I caught the tail end of a Radio 4 Today snippet the other day, with a psychologist or scientist of some sort discussing the idea that children are naturally predisposed to belief in God. I haven’t been able to find it on the internet but it sounds very similar to a piece of research by Dr Justin Barrett back in 2008. Young children, the idea goes, have an innate natural tendency to see purpose and design in the world, regardless of their parents’ beliefs or lack of them.
What interests me about this is not so much whether it’s true or not, as how it’s interpreted by different people. Atheists are quick to say that it clearly shows religious belief to be a childish or primal, pre-scientific mode of thinking and way of understanding the world – essentially a magical view which adults rightly grow out of.
Religious believers respond that, on the contrary, it shows belief in God to be natural rather than the result of indoctrination. They point out that we can distinguish between childish belief in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus and a more adult understanding of the Transcendent or the Universal – or God; the recognition common to many rational and mature adults that there is another dimension to reality than just the physical realm of matter and energy. Religious thinkers would argue that the childish understanding is not wholly wrong, it is just immature and needs tuning and developing. (I argued in my Animism vs Atheism article a while back that both primitive animism and modern atheism are mistaken responses to the universe, but that animism represents a better or more right kind of error.)
Hardwired for God?
A similar argument revolves around the idea (no longer widely held) that there is some kind of ‘God spot’ in the human brain, or that there is a ‘God gene’ predisposing some to religious belief; more broadly that we are in some way hard-wired for belief in God. When this idea is put forward atheists can say, look, religious belief is just a by-product of evolutionary psychology; it’s a purely biological and natural phenomenon, a primal and no longer useful part of the evolutionary development of our species.
Religious believers on the other hand can reply, no, if there is a God we could expect him to hard-wire the tendency to believe in him into his creatures. The fact that a phenomena has a physical component or explanation does not mean it isn’t real or that it has no other meaning.
Religious experience and brain chemistry
A third area demonstrating the equivocality of evidence is the classic ‘brain chemistry’ argument. It was suggested that, for example, stimulating the temporal lobes could produce the impression of a spiritual ‘presence’, or the feeling associated with religious experience. Again, atheists hailed this as proof that supposedly supernatural and religious experiences were just the result of physical brain chemistry or mental abnormalities – temporal lobe epilepsy for example. But religious thinkers again were quick to point out that eating a bacon sandwich also produces a particular chemical response in the brain, but that doesn’t mean that the sandwich isn’t real. Brain chemistry again provides no evidence which cannot equally be interpreted in either direction.
Talking a different language
The trouble is, we don’t have and can’t get unequivocal scientific proof for or against the reality of the divine, the miraculous or the supernatural, because by definition these things lie beyond the fairly limited scope of what science can test and pronounce on. So any evidence we can acquire regarding religion will always be partial and equivocal, broadly interpretable in either direction, and our interpretation will of course largely depend on our starting assumptions and beliefs. Atheists and theists can look at exactly the same research, the same set of facts, and come to completely opposite conclusions, fitting the pieces of the evidence into their own jigsaw picture of the universe.
One of the major problems in debates between atheists and believers is that both sides have such mutually incompatible ways of viewing the world, and use such a correspondingly different language, that it’s almost impossible for either side to understand the other. One side might as well be talking in Latin, the other Greek; one trying to communicate through semaphore, the other Morse – or even modern jazz.
When theists try to explain in words concepts that are necessarily beyond the normal bounds of human referential speech, atheists accuse them of obfuscation and ‘Tillichese’ (after theologian Paul Tillich who spoke of God as ‘the Ground of all Being’). Equally, when atheists attempt to describe the supernatural purely in terms of the natural, theists accuse them of ontological reductionism, scientism and an inability to see past the end of their noses.
It’s very hard to dialogue across this divide. But perhaps, just perhaps, with a deal more respect and genuine listening, it might just be possible. And surely that would be a good thing?
Loving across the divide
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to atheists and theists. It’s equally true for inter-faith dialogues, as well as for all the parochial internal disputes that create ugly sectarian fault-lines across the Christian landscape. Creation vs. evolution, liberal vs. conservative, pro- vs. anti-abortion/homosexuality/female ordination… Again, each side is speaking a different language (while often using the same words), and has a completely different set of foundational assumptions.
I long for the day when Christians on either side of these bitter battle-lines can stop lobbing shells indiscriminately from their opposing trenches, lay down arms and emerge into the intervening no-man’s-land to play together; to discover their shared beliefs and celebrate their common ground – if nothing else, their (our) shared humanity. We’re still brothers and sisters even if we disagree; we can surely learn to hear and respect each other. If we can’t even love our brothers, how on earth can we hope to love our enemies?
But ‘Truth Matters’, proclaim the protagonists – most often, the conservative protagonists. And yes, truth does matter – but we need to understand more fully what truth is, and in what context truth is best mediated and embodied. I’ll save that for the next post…