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Saturday, March 05, 2005

Why do so many people believe in God?

This is the question that puzzles Ian Sample as he looks at an ICM poll which suggests that an extraordinarily high percentage of people throughout many countries do believe in God. He further asks: "And why has belief proved so resilient as scientific progress unravels the mysteries of plagues, floods, earthquakes and our understanding of the universe?" and gives his answer: "By injecting nuns with radioactive chemicals, by scanning the brains of people with epilepsy and studying naughty children, scientists are now working out why. When the evidence is pieced together, it seems that evolution prepared what society later moulded: a brain to believe." This sums up the matter of his article "Tests of Faith" published in The Guardian on 24 February 2005.

It's perhaps not all that surprising given that this is The Guardian of our times after all, but I couldn't help but notice that this writer, along with the other experts he cites, seems to have assumed from the start that belief in God is a false belief; that it is a phenomenon that calls for explanation in our modern scientific age where, presumably, people ought to know better than to believe in God.

For example, Todd Murphy, a behavioural neuroscientist, attributes as a factor in the development of religious belief the rapid expansion of our brains "as we emerged as a species," citing as an example the way questions about death and the meaning of life naturally arose from cognitive development enabling man to see a dead body and imagine ourselves in that position one day. In the search for answers to such questions, the idea of God was evolved.

The assumption that man evolved from more primitive life forms such as apes leads to the assumption that religion correspondingly evolved from basically, non-religion, to the more primitive, and then to the more sophisticated--expressions like "religion, or at least a primitive spirituality," and "the emergence of religion" are used with the air of scientific objectivity or matter-of-factly confidence.

"Some believe that religion was so successful in improving group survival that a tendency to believe was positively selected for in our evolutionary history. Others maintain that religious belief is too modern to have made any difference... While some continue to tease out the reasons for the emergence of religion and its persistent appeal, others are delving into the neuroscience of belief in the hope of finding a biological basis for religious experience."
--None of these abovementioned groups are open to the genuine possibilities that God created man as he is, and that religious belief is as old (or as young) as mankind itself.

The article also mentions the psychological tests run on children that supposedly "go some way to proving our natural tendency to believe":

If you look at three- to five-year-olds, when they do something naughty, they have an intuition that everyone knows they've been naughty, regardless of whether they have seen or heard what they've done. It's a false belief, but it's good preparation for belief in an entity that is moral and knows everything," he says. "The idea of invisible agents with a moral dimension who are watching you is highly attention-grabbing to us."
--Note that his experimental observations can yield different reasonable interpretations: the above is but one. Why not another? Why not say that these children's intuitions show just as well that they have been created by a just and loving God who has placed a knowledge of Him and of morality in their hearts such that they know when they commit wrong and as a result feel bad about it?

The experimenter Boyer's further explanation of belief persisting into adulthood as something which is in part due to unquestioning presumption has got something right, and something wrong. "Why don't you ask yourself about the existence of gravity?" he asks. "It's because a lot of the stuff you do every day presupposes it and it seems to work, so where's the motivation to question it?" he says. He is right to some extent. To be a believer, you need to at some point stop serious doubts about the truth of your beliefs. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Belief is that which one presupposes and acts upon, rather than that which one continually questions. However, as a Christian, I would disagree with him when he continues, "[i]n belief systems, you tend to enter this strange state where... [t]he general question of whether it's true is relegated." The issue of whether the Bible is true is a central one for Christians. It forms the foundation of our faith, and as such is never an irrelevant one which can be relegated. It's not that I must doubt the truth of its claims, but that I should always care that it is true--that it is indeed the inspired word of a true and living God. To quote a favourite writer:

[A] faith is not primarily a 'comfort,' but a truth about ourselves. What we in fact believe is not necessarily the theory we most desire or admire. It is the thing which, consciously or unconsciously, we take for granted and act on. ... Only when we know what we truly believe can we decide if it's 'comforting.' If we were comforted by something we do not really believe, then we had better think again. (Dorothy Sayers, "What Do We Believe" (1940), in Unpopular Opinions)

The article continues:
As a starting point, many studies focused on people with particular neural conditions that made them prone to experiences so intense, they considered them to be visions of God.
--What conclusion/s can we properly draw from these studies? All they show is that people (some, many, most of these?) with such conditions consider some of their intense experiences to be religious. It does not prove that religious ideas and experiences have only a neurological basis and no objective reality external to minds. It's a bit like trying to argue from the collective witness of paranoid people that all fears of hostile attack from others is merely a psychotic phenomenon with no objective reality whatsoever.

