Monday, July 28, 2008

Are religious ideas innate?

Recently, a reader wrote to ask why I was not enthusiastic about Logan Gage's recent claim that there may be an innate human tendency toward religion, and that such a tendency should be evidence for rather than against God.

I replied more or less as follows:
I think that a human level of mental capacity means that people will naturally have certain questions.

But asking the questions is a function of having the capacity. I doubt that an innate mental program prompts us to ask specific questions.

Here is an example of what I mean:

I know that there is a future.

I observe that all humans grow old and die.

I am a human.

My grandparents have all grown old and died.

So, I naturally wonder, what happens to those people's minds, their personalities?

I also wonder why the universe is the way it is. Did someone make it this way? Who? If there is a mind behind the universe, is it one we can contact?

I don't need a special mental program to ask questions like that. Normal conscious awareness of the past, present, and future, the near and the far, will prompt such questions.

Now, crickets are different. Crickets would need some sort of special program to think such things. They do not have the minds or life experiences that observe their grandparents, their grandparents' deaths, or anything of the kind. They do not have enough of a sense of the totality of things to ask "How did the universe come to exist?"

When humans ask these questions, they answer them in very different ways: Some worship the spirits of powerful animals, some become monotheists, some become Buddhists, some atheistic materialists.

My reason for disagreeing with Gage is that I think that the idea of an innate "religiosity" program is an unnecessary complication. Some questions naturally occur to the aware conscious mind.

And the fact that so many humans have answered them in so many different ways tells - to me at least - against the existence of an innate program. Attempts to show that a program exists have not been successful, as mario and I show in The Spiritual Brain.

Note: Innate program: You may observe a pair of birds building a basket nest. So far as we know, the birds have some sort of innate program for that. The individual bird would not design the nest as an act of personal intellectual creation. Two birds together would not likely fare any better. The nest gets built because both birds know certain moves that feel right to them. But they always build the same kind of nest. Human religious ideas are not similar in that way. The question and answers originate with individuals.
See also: Does religion really poison everything?

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