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Why People Believe In God: The By-Product Hypothesis

Scientifically speaking, it makes no sense to believe in things that completely lack empirical evidence. Of course, we’re not purely scientists. Though our prefrontal cortices give us the power to study the natural world, our reasoning often leads us to believe things that are untrue. As Bruce Hood points out, even the most rational materialist would be averse to wearing a sweater that once belonged to a serial killer – as if it is “cursed”. From psychic readings to superstitions, many of us pay for and live by things which are false. The mother of all unproven beliefs is God – there is simply no evidence which suggests that He or She exists. To be believe in God is akin to believing in Apollo, Zeus, or Pink Unicorns – all are ontological identical in that they exist as ideas in the brain but not objects in reality.

The question is: why do humans, usually for lifetimes, believe in God or Gods even in the face of overwhelming opposing evidence?

One line of reasoning is the by-product hypothesis, which states that a belief in God or Gods is the by-product of one or several cognitive capacities; as Pascal Boyer said, “religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources.” What cognitive resources does it hijack? One is our tendency to form theories of other minds, what is referred to as a dualistic theory of mind. It is a propensity to think that other people are made up of material (neurons and nerves) and immaterial (souls and spirits) substances. Descartes is the dualism poster child. He believed that our bodies are material and terminate at death while our minds are immaterial, eternal disembodied spirits that inhabit the body. It is easy to see why dualism is evolutionarily advantageous – it helps us effectively and efficiently predict the behavior of other people. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom provides experimental evidence that children are especially likely to be dualist, suggesting that it is an innate tendency.

Another is our tendency to be essentialists. As Bloom explains in his latest book, “essentialism [is the] notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly.” For example, the essence of the Democratic party is that it is socially progressive, in favor of more government and liberal. You could think of an essence as a résumé, a sort of snap shot that captures what something generally is. Like dualism, it is also easy to see why believing in essences is evolutionarily advantageous – they help us categorize the world. Instead of taking time to analyze a lion (how heavy is it, what color it is, if it’s a mammal or not, etc.), which would be counter-productive to our survival, we instantly know what it is by just looking at it and recalling its essence (fast, hungry, dangerous).

There is an important difference between essentialism and dualism. Whereas dualism applies to other minds, essentialism tends to describe things. Put differently, dualism is a theory of how we understand other minds whereas essentialism is a theory of how we understand other things.

Finally, in addition to being essentialists and dualists, we have an innate propensity to believe that things have a purpose – we are teleologists in other words (teleology – the reasons behind why something happened, why something was created or why something exists). For example, we believe that water is for drinking, the Sun is for giving life to Earth and plants are for making oxygen, eating and contributing to the ecosystem. It is true that we drink water, that the Earth needs the Sun and plants are vitally important, but it is false to think that these things are for something. The realistic picture is that they are here via the ongoing process of natural selection, which doesn’t have an end goal.

How exactly does being an essentialist, dualist and teleologist translate into believing in God or Gods? Thinking as an essentialist and dualist perpetuates beliefs in immaterial categories and minds, and from this, it easy to imagine, as Richard Dawkins does, “the existence of a deity as pure spirit, not an emergent property of complex matter but existing independently of matter.” Moreover, as Dawkins goes on, a belief in objective purpose “sets us up for religion. If everything has a purpose, whose purpose is it? God’s, of course.” When you don’t have objective purpose, as Nietzsche famous exclaimed, God is dead.

Does providing a full neurological or psychological explanation of God or Gods end the debate? No. Unfortunately, it is impossible and unscientific to say that God or Gods do not exist. There is no proof. But keep in mind, it is also impossible to prove that the universe wasn’t started by a Pink Unicorn or a Green Sloth.

Hopefully in the years to come cognitive and evolutionary psychologists will have more to say about why humans have such a strong propensity to believe in higher beings and superstitions even when there is no evidence to do so.

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