There was a great article in Newsweek called (Un)wired For God. It was a follow up on a prior article that had talked about the theory that people are hard-wired for religious belief (pre-disposed through our brain structure to believe in God, the supernatural, etc.)
So, first of all, what is meant by being predisposed toward religious belief? Here are the characterizations from the article:
- imagining the invisible hand of the supernatural in acts of randomness (aka “answers to prayer”)
- conjuring “non-physically present agents” and imagining “what if” scenarios involving these agents (e.g. angels and devils)
Hmmm. Based on that, I’m not sure I’m religious after all. Interestingly, the Reformation rejected many of these “superstitions” of Catholicism. So, does that mean Protestants are less religious than Catholics? Really? I guess this means that religion = superstition.
Data shows that the parietal lobe (which detects where our physical body ends and where the larger world begins) can be suspended during intense meditation or prayer. This indicates that our brains are wired to “commune with God.” This is the quintessential religous experience. So if the belief in God is hard-wired into human brains, then the logic goes that it is innate and therefore unchangeable. Yet, the number of unbelievers has doubled since 1990. This begs the question whether it really is innate or not.
New data suggests that maybe this predisposition to believe is not innate after all, but created by our environment (yes, the old nurture vs. nature argument). There are two prevailing ways of looking at the data:
- Our lives suck because we believe. Religious belief creates dysfunction (religious wars and being judgmental), causes stress (through guilt and perfectionism), causes us to fear death (and eternal damnation), causes us to become poor (through misplaced altruism and donations to churches). This is the party line of some prominent atheists who are anti-religion.
- We believe because our lives suck. Religion is our way of dealing with stress, fear of death, poverty, and dysfunction. If people live in an environment free of these things, they tend to become agnostic or atheist. This is kind of like the idea that poor people cling to “God and guns.” It’s what is meant when they say “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Is it also what was meant when BY said he feared the Saints’ ability to withstand prosperity.
Interestingly, this trend holds true across most believers: the worse their lives, the more religious they are. The more prosperous people are, the less religious they are (the more secular). This sounds a lot like the BOM prosperity cycle. Once you get rich enough, you “outgrow” religion. It reminds me of the joke about the guy who is going to die, and he says if God saves him he’ll give half of everything he has to God, so God saves him. Then the guy says, “Oh, nevermind, God; looks like I got it covered.” (cue rim shot).
Of course, this is tricky logic when applied to Mormonism because the most recent Pew Forum shows (yet again) that higher levels of education and income actually create higher levels of religious commitment, contrary to the trend in other faiths. IOW, Mormons somehow bust the BOM prosperity cycle. Take that, Nephites! Maybe it’s all that reading of the BOM.
The article posits that it may be a combination of our brains being hard wired to believe, but that life circumstances have to reinforce that worldview (e.g. life has to be sufficiently dysfunctional) in order for the programming to kick in. So, here are some more logical questions if that’s true:
- If social progress is the enemy of religion, should religion quit trying to solve social problems? Should it try to create more social problems? Remember, Jesus said “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.”
- Do things like “persecution complex” and imagining we were are in an actual war with Satan (people ranking as generals and so forth) work to kick in the God programming? Are these “imaginary dysfunctions” adequate to the task or do they wear off like placebos? Do we need actual persecutions and enemies for it to work long-term?
- Once your God programming starts, can it be rewritten or changed, or do you always have a glimmer of belief (or a nagging fear you are wrong in unbelief)?
- If your God programming doesn’t kick in by a certain age, does it take a major dysfunctional event (like personal tragedy) to get it to work, or is it too late for it to fully develop?
These questions are still unanswered by science, so each of you will have to come up with your own speculations! What do you think? Discuss.