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Andrew Zay Why People Believe By Michael Shermer in G
  18 Public Perspective, May/June 2000 WhyPeopleBelievein God By Michael Shermer  Michael Shermer is director of Skeptics Society and publisher of Skeptic Magazine. This article was adapted from his book, “How We Believe: The Search for God in the Age of Science,” ©2000,courtesy of WH Freeman and Company. I n October 1999, I went to Sudbury, Canada to findGod. With much anticipation I entered thelaboratory of Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist atLaurentian University who stimulates “micro-seizures” in thetemporal lobes of the brain which, in turn, produce a numberof what can best be described as “spiritual” or “supernatural”experiences—the sense of a presence in the room, an out-of-body experience, and even religious feelings. Persinger callsthese experiences “temporal lobe transients,” or increases andinstabilities in neuronal firing patterns in the temporal lobe.I was placed inside a sound-proof, darkened room with amotorcycle helmet strapped to my head, and electromagneticsolenoids bombarded my temporal lobes with patterns of energy. The effects were subtle. Initially, I felt giddy, as if thewhole process were a silly exercise I could easily control. ThenI slumped into a state of melancholy. Minutes later, stillbelieving the magnetic field patterns were ineffectual, I feltlike part of me wanted to have an out-of-body experience, butmy rational mind kept holding me back. It was then that Irealized the magnetic field patterns were causing these “spritual”experiences—I had found “God.”How do these temporal lobe transients produce religiousstates? Our “sense of self,” says Persinger, is maintained by theleft hemisphere temporal cortex. Under normal brain func-tioning this is matched by the corresponding systems in theright hemisphere temporal cortex. When these two systemsbecome uncoordinated, such as during a seizure or a transientevent, the left hemisphere interprets the uncoordinated activ-ity as “another self,” or a “sensed presence,” thus accountingfor subjects’ experiences of a “presence” in the room (whichmight be interpreted as an angel, a demon, an alien, or aghost), of leaving their bodies (as in near-death experiences),or even of seeing “God.” When the brain’s amygdala isinvolved in the transient events, emotional factors signifi-cantly enhance the experience which, when connected tospiritual themes, can be a powerful force for intense religiousfeelings. 1 Why would humans have such experiences?Persinger proffersan evolutionary explanation: “The God Experience has hadsurvival value. It has allowed the human species to livethrough famine, pestilence, and untold horrors. When tem-poral lobe transients occurred, men and women who mighthave sunk into a schizophrenic stupor continued to build,plan, and hope.” 2 Maybe; but when you consider most studies show 90 to 95%of the population believes in God, it is a stretch of thetemporal lobe imagination to suggest that billions of people of all faiths the world over have experienced or are experiencingtemporal lobe seizures.A more reasonable hypothesis is that the tiny handful of fanatic religious and cult leaders throughout history who havereported hearing the voice, seeing the face, and even commu-nicating with God, the devil, angels, aliens, or other super-natural beings can perhaps be accounted for by temporal lobeabnormalities and anomalies.Their followers need a different explanation.    A  n   d  r  e  w   Z  a  y  Public Perspective, May/June 2000 19 I n 1998 social scientist Frank Sulloway and I conducteda national mail survey of Americans inquiringabout their upbringing, religious attitudes, belief in Godand, more importantly, why they believe. 3 Analyzing thedata we foundthat being raisedreligiously, therespondent’s sex(women are morereligious than men), and parents’ religiosity were the threestrongest predictors of a high degree of current religiosity andbelief in God. The three strongest predictors of lower religi-osity and disbelief were education level, age, and the amountof conflict respondents had with their parents during child-hood. In other words, older, educated, men tend to be lessreligious, while women raised by religious parents in a harmo-nious environment are more religious.However, people do not live in a psychological laboratorywhere variables can be perfectly controlled. All these variablesinteract in ways that complicate the picture. For example,people raised religiously remain religious as adults—unless,when growing up, they experienced considerable conflictwith their parents, in which case the rebellious thing to do isquestion their authority and become less religious. Likewise,conflict with parents leads to a significant reduction in currentchurch attendance.How religious