The same goes for the so-called research on two epileptic patients (let us say nothing for now about the sample size in this experiment) by Californian neuroscientist Ramachandran who hypothesized from their reports of deeply moving religious experiences during seizures that it what epileptic seizures so overwhelm the patients emotionally and physically such that their brains spin tales about spiritual things in an attempt to make sense of seemingly inexplicable emotions. The religious experiences thus arise from neurological malfunction; from a disruption of the function of the amygdala which helps us focus on what's significant rather than what's trivial. The seizures supposedly may cause neural reactions that make the patients "attribute significance to the banal objects and occurrences... [where] everything and anything acquires a deep significance, and when that happens, it starts resembling a religious experience". Not surprisingly, Ramachandran's hoped-for conclusion from future research that may strengthen his hypothesis is that "it's not that we have some God module in our brains, but we may have specialised circuits for belief."

Research attempting to develop devices that can stimulate biological mechanisms and drugs to enhance spirituality is also mentioned. One such researcher Newberg defends his work by citing the historical use of substances by shamans who do not disdain some help in attaining a higher spiritual experience. I'm not sure if all shamans would agree with that, but my suspicion is that such research is thought meaningful and justifiable only by those for whom there is little fear or knowledge of God. Most devout people, I believe, would distance themselves from practices that sound like taking Ecstasy to feel "high", and instead insist that spiritual experiences are enhanced by a closer relationship with one's God, however that is spelt out in different religions.


I found another recent article entitled "Believers go on rack to prove God relieves pain" about neuroscientific research that is carried out with largely similar presuppositions: namely that man has evolved, and along with his development and quest for survival came the evolution of the idea of God.

PEOPLE are to be tortured in laboratories at Oxford University in a United States-funded experiment to determine whether belief in God is effective in relieving pain.

Top neurologists, pharmacologists, anatomists, ethicists and theologians are to examine the scientific basis of religious belief and whether it is anything more than a placebo.
Read on...

So what if they find that their set of believers are indeed able to cope better with pain? What can that show, or prove? To begin with, I wonder at the mindsets and types of people who are willing to be subjects in such an experiment. Are they already in significant ways determined to prove to the experimenters that their beliefs do relieve pain, just by being conscious of the fact that they are in such an experiment? Secondly, whatever the experimental observations, these are still open to various interpretations, the relative strengths of which may not be obvious.

What's disturbing to me is also that this experiment seems to undermine God and religion itself by seeking to reduce, as it were, religious comfort to certain biochemical mechanisms in the brain; and also making God seem like a neural construct, and believers in Him but deceivers of themselves for the sole sake of coping with pain. That's not the God Job knew and came to know better after his unimaginably painful trial. That's also not the God I know and whom I believe made us such that we have a knowledge of Him in our hearts, so that we are all without excuse.

"He has also set eternity in their heart..." ~ Ecclesiastes 3:11b

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God, for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." ~ Romans 1:18-20


Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are correct. the article's author and the researchers involved in the study described do assume that G*d does not exist. As should all science. This is not to say that G*d does not exist, but that science has nothing to do with G*d. Complaining that there's no talk of G*d in scientific discourse is like complaining that the game of baseball game doesn't have enough car chases. Likewise, how can your faith be shaken by what some scientist says?

7:17 PM  
Anonymous ziggiz said...

You are right: If it is the fundamental presupposition of all science that God does not exist (which is certainly fine by me--let's of people have assumed far weirder things in their intellectual projects for the longest time), then it follows that science cannot prove or otherwise give evidence for the belief that God does not exist without arguing in a circle. In which case faith--by definition--cannot be shaken what what any scientist say. But aren't you just agreeing with what the post is saying then?

10:30 AM  
Anonymous ziggiz said...

But not everyone is as well-informed about the nature of science. Some believers and non-believers might mistakenly believe that science does not proceed upon the assumption that God does not exist and therefore can *in principle* provide non-questing begging evidence for the non-existence of God...

10:33 AM  

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