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Unsurprisingly, the story of how human beings first came to believe in gods starts with natural selection. Watts has us imagine the following scenario:
Fifty thousand years ago there were these three guys spread out across the plain, and they each heard something rustling in the grass. The first one thought it as a tiger, and he ran like hell, and it was a tiger but the guy got away. The second one thought the rustling was a tiger, and he ran like hell, but it was only the wind and his friends all laughed at him for being such a chickenshit. But the third guy, he thought it was only the wind, so he shrugged it off and a tiger had him for dinner. And the same thing happened a million times across ten thousand generations – and after a while everyone was seeing tigers in the grass even when there weren’t any tigers, because even chickenshits have more kids than corpses do. And from those humble beginnings we learned to see faces in the clouds and portents in the stars, to see agency in randomness, because natural selection favors the paranoid. Even here in the twenty-first century you can make people more honest just by scribbling a pair of eyes on the wall with a Sharpie. Even now, we are wired to believe that unseen things are watching us.
As AntiCitizenX illustrates (starting at the 6:44 mark below), once you’ve got that hypersensitive agency detection module in the human brain, the natural next step from that is for people to start attributing conscious intent to even the most random natural events; and from there, the natural next step is widespread belief in gods (he also does a great job showing how cultures progress from animism to polytheism to monolatrism to monotheism):
With the right combination of biological traits, the emergence of religious belief isn’t just natural – it’s inevitable. Our brains have evolved to recognize patterns, make connections, and discern intentions, even where none actually exist; so if we think that someone is watching over us, our natural inclination will be to convince ourselves that whatever happens to us must be a result of their intervention. That’s just the way we’re wired. Here’s TheraminTrees:
If you’re not familiar with the illusionist Derren Brown, I encourage you to change that. If you have 50-odd minutes to spare, I recommend the second part of his “Fear and Faith” project. In it, he explored our desire to make sense out of the randomness we experience. He invited applications to a fake TV show called “Intervention.” Meeting his chosen subject Emma, he explained that a number of actors would be intervening in her everyday life over the next few weeks, in order to teach her lessons that she could use in a positive way. She was told all the encounters would be filmed to see her reactions. Her task was to detect these interventions, and record them in a video diary. In fact, there were no actors and no cameras. She was left to go about her business unobserved. Nonetheless, she recorded a number of events that she suspected to be artificially staged, like people staring at her, or running after her with money. And she started to consider the lessons they might be teaching her. For instance, she began to think she should smile a bit more, and worry less. But the interventions – and the lessons – were all in her head.
The parallels with theism are clear. Having been a theist myself, I recognise how we were encouraged to look out for divine interventions in our lives. And just like Emma, we of course identified many interventions, along with the lessons we thought they might be teaching us. What evidence did we ever have that they were in fact any divine interventions? None whatsoever.
As Douglas Adams writes, it’s this tendency to interpret the world as being intentionally designed for our benefit that lies at the heart of humanity’s belief in God:
Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from.
Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature, and he finds himself in a world that he’s begun to take a little bit of charge of. He’s begun to be a tool-maker, he’s begun to be a changer of his environment with the tools that he’s made; and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment.
To give an example of the way man operates, as opposed to other animals: As we know, speciation tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, or population pressure, or food shortage, or whatever it is, and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example: Maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. And we know that in a few generations, those genes that favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore, and we’ll come and we’ll find that the animals have now got a thicker coat. Now, man, who’s a tool maker, doesn’t have to do this. He can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert – he even manages to live in New York, for heaven’s sake – and the reason is this: When he arrives in a new environment, he doesn’t then have to wait for several generations, if he’s arrived, say, in a cold environment, for those genes which favour a thicker coat to come to the fore; he sees now an animal who’s already got a thicker coat, and says “I’ll have it off him.” Because tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things and to create a world that fits us better.
Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day of doing whatever he’s been doing. And he looks around himself and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: Behind him are mountains with caves in them; mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you, so mountains are great. In front of him there’s the forest; it’s got nuts and berries and great food that’s delicious. There’s a stream going by, which is full of water; water’s delicious to drink, you can do all sorts of stuff with it, you can float your boats in it and do whatever you like with it. Here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth; mammoths are great, mammoths are fabulous, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can take their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean, this is a great world; it’s fantastic.
But he’s got a moment to reflect, and he’s thinking, “Well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in,” and then he asks himself a very treacherous question – and it’s a question which is actually completely meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into, and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says, “So who made this, then?”