attitudes change is important to understandingwhy people believe, or do not believe, in God. Highereducation levels and aging are both associated with declines inreligious attitudes. One explanation is that as people get olderthey invariably encounter other belief systems that broadentheir horizons—either through formal education or life expe-rience—leading to a realization that religious attitudes andbelief in God are perhaps not as certain as they once seemed. P robing further, we posed a series of questions askingrespondents to what extent various factors contrib-uted to their religious beliefs. Responses were placed ona scale, ranging from “not at all” to “completely.” Reasons forbelief included “emotional comfort,” “faith,” “apparentlyintelligent design of the world,” “without God there is nobasis for morality,” and “a desire for meaning and purpose inlife.” We also asked, “To what extent does the existence of evil, pain, and suffering undermine your religious beliefs?;”“To what extent have scientific explanations of the worldundermined your religious beliefs?;” and “To what extent doyou believe there is concrete evidence or proof of God?”In analyzing the data we grouped these questions into twocategories: rational influences on belief (the apparent intelli-gent design of the world; the existence of evil, pain andsuffering; and other scientific explanations of the world); andemotional influences on belief (questions pertaining to emo-tional comfort, faith, and desire for meaning and purpose inlife).The strongestpredictor forclassifyingpeople into thesetwo belief cat-egories was gender—men tended to justify their beliefs withrationality, while women were inclined to offer emotionalreasons. Other notable findings included a positive relation-ship between rational arguments for God’s existence andeducation (as education increased, so did preferences forrational arguments for God). Further, emotional argumentsfor God’s existence and education were negatively correlated(those with lower education levels tended to offer emotionalarguments to explain God’s existence). One possible explana-tion is that with increased education leading to decreasedfaith, educated believers feel the need to justify their beliefswith rational, more defensible, arguments.Interestingly, for those people who came to their faith at anearly age, rational arguments were not typically part of thebelief process. We should not be surprised, then, that therewere significant negative correlations between rational argu-ments and being raised religiously. That is, if your faith isdeep, going back to childhood, there is less need to justify itwith rational arguments. But these correlations, while signifi-cant, were weaker than for most we found in the study,indicating that education can override early-life experiences. T o give people an opportunity to express why theybelieve in God and why they think other peoplebelieve in God, we asked them to detail their thoughtsin two open-ended questions. Respondents were most likelyto offer intellectually-based reasons for why they believe,associated with the design of the universe or their own dailyexperiences with God. These reasons slid down the list,however, when respondents were asked why they thoughtother people believe in God. Instead, the two most commonreasons given for why other people believe in God were“comfort” and “raised to believe.”One possible explanation for this disparity is what psycholo-gists call “attribution bias.” As pattern-seekers, we look forcauses to which we can attribute our actions and the actionsof others. According to attribution theory, we attribute thecauses of our own and others’ behaviors to either a situationor a disposition. When we make a situational attribution, weidentify the cause in the environment (“My depression iscaused by a death in the family”); when we make a disposi- “I went to Canada to find God.”  20 Public Perspective, May/June 2000 tional attribution, we identify the cause in the person as anenduring trait (“Her depression is caused by a melancholypersonality”).Problems in attribution may arise in our haste to accept thefirst cause that comes to mind. 4  But I suspect this is only partof the explanation. Social psychologists Carol Tavris andCarole Wade explain that there is, not surprisingly, a ten-dency for people “to take credit for their good actions (adispositional attribution) and let the situation account fortheir bad ones.” 5  While we might, for example, attribute ourown good fortune to hard work and intelligence, we at-tribute the other person’s good fortune to luck and circum-stance. 