Belief in God(s) Is Not the Basis for a Theory of Religion

My neighbors Mike and Cheri are devout Christians and good friends, despite knowing I’m an avowed atheist. They invited me to a party at their house that included many of their church friends. Knowing that I was open to discussing religion, they had me sit next to their pastor and his wife while we ate. I suspect that the pastor knew about me beforehand, as our conversation quickly and predictably turned to science and religion. Science was just another world view, a belief system, they told me. “You’re right,” I said. That killed the conversation dead. They were expecting me to protest, to defend the sanctity of science. They anticipated that, as a materialist, empiricist, and rationalist, I would object to their characterization of science as a belief system, as if that somehow made it untrue and irrelevant. But I didn’t because, after all, they were right.

Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist who has scanned and studied the brains of people praying or meditating and is the author of several books about religion and belief, says, “Science…is mythological, and like all mythological systems of belief, it is based on a foundational assumption: All that is real can be verified by scientific measurement, therefore, what can’t be verified by science isn’t really real. This kind of assumption, that one system is exclusive arbiter of what is true, makes [the methods of] science and religion incompatible.” (p. 171)

Science is a creation of the human mind first and foremost, just like religion. Some science-minded people tend to think that the scientific method is based on an immutable kind of truth extracted from the application of empiricism: observation, hypothesis, experiment, theory. Repeat as prescribed. I fully subscribe to the scientific method, but it only exists and works because people agree to play by its rules; they adhere to its methodology. It’s the process of science that makes it work, and scientists offload much experimentation to measuring devices, lessening the need for philosophical interpretation. Equally important, science only progresses when experiments repeatedly reach the same outcomes. That turns out not to be a trivial requirement, but nevertheless necessarily establishes the baseline for scientific progress.

While I embrace Newberg’s sentiment that science is a mythological system of belief, I don’t agree that science and religion are incompatible. At least if religion and science are both mythological systems of belief, they share that significant feature, that compatibility. Of course, what he really means is that they are not equivalent authorities of knowledge. That’s where the real argument lies. And while I reside indelibly in the materialist, scientific camp, I don’t presume to try to dissuade the pious from their devotion. In fact, unlike most of my atheist peers, I honor and respect the reverence and dedication of the religious believers to their sacred convictions — as long as they don’t try to impose their beliefs on others.

It may seem odd — that as an atheist I support adherence to religion. If one believes, as I do, that religion has a basis in biology, then it evolved by natural selection. Humans are predisposed to engage in it, and there are evolutionary advantages to practicing it. This is how science and religion are compatible. That being said, controversy and disagreement remain as to the function and purpose of religion. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie said, “Anthropology and other humanistic studies lack an adequate theory of religion. [They] have found no single paradigm. No theory or even definition of religion is generally accepted.” (p. 181)

Almost forty years after Guthrie wrote this, little has changed. There is no consensus whether religion evolved by natural selection and is in our genes or is strictly a cultural phenomenon. Does religion serve a necessary purpose or is it an accidental by-product of habits of mind, the mental residue left over from other behaviors that are important for human survival? The theories for the purpose of religion remain as elusive as ever. This problem is due to poor foundational assumptions.

For most people, religion is the belief in immaterial, external agents such as gods. Religion is also the doctrine and dogma of the religious institutions. While this is certainly true, it’s completely unhelpful when considering the relationship between science and religion. When discussing religious belief, people often conflate the fact that humans have beliefs and the specific beliefs themselves. Are the contents of beliefs the basis for truth? What is it that people actually believe? Most religious people believe in a soul that persists after death, that sickness and adversity are influenced by a compendium of spirits, saints, demons, and, of course, gods. Polls find that about half of all Americans believe in ghosts, the devil, and that the book of Genesis is literally true. Over a quarter believe in witches. (Pinker, p. 554) Are these indications of belief in religious doctrine? What is the relationship of belief to religion?

The anthropologist Rodney Needham said he couldn’t satisfactorily interpret religious meaning and belief in tribal societies. He expected and needed tribal beliefs to be understandable in a manner that would satisfy other academics, but the tribespeople he observed didn’t express their beliefs in an accessible paradigm.

