That’s the bad news. The worse news? Guess what we probably owe it to.
There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others: roughly half of all 4-year-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As Barrett points out, this is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. “Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability,” he says…
The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. “You see bushes rustle, you assume there’s somebody or something there,” Bloom says.
This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don’t have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real…
Boyer is keen to point out that religious adults are not childish or weak-minded. Studies reveal that religious adults have very different mindsets from children, concentrating more on the moral dimensions of their faith and less on its supernatural attributes.
Even so, religion is an inescapable artefact of the wiring in our brain, says Bloom. “All humans possess the brain circuitry and that never goes away.” Petrovich adds that even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking. Bering has seen this too. When one of his students carried out interviews with atheists, it became clear that they often tacitly attribute purpose to significant or traumatic moments in their lives, as if some agency were intervening to make it happen. “They don’t completely exorcise the ghost of god – they just muzzle it,” Bering says.
The whole thing’s worth reading but pay special attention to the experiment correlating religious devotion with loss of control. Oh, and this quote: “It does, however, suggests that god isn’t going away, and that atheism will always be a hard sell. Religious belief is the ‘path of least resistance’, says Boyer, while disbelief requires effort.” My new slogan: Atheists — we try harder. Exit question for Ben Stein’s next movie: As argued early on in the piece, isn’t a belief in the afterlife evolutionarily disadvantageous? The more comfortable you are with death, the weaker your survival instinct should be. Or is it that the more comfortable you are with death, the more risks you’re willing to take and the more attractive you’ll be to females? Who’s the alpha male, in other words, the believer or the atheist? I … fear I know the answer. Double heart-ache.