Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why It's Natural to Believe in God: Justin Barrett and David Hume

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I identify the desire for religious understanding as one of the twenty natural desires rooted in our evolved human nature. Human beings generally desire to understand the world as governed by gods or God, because this satisfies their natural longing to make sense of things that would otherwise be incomprehensible.

I must admit, however, that I have offered very little support--arguments or evidence--for this assertion. But I do believe that the recent research on the evolutionary and cognitive causes of religious belief goes a long way to substantiate my position. The general reasoning for how religious belief evolved as an innate disposition of human nature is laid out by David Hume and Charles Darwin. This new research provides elaborate theoretical and empirical grounds for their naturalisitic account of religion.

One of the best surveys of this research is Justin Barrett's Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). Barrett is a Christian evolutionist. And although he never mentions Hume, his work largely confirms what Hume says in his Natural History of Religion (Clarendon Press, 2007).

Barrett is a psychologist who specializes in the evolutionary and cognitive psychology of religious belief. His main conclusion is that believing in God is a natural, almost inevitable, consequence of the innate propensities of the human mind as shaped by natural selection in evolutionary history. By contrast, atheism is unnatural, because it goes against the grain of those evolved propensities of the human mind, which is why atheism is so rare in human history.

Drawing from research in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, Barrett lays the foundation for his argument in the claim that regardless of culture, human beings all over the world and throughout history have had similar minds insofar as they are directed by cognitive structures designed by evolution to perform specific tasks in ways that have been adaptive in human evolutionary history. These "mental tools" operate largely beneath conscious awareness, although they influence our conscious beliefs by making some reflective beliefs more plausible than others.

For example, it is clear that human infants are born with a "face detector." They can discern faces and imitate facial expressions, long before they are aware of their own faces. Obviously, such a mental tool would have been adaptive for mammalian offspring who must attach themselves to parental caregivers.

Research suggests that there are other intuitive mental tools that incline human beings to religious beliefs. (Here Barrett builds particularly on the work of Pascal Boyer in arguing that religion has evolved as a byproduct of innate mental mechanisms shaped by biological evolution.) Human beings seem to have an innate "agency detection device" for identifying objects in the environment--like animals and other human beings--that move themselves for the sake of goals according to mental states like beliefs and desires. Once such agents have been detected, the "theory of mind" tool (ToM) generates predictions about the mental states of these agents and how these mental states might direct their actions. Human beings need to track their social exchanges with these agents--who owes what to whom--and their minds seem to have a "social exchange regulator" that does this. As naturally social animals whose survival and reproductive fitness has depended on a subtle negotiation of the complex social interactions among human agents, human beings have been endowed by evolution with these intuitive mental tools necessary for social life.

Identifying agents is attractive to us because it allows us to explain and predict events and thus make sense of those events by telling stories about how agents act. For that reason, our agency detection device becomes hypersensitive: we detect agency based upon limited evidence. Particularly, in urgent situations of distress where we cannot account for what is happening based on natural causes, we are quick to infer supernatural agents at work. When human beings suffer misfortune with no clearly apparent causes, they are naturally inclined to look for supernatural agents at work. They then want to negotiate with these agents--such as ancestral spirits, ghosts, or gods--to protect themselves from harm.

This sounds a lot like the old idea of anthropomorphism as the basis of religious belief--the idea that human beings project human qualities onto the cosmos. But Barrett's research suggests that anthropomorphism is actually only part of the larger idea of agency. In detecting divine agency, we are not limited to the qualities of human agency. For example, we can imagine that gods are immortal, while human beings are not.

Much of Barrett's research involves the study of how children develop their ideas of agents--human, animal, and divine. Although the particular content of their religious concepts reflects the religious teaching in their cultural environment, Barrett claims that there are some universal patterns in how children think that suggests they are "intuitive theists."

Although it is common among those who study religion scientifically to assume that all religions can be explained in the same general ways, and therefore all religions are equal from a scientific point of view, Barrett argues against this, claiming that some religious traditions have a selective advantage in cultural evolution, because some religions are better than others in satisfying the innate mental tools of the evolved human mind. He thinks the Abrahamic monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are more naturally attractive to the human mind. The human mind is naturally inclined to believe in the divine traits of the Abrahamic God--God as superknowing, God as superperceiving, God as immortal, God as superpowerful, and God as a Creator. (Barrett admits, however, that in some parts of the world--China, for example--monotheism has not been widely successful [91].)

