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Column: Author explains science behind belief in god(s)

June 18, 2011

Fascinating, illuminating and easy to read? It’s true! J. Anderson Thomson’s book Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith is a slim volume packed with tons of information on the origins of religious belief that should be considered by the believer and atheist alike.

I did a Q&A with Dr. Thomson for my latest faith column.

Here’s the full AND unedited interview. We had to trim for space in the paper, but it’s worth reading the entire thing here:

Author offers evolutionary explanation for religion

When it comes to religion, we tend to talk about what we believe rather than why we believe it. In his new book “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith,” J. Anderson Thomson, a Virginia psychiatrist, offers a scientific answer to the why question.

He argues that religion, created by our ancestors, played a key role in human evolution but that will eventually “wither away.” Thomson answered questions in an email interview.

EF: What do you hope to accomplish by offering an evolutionary explanation of religious belief?

JAT: First, we hope to help people understand that the roots of religious belief lie within each of us, and that this psychology is remarkably easy to understand. To do that, we wanted a brief, accessible book an interested reader could finish in a couple of hours – at most. Like Darwin’s idea of natural selection, the psychology of religion is remarkably simple to grasp.

Investigators from many disciplines have mapped out the mechanisms human minds utilize to generate, accept, and spread religious beliefs. Their findings are backed by neuroimaging studies that show there are no special god centers in the brain. The mind utilizes tried and true paths that originally evolved for other purposes, primarily the mechanisms we summon to negotiate the sea of people on whom we depend and with whom we interact.

Our second goal is to have this new knowledge incorporated into the debate about the role of religion in American society. Few remember the United States’1797 Treaty with Tripoli, written under the direction of George Washington, signed by John Adams, and accepted with no political or public objection.  It puts the lie to the recent revisionist claims that we were founded as a Christian nation, stating, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”

James Madison said it well: “We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” The Founding Fathers envisioned a secular republic, with not just freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.

We think religion’s hold on politics and the future is weakened when religion’s psychological foundations are exposed.  It’s man made, not heaven sent.

EF: You explain the development of religion by detailing why early humans used ritual, how they interpreted dreams and attempted to explain the unknown. But today, with major advancements in science and technology, why does religion still have such a powerful grip on people?

JAT: Religion arises from our basic humanity, independent of technology. In our modern skull there remains a Stone Age brain—and the same ancient mechanisms that make us an extraordinary, ultra social species are the ones that come together to create religion.

Our attachment system, the basic caretaking relationship between intimates, is just one of those mechanisms. We therefore created God(s) as a super parent, far more powerful than our earth bound and now frail or deceased parents, and we turn to god(s) in moments of distress.

All of us take for granted that we can imagine a conversation with someone not present and rehearse what we want to say. It is crucial to our ability to live in the intensely social human world. Yet it is a unique mechanism known as decoupled cognition. It allows us to separate our minds in time, space, and person. It is only one small step to interacting with a dead ancestor or a god.

An illustrative example is in the May 30, 2011 Sports Illustrated. Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets, is now the subject of a claw back suit triggered by Bernie Madoff’s multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme. Wilpon, his family and his business partners had invested heavily with Madoff and allegedly used their “earnings” to run the Mets. On December 12, 2008, when Wilpon discovered he was $550 million poorer, he turned to his father for advice. His father, Nat Wilpon, had been dead for 43 years, but that did not matter.  Fred retrieved from his wallet a black ribbon he has carried ever since his father’s funeral, and began to talk with him. Wilpon knew that he could not have a real conversation with his father. But, “In my mind I can.” Fred Wilpon implored an invisible, all-powerful, and idealized father attachment figure for guidance.  Does that sound familiar to your readers? Of course. The religious do it daily in churches.

EF: Some believers claim there is no conflict between science and religion. But, as you note in the book, there is a serious battle on the education front pitting evolution against creationism and intelligent design. Who will prevail? Or will this be a tug of war that goes on indefinitely?

JAT: There is a massive, irreconcilable conflict between science and religion. Religion was humanity’s original cosmology, biology, and anthropology. It provided explanations for the origin of the world, life, and humans. Science now gives us increasingly complete explanations for those big three. We know the origins of the universe, the physics of the big bang, and how the basic chemical elements formed in supernovas. We know that life on this planet originated about four billion years ago, and we are all descendants of that original replicating molecule. Thanks to Darwin we know that natural selection is the only workable explanation for the design and variety of all life on this planet. Paleoanthropologists and geneticists have reconstructed much of the human tree of life. We are risen apes, not fallen angels. We are the most successful and last surviving African hominid. Every single person on this earth, all seven billion of us, arose 50,000 years ago from small bands of African hunter-gatherers, a total population of somewhere between 600 and 2000 individuals.

The evolutionary theory that elucidated life now maps the human mind. And, the evolved cognitive mechanisms that make us human also make us vulnerable to construct gods and religious ideologies. Soon for anyone to call himself or herself an educated individual in the 21st century they will have to be conversant with these basic mechanisms. The mechanisms will be taught in every Psych 101 course.

Since the Scopes trial in 1925 there have been about twenty cases, including two before the U. S. Supreme Court, over the teaching of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. Science always won. There will ultimately be a case about teaching the evolutionary psychology of religion in public schools. If the past is prologue, the religious right will object and litigate. Science will prevail again because victory goes to the side with the heavy artillery. Science has the big guns – evidence.

It is no longer a question of whether religion shall wither away, just when.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2011 10:15 am

    Many thanks to Eileen Flynn for the opportunity.
    For more information on the book see:
    whywebelieveingods.com
    For a talk that covers some of the book’s content, see

  2. June 23, 2011 1:55 pm

    The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).

  3. Jack Wirtz permalink
    June 23, 2011 2:33 pm

    J.A.T, ho-hum, recycled atheism to sell a book and garner acclaim from the like of; is it believers? Or unbelievers? Oh well it doesn’t really matter, they have always been around and always will be.

    Post-modernism’s revisionist history is boon to those too lazy to do
    research and for those with an agenda or a vendetta. And, surprise,
    surprise, sponsored by the American Atheist Association.

    There has never been a culture in history that was a religious vacuum.
    Man will worship something be it GOD or imagined and the basest
    religion of all, himself.

  4. Pete permalink
    June 28, 2011 9:28 pm

    The battle between creationists and evolutionists is really a battle between “young earth creationists” and evolutionists. Young earth creationists do not speak for all Christians, but they are the ones most active in these educational battles. When you dismiss a faction of Christians for their unsupportable beliefs (unsupportable both scientifically and biblically), you are not dismissing all of Christianity. There are plenty of us out here who believe God reveals himself fully in nature (through science) as well as in scripture.

    Also, at least as far as Christianity is concerned, withering away isn’t what seems to be going on. Despite the stagnation of the Church in the west, Christianity is booming in Asia and Africa.

    However, I am fallible. Both God and science makes that perfectly clear. So it could be that I am wrong on all accounts. All I can do is keep studying the matter and at least attempt to keep my mind open. I will leave it to you to comment on your fallibility.

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