Friday, May 13, 2011

Is Religious Belief Integral To Being Human?

You may have seen this story on CNN yesterday:

Religious belief is human nature, huge new study claims

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

London (CNN) – Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests.

"We tend to see purpose in the world," Oxford University professor Roger Trigg said Thursday. "We see agency. We think that something is there even if you can't see it. ... All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking."

Trigg is co-director of the three-year Oxford-based project, which incorporated more than 40 different studies by dozens of researchers looking at countries from China to Poland and the United States to Micronesia.

Studies around the world came up with similar findings, including widespread belief in some kind of afterlife and an instinctive tendency to suggest that natural phenomena happen for a purpose.

"Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," such as believing in God's omniscience, said Trigg. But adults also jumped first for explanations that implied an unseen agent at work in the world, the study found.”

"Religious people would say, 'If there is a God, then ... he would have given us inclinations to look for him,'" Trigg said.

"If you've got something so deep-rooted in human nature, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests," Trigg said.

"There is quite a drive to think that religion is private," he said, arguing that such a belief is wrong. "It isn't just a quirky interest of a few, it's basic human nature."

"This shows that it's much more universal, prevalent, and deep-rooted. It's got to be reckoned with. You can't just pretend it isn't there," he said.

And the Oxford study, known as the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, strongly implies that religion will not wither away, he said.

Sounds pretty compelling, doesn't it? Oxford University. “...40 different studies by dozens of researchers looking at countries from China to Poland and the United States to Micronesia.” That has to be pretty scholarly and objective, right?

Well, first of all, Dr. Roger Trigg is on the Theology Faculty at Oxford so I think we can presume a certain lack of objectivity to his study right off the bat.

But the thing is, I don't really disagree with his findings, just his subjective interpretation. In particular, look at the portions I bolded and italicized. Both of these statements are absolutely true.

Jean Piaget first discovered this in his studies of Genetic Epistomolgy.

The specific area of that discipline that we are dealing with here is the sensorimotor stage of an infant's cognitive development which occurs between birth and about age 2.

The key development comes at around 8 months old when the infant begins to develop a sense of “object permanence”. This is the understanding that objects that exist in the environment, such as a bottle, blocks, a blanket or a binky and even a parent, continue to exist even if they are out of sight or changed in some way.

This is when the world starts to make sense to an infant and they begin to develop a sense of trust.

Even when they can't see their parents, the infant knows that it's parents still exist and will return to them.

“We think that something is there even if you can't see it. ... All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking.”

"Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways,"

Once that sense of Object Permanence becomes such a basic part of the young human's world view, it becomes very, very difficult to let go of it. The very thought of letting go of it can induce confusion and panic as it shakes the very foundation of everything they believe to be true.

It's so obvious. The basis for all of the world's religions and the almost universal belief in an afterlife is nothing more than the result of the natural cognitive development of all human infants.

This is why parents have such a hard time explaining death to a child. A child's entire world view is built upon object permanence. Once they are introduced to the concept of death, that object permanence starts to crumble.

It starts when the family dog dies. “Well Tommy, you know dogs like to run and jump and our yard is so small. So we took Lassie to a Big Farm in the country where there are lots of other dogs she can run and play with all day! I know you miss Lassie and she misses you. But this really is better for her. She's happy now.”

Then it continues later when Aunt Martha dies. “Aunt Martha died, but her faith in Jesus was strong so she is up in Heaven now, watching over us and waiting to be reunited with us when our time comes. So it's important that you read your Bible, love God, and do what Jesus says so you can go to Heaven and see Lassie, er, um, I mean Aunt Martha again!”

A certain percentage of the human population never learns to let go of the fallacy of object permanence. They are incapable of living without it. They have to have something in their lives that is absolutely rock solid, unchanging, unwavering and always there.

That's what faith and religion is to those people. When they feel like they are being tossed about by the random, meaningless, chaotic currents of life, they need to touch the rock. They need to know it's still there and hasn't changed. That comforts them and gives them strength.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with that, but let's recognize it for what it is. A basic feature of human infantile cognitive development that does not require any supernatural beings or eternal, mystical realms.

It's all neurons, synapses and chemicals. Nothing more.


AnnoyingJoe said...

The notion that there are scientific explanations as to the nature of life and the Universe shouldn't preclude spirituality.

The elements that make up our body, the elements that combine and interact to make life possible were created in massive stars billions of years ago. When we die all that we are remains, albeit in a different form.

The idea that we come from and will return to something greater than ourselves does not depend upon religion.

Anonymous said...

Well, Xavier, first of all you are an atheist, so I think we can assume a certain lack of objectivity on your part.

Now can't we sport?

Raytown Legal Eagle and Mold Expert

Anonymous said...

Why do you hate god?

I Travel for JOOLS said...

We can fix a lot of things about ourselves and we can fix a lot of things in this world. We can even transplant a heart. We can build almost anything. etc. etc. But, with all this ability and knowledge, we don't fully understand the human brain. In fact, we know little about it. My personal belief is that there is a "God gene" in all of us so to speak. The knowledge is there and will be revealed, maybe only at death. And, nobody can prove there isn't a God.

Nick said...

I'll tell the Big Guy what you said when I get Raptured this Saturday, Mr. Smartypants!

Xavier Onassis said...

AnnoyingJoe - What you are describing has nothing to do with Spirituality. The fact that the atoms in our bodies were forged in the hearts of stars and will return to the cosmos to be recycled does not require any supernatural beings, mystical realms or unseen worlds.

poodlespace - I can't hate something that doesn't exist.

Jools - You are correct. No one can prove that there isn't a God. But no one can prove that there IS a God, either. So, we have two possible scenarios. One involves a supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient being, a virgin birth, a ressurected dead person and various other special exceptions to virtually everything that we CAN prove to be true. The other scenario requires none of those special exceptions. Occam's Razor would implore us to favor the simplest explanation withe the fewest assumptions. A Godless universe just makes more sense.

Nick - I'll buy you a drink on Sunday to help you drown your disappointment at still being here. Not saying The Rapture isn't happening on Saturday...just saying you ain't goin' nowhere.

Nick said...

I am wounded to the quick, sir.

Well Hell Michelle said...

God may not exist, but if people want to believe, more power to them. I would consider myself an agnostic, but I can totally relate to the desire to believe in something, even if that something comes from a stage of cognitive development.

And just my observation:

Atheists (and agnostics) seem to be more cynical, pessimistic, and depressed than people who do believe in something.

Anonymous said...

You know religion use to be a huge part of my life.

As many other people I just took the Bible for what it said and was suppose to mean to us.

But after being pushed to become more of a man of God and to start teaching the word of God I took to learning all I could about God so as to fully understand that which I was being asked to teach.

Several years of studying God lead me to where I am today. I can no long say I believe in the Allmighty. Sorry the facts just don't support it. Remember this all came about in a time when people thought the world was flat and that dragons flew through the air breathing fire upon the ground.

But if religion makes you feel good inside and puts a smile on your face everyday then by all means do and follow a belief that makes you a better person and a kinder person.

When it come to children remember this. Children are great receivers of information they just sometimes are lacking the education that makes them good interperters of it.

But I do agree with children that Santa is real and always will be.