Is God an Accident?

The most provocative piece in the December Atlantic is one titled Is God an Accident? (subscribers only, I can email it to you if you want):

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.

Also some interesting discussion of our propensity to believe in dualism – our body and soul are separate entities. It’s fascinating to read about studies of young children and how they think about this stuff. Shows that before any socialization some have certain inclinations toward supernatural beliefs.

3 comments on “Is God an Accident?
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  • Ben,

    I would appreciate getting a copy of the article sent to my email above.

    I had a different take on the article that is expressed in this letter to the editor:

    To the editor

    Re: Is God an Accident (article and letters)

    In this country, the perennial battles between church and state show no signs of subsiding. The central geo-political conflicts of our time are shaping up not between secular ideologies, but rather forces defined by, or associated with, religions. This makes it all the more important to identify the most fruitful paradigms to better understand this subject.

    Atlantic, given its audience and prestige, influences what perspectives, what disciplines, and what analyses will become most accepted in exploring this subject. This warrants a deeper consideration of the unstated assumptions and conclusions of Paul Blooms article.

    Bloom overstates his case on the ubiquity of religion, giving an impression that because it is rooted in biology, it is normal. Normal, is very different than being the norm– a differentiation that is lost in Bloom’s approach. He starts by reporting “Just about everyone in this counrty-96% in one poll-believes in God.” He then says that scientists are less religious, “but not by a huge amount.” Not a huge amount? 40% for scientists, his words, on the same measure of belief in God. He avoids more fine grained correlations between education and religious belief, such as the highest levels of achievement, Nobel Prize winners, where a mere five percent believe in God.

    He writes of the attempt of religious authorities to “explore and reach out to science, as when the Pope “embraced evolution.” He concludes that it is not the religious institutions that are resisting rationality, it is the inborn needs of individuals that reject their ecclesiastical authorities efforts to “lead religion away from the supernatural.”

    The Pope never “embraced” evolution, he accepted it, reluctantly, and not as a force of nature, but as a tool of God. Dr. Bloom’s statement on the ubiquity of religious beliefs, “nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things…..” ignores the third of the world that had been communist, where these beliefs were not integrated into society and thus are much less common.

    These are not random errors. He overstates the immutability of biological drives, while minimizing the importance of religious establishments in promoting and benefiting from this need. And this is where his approach has implications that are beyond merely the academic. He presents religion as an inexorable need, a hunger that must be fed, rather than one option among others that flow from the developmental predilections that he describes.

    The most serious criticism of his article is that it is not an accurate description of the world. Those who relied on this article for an overview of this subject would not expect that there are many people living full and happy lives while completely rejecting religion. This is far less likely when true biological needs. such as food, sex and companionship, are absent.

    We have a President who is an ardent evangelical Christian, legislators who storm out of their chambers to shout, “under God” on the steps of Congress, and a Supreme Court that is on its way to tacitly following strictures not written on parchment but in stone. This is no time for an avatar of enlightenment to endorse a picture of the biological inevitability of belief in God, especially when it just isn’t so.

    Al Rodbell

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