By Mark Kolsen
If god is a delusion, then why is religion such a widespread, long standing human practice? RDF Trustee Andy Thomson’s book Why We Believe in God(s) demonstrates that religious belief is almost a natural result of our brain’s hard-wired faculties. In fact, his list and explanation of contributing psychological mechanisms make you wonder how any human could NOT believe in god. But don’t wonder too much: disbelief, Andy says, “requires effort.”
RDF: Although Freud is considered psychology’s godfather whose concept of human nature is mostly outdated, Why We Believe in God(s) refers to him often; in fact, your first chapter on attachment reminds me of “The Future of An Illusion,” Freud’s famous essay on religion. In explaining religion, how relevant is Freud today?
AT: In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens said “A Future of An Illusion” first engaged his attention to the nature of religious belief. Freud was a materialist from a very early age. He was very interested in why human minds are religious. He made an attempt to understand it. I think we must give him some credit.
RDF: More recently, scientists have taken different approaches to understanding religious belief. By electrically stimulating different brain regions, Michael Persinger has recreated so called religious experiences in his laboratory volunteers. But studies attempting to replicate Persinger’s results have failed; when Richard Dawkins put on Persinger’s “god-creator” helmet, he only experienced a headache. Yet, Persinger’s laboratory videotapes sure seem convincing to me. Your thoughts on Persinger?
AT: We are all human beings, but we vary in height, weight and other things, including our brains and its religious beliefs. There are also state dependent variables: one week, I could put Persinger’s helmet on and have one experience, but then go another week and have a different emotional experience. Persinger’s work, like the work of others, also demonstrates that we have different selves, more than one self- concept. The self is not a unitary thing.
RDF: Your book marshals evidence that we are naturally moral. For example, you point out that when shown images of suffering Haitians, people will react compassionately. But what about those who view the same images indifferently? Or, to take another example, what about many of the 1% who witness dire poverty with indifference? Where is their natural morality?
AT: Morality is like language. We have an innate grammar, and we then learn the language of our tribe. We have innate moral reactions, but then we learn what our culture thinks is fair and unfair.
RDF: Given our individualistic, selfish culture, does that mean we have no hope for getting Americans to take action on big issues like climate change? Should we assume that, thanks to our culture of self-interest and profits, our planet is doomed?
AT: Altruism is a question the secular community has to grapple with. But there’s exciting new information that we’re less selfish than we think. In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect, a new book by Matthew Lieberman, he argues—and backs it up nicely—that we are born to connect, intensely social beings, and more social beings than standard psychology textbooks would have us. Past texts argue that we are altruistic for selfish reasons. Liebermann puts the lie to that, in my opinion. We are altruistic simply because it feels good. . . if you can demonstrate [to students] the degree of selflessness people really have, it may act as a resistance to our cultural lone cowboy, lone wall street investor making tons of money. . . to the selfishness pervading our cultural ideals.
RDF: In 1776, Thomas Paine’s famously effective book, Common Sense, appealed to people’s selflessness, but Paine had no qualms about getting into people’s faces. Anyone who wouldn’t fight for posterity’s sake, for the sake of giving their children a better future, he ridiculed and called them “cowards.” What do you think of his approach?
AT: With regard to climate change, we have to try everything. You have to appeal to the needs of future generations. You have to appeal to people’s pride. But you also have to shame them. . . [by saying] that not taking action is not a neutral stance; it’s a cowardly stance. It’s our responsibility to do everything to change the public debate.
RDF: Your book explains the persistence of religious beliefs and rituals, such as prayer, to which people still seem addicted. But there is evidence that certain practices and rituals—such as attending church, reading the bible, and accepting different faiths—have been declining in popularity. How would you explain those declines?
AT: Religion is an umbrella for people to come together and meet their social needs. People are finding more rewarding social connections outside church… workplaces are now more friendly than they were when we were growing up. Workplaces are more egalitarian; there’s a lot more connectedness there than when our parents worked in offices.
AT: And as for reading the Bible, we are reading less, and there’s evidence our attention spans are growing shorter….if you start reading the Bible, it’s pretty awful stuff. An intelligent person is going to be horrified. . .with the old testament, why would you spend your time reading this Bronze Age document that’s a blueprint for war, murder and rape? Why would you read the new testament, which is about a human sacrifice we’re supposedly all responsible for? . . .It would also be hard to read the bible on a Sunday evening when you’ve got complex, phenomenally well done dramas like Homeland and Downton Abbey . .
RDF: And so-called “religious diffusion,” illustrated in the willingness of people to marry those of different faiths?
AT: Here’s where it really gets wild! Randy Thornhill and Corey Fincher have a new book [The Parasite Stress Theory of Values and Sociality: Infectious Diseases, History and Human Values Worldwide] that shows that infectious disease burden is a major factor in religiosity! They make a compelling case that religious groups were all about protecting people from infectious diseases. . . this is why there are so many religious sects in the southern United States, where there is a higher infectious disease burden than in the North . . .so today there is greater diffusion among religious sects because there’s so much less human to human infectious disease. It’s now safe for my son to marry someone from a different sect or culture . . . a fascinating argument, well backed with data. . .
RDF: Andy, if you could do two or three things to make our nation more open to science, reason, and secularism, what would top your wish list?
AT: First, I would ask President Obama to remind the nation that we are a secular republic, “My fellow Americans,’ he would say, “I am pleased to announce that the problem of religion has been solved. Scientists—many of whom are fellow Americans, of whom we can be proud—have mapped out how and why we have religious beliefs. We can go on from here . . .”
RDF: (after hard-to-control laughter): And then?
AT: I would next have national standards for scientific education that would teach not just evolution, but human evolution. I think you should graduate from high school knowing how to draw the human family tree. Finally, I would bring down all barriers to stem cell research. So many good possibilities can come from continued stem cell research.
RDF: Since you mentioned our good President, what do you think about Richard Dawkins’ belief that President Obama is a closet atheist, too smart to be religious?
AT: I too once thought Obama was too smart. But then I heard his speech after children were killed at Sandy Hook. It was very religious, and that troubled me: I thought, ‘maybe I’m wrong.” But when you read his autobiography and you know about his mother, father, his developmental history: I find it hard to believe he’s a believer. I hope he’s a closet atheist. We may never know.