The human longing for God (part 2)

In part 1 of this post, I discussed my objections to the notion that humans have an innate longing for God. I pointed out the lack of a ubiquitous definition of God (or gods), and the great diversity in religious beliefs and practices, including things like animism and ancestor worship. But I also expressed dissatisfaction with the atheistic rebuttal that religion simply exists to give people comfort; indeed, religion's "comfort" is often derived from the alleviation of threats and guilt that religion itself fabricates. But even if humans do not possess any homogeneous concept of gods or spirituality, it's undeniable that generalized beliefs in supernatural phenomena are ubiquitous in human cultures throughout history. If "comfort" is an unsatisfying answer, then why is this the case? Is this ubiquity evidence that supernatural things are real, and that we have a deeply embedded desire to connect with them? And why do supernatural beliefs manifest as gods and spirits, and not things like flying spaghetti monsters?

As before, I'll be pulling from Pascal Boyer's excellent book Religion Explained. A notable peculiarity of human spirituality is the anthropomorphizing of natural occurrences. In the post "Knowing what we know, part 1: Patterns"[link], I discussed the two fundamental errors of pattern recognition that humans can make: we can fail to recognize patterns that are there, and we can impose patterns where there are none. Humans are pattern-seeking animals. Just as week see faces in the clouds or on toast, we see intent and agency in the randomness of nature. Sam Harris has characterized religion as "failed sciences", and this becomes especially important when we understand how primitive humans attempted to understand and explain the patterns they observed – even if their mind erroneously imposed the pattern.

It might not seem surprising that we anthropomorphize natural occurrences, but why is this the case? Why do some cultures end up practicing ancestor worship, while others are casting out demons of affliction "in Jesus' name"? The answer stems from cognitive psychology, in how we categorize information in our brains. Boyer explains:
[Note] that gods and spirits are not represented as having human features in general but as having minds, which is much more specific. People represent supernatural agents who perceive events, have thoughts and memories and intentions. But they do not always project onto these agents other human characteristics, such as having a body, eating food, living with a family or gradually getting older. Indeed, anthropologists know that the only feature that is always projected onto supernatural agents is the mind. Second, the concept of the mind is not exclusively human. As I said in the last two chapters, it is part of our intuitive expectations that animals as well as humans perceive what is going on around them, react to those events, have goals and form plans. Intuitive psychological inferences are applied to intentional agents in general, not just to humans. So it is quite likely that the concepts of gods and spirits are mostly organized by our notions of agency in general (the abstract quality that is present in animals, persons, and anything that appears to move of its own accord, in pursuance of its own goals) rather than just human agency. [p.144]
Our minds categorize our sensory input into an assortment of broad ontological categories; these are abstract concepts such as tools, animals, people, natural objects, numbers, etc. It should not be surprising that mind is the only attribute that is ubiquitous among supernatural agents, because agency requires it. We find that other particulars of given ontological categories can be discarded – so other elements of people, for example, such as those Boyer lists above, are not necessary to preserve the attribution of agency in natural occurrences.

But why person-like gods and spirits rather than silly sounding things like flying spaghetti monsters? Well, flying spaghetti monsters lack any consistency with the above ontological categories. We know that food does not possess a mind (or does it? ... dun dun dunnnn...), so when we make errors of causal attribution in pattern recognition, we essentially just omit certain traits in the ontological category of person. We might also attribute them to animals – there are cultures, of course, that worship animal spirits – but it is likely a less successful meme because we generally recognize that animals lack the cognitive sophistication of people, thus it's more logical to erroneously characterize intent in apparently more complex behaviors as a supernatural personhood.

These erroneous assumptions then evolve into self-reinforcing beliefs. Most nonbelievers have probably heard the anecdote, "believing is seeing". Once certain assumptions are held to be true, random events can mistakenly be believed to comport with those assumptions. There is perhaps no more obvious example than prayer – we plead and bargain with these powerful gods and spirits, and if certain events come to pass that are consistent with our pleas, it is believed to be an outcome of the prayer. Outcomes inconsistent with our pleas can easily enough be rationalized as being the will of the mysterious, disembodied mind, as it requires much less cognitive dissonance to fabricate such rationalizations than to re-examine one's basic understanding of reality.

Once we understand how these religious concept come into being, much of what we observe makes more sense. If there were one true religion and/or one true god – particularly a loving, compassionate one – we would expect homogenous theologies to arise independently among geographically isolated cultures as their understanding of the world evolved. Instead, we observe that no two geographically isolated cultures ever evolve the same religious beliefs and practices, yet they are all consistent with how we categorize information and make errors of causal attribution to explain apparent patterns of agency in random events. Now that we have better a better tool – namely science – to understand the patterns around us, we can recognize the error of supernatural explanations and discard them accordingly.


Again, I can't recommend Boyer's Religion Explained enough. These posts merely scratch the surface of a 300+ page paperback book (with very small fonts). At the very least, Boyer challenges believers and non-believers alike to challenge many of their basic assumptions about what religion is and how it works. Grab it on Amazon.com here.

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