It is not clear to me that Barrett's favored form of monotheism coincides exactly with the God of the Bible and the Koran. Barrett writes:

"I have argued that a superknowing, superperceiving, superpowerful, immortal, and (perhaps) supergood god possesses strong selective advantages, such that once it is introduced, belief in such a god should spread quite well. This supergod concept matches well (but not perfectly) with the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and other religious traditions as well. However, belief in a deity such as God does not preclude belief in minor gods, particularly ghosts and ancestor spirits. . . . Nothing in the previous discussion precludes the possibility that these spirits (or others) might act locally while a supreme God takes care of cosmic business or serves in a management capacity. I find the historical fact that ancestor worship, saint cults, and other peripheral religious activities continue to exist alongside 'monotheistic' traditions unsurprising. Monotheism does not appear to be a cognitively privileged form of theology except perhaps through considerations of parsimony" (89-90).

Barrett's qualifications here are remarkable. The "supergod concept" does not perfectly match the God of the Abrahamic religions. In fact, Barrett never quotes any passages from the Bible or the Koran in laying out his "supergod concept." And he actually concedes that some of the central teachings of the Bible--like the Trinity and the Incarnation of Jesus--are not intuitively appealing to the ordinary human mind (82, 100). He also admits that monotheism in practice often coexists with polytheistic beliefs (such as ancestor worship and saint cults).

Barrett says that "the threat of eternal damnation or other punishment for disbelief is not a common thread in broadly theistic belief systems and does not even occur consistently in Christianity" (121). So it seems that Barrett wants to interpret his "supergod concept" as excluding any teaching about Hell and eternal damnation. But how is this consistent with the the belief that God appeals to our instinctive morality by punishing the bad, even when they have escaped punishment in their earthly life (50, 54-55)?

Barrett reports that when he presents his arguments in public lectures, many of his listeners conclude that he is attacking religion. Religious believers think he is defending evolutionary science as an alternative to creationism. Atheists think he is confirming their assumption that religious belief arises from some unconscious compulsion of the mind contrary to logic and evidence.

But Barrett himself is a Christian evolutionist who sees no conflict between his evolutionary account of religion and his religious beliefs. He writes: "God created people with the capability to know and love him but with the free will to reject him. Consequently, our God-endowed nature leads us to believe, but human endeavors apart from God's design may result in disbelief. Even if this natural tendency toward belief in God can be conclusively demonstrated to be the work of evolved capacities, Christians need not be deterred. God may have fine-tuned the cosmos to allow for life and for evolution and then orchestrated mutations and selection to produce the sort of organisms we are--evolution through 'supernatural selection'" (123). Barrett concludes that while science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, what we learn from science can be compatible with religious belief.

On a number of points, Barrett's position agrees with that of Hume, particularly in his The Natural History of Religion. Hume sees that with only a few possible exceptions, "belief of invisible, intelligent power" is almost universal," because religious belief is rooted in human nature. Religious belief is naturally appealing to the human mind because it allows us to explain human fortune and misfortune as the result of divine agents.

Hume writes: "Though the stupidity of men, barbarous and uninstructed, be so great, that they may not see a sovereign author in the more obvious works of nature, to which they are so much familiarized; yet it scarcely seems possible, that any one of good understanding should reject that idea, when once it is suggested to him. A purpose, an intention, a design is evident in every thing; and when our comprehension is so far enlarged as to contemplate the first rise of the visible system, we must adopt, with the strongest conviction, the idea of some intelligent cause or author" (85). Moreover, "the universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power, if not an original instinct, being at least a general attendant of human nature, may be considered as a kind of mark or stamp, which the divine workman has set upon his work" (86).

Hume thinks that ordinary human beings are strongly disposed to polytheism, and so even within monotheistic traditions, there will be other divinities in popular practice beyond the supreme God.

Just as Barrett offers the "supergod concept" as the purest form of religious belief, Hume speaks of "true religion" or "philosophical theism" as the highest attainment of religious thought (34-36, 41, 44, 47-48, 52-53, 58, 71-72, 85-87).

