This post is an excerpt from the peer-reviewed textbook Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems by David Cycleback.
There are many innate cognitive reasons and processes for people believing in and having particular conceptions of God or religious higher power. The belief in and description of god or higher power are byproducts, or extensions, of innate unconscious psychological tendencies humans use to function and survive as a species.
The human brain is a meaning-making machine. Humans constantly look for patterns, meaning, purpose, motives and cause-and-effect relationships wherever they go. These contribute to many religious and spiritual beliefs. Just as one tries to find motives, patterns and identifications in a room, photograph or abstract paintings, so do humans when contemplating the universe and unknowable.
The following are some of the cognitive processes that lead to religious beliefs.
THE SEARCH AND DESIRE FOR ORDER
Humans tend to desire and strive to find order in situations, both in their daily lives and in ambiguous and chaotic information and situations. This is a natural part of identification, and an essential aspect of function and survival. Chapter 4 demonstrated how humans make up artificial identifications in ambiguous designs, such as seeing animals in clouds and faces in tree bark.
This extends to people’s perceptions about the unknowable universe and reality. Not only do many people want order and structure in the universe, they imagine it exists and artificially create it. This desire for order, structure and identity influences people in believing in God, a higher power and orderly universe. While not believing in God, many non-theists and scientists imagine that there are order and structure to the universe, even though it is impossible to know there is order. Even if there is order, it may be in a different form than humans can conceive of or sense.
In some religions, God brings order out of chaos, and religion is a fight for order in the face of chaos. The ancient Egyptians believed that the god Atum created earth and its order and principles out of chaos and darkness. It was the Egyptians’ duty to live moral and ethical lives to keep the chaos at bay.
It is a common religious belief that moral order comes from God or higher power, and some religious thus believe that an atheist cannot have morals.
THE INNATE TENDENCY TO PERCEIVE MEANING AND PURPOSE BEHIND THINGS AND EVENTS
It is an innate tendency for humans to perceive and try to find meaning and purpose behind things. As with finding patterns and identification, this has been essential for human survival and function.
Knowing what is the purpose and meaning of a scene event, groups of people or non-human animals is part of social function and survival. If a group of people or dogs approach you, you want to know and do guess what is their purpose. If you hear a bang in the dead of night in your house, you want to know what is behind it and assume something is. Safety and self preservation are about erring on assuming the worst, which is why many people get out of bed to check for intruder. Humans would not have survived as a species if they did not err on the side of safety.
In her paper Why Are Rocks Pointy? Children’s Preference for Teleological Explanations of the Natural World (source), psychology professor Deborah Keleman wrote that if you ask children why a group of rocks is pointy, many theorize that it is so animals don’t sit on them and break them. She said if you ask children why a river exists, they will often say so humans can fish in it. The children assign a meaning and purpose where they don’t exist, and ones that match their expectations, biases and human logic. Also note that they perceive the rivers to exist to serve humans.
Because of this bias, Kelemen says that children are able to come to the idea of a being that created the universe and earth with a purpose and meaning. This bias or tendency extends to many adults.
It takes training and education for one to overcome or be able to question these rote beliefs.
“Romanian Roma adults with little formal schooling (less than six years on average) were more than twice as likely to endorse purposeful answers than highly educated Roma adults (averaging approximately 12 years of schooling). They also more closely resembled American schoolchildren (first through fourth grades) than either highly educated Romanian adults or American adults. These results suggest that the tendency toward extending teleological reasoning from living to non-living natural things may recur across cultures, and that it is not merely outgrown but must be out-educated for it to go away.” — Justin L. Barrett Thrive Professor of Developmental Science, and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology (reference )
HUMANS PERCEIVE MINDS BEYOND THEIR OWN
Humans are able to perceive others having minds. This is a part of function and survival of the species. Humans are social animals and need to guess the thoughts and intentions of human and non-human animals.
What is telling is that humans not only imagine minds in humans and other animals, but they imagine or project minds and thinking on inanimate objects. These include teddy bears, figures, artworks, dolls, toys, cars, movie projections. Humans easily accept cartoon characters that talk and think, even when the characters are cars, toasters and trees. Humans talk to paintings on their walls, and what the subject is thinking and doing.
Many either figuratively or literally imagine nature and the universe having minds, and this can lead to conceptions of God or higher power. Even non-religious scientists and philosophers talk about plants, the planet and the universe having consciousness, which, some could argue, is coming very close to believing in God.
Humans have an innate tendency to perceive non-humans as thinking and feeling as humans do. Humans often incorrectly believe or imagine that a non-human animal thinks like a human and feels the same way about a happening as humans. Humans make non-human animal and non-animal cartoon characters that act like humans, see human faces in abstract information, and describe inanimate objects and nature in human terms: mother earth, father time. It should not surprise that humans can imagine the unseen universal reality as a being, that deities and Gods are depicted in human-like forms and having human-like thoughts, motives and ideas.
Similarly, humans often depict non-animal forms as having animal qualities. Howl of the wind, the hound of love. Many deities and gods are depicted in non-human animal forms.
