Is God Just Our Minds Playing Tricks On Us?

I’ve come across quite a number of articles recently which suggest, essentially, that belief in the active presence of God in the world is a trick we pull on ourselves which served, at some point, an evolutionary function. Here’s a little round-up:
The Atlantic Monthly:

Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question…

Is God an accident? (Subscription required. Full-text removed at request of The Atlantic.)
A new documentary on BBC4 called Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief examines the culture of atheism. Check out his interview with Pascal Boyer.
In Edge, Daniel Gilbert writes,

Is God is nothing more than an attempt to explain order and good fortune by those who do not understand the mathematics of chance, the principles of self-organizing systems, or the psychology of the human mind? When the study I just described was accepted for publication, I recall asking one of my collaborators, who is a deeply religious man, how he felt about having demonstrated that people can misattribute the products of their own minds to powerful external agents. He said, “I feel fine. After all, God doesn’t want us to confuse our miracles with his.”
That’s fair enough. Science rules out the most cartoonish versions of God by debunking specific claims about ancient civilizations in North America or the creatio ex nihilo of human life. But it cannot tell us whether there is a force or entity or idea beyond our ken that deserves to be known as God. What we can say is that the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins.

The Vagaries of Religious Experience
Finally, a more thorough round-up at 3quarksdaily, in which Abbas Raza asks, “Until recently, few scientists have put much effort into explaining the ubiquity of religious beliefs. If it is so irrational, then why is religious conviction so widespread?”

14 thoughts on “Is God Just Our Minds Playing Tricks On Us?

  1. um…personal attack?
    sara el homey. just cuz i believe in god doesn’t mean i won’t allow rational and even hostile science to challenge and even change the way i perceive of god.

  2. J,
    My experience with most Otho folks is that they don’t believe nearly as much as their practice would indicate. When confronted with any theological question, they seem to:
    a) Resort to the whole my father’s, father did it…
    b) Express their enjoyment of a frum lifestyle….
    c) Extol the virtues of deed over creed
    But it’s the rare observant Yid who’ll admit to talking to a God that listens, cares, and conjures up some form of cause/effect system for our actions (I’m curious how many Ortho Yids really believe that anything cosmic is occurring on Yom Kippur…cosmic enough to stop doing the things that could get you in trouble with You Know Who).
    Although Dan’s post made me cringe (more to do with my own doubt, than the orientation of Jewschool, the authors of the articles, etc), it’s a topic that I find fascinating. And one that Jews, observant or not, should read and discuss.

  3. Just finished “Is God an Accident”. It would seem that with each point the author presents, he avoids critique via a plethora of disclaimers. This is not surprising. Both my lady (a psychiatry resident) and a friend (anesthesiologist) can not explain WHY the pills they prescribe work. They have theories, but they’re about as convincing as an Aish Discovery program. Which is to say, no more and no less.
    It would appear that Bloom is a Cognitive Psychologist. And from personal/academic/profe ssional experience with CBT I present the following:
    1) CBT, not unlike the Big Mac, was developed as a response to our frentic, out of control lives
    2) CBT as a practice is quite ho-hum…great for phobias, not very effective for existential and/or relational angst (which is why most people visit a therapist)
    3) Adored by insurance companies (and big business) due to it’s short term, no nonsense approach to human behavior/problems. But as any neurotic knows…we i.e. humans, are anything but simple.

  4. The only addition I would add to Mobius’ quite excellent post, is that too many literalists don’t know the meaning of the word ‘fundamental,’ as in that which is the root, and/or intention.
    Of course literalists are idiot sophists; it’s much easier to believe, that to think and reflect. But, for those sophists among us, how can you believe in literalism, when Torah literally seems to contradict itself (eg., Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:18).
    Rabbi Dennis Shulman’s ‘The Genius of Genesis’ reflects upon such contradictions, then shows that they are only so, from a literalist myopic view. R. Shulman also cites the Rambam.

  5. “…it’s much easier to believe, that to think and reflect”
    I disagree. To truly believe, one must “think and reflect”. And I’ve met such people. Their faith is nothing short of inspiring. And while I’ve met athiests who’ve done the same, I can’t say I left the conversation feeling inspired.

  6. The whole science vs. religion thing…
    is pure nonsense.
    People seem to be forgetting what science is.
    Science is a methodical way of observing the universe through empirical knowledge and testable hypothesis, none of which are really relevant when examining religion, which, at its core, is very divorced from both empirical knowledge and testable hypotheses.
    I’m tired of scientists doing this fake science. Don’t fool yourself. This is far from science.
    You can argue all day about the existence of a deity or the lack thereof, but it’s not scientific. It’s a belief, either way. Science can’t prove either side of your argument.
    This “psychological argument” is not science. It’s conjecture. Just because a guy with a PhD wrote it doesn’t mean it’s science.

