Why believe?

This follows up nicely on the God-discussion on PFFA.

Careful — it’s a long article.

Call it God; call it superstition; call it, as Atran does, “belief in hope beyond reason” — whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science. “Why do we cross our fingers during turbulence, even the most atheistic among us?” asked Atran when we spoke at his Upper West Side pied-à-terre in January. Atran, who is 55, is an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.

If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

6 thoughts on “Why believe?

  1. What a great metaphor for religion. All it takes is a little suggestion to make people half-believe that a normal wooden box is some kind of magical implement of destruction. Not surprising, then, that if you have the full theatre of the church, you can make people believe any number of impossible things before breakfast.

  2. Yes, Harry.

    And the real question is why. What evolutionary purpose has this tendency, whose existence, even among the most rational of us, suggests that the search for transcendence may be hard-wired into human beings?

  3. The entire article provides a competent summary (or so it seems to me, as a non-scientist, or a non hard scientist anyway; as an anthropologist I can appreciate many of these ideas) of the various positions in this debate, many of which are elegantly argued, and which give me great pleasure to read, not only because of the expression, but because of the reasoning involved.

    As a believer-sceptic, however, I find always the same flaw. While it is arguable that scepticism is the only mental state that can provide the openness of mind that will allow these elegant explanations to be constructed, there is nothing in any of the arguments that justifies logically the acceptance of scepticism (or atheism) as a reasonable default position. I have long argued that unbelief is as much an exercise of faith as belief is, as the reality is that we — none of us — cannot know. And so we choose. Our choices are often culturally proscribed; there’s a good chance that I am a believer because I was raised in a theistic society, where there was no suggestion in any sphere that God did not exist. There’s more than a good chance that I am a Christian because of my socialization; I accept the concept that belief is the default position of the human mind, but that doesn’t determine which belief one has. Had I grown up in a more secular/humanist society, I have little doubt that my belief would have taken the form of the average sceptic’s — that there is nothing beyond our material reality. When I was a young adult, I tried very hard to be an atheist. But no matter how hard I tried, I found I still believed in something beyond me. The exercise convinced me that even the most hardened atheist has made a declaration of faith — the faith that nothing exists, or the faith that being rational is the highest exercise of the human brain.

    Now for the paradox. This knowledge that my belief has been shaped by my environment and is therefore in some ways a by-product of my culture does not challenge in any way my belief in the truth of a Christian God and a Christian universe. By “Christian” I mean founded in Christ; I don’t mean any of the other, more rabid and dangerous concepts of Christianity that are currently popular. Irrational? Undoubtedly. But as I choose also to accept the reality of mystery, I am perfectly comfortable with this irrationality.


  4. Well said Scavella. Terrific article too.

    I think I would have been a believer in something regardless of what kind of society or family I was raised in. It is basic to my nature to embrace the irrational and the unseen. It seems to me that many of my non-believing friends struggle almost angrily against having faith in anything and I wonder sometimes if the struggle to not believe isn’t harder than the struggle to believe.

    And I too would have put my hand in the box, but not because I doubt the existence of the supernatural, but because I have a defined faith in something specific and consequently don’t worry about magic boxes eating my appendages.

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