Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Materialism in the media: Are you (a) a religious robot or (b) a religious freak?

At CNN, A. Chris Gajilan asks, Are humans hardwired for faith? Maybe we religious robots can't help it,
Newberg calls religion the great equalizer and points out that similar areas of the brain are affected during prayer and meditation. Newberg suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God. He says there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power.

but on the other hand, maybe we are religious freaks,
Scott Atran doesn't consider himself an atheist, but he says the brain scans offer little in terms of understanding why humans believe in God. He is an anthropologist and author of "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion."

Instead of viewing religion and spirituality as an innate quality hardwired by God in the human brain, he sees religion as a mere byproduct of evolution and Darwinian adaptation.

Now, before you decide which of these points of view sounds more plausible to you, please note one thing: In a pop science assessment, one possibility is absolutely off the table, and not to be considered under any circumstances: That people believe in a higher power (God, in theistic traditions) because they have in fact contacted a higher power.

The usual "neurotheology" dodge (that's the fad term for this sort of study) is that science cannot consider such issues. But that leaves science in the position of trying to figure out religious experiences on the assumption that God does not exist and does not influence them in the present.

Newberg may believe in God, or somethng like that (so I gather from his interesting bookWhy God Won't Go Away) , but what the article means by "God" is simply a necessity built into the architecture of your brain. God is not trying to get your attention in real time.

In other words, science is not about assessing the evidence, it is about accumulating evidence that supports an atheistic perspective. The really interesting result is not the way in which such a perspective deforms our understanding of religion but - as Mario Beauregard's and my forthcoming book, The Spiritual Brain will show - the way it deforms our understanding of science.


Just for fun: Worry about the things that won't happen!

Here's an interesting column by John Stossel about our propensity to worry about exotic risks and discount common ones. A willingness to be deceived about probabilities was demonstrated by an experiment:
We asked people to put on blindfolds and then to pick up a red jellybean from one of two plates that held a mixture of red and white jellybeans. We offered $1 to anyone who could pick up a red bean.

Here's the catch: While one plate held 20 jellybeans and the other 100, the plate with 20 beans had a higher percentage of red ones. We put up signs that told people this clearly: "10 percent red" of the small plate and just "7 percent red" of the big plate.

Surprisingly, even with the percentage signs in front of them, a third of the people picked the plate with 100 beans.

What people saw overwhelmed their ability to think abstractly about probability. They saw more red on the big plate. It's one reason people obsess about things that have a small chance of hurting them but ignore real threats.

Similarly, he notes, people dread plane crashes, which are rare, but do not fear car crashes which are proportionately common. (Of course, only one third of his subjects actually picked the wrong plate. It is not a universal trait.)

Of course, in life as opposed to experiments, ignoring the odds is often rational: If we can't avoid driving, we must get used to its risks. However, Stossel notes, the preference for worrying about exotic unlikely risks rather than common ones results in some pretty bizarre assessments: Seniors who worry about bird flu may fail to get their common flu shot and end up in hospital.

Of course, we do like a little drama in our lives - but just a little. Worry about exotic but unlikely events provides just that touch of drama without real risk.

I'd rather worry that there is an intruder in the office closet than that there is a big mess I have to clean up. If I think there is an intruder, I am almost certainly wrong, and that's relief, but if I think there is a big mess ...
Next book! The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, Harper August 2007).