Psychology of God

by ZeusRocks 4 Replies latest jw friends

  • ZeusRocks

    In some of my spare time I like to read and research things pertaining to psychology. I found and interesting article by Michael Shermer that I thought I might share as I personally found it quite reasonable in the way it was put forward. and then follows with theSo have a read if you're interested.

    Behavior Genetics and God

    In one study of 53 pairs of identical twins reared apart and 31 pairs of fraternal twins reared apart, Niels Waller, Thomas Bouchard, and their colleagues in the Minnesota twins project looked at five different measures of religiosity and found that the correlations between identical twins were typically double those for fraternal twins, a finding suggesting that genetic factors account for approximately half of the observed variance in their measures of religious beliefs.6

    This finding was corroborated by two much larger twin studies out of Australia (3,810 pairs of twins) and England (825 pairs of twins), that compared identical and fraternal twins on numerous measures of beliefs and social attitudes, concluding that approximately 55 percent of the variance in religious attitudes appears to be genetic.7 The scientists also concluded that people who grow up in religious families who themselves later become religious do so mostly because they have inherited a disposition, from one or both parents, to resonate positively with religious sentiments. Without such a genetic disposition, the religious teachings of parents appear to have few lasting effects.

    Of course, genes do not determine whether one chooses Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, or any other religion. Rather, belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, and demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism). Why did we inherit this tendency?

    Cognitive Psychology and God

    Long long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency).

    Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error (a false positive), but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, you have made a Type II error (a false negative) and there’s a good chance you’ll be lunch and thereby removed from your species’ gene pool. Because we are poor at discriminating between false positives and false negatives, and because the cost of making a Type I error is much lower than making a Type II error, there was a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. This is the basis for the belief not only in God, but in souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

    Gods are agents and agents are essences, and agenticity is everywhere. Subjects watching reflective dots move about in a darkened room (especially if the dots take on the shape of two legs and two arms) infer that they represent a person or intentional agent. Children believe that the sun can think and follows them around, and when asked to draw a picture of the sun they often add a smiley face to give agency to sol. Genital-shaped foods such as bananas and oysters are often believed to enhance sexual potency. A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality or essence is transplanted with the organ, and studies show that most people say that they would never wear the sweater of a murderer, showing great disgust (probably an evolved emotion selected to avoid rotting food and disease-carrying substances), but that they would wear the cardigan sweater of the childrens’ television host Mr. Rogers, believing that it would make them better persons.

    Neuroscience and God

    Why God? In my analogy above, note that “wind” represents an inanimate force whereas “dangerous predator” indicates an intentional agent. There is a big difference between an inanimate force and an intentional agent. Most animals can make this distinction on the superficial life-or-death level, but we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex we have a Theory of Mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others. We “read minds” by projecting ourselves into someone else’s shoes (as in empathy) or by imagining someone out to get us (as in fear).

    Theory of Mind is part of a larger mind-brain dualism, in which we tend to think of the mind as something separate from the brain. We speak of “my body” as if “my” and “body” are dissimilar. We revel in books and films that are dualistic, as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a man falls asleep and wakes up as a cockroach with the man’s personality intact inside it, or in Freaky Friday where mother and daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsey Lohan) trade bodies with their essences unbroken. This belief in mind and essence is a byproduct of the brain’s inability to perceive itself. Thus, we can “decenter” ourselves and imagine, say, being on a beach in Hawaii, which most people tend to see from above looking down on themselves as if out of their bodies. Out-of-body and Near-Death Experiences can both be triggered by electromagnetic fields bombarding the temporal lobes (just above the ears) of the brain, as well as through oxygen deprivation in pilot centrifuge training exercises. As well there is the well-known “third-man factor” in which solo sailors, mountain climbers, ultra-marathon athletes, and arctic explorers report a sensed presence of someone else on the expedition.

    We believe in the supernatural because we believe in the natural and we cannot discriminate between the two. We create gods because we are natural-born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. The "gods" will always be with us because they are hard-wired into our brains.

  • ProdigalSon

    Great post! If you're from the West, then whoever said Western man was incapable of abstract thought was wrong.


  • Meeting Junkie No More
    Meeting Junkie No More

    Thanks for that! Ok, so this explains why I just installed a 5-foot angel statue in my garden...nobody else understands why, but I finally get it!

  • Mall Cop
    Mall Cop

    "God" as traditionally defined is a systematic contradiction of every valid metaphysical principle. The point is wider than just the Judeo-Christian concept of God. No argument will get you from this world to a supernatural world. No reason will lead you to a world contradicting this one. No method of inference will enable you to leap from existence to a "super-existence."

  • PSacramento

    Very interesting view, thanks :)

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