told me that it wasn’t a “religious” type show that it was culturally interesting and it was also hosted by Morgan Freeman.
He should have lead with the Morgan Freeman part.
So, I have finally sat down and watched it and it is actually a good series. It does dive into multiple cultures and you learn quite a few things about these cultures from around the world; however there was one episode that I had to rewind parts of and yell at. In the episode “Why Does Evil Exist?” Morgan travels to meet an evolutionary psychologist named Jesse Bering. Jesse believes that we are psychologically programmed to believe in a god. He demonstrates this by showing an experiment with kids. He shows them a simple game. Stand behind the line with your back to the target & toss the ball over your shoulder. The person with the most points gets an awesome prize! Each kid is brought in individually and left in the room alone (except that there’s a hidden camera) to play the game. Pretty much every kid is a sneaky little shit and cheats. So, he does this again with a 2nd group of kids, but with one exception. He tells them that there is an invisible princess in the room and she will be watching them play the game. The 2nd group plays by the rules. A few kids even search for the invisible princess. So, obviously that means that we are all wired to believe in a g-d, right?
Hang on a sec.
In the episode “Who is God” Neuroscientist Dr.Andy Newberg (who is conducting research in what he is calling Neurotheology) points out that he has scanned an atheist’s brain whom he asked to meditate on g-d just like he did Morgan Freeman and other subjects and the frontal lobe that activated during their meditation did not light up for the atheist. So, maybe we are not wired to believe in a divine imaginary friend after all and what Jesse showed in his experiment was nothing more than indoctrination at work; however that lead me to the question: “Why does indoctrination work?”
So, maybe Jesse is onto something after all.
He wrote a book called “The God Instinct” and one review site quoted this out of chapter two:
“Many people don’t believe in God, yet they still ask themselves about the purpose of life and can’t easily shake their curiosity about this seemingly grand and obscure mystery. Even though we know our biological facts … the question of why we’re here still occasionally rises up in our thoughts like a case of hives – and it’s an itchy rash that science just can’t seem to scratch.” (Ch. 2)
He is correct, as an atheist I have asked myself the purpose of life; however I know the answer (my answer anyway). To me, the purpose of life it to try and enjoy your time here. That’s it. I don’t have some genetic or psychological disposition that makes me wonder why I am here. I am here. That’s all that matters. The goal is to enjoy being here while I am here (and try not to be a dick while doing it).
So I searched around a bit for more of this guys work and finally found this. It’s an article he wrote for The Guardian and he goes further into explaining “The God Instinct”.
In general, recent findings in the cognitive sciences cast considerable doubt on the everyday atheist’s assumption that religion can be explained by a simple “wish fulfilment” theory – that we believe because we wish it to be true.
Both Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud had a lot to contribute to this original theory of “wish fulfilment”, and I can understand that their work and hypotheses are dated; however I stand by the ideology that religion and the concept of g-d(s) are man made. Jesse goes on to describe “The Theory of Mind” which, in my opinion, backs up my ideology.
Theory of Mind is the branch of cognitive science that investigates how we ascribe mental states to other persons and how we use the states to explain and predict the actions of those other persons. More accurately, it is the branch that investigates mindreading or mentalizing or mentalistic abilities.
He speaks about how the Theory of Mind is theoretical ( Really?) and that our species has used it to fill in the gaps (ie. god of the gaps) for everything from natural disasters to childbirth by giving these events minds as well and attempting to try and figure out what they were thinking or what they wanted. Again, we created these ghosts, goblins and gods, not the other way around.
Theory of mind became the warped lens through which we perceived the natural world. Through this very human cognitive prism, our species was doomed to experience certain unshakable cognitive illusions – including feeling as though there are unseen moral forces that are concerned about us as individuals. Much like optical illusions, we can, through knowledge, accept that what we perceive does not reflect reality.
So, basically, like the illusion that Freud was talking about and the fact that we can stop believing in the illusion through knowledge. What I gather at this point from what Jesse Bering is working on is that humans have developed an evolutionary trait to assign “minds” to non-intelligent things. Even in jest we do it. (“Better pray to the coffee gods that I have enough of my morning blend this morning”.) However, I think that the bigger picture here is that this shows why indoctrination still works, especially in children. The human race is obviously smarter than it was 2000 years ago; however we still cling to the illusion that there are imaginary father figures, dragons, 6-armed blue women, and various other super friends that are looking out for us and will save us.
Memetics is why. Religion is basically like a man-made virus that evolves to fit with a specific host. It survives through a successfully transmission.
Memetics is also notable for sidestepping the traditional concern with the truth of ideas and beliefs. Instead, it is interested in their success.
So, with meme’s in cultural practises like religion, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. The idea or belief will get passed from one mind to the next until that culture stops passing it on through belief and tradition or until minds start to resist and reject the meme.
So, I can see where this “God Instinct” theory is still relevant; however it is just showcasing the dangers of indoctrination (Especially the indoctrination of small children). Belief is taught, not pre-programmed. You don’t come out of the womb thinking or knowing that there are spirits that raise the sun & moon or that Santa is making a list and checking it twice. You are taught these things, whether they are true or not.
Yeah, I am an atheist and I do not believe in a god or gods nor do I think religion is good for the world. So, maybe I am biased; however moreover than coming from the point of view of an atheist, I look at these things as a skeptic. I believe that is a better way to view things, as I discussed earlier that disbelief is always the default logical position when looking at any proposition. I think that Jesse’s theory showcases that we as a species can buy into some irrational propositions, especially if we are taught them as children through our culture.
I’ll leave you with this TED Talk. I think it wraps up things better than would be able to.