Some atheists say that religious belief is a kind of irrational glitch in the system that we should work hard to overcome, but things are much more complicated than claiming religious people are uneducated or that atheists are arrogant and blinded by science.
Examining the actual science behind the story reveals what believers and non-believers have in common.
Jesse Bering is an American psychologist and award-winning columnist who teaches at Queen’s University. In his book, “The God Instinct”, he argues that humanity’s religious instinct is what sets us apart from other animals – and it carries powerful evolutionary benefits. Bering says that the illusion of a morally interested god was “a meaningful contributor to our species’ success” and has led to social cohesion.
Rituals, conscience and notions of justice may have been introduced to the species through supernatural belief systems, which is why we evolved an inclination towards faith: “We tend to live our lives – either consciously or under the assumption that there is a grand “Other” out there that is emotionally invested in our well-being.
“God doesn’t need to be real to ‘work’…people simply needed to be convinced that he was, and our evolved brains conjure up a suite of very convincing illusions to persuade us that he is indeed real.”
An Oxford team led by Dr Justin Barrett and John Trigg studied why this belief in gods, souls and the afterlife is so common across cultures. They found evidence that humans – even those with a scientific education, are inclined to think that the world has a purpose. Humans seem to be hard-wired for faith.
The idea that we are all simply the accidental by-product of blind cosmic forces, made with no particular purpose is less than appealing, so we search for a more attractive explanation. When it comes to questions of meaning, purpose, and value, science is blind. Religious beliefs are the framework that place humans at the centre of creation; they also provide a purpose for human existence.
This tendency to believe also seems to be implanted in the mind from birth. In a study by the University of Kent, nine-year-olds were asked to play a game. They had to choose which of two boxes held a reward. They were told they were in the presence of an invisible force – “Princess Alice” – who would give a sign if they touched the wrong one. When they did, the scientists made a light flicker. Almost all the children changed their choice: they happily accepted the reality of a higher power.
Faith is one of the most significant forces in modern society and, whether good or bad, there’s strong evidence that the need to believe is just part of humanity.