Most religious believers consider that they're on the road to transcending the crudity and illusion of material reality.
So, churchless skeptic that I am, it was hugely enjoyable to read in the latest issue of New Scientist about increasing evidence that the brain creates God.
More accurately, a belief in God.
An alternative being put forward by Atran and others is that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works.
That's not to say that the human brain has a "god module" in the same way that it has a language module that evolved specifically for acquiring language. Rather, some of the unique cognitive capacities that have made us so successful as a species also work together to create a tendency for supernatural thinking. "There's now a lot of evidence that some of the foundations for our religious beliefs are hard-wired," says Bloom.
Much of that evidence comes from experiments carried out on children, who are seen as revealing a "default state" of the mind that persists, albeit in modified form, into adulthood. "Children the world over have a strong natural receptivity to believing in gods because of the way their minds work, and this early developing receptivity continues to anchor our intuitive thinking throughout life," says anthropologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford.
Interesting. Makes sense. Explains why religiosity is so widespread, and atheism/agnosticism so rare.
It's easy to follow the God road, because the human brain has built-in sign posts that point in that direction: "Believe in the supernatural!" Recognizing those predilections is difficult, since they're so much a part of us.
A mind-body distinction seems to be at the root of religion's ever-spreading belief tree.
For example, each of us -- me included, for sure -- has a feeling that there's a difference between (1) the "me" who looks out through the eyes and is aware of what is perceived, versus (2) the physical mechanisms of vision and cognition.
Thus even though we might be materialists intellectually, we're dualists experientially.
Bloom says the two systems are autonomous, leaving us with two viewpoints on the world: one that deals with minds, and one that handles physical aspects of the world. He calls this innate assumption that mind and matter are distinct "common-sense dualism". The body is for physical processes, like eating and moving, while the mind carries our consciousness in a separate - and separable - package. "We very naturally accept you can leave your body in a dream, or in astral projection or some sort of magic," Bloom says. "These are universal views."
The big question is: are they correct views? Since there is no, or very little, scientific evidence of mind-body dualism, our innate belief that there is leads to a mistaken proliferation of disembodied entities.
In olden days (and even today in some cultures) people saw natural phenomena as being animated by unseen forces. Lightning came from an angry god. Wind was the whispering of spirits.
Now, a unitary God has mostly replaced the heavenly pantheon. Monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Judaism, Islam -- hold sway over most of the world's population. Yet divinity is still viewed as being separate and distinct from physicality.
As are we supposedly, being images of God. Most people believe they have (or are) a soul. It's hard to imagine that death is the end of our existence, since our wispy consciousness feels so different from our substantial body.
Now, many argue that we have a sense of mind-body dualism because this is how things really are. Similarly, religious believers say that a conception of life after death seems true to us because it is.
Indeed, the New Scientist article notes that "whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it."
Yes, but the fact that young children are predisposed to believe in disembodied entities strongly implies that religion sprouts from infantile seeds, not an adult understanding of reality.
Hmmm... a Bible verse from 1 Corinthians 13 comes to mind.
Such as, the Bible. And God.