Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 2 of 6

By Valerie Tarico

Why God has a human mind.

Jesus was a human, fathered by a god and born to a virgin. He died for three days and was resurrected. His death was a sacrifice, an offering or propitiation. It brings favor for humans. He lives now in a realm where other supernatural beings interact with each other and sometimes intervene in human affairs.

Gradually the mainstream of the American public is becoming aware that none of these elements is unique to Christianity. Symbologists or scholars who specialize in understanding ancient symbols, tell us that the orthodox Jesus story, as it appears in our gospels, follows a specific sacred or mythic template that existed in the Ancient Near East long before Christianity or even Judaism. In part this is due to the flow of history. Religions emerge out of ancestor religions. Though the characters and details merge and morph, elements get carried through that allow us to track the lineage. The Gilgamesh and Noah flood-hero stories are similar because the Hebrew story descended from the Sumerian story . The same can be said of the Sumerian “Descent of Inana” and the Christian resurrection story. Even religions that exist side by side borrow elements from each other -- a process called syncretism.

But another reason for similarities among religious stories is that all of them are carried by human minds. To quote cognitive scientist, Pascal Boyer, “Evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. (p. 4) . . . All human beings can easily acquire a certain range of religious notions and communicate them to others” (Religion Explained, p. 3) Our supernatural notions are shaped by the built-in structures that let us acquire, sort, and access information efficiently, especially information about other people.

You may have heard the old adage: If dogs had a god, God would be a dog; if horses had a god, God would be a horse . . . . Humans are more inventive than dogs and horses, and not all human gods or magical beings have human bodies. They do, however, have human psyches—minds with quirks and limitations that are peculiar to our species. Philosopher John Locke believed that the human mind was a tabula rasa, a blank slate. We now know this not to be the case. (Leda, Principle 4). Because we need to learn so much so fast, certain assumptions are actually built in. This allows us to generalize from a few bits of data to a big fund of knowledge. It lets us know more than we have actually experienced or been told.

Let me give you an example that will illustrate the point. If I tell you that my "guarg," Annie, just made a baby by laying an egg and sitting on it, your brain says: Guargs (not just Valerie’s guarg) are non-human animals that reproduce by laying eggs. You have different categories in your brain for animal reproductive systems, and putting one guarg in the egg laying category puts them all there. To oversimplify, we have a built in filing system. Most of the labels actually start out blank, but some of them don’t. The preprinted labels appear to include: human, non-human animal, plant, man-made object, natural object.

A large percentage of our mental architecture is specialized “domain specific” structures for processing information about other humans. We homo sapiens are social information specialists; that is our specialized niche in this world. Our survival and wellbeing depend mostly on smarts rather than teeth, claws, stealth or an innate sense of direction, and most of the information we need to survive and flourish comes from other humans. Our greatest threats also come from our own species--people who seek to out-compete, exploit or kill us. For this reason, our brains are optimized to process information from and about other humans.

How does all of this affect religion?

Here is a concrete example. Our brains have a specialized facial recognition module. Studies of infants and brain injuries have taught us much of what is known about the inborn structures of our minds, and we know about the facial recognition modal from both. Shortly after birth, babies are uniquely attracted to two round circles with a slash beneath them. Later on, brain injury or developmental anomalies can produce a disorder in which people cannot recognize faces, including their own(!)—even though other kinds of visual processing are perfectly intact. This is called prosopagnosia. Most of the time, though, our facial recognition module overfunctions rather than underfunctioning. In ambiguous situations—looking at clouds, rocks, lumps of clay, or ink blots--we have a tendency to see faces. Our brains automatically activate our facial recognition machinery even though it doesn’t really apply. Through history people have seen gods, demons, ghosts looking at them. Christians, whose interpretation of hazy shapes is further shaped by belief in specific supernatural persons see Jesus, the Virgin Mary, an angel, a demon, or even Satan.

This illustrates a broader point that cannot be overemphasized in understanding the psychology of religion: when faced with unknowns and ambiguities, our brains activate inborn information modules even when they don’t really apply. We take unfamiliar situations and even random data and perceive patterns that are inherent, not in the external world, but in our own minds. Furthermore, our pattern recognition systems err on the side of being overactive rather than underactive. This is called apophenia. It is alarming to look at a face and not see it immediately as a face; it is quite common to see a face in an array of leaves or shadows.

