Why are human beings religious?
Why is your book called The God Instinct?
At it's core, the book is about our species' strange wild goose chase for the so-called meaning of life. The term "instinct" is riddled with technical difficulties in scientific parlance, and I'm well aware of that, of course. But the term also has an immediate currency when it comes to effectively characterising a species' strong, "natural", unlearned inclinations. And our species' pursuit of the supernatural, whether it exists or not, is very much an instinct in this sense. It turns out that things are much more complicated than observing that religious people are silly or that atheists are arrogant and blinded by science. It's time to look more deeply at the cognitive seductiveness of religious beliefs; simply attributing religion to a lack of education, or a fear of death and meaningless, isn't going far enough. That's just polemical hand-waving. The actual science behind the story reveals just how much believers and nonbelievers have in common.
Is non-belief, in a sense, unnatural for human beings?
It's unnatural in the sense of it being cognitively effortful. But it's important to keep in mind that whether something is natural or not tells us nothing about whether it's "good" or "bad." It's not natural for women to shave their legs, either, after all, or for men to mask their pungent body odour with an effluvium of chemicals, but for some reason we don't confuse morality with naturalness in these other domains.
How can the science of psychology tell us anything about how or why human beings developed religious beliefs?
When I was studying chimpanzee social cognition as a graduate student in Louisiana, I wondered if chimps ever ask themselves, like we humans do, about the meaning of life, or worry about what happens to them after they die, or think about their individual destinies, why bad things happen to good chimps, or about a God that cares about who -- to take an even stranger example -- they have sex with? If not, why don't they? It occurred to me that the ability to even think about these types of big existential issues rests on our having evolved certain psychological capabilities that may be unique to human beings, having evolved relatively recently. Through psychological science, we can isolate and study the "cognitive ingredients" that are involved in religious-type thinking. For instance, we can explore how these psychological factors develop in children, the conditions under which they are likely to be expressed (or not expressed), and whether they have specific functions. I think theologians and philosophers have a sense of entitlement to the question of faith; but they shouldn't claim proprietary ownership, and my opinion is that they've been going about it all wrong. The answers aren't as unknowable as they claim. It's just that the questions they're asking are flawed ones.
Most would accept that there are "cognitive ingredients" involved in religious-type thinking, but many people of faith will regard your analysis as reductionist because you ignore the possibility that God might actually exist and may have created human beings with minds that, when properly functioning, intuit God's existence.
I've no question that they will regard it this way. But mine is an appeal to common sense, not theological prevarication. I acknowledge in The God Instinct that one can never rule out the possibility that God microengineered the evolution of the human brain so that we've come to see Him more clearly, a sort of divine LASIK procedure. But to do so would require reasoning that the evolution of the human brain was indeed guided by a God that slowly, methodically, over billions of years, placed our ancestors into the perfect selective conditions in which they were able to develop the psychological traits that, in addition to serving their own huge, independent, adaptive functions for interacting with other human beings, also enabled this one species to finally ponder His highly cryptic ways and to begin guessing about what's on His mind. Does that sound like a convincing argument to you?
Why are so many human beings religious?
What I argue in the book is that the illusion of a morally interested God, one that arises so naturally in our species, was a meaningful contributor to our species' success. There is no single fix in evolution, but God helped our species to solve a very specific, very unusual and unprecedented adaptive problem, which is the problem of human gossip. It's not about whether one can or can't be moral without God. All that matters is that when our ancestors genuinely believed that some supernatural agent was watching and judging them, especially when they failed to appreciate the presence of actual human onlookers, they behaved in ways that protected their reputations and thus helped their genes. We tend to live our lives -- either consciously or under the implicit assumption -- that there is a grand "Other" out there that is emotionally invested in our wellbeing, that cares about our social behaviors, that is dropping us hints here and there, and that is 'writing the script' of our personal narratives. For religious people, this is God; but just because one rejects God or is an atheist, or even is agnostic or spiritually apathetic, this vague, egocentric sense of being under the cosmic spotlight never really goes away. God doesn't need to be real to "work" in a mechanistic, gene-salvanging sense; people simply needed to be convinced that He was, and our evolved brains conjure up a suite of very convincing illusions to persuade us that He is indeed real.
Is that religious sense of a grand "Other" healthy or unhealthy? Is it a dangerous "delusion", as Richard Dawkins claims?
I'm very much aware of the 'New Atheism' movement, and work by figures at the helm of that movement such as Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and of course Richard Dawkins. I can only say that I think these people are having a very different conversation than what I am engaged with in The God Instinct. My book certainly isn't a polemic, and I'm not taking a sociopolitical stance against religion here. Believe if you want to, or don't. Atheists should be more conscious of the contradictions in their own private thoughts, contradictions that betray the psychological appeal and cognitive naturalness of believing in God. I'd much prefer my position in The God Instinct to be viewed by readers as "nuanced atheism" than just another book in the "New Atheism" movement. For people who would continue waving the battle flags, my approach is likely to disappoint in its absence of animosity. But for those who want to stop pointing fingers at the other side, and actually have a look at some of the cognitive science driving our species' belief in God, The God Instinct offers a fresh start. One of the central messages I try to get across in the book is that religious belief doesn't make us weak, ridiculous, or foolish. It just makes us human. That doesn't mean that it's a good thing or a bad thing--it's just an empirical reality."