“I realized that I could not confidently describe their attitude to God, whether this was belief or anything else…In fact, as I have glumly to conclude, I just did not know what was their psychic attitude toward the personage in whom I assumed they believed. Clearly, it was one thing to report the received ideas to which a people subscribed, but it was quite another matter to say what was their inner state (belief, for instance) when they expressed or entertained such ideas. If, however, an ethnographer said that people believed something when he did not actually know what was going on inside them, then surely his account of them must, it occurred to me, be very defective in quite fundamental regards.” (pp. 1–2)

But even when exploring doctrine in our own contemporary society, the study of religious belief is problematic. Beliefs — religious and otherwise — can be opaque. The pious themselves are not consistent in their views and practices. Many religious people would admit that they don’t really understand their religious canons. Studies show a disconnect between their fluency in official scripture and a more intuitive sense of folk knowledge. Psychologists Justin Barrett and Frank Keil studied what people claimed to be their relationship to God. First, the researchers surveyed subjects’ attitudes to determine baseline beliefs about God. Then the experimenters presented stories about God to the subjects. Following the story, subjects answered questions about it. The researchers found that people’s attitude about God changed depending on how God was presented.

“It appears that people have at least two parallel God concepts that are used in different contexts, and these concepts may be fundamentally incompatible…The concept of God used in the context of listening to and remembering stories is not the same as the concept of God that is claimed in a more abstract, theological setting…People seem to possess and use more than one concept of God in real-life activities, and these parallel concepts have some markedly different properties.” (pp. 240–241)

This prompted Pascal Boyer, author of books and articles about religious belief, to say, “People do not believe what they believe they believe.” (p. 28)

Religious people who reject evolutionary science point to their deities and sacred texts as the arbiters of truth. Does that mean that their deities and texts are the sole purveyors of fact? What about the thousands of other religions that have their own versions of deities and sacred scripture? Is one correct and are all the others wrong? For many of the devout, this is very much their conviction, but to the dispassionate observer, this is patently absurd. Objectively, no one religious ideology can be the sole source of truth. But this debate should never arise in the first place since belief itself is fraught with ambiguity. How could religious dogma be the basis for actuality when the dogma is vague, often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and changes with time? It culturally evolves. Skeptics take great pleasure in listing the many instructions in the Bible that are completely outdated and would never be considered acceptable behavior in modern society.

People invest a lot of belief in religion, but they also have political beliefs, social beliefs, even scientific beliefs. Beliefs are a characteristic of human cognition and is fodder for psychology but not specifically for defining religion. Beliefs in gods as an explanation for religion also ignores the myriad religious behaviors — rituals—that people practice. Unlike the contents of beliefs, human religious rituals are more amenable to scientific study just as Jane Goodall studied chimps or Dian Fosse studied gorillas. By studying religious ritual behavior, a new realm opens for both defining religion and establishing its function.

Religion is a creation of a biological organism and is a subset of our behavioral repertoire like mating, food gathering, and mutual defense. Religion is commerce for the scientific method like any other aspect of an organism’s existence and is the result of adaptation and natural selection. Science shows how and why the universal human experience of religion fits into our evolutionary history, but not by considering the particular contents of beliefs themselves, such as faith in gods.

On deck: Why the social cohesion explanation for religion falls short.

Barrett, Justin L And Keil, Frank C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: anthropomorphism in god concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(0017), 219–247.

Boyer, Pascal. (2004). Why is religion natural? Skeptical Inquirer, 28(2), 25–31.

Guthrie, Stewart, et. al. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion. Current Anthropology, 21(2), 181–203.

Needham, Rodney. (1972). Belief, language, and experience. University Of Chicago Press.

Newberg, Andrew, D’aquili, Eugene, And Rause, Vince. (2002). Why god won’t go away: brain science and the biology of belief. New York: Random House.

Pinker, Steven. (1997). How the mind works. WW Norton & Company.