Barrett stresses the limitations of science and human knowledge generally that push us towards religious belief. For example, Barrett argues, it's just as impossible to prove the existence of other minds as it is to prove the existence of God. We all believe that other human beings have minds like ours. But the mind is invisible and immaterial. We know our own minds by introspective, subjective awareness. But we cannot observe the mind directly, and so we cannot verify or falsify the mind's exitence by the normal methods of scientific testing. And yet we are absolutely certain of the existence of other minds. Similarly, we can believe in God's existence as supreme Mind, even though we can't prove this belief by empirical testing. Moreover, we cannot scientifically explain the origins of the laws of nature or why the universe has those natural laws that make our existence possible. Here we reach the limits of scientific reasoning about natural causes.

Like Barrett, Hume stresses our ignorance of causes as the opening to religious belief. He writes: "We are placed in this world, as in a great theatre, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills, with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed among the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear . . . the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependence" (40).

Hume concludes: "The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgment appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny, concerning this subject. But such is the frailty of human reason, and such the irresistible contagion of opinion, that even this deliberate doubt could scarcely be upheld; did we not enlarge our view, and opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape, into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy" (87).

Some of the posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and .here.


Greg R. Lawson said...

An excellent post. This does raise an interesting question as to "why" it is natural to believe in God. Even if such belief can be explained solely through the argument of Darwinian evolution, the implication that something is "natural" raises the further question why this should be so.

In other words what is the purpose? If there is no purpose, then all "meaning" is an illusion and all that has actually happened is nothing more than just random quirks and occurrences, at least at the most fundamental level.

Perhaps, this is so, but if so, then we remain trapped in a void, perhaps, even a Nietzschean abyss.

Ultimately, we will never really "know" unless transendentalism is confirmed "on the other side." In the tinterim, all we can do is hypothosize, with some hypotheses better than others, but all ultimately futile as it pertains to complete knowledge.

Perhaps, that is why we should all "escape" as Hume suggests in your quote,

"But such is the frailty of human reason, and such the irresistible contagion of opinion, that even this deliberate doubt could scarcely be upheld; did we not enlarge our view, and opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape, into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy"

badhatharry said...

I originally heard of the Hyperactive Agency detection Device in Daniel Dennet's book, Breaking the Spell.

Was Barrett the first to define it or is he using someone else's finding?

Larry Arnhart said...


On page 109 of Dennett's book, he cites a 2000 article by Barrett as the source of the HADD idea

Anonymous said...

Prof. Arnhart,

This is related, in that it applies to religion, but not exactly what you addressed here.

Several years ago I enjoyed reading Harry Jaffa’s essay “Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy,” posted on the Claremont Institute’s website. As I am sure you know, in it he responds to a letter he received from you and Leonard Sorenson in 1988. I found reflection on the questions asked and the replies given rewarding.

If you don’t mind my asking, what did you think of his replies? -- And, if you have answered this elsewhere that I haven’t found, please point me in the right direction -- I’m thinking, for example, about his argument about monotheism as opposed to classical paganism. Throughout the piece his approach seems, Humean, overall, but his answers are (deliberately?) unclear in many places.

If I can ask a second Jaffa question on this topic, what do you think of his historical analysis of the Jewish “Ancient City” followed by the universal Christian faith adapted to the universal Roman Empire leading to the profound political-theological problem of a universal Roman Catholicism and particular political entities, a problem, in his analysis, that was solved ultimately by the religious freedom of the American founding (as found in his essay on “The American Founding as Best Regime” and in the New Birth of Freedom)? [A political corollary is, obviously, whether the American solution in this analysis is only truly possible with faith-based Christianity, as opposed to the law-based monotheistic religions, a thorny question].

Thanks kindly, wbond

Larry Arnhart said...


It's been so long since I read those writings by Jaffa that I can't comment on them now.

But from what I remember, I think I might agree with you that there is a Humean character to the way he frames the reason/revelation problem, although I doubt that he would ever want to admit this.

Surely much of what I have said on this blog about the naturalness of religious belief and the natural limitations of intellectual understanding reflects my thoughts about the reason/revelation issue.

My fullest elaboration on this is in my long POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEWER article on George Anastaplo's studies of non-western thought. I wrote a post on this, with a link to the article, on December 5, 2008.