So the NYT magazine had an interesting piece this weekend about how scientists study the belief in God.*  In other words, not creationism v. evolution, but the study of how the need to believe might have evolved. 

I was struck by this statement from one of the ‘experts’ in the article: “I started looking at history, and I wondered why no society ever survived more than three generations without a religious foundation as its raison d’être,” [Scott Antran, anthropologist]**.  So my immediate reaction was “what!” 

Look, obviously religion is very important to people and to societies, but this sentence makes no sense.  Unless I gravely misunderstand the meaning of the phrase “raison d’etre” this is utter nonsense and the article just leaves it there. The reporter does not poke at it, but leaves this quote like an utterance from on high.   Religion has not been “the reason for being” for this country and a lot of others for a long time.  I’m not saying it’s not important and very important to a lot of people, but it’s not the founding principle, its reason for being. 

Geez, one of our founding principle was freedom of religion or freedom from religion, not a particular religion itself.  And to  those who will protest, “but!Plymouth Rock!”, I remind you that settlers in Virginia had already established assemblies before the Pilgrims landed.  And the purpose of the settlement at Jamestown? Money, the raising thereof. 

But I digress.

This article was interesting in its concepts: agent detection (tendency to assume observable items are caused by an active agent (lion!) or (god!);  causal reasoning (the need for a story to explain phenomena); and folkpsychology (the ability to understand that not all minds know/think like ours).

But one experiment they cited seemed completely tautological.  In this experiment, they show kids of different ages a box that has pictures of crackers on it.  They ask the kids what they think is in the box and the kids say “crackers”.  Then they show the kids that the box actually has rocks in it.  They then ask the kids what their parents will think is in the box.  Apparently a 3 year-old will say “rocks” on the assumption that what they know their parent must know, whereas a 5 or 6 year old will say “crackers” because they understand that their parent is likely to make the same assumption they did based on the picture.  In this same experiment, however, both the 3 year old and the 6 year old if asked what God would think was in the box, they say “rocks” because, as proposed by the experimenters, they think God is infallible.  Thus, the experimenters say, there is a tendency to assume infallibility inherent in our brains.

I just don’t understand the point.  To the extent that these kids believe in God (they don’t say how many of these kids in these experiments are raised by atheists), most mainstream religions promote an infallible god, so of course, he is infallible .   But also, it would appear to suggest that people would over time be less likely to believe in a god (war, famine, etc., not to mention NOT getting your top choice of birthday present, would, to me, anyway, suggest some issues there).  But that’s not where the experimenters conclude from this.  Rather, they suggest that the other stories & culture surrounding religion have found ways to explain these departures from what one would hope for from an infallible god, i.e., that there is a plan we just don’t understand, or to quote Depeche Mode, God has a sick sense of humor.

Anyway, this article left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  I’m hoping that someone more practiced at deconstructing these types of things – PZ? – can better explicate this piece.  I did think that some of the explanation was interesting, the need to believe in something as being a fundamental human trait, even if it arose accidentally.  Overall, I thought the reporter did a good job of summarizing what people in this field do, but not enough criticism (in the poking apart sense) of what and how they are doing it – i.e., whether the experiments have actually proved anything.  The only ‘counterpoint’ seemed to be some references to religious persons who believe that even asking these questions is wrong.

* We get the Sunday NYT & thus Times Select, I don’t know how long it will be before this article goes behind a curtain.

**I’m not sure that an anthropologist is necessarily the best type of scientist to be promoting this type of theory – I guess you need the anthropology to explain the social phenomena, but I would think that collaboration with a biologist would be wise to explain the evolutionary advantages of it.