Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Belief in God: Nature or Nurture?

Why do we believe in God? (and how much are we willing to spend to find out the answer?) Well at least there is one group now with a big grant to address this question:
Researchers at the University of Oxford will spend £1.9 million investigating why people believe in God. Academics have been given a grant to try to find out whether belief in a deity is a matter of nature or nurture.
Yes, it is funded by the Templeton Foundation, but the project looks great. And fortunately, they are not trying to show if God really exists or not - just the belief in God (which definitely exists):

They will not attempt to solve the question of whether God exists but they will examine evidence to try to prove whether belief in God conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. They will also consider the possibility that faith developed as a byproduct of other human characteristics, such as sociability.

Researchers at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind in Oxford will use the cognitive science disciplines to develop “a scientific approach to why we believe in God and other issues around the nature and origin of religious belief”.

The project can be boiled down to this:

He compared believers to three-year-olds who “assume that other people know almost everything there is to be known”. Dr Barrett, who is a Christian, is the editor of the Journal of Cognition and Cultureand author of the book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? He said that the childish tendency to believe in the omniscience of others was pared down by experience as people grew up. But this tendency, necessary to allow human beings to socialise and cooperate with each other in a productive way, continued when it came to belief in God.

“It usually does continue into adult life,” he said. “It is easy, it is intuitive, it is natural. It fits our default assumptions about things.”

The research will feed into other areas, such as whether the conflicts associated with religion are a product of human nature. The project will also examine whether belief in the afterlife is something that needs to be taught or is a product of natural selection.

Dr Barrett said: “The next step therefore is to look at some of the detailed questions� which religious beliefs are most common and most natural for the human mind to grasp?” The most exciting questions were in areas such as the different responses to polytheism and monotheism, for example, and relationships between religion and evolutionary biology.

More than the God question, it is the latter specific questions that are really interesting. Read the full story here (tip from richarddawkins.net). Also for a review of the topic, read this excellent article from New York Times Magazine: Darwin's God.


Unknown said...

I just finished a master's thesis about this topic, dealing with the religious and anti-religious assumptions and motivations behind such attempts to "biologize" religion. It is available as a .pdf from my website.

Among the major players among the "cognitivists" (of which Justin Barrett is one), the one I find most compelling and satisfying is Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist. Lately he's been doing a lot of work on terrorism.

Also, keep an eye out for Ann Taves, my adviser who is a historian extremely sympathetic to the cognitivists. She also just became Vice President of the American Academy of Religion and is trying to make empirical methods more welcome there.

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Nathan about your blog and your Master's thesis. It looks great.

Also a good heads up for Ann Traves - I'm not familiar with her work.

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