Friday, March 5, 2010

Belief in God: A Trick of Our Brain?

This post is slightly adapted from Christian philosopher Michael J. Murray's essay entitled Belief in God: A Trick of Our Brain?

A growing trend in psychology and neuroscience today seems to be suggesting that belief in God may well be "hardwired" into the human brain. Some current scientists, such as Jesse Bering for example, argue that "even from an early age, children tend to follow rules more consistently when they are primed to believe that a supernatural agent is watching them" (as adapted, in Murray's words, from Belief). Could the same be so with adults and God? Do we tend to act better because we falsely hold a hard-wired belief (in the brain) that a supernatural deity is watching us?

Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist, has argued that

"God is an artifact of the brain." (Persinger's words, taken from Murray's Belief)

Richard Dawkins, although not a psychologist or a neuroscientist but a prominent evolutionary biologist, said:

"the irrationality of religion is a by-product of the built in irrationality mechanism in the brain." (Dawkins' words, taken from Murray's Belief).

Is religion—or the belief in a higher power—an accident of evolution, showing that we are inclined to believe in God because its somehow "hardwired" into our brain?

The theist may be inclined to believe in or agree with what psychology has shown: Perhaps the idea of god really is programmed into the mind.

The problem is that many of the psychologists who posit these findings do so to make the case that God doesn't exist. As Matthew Alpers says, "humankind can no longer be viewed as a product of God but rather God must be viewed as a product of human cognition" (Alpers' words, as taken from Murray's Belief).

When these findings are steered in the direction of trying to disprove God's existence, they do so with faulty reasoning. Trying to refute a belief by showing how the belief came about (or how it originated) is only committing the genetic fallacy. These scientists are essentially saying "Hey, God doesn't exist because we can explain how we've made up God throughout the course of our evolutionary history." But this is exactly where the fallacy lies. This does nothing to posit a positive argument against God's existence—it only moves the debate back a step by saying that we can explain how the belief originated.

John Calvin, the great Reformer said that "there is within the human mind…an awareness of divinity" (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.3.1).

Perhaps he's right?

I encourage any and all feedback. Thanks.