Thanks to Pharyngula, I've got a better understanding of the neurological and psychological reasons people believe in gods. (And it isn't because God is real, that's for sure.)
The preceding link will lead you to a 54 minute You Tube video by Andy Thompson, a psychiatrist who is knowledgeable about how our evolutionary origins are reflected in modern psyches.
I'll also embed the video at the end of this post. I watched/listened to it in pieces over the past few days, turning the volume up on my laptop as I made a meal in the kitchen. Here's a couple of my favorite lines (probably not quoted exactly):
Secular morality means doing what's right regardless of what we've been told; religious morality means doing what we've been told regardless of whether it's right.
Thompson PowerPoints his way through some fascinating research, which I won't try to describe in any detail. His basic notion, which is well supported by facts, is that religious belief is a byproduct of evolutionary adaptations.
This makes more sense than the theory that humans somehow are "hard-wired" to believe in God, in the same sense that we have an inherent desire for fats, sugars, and such -- which are needed for survival (and as Thompson notes, now makes people lust for a Big Mac rather than lean game meat).
Instead, adaptations that offered up an evolutionary advantage naturally predispose people to believe in metaphysical beings. For example, the capacity to know that other humans have intentions, just as we do.
This allows us to think, "If I do this, probably Joe will do that." We don't need to be in direct contact with Joe to have a sense of him, including his willfulness.
It's then not much of a leap to imagine that a being we've imagined, God, also has desires, intentions, and such -- just like us. Thompson says that God's humanness is evident in the dogmas of every theistic religion, which attribute the mental states of Homo sapiens to divinity.
For this reason, and others described in the video, religious belief is the default human condition. It is cognitively harder to reach a state of disbelief, which explains why most people embrace some form of religion.
In a Q and A session, Thompson was asked why some -- including the people who were drawn to attend his presentation -- are able to avoid falling into the default "I believe in God" mode.
His answer will please the churchless: the more educated and intelligent someone is, the more likely it is that he or she will be able to overcome the cognitive biases that most people take for granted.
I've always wondered why religions so often say that "simple folks" are more attuned to God. What this really means is that uneducated gullible people are more likely to accept dogmas uncritically than question them.
I blogged so much about a book I liked a lot, "The Ego Tunnel," because it also showed how science is casting new light on how the human mind creates its own realities -- including a belief in God.
Thompson said that we are on the threshold of a comprehensive neuroscience of religion. He feels that this will deepen the conflict between science and religion.
That's fine. Reality has got to win out in the end.
Truth is more powerful than fiction, even though the Dark Ages -- along with much else in human history -- showed that religious belief is capable of holding back progress in our understanding of ourselves and the cosmos.
What's exciting now is how much we're learning about how the brain learns, including our inherent tendencies to believe in unrealities. Like, a personal God who is us writ large.