6 What we discovered in our study is that there is an intellec-tual attribution bias, by which we consider our own actionsas rationally motivated while others are more emotionallydriven. Our commitment to a belief is attributed to arational decision (“I’m against gun control because statisticsshow that crime decreases when gun ownership increases”);whereas a competing explanation is attributed to emotion(“He’s for gun control because he’s a bleeding-heart lib-eral”). This intellectual attribution bias applies to religion asa belief system and to God as the subject of belief. As pattern-seekers, we find the apparent good design of the universe andthe perceived action of a higher intelligence in our dailyliving to be powerful intellectual justification for belief. Butwe attribute other people’s beliefs to their emotional needs.Here are just a few examples of this bias from the open-endedportion of the surveys:  A 30-year-old male Jewish teacher with strong religiousconvictions (8 on the 1 to 9 scale) says he believes in God“because I believe in the Big Bang; and when you believe inthe B.B., you have to ask yourself—‘what came before that?’A creation implies a creator.” Yet, he goes on to explain, “Ithink that most people believe out of an emotional need,although there is a significant minority of rational (evenskeptical!) believers such as myself.”  A 65-year-old male Catholic with moderately strongreligious convictions (7 on the 1 to 9 scale) gives the standardwatchmaker argument: “To say that the universe wascreated by the Big Bang theory is to say that you can createWebster’s Dictionary by throwing a bomb in a printing shopand the resulting explosion results in the dictionary.” Nev-ertheless, other people believe in God because of a “sense of security” and “blind faith.”  A 37-year-old Baptist female with strong religious con-victions (8 on the 1 to 9 scale) says she believes in Godbecause “how else could you explain our srcins? Only Godcould create a world and a universe out of nothing. There aremiracles every day that science cannot explain. Others believe,she says, because it “gives hope.”Interestingly, the primary reasons people gave for not believingin God were also the intellectually-based categories of “there isno proof for God’s existence,” followed by “God is a product of the mind and culture,” “the problem of evil,” and “scienceprovides all the answers we need.” An 18-year-old atheistwrote: “I don’t believe in God because it is impossible for abeing to be what God must be in order to be a god without beingobvious and undeniable. In short, God is philosophicallyimpossible and scientifically and cosmologically unnecessary.”By contrast, he says other people believe in God because: “It’scomforting. Additionally, some people find it easier to dealwith problems if they believe it is ‘God’s will.’” B elief in God in the modern world is a function of acomplex array of reasons. Consistently we find a fascinat-ing distinction in belief attribution between why peoplebelieve in God and why they think other people believe in God.This distinction was not lost on the psalmists of the OldTestament. To the choirmaster of Psalms 19:1, the authorproclaims: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and thefirmament showeth his handiwork.” Yet in the psalm for thesons of Korah, Psalms 46:1-3, it is declared: “God is our refugeand strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will notwe fear, though the earth be removed, and though the moun-tains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the watersthereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake withthe swelling thereof.” Are these not, in a way, two sides of thesame coin? For believers, the heavens declare God’s glory; forother believers he provides strength in their time of need. Or,as Robert Browning wrote in Pippa Passes  : “God’s in HisHeaven—All’s right with the world.” Endnotes 1 M.A. Persinger, “Paranormal and Religious Beliefs May Be Mediated Differ-ently by Subcortical and Cortical Phenomenological Processes of the Temporal(Limbic) Lobes,” Perceptual and Motor Skills 1993, Vol. 76, pp. 247-251. 2 M.A. Persinger, Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs   (New York: Praeger,1987), p. 138. 3 The national sample was drawn from a random listing of addresses. Comparedwith Census figures, the resulting demographic profile was disproportionatelymale and educated. However, here we discuss the relationships between  variables, and therefore, a slightly skewed sample does not adversely affect thisanalysis. 4 D.T. Gilbert, B.W. Pelham, and D.S. Krull, “On Cognitive Busyness: WhenPerson Perceivers Meet Persons Perceived,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology   1988, Vol. 54, pp. 733-739. 5 C. Tavris and C. Wade, Psychology in Perspective. Second Edition   (New York:Longman/Addison Wesley, 1997) p. 332. 6 R.E. Nisbett and L. Ross, Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment   (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980).
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