Who made this? You can see why it’s a treacherous question. And he thinks, well, because there’s only one sort of being he knows that makes things, he thinks, “Well it must therefore necessarily be a much bigger, much more powerful, and necessarily invisible one of me. And because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male.” And so we have the idea of a god.
And then, because when we make things, we do it with the intention of doing something with them, he asks himself this question, which is: “Well, if he did make it, then what did he make it for?” Now the real trap springs, because man is thinking, “Well, this world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me, and the world fits me very well.” And he has an inescapable conclusion, which is that whoever made it, made it for him – which is rather like, if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I seem to be inhabiting. It fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well. It must have been made to have me in it!” And this is such a powerful idea that, as the sun rises in the sky and gradually the air heats up, and gradually the puddle is getting smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right – because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it – so the moment he disappears kind of catches him a little bit by surprise.
I think this may be something we need to be on the lookout for.
Adams’s description here is a good one. Our brains insist on turning everything – even completely random events – into narratives; and these narratives almost always involve intentional actions by conscious agents, even when no such intentionality is present. This tendency to read too much into random patterns is so deeply ingrained that psychologists have been aware of it for generations; and in fact, they’ve even found it in species other than humans – most famously in B.F. Skinner’s 1947 study on pigeons, which demonstrated how the birds could form false beliefs around their feeding mechanisms which led them to habitually perform superstitious “rituals”:
Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon “at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behavior”. He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.
One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.
Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their “rituals”, and that this experiment shed light on human behavior:
The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing – or, more strictly speaking, did something else.
You’ve probably also encountered this kind of behavior if you’ve ever known a hardcore sports fan (or a hardcore gambler). If they’re sitting in a certain chair when their favorite team wins a few games in a row, for instance, they’ll insist on sitting in that same chair whenever they watch a game from then on, because they’ll think it’s somehow creating good luck for their team. Or if they were eating a certain snack when their team scored a goal, they’ll start eating it again the next time there’s a scoring opportunity. The pattern-detection modules in their brains have gone into overdrive, so they’re drawing connections even where none exist.
But of course, as strong as this kind of thinking can be in sports fans and gamblers, the area where it’s strongest is in religion. Consider, for instance, the following story from the Bible itself, which bears such a strong resemblance to Skinner’s pigeons that you’d think that some cheeky atheist had fabricated it solely for the purpose of drawing that parallel and showing how baseless religious superstitions can be. Loftus describes it:
We read that during a particular battle, “Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset” (Exod. 17:10-12). Jesus purportedly commended the centurion in his day for having the faith that Jesus could merely speak the word and his servant would be healed (Matt. 5:5-10). But apparently God required Moses to raise his hands to defeat the enemy. This is a case of [superstitious] magic. […] Just imagine standing there, watching this scenario play out in front of your eyes and you’ll see the utter foolishness of these grown men. Just because the Israelites gained the victory, this is not evidence that what Moses did worked.
Loftus’s criticism (though harsh) is well-founded, even if we grant for the sake of argument that this story actually happened and wasn’t just made up or embellished from some other less impressive feat (which it almost certainly was; have I mentioned that Moses probably wasn’t a real person?). If such a battle really did occur, it’s a pretty good bet that Moses wasn’t actually influencing its outcomes by holding his arms up in the air; it only appeared to him that he was.
Having said all this about self-deception and self-delusion, though, it’s not hard to sympathize with Moses’s behavior here (or, for that matter, with the pigeons’ behavior in Skinner’s experiment). I suspect that anyone with even the slightest hint of religious belief might have done the same thing if they’d been in Moses’s position. If you were in a situation as stressful as a literal battle for your life, you too might latch onto anything that you felt could give you some kind of handle on the situation – even if it was something as ridiculous as holding your arms in a weird pose for hours on end.
And in fact, I think the desire for this kind of reassurance is so universal that it’s one of the biggest reasons of all why religious belief came to exist. We all want to feel like everything that’s happening in our lives is, in some meaningful sense, under control. Even if it involves forces that are beyond our ability to control ourselves, we want to feel like at least there’s some higher power up there that is controlling them – and in that same vein, we want to feel like that higher power is something that we can interact with, commune with, and maybe even occasionally influence. What we can’t simply accept (at least not easily) is the idea that we’re completely on our own – that what we see is all there is, and that our existence only lasts for as long as we’re alive. In a sense, then, the reason why our species believes so strongly in the supernatural is because we so often feel a deep emotional need to believe in it. And there’s no context in which this is more true than the kind of high-stakes context in which Moses found himself, where life itself was hanging in the balance and he had to face the possibility that the people he cared about might die.