  7. Shmuel, in full agreement with you on that one (have I found God but lost my Jewishness?)
    Someone smarter said it better:
    “The attempts to prove God’s existence by dialectical arguments as an inference from the existing world … (are) ultimately, a non sequitur. Every effort to probe God’s nature… is a sterile endeavour, a presumption, and represents a kind of spiritual idolatry. We know God primarily through faith, in response to the prompting of the heart. It is only on the level of primitivism that we focus on God as an essence, an entity, apart of the world. As we rise towards maturity our focus shifts from a preoccupation with God as a separate entity to divine ideals, which emanates from God and seek embodiment in the structures of life.” (Ben Zion Boxer)
    And a little Eastern side note from Lao Tze – “The Way that you can speak about, is not the real Way”. Meaning, that you can use the tools conjured up by creation (whatever is the driver of that) to analyse the source of creation. One can arrive at a certain understanding that sits well with one’s belief system, but that is mostly due to the fact we live in a mental perception of the universe around us (think space between Atoms, or Heidelberg’s uncertainty). The ‘real’ thing has no validity in and of itself. (Where is the world in deep sleep?).
    Hence – ‘Ani Ma-amin be-Emuna Shelema’ – not because there is a cognitive process which culminates in the proven existence of a higher force/entity whatever, but because the internal witness (what J calls Neshama) is in search – or indeed in touch – with the creative spark and creates the yearning to go ‘home’ (Tikun). Because the mental experience is a reflection of the internally held paradigm of association (i.e. God or Darwinism for example), one then wonderfully discovers that which ‘proves’ the perceived reality to suit. Trying to mix the two simply confuses the ‘signals’ – Science and theology (as a model, NOT spiritual practice) are versions of the same ‘Avodat Elilim’
    Thus, ‘I am that I am’ is not just the ultimate answer of, by and for the nature of divinity, but also a footnote in understanding the required practice for spiritual aspirations: Believe what one may, at the end of the day we are tested by our love and acceptance for that which has come our way, and not by our judgement of whether its true, fair, or righteous…

  8. Ooops – should say ‘… Meaning, that you can NOT use the tools conjured up by creation (whatever is the driver of that) to analyse the source of creation.’ and so on

  9. “few scientists have put much effort into explaining the ubiquity of religious beliefs.”
    they should really start explaining themselves — since they’re the exception, the anomaly, aren’t they the thing that requires explaining? i can see it now, on the front page of TIME: “is atheism a religious belief often disguised by dubious marshaling of various disputed systems of enlightenment metaphysics?”

  10. A study like this one can be so solidly performed and still have completely ambiguous implications for religious belief. An example…
    A couple of years ago, a Canadian research group reported that they were able to stimulate in a manner such that the person being stimulated experienced the presence of God or other external, watching beings. Cool result, but what does it mean? Inevitably, secularists jumped at the opportunity to point out that God is just a little trick our brains play on us when stimulated just so. On the other hand, we also have the ability to stimulate people to see things or hear voices. Few would take that as proof that all the things we see and hear don’t exist. In fact, one could take the experiment to suggest that just as with our other senses, which evolve to perceive a real outside world, so too this “deity-perception” sense points to God’s existence. One can look at it either way…

  11. Interesting article, so far, but not interesting enough to pull me away from grading 7th and 8th grade book reports. I agree with Streimel re: thinking and reflecting. I’m recent, and very simple baal tshuva, but doesn’t Judaism demand from us thinking and reflecting? If we are to affect ourselves and the world around us with mitzvot, how can we proceed without thinking and reflecting upon everything we learn and every deed applied? And I agree with Shmuel re: belief. There are many instances (even in article) of pious scientists. I didn’t read all of it, yet, but I’m surprised the writer didn’t mention early on, as he’d mentioned his connection to Lubavitch, that the Rebbe was a scientist, too–a physicist, if I remember correctly.
    Orson Scott Card dabbled with this issue in the novel Xenocide. A lot more interestingly and more fun to read, I thought.

  12. As a believer, I see God’s existence as a matter of probability. Is it possible that the universe came into being purely by chance. Yes, it’s possible. But with all the reading I’ve done on both sides of the issue, not to mention my (admittedly non-specialist) studies of astronomy, biology and the like, I have yet to be convinced that it’s probable. I don’t believe that God determines exactly when a particular leaf will fall; empirical observation shows that randomness does indeed occur in nature. But I don’t think the origin of the natural order (with emphasis on “order”), and the general laws by which it operates, is random. It is more likely to be the result of a creator’s guiding mind. More than this I can’t say.

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