Born to believe? Evidence and equivocality

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…

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Faith, Religion, Spirituality, Truth and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Born to believe? Evidence and equivocality

  1. johnm55 says:

    As human beings we like to, in fact is a lot of ways need to, see patterns in our experience. When we say “Red sky at night, shepherds delight, Red sky in the morning, shepherd take warning” we are stating something that we have noticed as a pattern. Clouds catching the rays of the setting sun are generally (in the UK where the prevailing wind is westerly) on there way past us taking any bad weather with them. Equally clouds catching the rays of the rising sun are on their way to us, brining their bad weather with them..
    Children often assume that because the trees wave about when it is windy, that the cause of the wind is the trees waving about, acting like massive fans. Then at some stage they observe that it is windy, but there are no trees around, so what is causing the wind? They may not be sure but they know that the original hypothesis needs to be at the very least modified.
    I think that similarly, children’s belief in the supernatural, is a belief in Mummy and Daddy writ slightly larger combined with the powers if the fairy princess (or possibly Tyrannosaurus Rex for boys), after all Mummy and Daddy seem to be able to do almost everything. After a while this hypothesis fails, when it is discovered that Mummy and Daddy are fallible as well.
    If we are to know what is genuinely true we need to break our belief systems down into discrete, testable, hypotheses. Then we need to test them against the available evidence, discard or modify the ones that fail, affirm the ones that pass the test, and retain a healthy scepticism about the ones that there is insufficient evidence for or against.
    The only problem with taking anything complex apart, including belief systems, is putting it back together.


    • Terry says:

      I thought it was:

      Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight,
      Red sky in the morning, the orchard’s on fire.


    • Thanks John. Of course, the inbuilt human tendency to see of patterns and our desire to find meaning is another one of those double-sided pieces of evidence. From the atheist/naturalist angle, it can mean that our religious search for Ultimate Meaning is just a useless by-product of biologically-useful pattern-spotting and meaning-finding tendencies. For the believer, the spiritual hunger for meaning and purpose suggests that there is something real ‘out there’ that can satisfy this yearning, just as real food exists which can satisfy our physical hunger. What exactly that reality is that will satisfy our spiritual hunger is a much more difficult matter. But I fully believe that it is real, and that ‘it’ has the nature of personal being. I’ve set this all out more fully in my Theism posts.

      So I’m not convinced that a child’s belief in God is just belief in Mummy + Daddy + Fairy Princess. (Indeed, I’d say that the fairy princess herself indicates that there’s something more going on; where does the idea of a fairy come from if Mummy and Daddy are magical enough?) But either way, a child’s belief in God or ‘magic’ may or may not be an indication of a corresponding reality; we can arrange the evidence to point either way, depending on whether we already have grounds for thinking that there is or isn’t such a reality.

      I’m just not sure that it’s actually possible to break down our belief systems into discrete, testable hypotheses. What tests can you devise for God, or love, or beauty, for ‘truth’ that isn’t mathematical or reducible to physical laws? The scientific method doesn’t work when it comes to relationship, or to the heart, or indeed to anything that isn’t strictly material. You can of course apply some tests of reason and experience to particular models of religious belief – some will clearly come out as more reasonable and likely than others, with Scientology and Mormonism coming out pretty poorly.

      But light is what you see by rather than the object of study; you can only really test God by living in the light of God. If you live by Christ’s light and find it makes things less real, you know that it is not true light. But if you find that in Christ’s light you see the world more as it really is, you can be fairly certain that his light is true.


  2. David Holland says:

    It is so hard, when you “know” you are right to put down that power. We invest, sometimes heavily, to understand what that power is and cannot disregard it lightly.

    Knowledge is power after all, and knowing God, what He wants, is ultimate power. To then release that power, and empty ourselves to be available to Love??? Well it seems like a lot to ask don’t you think? As if Philippians 2:6 were meant for us 🙂


    • Yes – God’s power is a little different from our ideas of power. I believe God’s greatest power is the power not of knowledge nor of almighty strength – though he has both – but of Love. Love is the weakest power in the universe – it cannot use coercion; it cannot force itself on anyone, nor can it be produced by force. But it is also the strongest, for love alone can change human hearts, redeem human lives and call new life into being.


  3. RAY RAY says:

    I long for the day when Christians on either side of these bitter battle-lines can stop lobbing shells indiscriminately from their opposing trenches. . . . we need to understand more fully what truth is, and in what context truth is best mediated and embodied. . . .
    Won’t that be a blessed day? Allow me to add nonbelievers to that.


  4. Pingback: Toward a contemplative mind, or moving beyond the facts | Bryan Berghoef

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