How the Brain Tricks Us into Knowing about God

The payoff, of course, is that we don’t

When believers set out to defend the faith, they commonly find themselves entangled in Christianity’s multiple, messy contradictions. When backed into a corner, we may hear—with sighs of exasperation— “Well, how did all this get here? It didn’t just happen!” God-the-creator is the default, retreat defense. “Whew, that should settle it! Don’t be daft, you silly atheists, you’re talking nonsense to claim there isn’t a Great Engineer behind it all.”

My advice, when I encounter this blustering, is blunt, “Trust me, you don’t want to go there”—because you soon end up at theological dead-ends.

• A creator god—perhaps as in, May the Force Be with You—leaves you with an undefined source of energy that touched everything off. But this a far cry from the god imagined in the Bible. You can’t leap from a Great Engineer to an intensely personal God who hears prayers; there need be no connection whatever between the two. So, by claiming a creator, you’ve taken just one tiny step on the very long, tortuous theological road that yields the God taken for granted by believers. Whatever you believe about your god—well, it took thousands of years of theological squabbling and bloodshed to get there. To advocate a creative force that sparked the Cosmos gets you exactly nowhere.

• Well, you’re actually stalled, unless you can explain what created that force or god. Where did it come from? If everything has a cause, then you’ve got to account for that “first god”—it can’t have been the first after all. “Well, it has just always been there—God is God” won’t work without evidence. It may be your hunch—but your hunch isn’t good enough when we’re trying to figure out how the Cosmos works. Nice guess, but we need more. We need more than your super confidence that your hunch is right.

We can get into this kind of dead-end argument because we are largely unaware of how our brains have been built to work, how they have steered humanoid behavior for millennia. We can look at Christianity from many different perspectives, e.g., its birth in antiquity, how its doctrines stack up against those of other faiths, how it has impacted world history, etc. But we need to see how our brains can trick us—how our brains give religion a boost—and lead us in directions we’re largely unaware of, and that make us so darn certain about certain things.

Valerie Tarico sheds light on this in her essay, “Christian Belief through the Lens of Cognitive Science,” in John W. Loftus’ first anthology (of four to date), The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010). One of the first questions that Tarico poses is, “What is the mental machinery that lets us form beliefs?” The more we understand that, the more we can appreciate religion’s grip on the human mind. Cognitive science is the effort to see how the mind works, hence it provides a lens through which to examine Christianity. Tarico demonstrates that clarity on why/how we believe can be gained in this way, perhaps more so than by studying the history of dogma and the endless splintering of the “one true” faith.

One of the topics Tarico covers is hyperactive agency detection, which is one of the brain’s adaptive responses to life in a puzzling and dangerous world. One of the examples commonly offered is that of the rustling in the bushes behind you. “Ah, that’s just the wind” can get you killed, if the rustling is an enemy or an animal higher on the food chain. The brains that didn’t get eaten were those that belonged to our ancestors who assumed an enemy or predator was in the bushes—and passed on this agent-detection sensitivity in the brain.

Hence, Tarico explains, modern humans “…are adverse to the idea that stuff just happens. We also tend to overassume conscious intent, that if something consequential happened, someone did it on purpose. This set of default assumptions explains why the ancients thought that volcanoes and plagues must be the action of the gods.” And it’s also why modern humans still build theologies around the assumption that a creator had to have caused the world. But in the absence of evidence for that, we can suspect that our brain is up to its ancient tricks to enhance survival.

Our minds also enable us to conjure personalities in the world around us—and in the sky. This is another insight of cognitive science that Tarico draws to our attention: “You may have heard the old adage, ‘If dogs had a god, God would be a dog; if horses had a god, God would be a horse….’ Humans are more inventive than dogs and horses, and not all human gods or magical beings have human bodies. They do, however, have human psyches—minds with quirks and limitations that are peculiar to our species.” Thus, what a surprise, the God depicted in the Bible has the full range of human personality traits, e.g., anger, jealousy, vanity, seriously flawed love. There may be gods like that, but in the absence of evidence, there seems to be a whole lot of projection going on.

Tarico aims the cognitive lens at several religious phenomenon, e.g., confirmation biases, the common (and non-divine) sources behind intense religious feelings and conversion experiences, and the reasons why devout people become so certain that their beliefs are absolute truths. But, in truth, religious confidences are no more secure than belief in a flat earth:

“In the past,” Tarico points out, “one of the arguments put forward by believers was that there simply was no explanation for the ‘born-again’ experience, the healing power of Christianity, the vast agreement among believers, or the joy and wonder of mysticism, save that these came from God himself. We now know that this is not the case. Humans are capable of having transcendent, transformative experiences in the absence of any given dogma. We are capable to sustaining elaborate systems of false belief, and transmitting them to our children. We are capable of feeling so certain about our false beliefs that we are willing to kill or die for them.”

She closes this excellent, helpful essay with the famous exchange between Napoleon and the mathematician-astronomer Pierre Simone Laplace who proposed a model of the Solar System that functioned well without God. Why had he left out God? Napoleon wanted to know. “I had no need of that hypothesis,” was the answer. “Modern scholars of religion,” Tarico notes, “…more and more, find themselves echoing the words of Laplace. We have no need of that hypothesis.”

But our species has along way to go to grasp this fact. “Certainty,” she points out, “is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be profoundly mistaken. Humans will always argue passionately about things that we do not know and cannot know, but with a little more self-knowledge and humility we may get to the point where those arguments are less often lethal.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.