When we look at the world around us, we instinctively see more than faces. We also “see” kindred conscious beings. Humans (and some intelligent animals) have developed a capacity called “theory of mind.” We not only have minds, we imagine that others have them, and we think about what they might be thinking. To guess what someone else might do (or to influence what they might do) it is tremendously helpful to think about what they want and what they intend. Theory of mind is so important in navigating our way through society that we can think about it several steps removed: I can imagine what Brian is thinking about how Grace intends to respond to Janet’s preferences. Furthermore, because our brains process information about minds differently than information about bodies, we can imagine human minds inside of all kinds of bodies (think stuffed animals, pet rocks or cartoon characters) or without any body at all, (think evil spirits, poltergeists or spirit-gods).

Because our theory of mind is so rich, we tend to over-attribute events to conscious beings. Scientists call this hyperactive agency detection. What does that mean? It means that when good things happen somebody gets credit and when bad things happen we look for someone to blame. We expect important events to be done by, for and to persons, and are averse to the idea that stuff just happens. We also tend to over-assume conscious intent, that if something consequential happened, someone did it on purpose.

This set of default assumptions explains why the ancients thought that volcanoes and plagues must be the actions of gods. Even in modern times, we are not immune from this kind of attribution: Hurricane Katrina happened because God was angry about abortions and gays; the Asian tsunami happened because he was disgusted with nude Australian sunbathers. If gods are tweaking natural events, then we want to curry their favor. Around the world, people make their special requests known to gods or spirits by talking to them and giving them gifts. Athletes huddle in prayer before a game, just in case those random bounces aren’t random. After a good day at the casino, a thank-you tip may go into the offering basket. Or it may be that the offering goes into the basket beforehand.

All of this builds on the idea that gods or other supernatural beings are akin to us psychologically. They have emotions and preferences. They take action in response to things they like and dislike. They experience righteous indignation and crave retribution. They like some people better than others. They respond to our loyalty by being loyal to us. They can be placated or cajoled. They like praise, affirmation, and gratitude. They track favors and good-will in a kind of tit-for-tat reciprocity.

Abstract theologies are a fairly recent invention in the history of human religion, and they tend not to govern religious behavior. Even people who describe their god as omniscient or who insist that everything is predestined actually behave as if they need to communicate their desires and can influence future events by doing so. The god of Christian theology and the god that ordinary Christians worship are two different creatures.

If the structure of our minds predisposes us to certain kinds of religious beliefs, it also precludes others. Nowhere in the world is there a supernatural being who exists only on alternate Tuesdays, or who sees everything but forgets it all in ten minutes, or who rewards us for ignoring and disobeying him. Nowhere is there a god who knows the future, but only the next hour, or a god who starves people to death whenever he is pleased with them, or who is exactly like an ordinary person in every way. Some ideas are simply not interesting to us. They may be counter-intuitive in ways that make them forgettable instead of “sticky.” Maybe they don’t make good stories or maybe we don’t have good places to file them in our index of memories.

You may have heard the old adage: If dogs had a god, God would be a dog; if horses had a god, God would be a horse . . . . According to Pascal Boyer, a good religious concept must strike a balance between being interesting and expected. It must activate an existing ontological category (let’s say “river”), add some counterintuitive tag (when dark and bubbling river turns to blood and heals people), and retain the default assumptions of the category except those that are otherwise specified (river is wet, flows, is longer than it is wide, has a bottom, etc.) We start with a familiar class of being or object then tweak it to pique our interest but leave intact our other basic assumptions about that kind of object or being. If the supernatural thing we are discussing is a conscious being, it also needs to have a basically human mind. Only under these conditions will it stick and get passed from one person to another. (Religion Explained)

Christian beliefs are highly successful at getting retained and transmitted. They fit our information processing structures and yet are counterintuitive in intriguing ways. They capitalize on our tendency to attribute events to human-like causal agents who have minds much like our own. They allow us to take machinery that is designed for processing social information and apply it to the problems of understanding inanimate objects and natural phenomena. They leverage our tendency to see patterns in ambiguous or random events. Consequently they are intuitive and broadly applicable and are easily remembered.

But if our brains allow for a wide range of religious concepts, how come so many people believe exactly the same thing? And what makes them so sure that those ideas are not only interesting—they are true? As we shall see in future articles Christian beliefs don’t just fit our mental categories. They also leverage powerful emotions and social relationships so as to become the core reality for those who believe.

Essentials: Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained.
Andy Thomson, Why We Believe in Gods; American Atheists, 2009.

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