Sunday, November 30, 2008

Is Superstition the Default Belief?

Are you getting tired of the modern mantra about religion—you know, the one that says it's wired into our genes and therefore probably correct or at least beneficial? I am.

So, apparently, is A.C. Graying who writes in Friday's Guardian (UK) [Children of God].
Earlier this week I had occasion to debate – if the soundbite culture of radio news permits that description – with a member of Oxford University's Centre for Anthropology and Mind the "findings" of its cognition, religion and theology project, to the effect that children are hardwired to believe in a "supreme being". The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility – which, note, comes down to spending money on "showing" in the end that the beliefs of ancient goatherds are as good as modern physics.

Justin Barrett, a Christian and member of the centre's research team (whether it is research or propaganda is the moot question here) says with his colleagues on the centre's website:
"Why is belief in supernatural beings so common? Because of the design of human minds. Human minds, under normal developmental conditions, have a strong receptivity to belief in gods, in the afterlife, in moral absolutes, and in other ideas commonly associated with 'religion' … In a real sense, religiousness is the natural state of affairs. Unbelief is relatively unusual and unnatural."
This claim was the subject of Barrett's lecture at Cambridge, in which he exhibited his reasons for thinking that children are innately disposed to believe in intelligent design/creationism and a supreme being. His real reasons for thinking this, of course, are that he is a man of faith funded by a faith-based organisation; but the reasons he professed were that children have an innate tendency when small to interpret what happens in the world to be the outcome of purposive agency.

Now on this point he and I, an atheist funded by no organisation keen on promoting atheism, agree. Children's earliest experiences are of purposive agency in the adults and other people around them – these being the entities of most interest to them in their first months – and for good evolutionary reasons they are extremely credulous, not only believing that things must be acting as their parents do in being self-moving and intentional, but also believing in tooth fairies, Father Christmas, and a host of other things beside, almost all of which they give up believing before puberty, unless the beliefs are socially reinforced – as with religious and, to a lesser extent, certain other superstitious beliefs. Intellectual maturation is the process in important part of weaning oneself from the assumption that trees and shadows behave as they do for the same reason that one's parents, other humans, and dogs and cats do; it is every bit as natural a fact about children that they cease to apply intentionalistic explanations to everything as that they give them to everything, on the model of their parents' behaviour, in the earliest phases of development.


[Hat Tip:


  1. I don't know about religion, but a propensity to superstition and an overdeveloped pattern-seeking tendency probably is; religious schemata are rooted in those. Couple that with our social nature and leader-following predilection and religion (as a social, epistemic and self-reinforcing construct) emerges quite neatly. Irrelevant to its truth value (if any) in any case...

  2. That entire story kind of amused me from the start. You basically had a religious guy standing up and proudly claiming that all religious people think the same way children do, without a *hint* of sarcasm or irony in it.

    It's always seemed obvious to me. Of course children believe in all kinds of stuff. They believe what their parents tell them without question (mostly) because it wouldn't be evolutionarily viable for them to ignore older and wiser creatures. They don't have the cognitive ability to fully work out why everything is the way it is, so they just assume that someone else did it.

  3. There's a lot hiding in the phrase "it's wired into our genes and therefore probably correct or at least beneficial". Wired into our genes says nothing about probably correct; see Kahneman and Tversky's classic for many famous examples. As for beneficial, you can make the general (but not universal) claim that things wired into our genes may have been beneficial in the environment of adaptation, which was a long time ago. But what is wired into our genes may simply be the urge to come up with explanations - which arguably is quite useful - and religion is then the combination of that urge with ignorance.

    Suppose that we do, indeed, have a genetic tendency to believe in the supernatural. That still tels us nothing whatsoever about what is actually true.

  4. In fact, if one accepts Alvin Plantinga's (really bad) 'naturalism is self-refuting' argument, that something is "wired into the genes" (a really crummy phrase) has nothing whatsoever to do with its truth.

  5. RBH: Oh noez, did you really have to mention Plantinga? I was just about to have breakfast...

  6. Mythological ideas and ideology are not inscribed in our genes, but certain social behaviours probably are. Those bheaviours are the basis for certain cultural practices associated with religions. Abolish religious belief (which would be good) and those practices will continue in other forms, looking for all the world like religious practices. Are those behaviours innate in a social, hairless, bipedal ape? We may never know, but by comparison with other apes we might be able to arrive at some plausible conclusion. Here are some other interesting questions:

    Where does pair-bonding come from in humans? Chimps don't form pair bonds, but they do form consorts (where a male and female go off alone together when she's in estrus). Did selection favour consort mating, leading to longer term bonds? Was this the beginning of the serial monogamy (with clandestine adultery) that seems to be part and parcel of the human mating pattern?

    Evolutionists ought to look carefully at universal human behaviours and ask whether they have a genetic and neurophysiological basis.