You argue that religious thinking evolves as an answer to the problem of human gossip. Some theologians and philsophers argue for the reverse, that human moral reasoning points to the existence of God as moral law-giver. Does your work provide any scientific evidence against this "moral argument" for God's existence?
Scientific evidence, no; but scentific parsimony, yes, loads of it. Morality, like any phenomenological property, is a matter of perception: our minds have evolved as biased filters to view certain behaviors as being bad or evil, but the behaviors themselves are simply behaviors. As an analogy, you may think that a rotting corpse is inherently disgusting. But your average housefly would beg to differ, and might even regard it as a wondeful place to raise her offspring. The point is that there's no "disgusting-ness" quality that exists out there "in" the corpse, just like there aren't any moral "truths" grounded in objective reality. We see things this way, subjectively, because of our species' evolved minds. So I'd say that those who would subscribe to the "moral argument" for God's existence have got it absolutely backwards.
How can your theory be tested scientifically?
Remember that the "big idea theory" in the book is that the illusion of watchful, morally concerned supernatural agents is an evolved psychological adaptation to solve the problem of human gossip. Evidence that supernatural reasoning curbs our selfish and impulsive behavior is, to date, limited. But it's also consistent, and comes from a variety of studies that I describe in The God Instinct. For example, a few years ago, my colleagues and I reported the results of a study in which, as part of a slick cover story, we told a group of participants that the ghost of a dead graduate student had recently been seen in the lab. Compared to those who didn't hear any mention of the alleged ghost, students who received this information beforehand were much less likely to cheat on a separate game in which they were competing for fifty dollars when left alone in the room and given the opportunity to do so. And we've just published similar findings with children: those children who are told that an invisible woman is in the room with them are significantly less likely to cheat on a highly tempting task than those who hear no mention of the invisible woman.
The study you reference can provide evidence for the claim that human beings change their speech if they believe they are being observed by others, seen or unseen. But how do you get from that evidence to the conclusion that the idea of God probably emerged within human groups as a moral limit on speech? Isn't it also possible that human beings change their speech if they belief they are being observed by an invisible "other" because they have a natural inclination to sense the presence of God, and they have that disposition because it was given to them by God?
It's not so much that feeling watched changes your speech, but rather it changes your behavior. And your behavior, especially when you do bad things, is what other people are going to talk about. This gossip -- of which you are the target, if you've done wrong -- is how it all comes back to the illusion of God. If you believe He's watching you, tallying up your misdeeds, concocting "life lessons" for you in the form of misfortunes, lying in wait for you after you die, well, then you're probably going to think twice before acting selfishly. All that really matters, in an evolutionary, mechanistic sense, is that you've prevented yourself from engaging in a behavior that would have negatively effected your reputation if it were discovered and talked about by other human beings. Poor social reputations translate, most of the time, to poor reproductive prospects.
How would you describe your personal attitude to religious belief? Are you an atheist?
It is exceptionally easy to say, "I don't believe in God," and to mean it wholeheartedly. Such people are increasingly common and I have numbered among them for a very long time. But this type of epistemological atheism is yawningly boring from a psychological perspective because it tells us so very little about how the mind secretly works. Once we stop boasting about our immunity to irrational or quasi-religious thought and pause long enough to look carefully, critically and objectively at the data, it becomes startlingly obvious that the innate human mind is cognitively prepared to believe in God.
But-and this is a very big but-this doesn't mean that God is real. On the contrary, this is why I refer to God as a cognitive illusion; not a delusion, mind you, but an illusion. For these are very different concepts in psychological terms. One is pathological, the other normative. One can be "cured," while the other is a permanent fixture, a shadow state, of evolved cognitive architecture. One is largely impregnable to self-critical introspection, while the other can, once the magic trick is given away, easily be evaluated in objective terms and recognized as not reflecting actual reality. The God Instinct is, to be honest, a nihilistic book. But I don't see nihilism necessarily as being a bad thing. In fact, there's a certain humanistic appeal in it-personally, I'd much rather spend my limited time as a subjectively experiencing self with people who see life as I do, which is, rather humorously I think, fundamentally absurd and meaningless, than I would with people who are operating under the more frightening, strident, and, frankly, false assumption that there are inherent moral truths. I'm not keen on replacing God with "mystery" and just leaving it at that. Why worship mystery when the answers are becoming increasingly obvious?