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Review: Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith

September 10, 2011 1 comment

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11th, I would like to write this review in memoriam of the lives lost, both in that attack and the subsequent series of ongoing wars fought in the name of religion as well as  alleged political freedom.  I hope someday our world will better reflect the measured voices of reason over those of the extreme and the depraved, and that tragedies of this scope will cease to be perpetuated by states and individuals alike. I heartily believe the first step in fashioning such a change is to address, head on, the challenge that religious fundamentalism poses to rationality and peaceful human relations.

Birthed from that very same tragedy, the foundational research of J. Anderson Thomson’s Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith sought to answer a fundamental and important question in the wake of this national tragedy: what drives those inclined to suicide terrorism? The resulting research lead to a series of lectures in 2009 that has since been published thanks in part to funding from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. The product is a 144-page primer on the scientific underpinning for why we are inclined to believe in the unseen, and how evolutionary mechanisms promote religiosity in the same way evolutionary mechanisms promote our addiction to fast food.

Though the introduction and first chapter might lead the reader to believe that all religious beliefs stand accused, the chapter titles (gems such as Our Daily Bread: Craving a Caretaker), general tone, and outright admission by Thomson reveal the target of this missive to be the Judeo-Christian conception of God. This is slightly curious, given that Islamic extremism launched the basis of the book yet is rarely mentioned outside of the introduction. Each chapter is tight, concisely written and unflinching – chapter 4 is barely three full pages. Yet this very same admirable quality that allows the book to be consumed in an hour is also its downfall; the clear research upon which it is based takes a backseat to readability. More academically inclined readers will likely find themselves combing the Notes section for more on the fascinating studies and articles that are not even footnoted in the main text. A veritable treasure trove, these notes are shamefully secluded in the back of what could have easily been a book two or three times its published length.

That being said, this book is perfect for what it is: an introduction. Its manageable size makes it the perfect gift for dilettantes only tentatively interested in science or faith, and a good doorway for amateur and established philosophers alike who are just entering the fray. And yet for all of the cutting language and unabashed affirmation that religion is all in our heads, Why We Believe in God(s) is no mere tract against the Religious Right. Thomson highlights many non-religious facets of humanity, such as secular ritual, that stem from the very same evolutionary mechanisms as their religious counterparts. Further, Thomson does not deny the usefulness some of these evolutionary by-products (such as the perceived agency mentioned here) may serve even in the modern world. He only establishes for us that regardless of its current role, the genesis of religion lies in our development as a species and not in one revelation or another.

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J. Anderson Thomson on Perceived Agency

September 8, 2011 3 comments

“Humans are strongly biased to interpret unclear evidence as being caused consciously by an agent, almost always a humanlike agent. This cognitive ability to attribute agency to abstract sights or sounds may have helped our distant ancestors survive, allowing them to detect and evade enemies. It kept them alert, attentive toward possible danger. Better to jump at shadows than risk something or someone jumping at you.

This ability was adaptive, so therefore it is natural for us to assume the presence of unseen beings and to believe that such beings can influence our lives. It is equally natual to assume that such a being, if asked, can alter or affect what happens to us. Asking easily becomes praying…As social beings with these adaptations, we are now set up for belief in a divine attachment figure. We can attribute agency to it, transfer some of our early-life emotions to it, and as a result can believe that such a being desires to interact with us.”

-From Why We Believe in Gods: A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.

A full review of this great book can be found here.