Religion & Psychology Religions — 13 October 2017

No one believes God exists because it is a ‘preposterous’ idea, according to Graham Lawton, in ‘How to be Human’ by the New Scientist. Phoebe Weston in Mail Online, UK, September 29, 2017.

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Mr Lawton argues people want to believe religious claims because they have a “God-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled.” But deep down people don’t actually think it’s true – not even priests and nuns. The controversial author suggests that as our lives become more stable, society could become more ‘godless’ as our need for religion fades away.

How to be humanIn ‘How to be Human’, Mr Lawton analyses the strange things that make us human – including human’s propensity to find religion attractive, arguing that it is the default path of the human mind. His comments are supported by studies into the cognitive theory of religion which suggests having faith is an evolutionary advantage. Mr Lawton, who wrote the book with New Scientist Editor-at-Large Jeremy Webb, has a degree in biochemistry from Imperial College.

“If you ask quite religious people about the claims that are made by religion – like the fact that god’s watching you – they don’t really believe that.” said Mr Lawton.

Although people accept there is a god and an afterlife, not even theological experts like priests actually believe the factual content of religion, he claimed. “This is because it’s preposterous – some of the things that are in the bible are just crazy.”

Mr Lawton has previously written about the possibility of a godless future, arguing that as life gets more comfortable the religious impulse loosens. He believes that as our lives become more secure, the dread of dying or having loved ones suddenly die goes away, which makes religion drift away too. Religion declines not only because people are becoming richer, but also due to the increasing quality of life, decline of serious diseases, better education and welfare states, the author said.

Graham LawtonWhen children encounter religion, Mr Lawton argues they find the explanations it offers intuitively appealing and believable – making them born believers. They presume there are mystical beings that have super knowledge and immortality until they learn otherwise. Children like the idea that there is order and design in the world and it is actually useful as it allows them to reason about possible threats that we cannot see, for example a predator lurking in a nearby bush. This natural propensity to look for agents in the world is the building blocks for religious belief.

“Once coupled with some other cognitive tendencies and ordinary learning strategies, they make children highly receptive to religion,” said Mr Lawton. Although this is an evolutionary advantage, Mr Lawton believes it also facilitates the build-up of delusional belief and a ‘feeling of rightness’.

In 2011, psychologist Peter Halligan at Cardiff University found more than 90 per cent of people in the UK hold beliefs that would be classed as delusional by a psychiatrist. And around half of US adults endorse at least one conspiracy theory, such as the belief a celebrity is secretly in love with you or that certain messages have special meanings hidden in them.

“People cling onto moral guidance and existential comfort and they don’t let go of them easily,” said Mr Lawton, who believes this is why humans continue to be religious even when it contradicts new evidence. This means people can rationalise natural disasters and the unexpected death of loved ones as part of God’s plan – which is part of religion that it has become so powerful and appealing.

However, experiments have shown supernatural thoughts are also easy to invoke in people who consider themselves sceptics. “To be an actual atheist and reject all religious ideas is not humanly possible – we’ll still fill that hole with something,” said Mr Lawton. “Asked if a man who dies instantly in a car crash is aware of this own death, large numbers instinctively answer ‘yes’.”

Similarly, he says people who believe people who experience setbacks in their lives routinely invoke fate, and uncanny experiences are widely attributed to paranormal activity. The author argues, although the future will be increasingly secular, humans will never totally lose the god instinct. As long as existential uncertainty exists, Mr Lawton claims religion will not disappear completely.

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