Science of Unbelief

An article a friend sent me from Science Alert back in December recently came to mind. Titled “Thinking About God Might Make You Sweat, Even if You’re Not Religious,” the article by Brittany Cardwell and Jamin Halberstadt discusses how religious ideas are deeply engrained in human psychology. Like people who say they’re not afraid of spiders or snakes, people who don’t believe in the supernatural have made an effort to become this way. For reasons poorly understood, human beings are natural believers. As the article takes pains to state, that doesn’t mean a non-believer isn’t sincere. Thinking, however, doesn’t come only from rationality. Many people hold to the Mr. Spock fallacy—the belief that reasoning can solve anything. We all know from experience that it can’t. The big decisions in life—whom should I marry? What house should I buy? For whom shall I vote?—are often made with the emotions rather than rationally.

Which one’s the captain?

Reason has taught us to be expert deniers. We can learn to overcome our natural aversion to snakes and spiders and we can learn not to believe in God. Sometimes that belief can even be knocked out of us by the silly, unthinking behavior of “true believers.” But deep down it’s still there. Funnily, those who claim that reason alone answers all things are in denial about their own evolution. The human brain is a direct adaptation of the “reptilian brain” with its fight or flight impulses. That viper doesn’t plan to bite your ankle—it’s reacting to fear. Emotions are an integral part of thinking. Crimes of passion are committed by otherwise rational people sometimes. That thing you keep on bumping into in the room is, in fact an elephant. As irrational as that may seem.

The Science Alert article discusses the empirical proof that people fear to dis the Almighty. Were the brain a computer I’d say it was hardwired into us. We’re not wire and circuits, however. We’re messy, organic, evolving stuff that at one time lived beneath the waves. It took a certain amount of lungfish faith to believe we could survive on dry land. As mates approved of such irrational behavior, the trait multiplied and became more common. Today our smart phones and our cubicle window posters tell us there’s no such thing as a deity beyond our own scientific rules. The truth is, however, at some level we don’t really believe it. You can learn not to believe, but you’ll still sweat the big stuff, even in laboratory conditions.

3 thoughts on “Science of Unbelief

  1. I’ve spent too much time recently arguing with people on Twitter about gender. Very, very often they trot out arguments along the lines of, “Sex is binary. That’s a biological fact. It’s objective science, not ‘feelings’. I don’t need to take things on faith!”

    The reality, of course, is that this is just their belief. Few, if any, really think about the logical construction of this argument and all the assumptions and approximations that have gone into it. We can’t afford to live our lives from first principles, so we have to take a lot on faith.

    The societies we grow up in, our families, our schools, the books we read, etc., etc., give us our beliefs, and humans have believed in gods for thousands of years… it’s very hard to escape the sense that maybe, just maybe, there’s something out/down/up there.


    • Quite so! Science, in fact, is at the forefront of exploding myths of gender. For some species there are far more than two genders and many species can shift gender over the course of their lives. All of this, of course, presumes the point of gender is to reproduce.

      Sexuality is quite another thing. Humans aren’t the only species that engages in sex as recreation, nor is the only species that engages in “same-gender” sexuality. Those who try to argue the binary from science haven’t read much science.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Science of Unbelief — Sects and Violence in the Ancient World | Talmidimblogging

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