Is Belief in God Just a Natural Phenomenon?
- Wednesday, April 09, 2008
Explaining some aspects of human experience will pose an especially difficult challenge for those committed to a naturalistic worldview, but some scientists are working hard toward meeting the challenge.
For years now, Daniel Dennett of Tufts University has been attempting a purely natural explanation of human consciousness. Similar efforts have been devoted to finding a supposed natural origin of the moral sense. Now, others are working on an attempt to propose a purely natural origin for belief in God.
The Economist [London] reports that a group of scientists, armed with a multi-million-dollar budget, are working together in this effort, known as "Explaining Religion." The magazine explains that "Explaining Religion" is "the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. It began last September, will run for three years, and involves scholars from 14 universities and a range of disciplines from psychology to economics. And it is merely the latest manifestation of a growing tendency for science to poke its nose into the God business."
From The Economist's report:
The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a "surveillance-camera" God might improve reproductive success to an individual's Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person's reputation--for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons, and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.
It is an ambitious shopping list. Fortunately, other researchers have blazed a trail. Patrick McNamara, for example, is the head of the Evolutionary Neurobehaviour Laboratory at Boston University's School of Medicine. He works with people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. This illness is caused by low levels of a messenger molecule called dopamine in certain parts of the brain. In a preliminary study, Dr McNamara discovered that those with Parkinson's had lower levels of religiosity than healthy individuals, and that the difference seemed to correlate with the disease's severity. He therefore suspects a link with dopamine levels and is now conducting a follow-up involving some patients who are taking dopamine-boosting medicine and some of whom are not.
So the scientists will use biochemistry to explain why people believe in God? Well, in one sense this is just made necessary by the intellectual commitments of those who believe that everything must have a natural explanation. On this question, those committed to naturalism and materialism have nowhere to look but the human brain and its biochochemistry. Is belief in God nothing more than genes, chemicals, and neurons? Is theology really just neurology?
There is more to this story, of course. The reporting in The Economist is filled with its own strange assumptions.
Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon--arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens--but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.
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