Sunday Night Journal — January 29, 2006
Sunday Night Journal — February 12, 2006

Sunday Night Journal — February 5, 2006

Wired for Belief

We—my wife and I—subscribe to too many magazines. We don’t have time to read them all, and the time we do spend on them leaves too little for reading books. Magazines are by nature bound up with current events and therefore create a certain pressure on one to read them within a reasonable time after they’re received, so if you have more coming in than you can read, you’re perpetually behind and perpetually putting off something that will probably be of more lasting value, such as the Evelyn Waugh novels I got for Christmas and haven’t yet taken up.

A shakeout is needed, and now and then I think I’ve settled on a magazine that’s expendable. But then something appears in it that I would be sorry to have missed, so it gets a reprieve. This has happened a couple of times with The Atlantic. A typical issue has a few things of great interest to me, a few that I would consider a waste of time at best (like the food and travel columns), and a good many of relatively minor interest. But I’d hate to lose those few in the first category: Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Hitchens on books, Caitlin Flanagan on men, women, marriage, and family. (Hitchens requires his own partitioning of really good from pretty bad stuff, owing to the weird assortment of ideas he holds, but that’s another story.)

And then there’s the occasional piece from which I learn something significant that I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise, such as Paul Bloom’s “Is God an Accident?” in the December 2005 issue. I expected this to be just another predictable materialist’s attempt to explain away religion, and it is that, or at least attempts to be. But Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics of Yale, instead offers some pretty impressive reasons why an atheist might want to reexamine his position.

The particular object of Bloom’s study is the psychology of religion—why do people believe? And although he comes at the question with a Darwinian materialist’s presuppositions, the research findings he presents give us a picture of religion as a much more peculiar and anomalous thing than traditional atheistic opinion (wishful thinking, primitive science, etc.) would have it. His argument is much too big and rich for me to summarize, but here’s the intro:

Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry.

The whole piece is only online to subscribers, but if you’re not one it’s well worth your while to go find it at the library. The research and reasoning supporting his first point are fascinating for a believer. The assertions supporting the second point are pretty thin stuff for anyone who doesn’t already accept Darwinian doctrine. Let me quote his final statement:

But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.

That’s a huge admission, because the second of those three sentences is by no means proved between the opening summary and the final sentence, and in fact is probably unprovable. Bloom does provide plausible arguments for religion being an error of the same type that leads us to infer social purpose and design where there is none, as in the famous case of the grilled cheese sandwich that was said to bear the image of Mary. But the fact that the intuition of purpose sometimes or even often goes awry doesn’t mean that it’s always or mostly wrong. And the perception of purpose is not the only important intuition Bloom discusses (you really should read the article). In the face of these universal intuitions, Bloom can offer little more than the assertion of materialist dogma.

I see no compelling reason, on the face of it, to pick that dogma over the religious one. There will never be a scientific proof for the existence or non-existence of God, so if you’re the sort of person who wants to appropriate consciously the fundamental axioms on which your world-view is based, you have to make a deliberate choice. You have to have faith. Bloom and his fellow researchers are actually making the case that religion is a reasonable choice, because it’s clear that they have no firm factual foundation for choosing materialism: it’s a doctrine they bring to the data, not something they derive from it. In this case the data actually suggest to me that they could be wrong.

Non-believers typically think of themselves as the questioners of convention, and in a provincial situation where most people are religious believers by default, this may indeed be true. But in scientific-industrial societies it really isn’t anymore. How many village atheists can there be before it becomes an atheist village, and the religious person the maverick? I like Professor Bloom: he’s a hard-headed fellow who’s instinctively impatient with dismissive and reductive explanations of mysterious phenomena, even as he tries to prop one up. If he continues to question the conventional wisdom he may find himself in a difficult position.

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