Why do so many people believe in God or in other sorts of supernatural beings? Most religious folks would have no trouble answering that question. "Because God is real," they'd say.
Well, that's highly debatable. And I'm being generous to religion. That's ridiculous is closer to how I really feel.
The most recent issue of New Scientist dives into these "Why believe?" waters. An editorial does a good job of summarizing core themes in the following articles. It ends with:
Secularists would also do well to recognise the distinction between the "popular religion" that comes easily to people's minds and the convoluted intellectual gymnastics that is theology. Attacking the latter is easy but will do little to undermine religion's grip.
This is not an apologia for god. Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally - which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with. Religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that, they are fighting a losing battle.
Meaning, it isn't enough to point out to true believers that their beliefs aren't true. Belief in God and the supernatural is almost (if not actually) hard-wired into the human brain. Justin L. Barrett describes why in his "Born Believers" article.
Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language. The vast majority of humans are "born believers", naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light.
Early on, he says, babies recognize the difference between ordinary physical objects and "agents," things that can act upon their surroundings. As humans grow up, this quality of the brain makes them receptive to the notion of gods.
Babies also seem sensitive to two other important features of agents that allow them to understand the world but also make them receptive to gods. First, agents act to attain goals. And second, they need not be visible. In order to function in social groups, avoid predators and capture prey, we must be able to think about agents we cannot see.
...This hair-trigger agent reasoning and a natural propensity to look for agents in the world around us are part of the building blocks for belief in gods. Once coupled with some other cognitive tendencies, such as the search for purpose, they make children highly receptive to religion.
So it's easy to be religious and believe in supernatural entities. This explains why the vast majority of people on Earth have beliefs about God which aren't based on evidence, fact, or reason. From childhood on, our brains intuitively lead us in directions pointed toward religiosity.
My contention is that these various features of developing minds - an attraction to agent-based explanations, a tendency to explain the natural world in terms of design and purpose, an assumption that others have superpowers - makes children naturally receptive to the idea that there may be one or more god which helps account for the world around them.
It is important to note that this concept of religion deviates from theological beliefs. Children are born believers not of Christianity, Islam or any other theology but of what I call "natural religion". They have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief.
Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.
However, the same scientific method that enables us to understand how religiosity arises in human cultures also can be used to answer the all-important question, "Does God exist?" So argues Victor Stenger, a physicist.
I'm a fan of Stenger, having read several of his books. I've blogged about him before:
"Quantum Gods" debunks spiritual pseudo-science
Does God exist? Science says no.
Possible and impossible gods
Science shows God does not exist
In his New Scientist article, Stenger does a good job of pointing out the absurdity of a god who supposedly plays a role in the operation of the universe and the lives of humans, yet leaves no trace of his/her/it's divine existence.
A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others. I am a physicist who, along with others dubbed the New Atheists, is willing to challenge religious belief. The gods worshipped by billions either exist or they do not. And those gods, if they exist, must have observable consequences. Thus, the question of their existence is a legitimate scientific issue that has profound import to humanity.
...If a properly controlled experiment were to come up with an observation that cannot be explained by natural means, then science would have to take seriously the possibility of a world beyond matter.
Such experiments have been attempted. Scientists have empirically tested the efficacy of intercessory prayer - prayers said on behalf of others. These studies, in principle, could have shown scientifically that some god exists. Had they found conclusively, in a double-blind placebo-controlled trial, that intercessory prayers heal the sick, it would have been difficult to find a natural explanation. They did not.
Similar tests have been done on near-death experiences. Some people having an NDE during surgery have reported floating above the operating table and watching everything going on below. Whether this is a real experience or a hallucination can be tested easily by placing a secret message on a high shelf out of sight of the patient and the hospital staff. This has been tried, and no one reporting an NDE has yet to read the message.
Just as science can design experiments to test the existence of God, it can also seek evidence against a god's existence in the world around us. Here we must be clear that we are not talking about evidence against any and all conceivable gods. For example, a deist god that creates the universe and then just leaves it alone would be very hard to falsify. But no one worships a god who does nothing.
...Most religions claim that humans possess immaterial souls that control much of our mental processing. If that were true, we should be able to observe mentally induced phenomena that are independent of brain chemistry. We do not.
...Finally, I would like to comment on the folly of faith. When faith rules over facts, magical thinking becomes deeply ingrained and warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US today, where Christians who seek to convert the nation into a theocracy dominate the Republican party. Blind faith is no way to run a world.
Amen to that.