Anthropomorphism is not always meant literally, but often as a symbolic translation. However, this all shows how humans see things and translate things in human terms, even nature, random information and the unknowable.
Article by Psychology professor Rick Naert : Why Do We Anthropomorphize?
HUMANS PERCEIVE THINGS, EVERYTHING, IN HUMAN EMOTIONAL TERMS
Emotions and aesthetics are an integral and constant part of human perception, judging and thinking. Humans innately and automatically make emotional judgments and perceptions. How new scenes are perceived, how to judge a stranger, how a foreign object is perceived, whether a new fact is true or false, are in part done on the intuitive, emotional, aesthetic level. Our descriptions of non-human things are steeped in human emotional and aesthetic terms and imagery: universal love, the angry sea, cruel fate, happy sun.
As people imagine the universe and unknowable in emotional terms, it is natural for people to see the transcendent reality not only in human terms but as human-like. All humans perceive and define the universe and ideas using their emotions and in human emotional terms. And a universe and reality that is believed to made up of human emotions is a step away from seeing it as a living being.
To humans, the meaning of life, of everything, is a matter of mood.
HUMANS AUTOMATICALLY APPLY NARRATIVES AND STORIES TO THINGS
Just as humans interpret meaning, motive and identifications in ambiguous information, humans automatically interpret things– an object, a painting scene, a snapshot of a person– as part of an ongoing story and narrative. This is an expression of cause and effect, and human perception of time, meaning and purpose. Humans even apply narratives and stories to abstract information.
Humans apply such narrative and stories to the universe and the unknown, which means they interpret it in human ways. Religious scriptures are in the forms of stories and narratives. The Christian Bible has been referred to as “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
HUMAN THINKING, INCLUDING ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF GOD, IS INFLUENCED BY EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION AND CULTURE
What and the way people think, at both the conscious and unconscious levels, is greatly influenced by their education, culture, family, when and where they grew up. Many people believe in God, and a particular condition of God, because they were raised in a theist family and culture. It is not coincidence that most Christians were born in Christian countries and families and Muslims in Muslim countries and families. Read the below two short pieces to see how much human geography and culture affect their perception at even the unconscious levels:
The BaMbuti Pygmies of Congo traditionally live their entire lives in the dense rainforest, where the furthest away anyone can see is feet. They learned, loved, played and hunted in this environment.
British born Anthropologist Colin Turnbull wrote how he took one of these Pygmies, named Kenge, for his first time to a wide open plain. As the two stood on a hill overlooking the land, a group of water buffalo was seen a few miles away. Having no experience of how things appear smaller over long distance, Kenge asked what kind of insects they were. Turnbull told him they were water buffalo and Kenge laughed loudly at the “stupid story.” Turnbull drove Kenge towards the water buffalo. Watching the animals growing visually larger, Kenge became scared and said it was witchcraft.
Human beings develop an idiosyncratic logic and sensibility distinct to the environment where they were brought up. The environment one grows up in is seemingly the world. A kid born and raised in the inner city versus the country, rich versus poor, in Cairo versus Chicago, conservative family versus liberal, woods versus desert. The person who has lived her whole life in Portland or Cairo may get a chuckle at that story about the Pygmy then dismiss the idea that a similar incongruity could exist with her native logic.
For example, in this picture, which yellow line looks longer?
The yellow lines are the same length. Measure them yourself. It is your lifelong experience with diminishing scales in open spaces that caused you to perceive the upper line as larger.
Kenge would not have been fooled by this illusion and would have correctly said the lines are the same length.
Give an objective identification of what is in the three pictures. Answer one picture at a time, by saying the answer aloud or to yourself.
The images are not digital tricks or manipulations. They were picked because of their straightforward, familiar subjects. I am just looking for quick objective identifications.
One or more of your answers likely was (at least if you are an American) on the order of ‘George Washington crossing the Delaware,’ ‘a bald eagle’ and/or ‘a watch.’
These answers are not objective, being formed in part by value judgments, aesthetic views and other personal biases.
In the lower left picture there is much more than a bald eagle. There is sky, trees. The ‘eagle’ answer subjectively singles out one thing. Part of this is due to a personal and cultural value judgment that a bald eagle is more important than the other objects. Another reason is because the eagle is pictured large, clear and centered. If the picture showed a tree close up and in focus and a small out of focus eagle flying in the distant background, your answer likely would have differed. Change in arrangement, size and focus affect the viewer’s labeling, even when the identical objects are pictured.
Similarly, if your answer to the lower right picture was ‘a watch,’ you made an aesthetic and value judgment about what is and is not important. Placement and focus affected your judgment, along with your feeling that a potentially expensive watch is the center of attention.
In the top image there are quite a few people pictured. If you answered “George Washington crossing the Delaware” you singled out one as being the identity. This is in part due to a higher value placed on George Washington, a famous figure in United States history. This is also due to your knowledge, as Washington is likely the only person you know by name. Again, it is common to focus on the known and ignore the unknown.
If you said “This pictures a bunch of people, one whose name is George Washington” you would have given a broader answer, while acknowledging the extent of your knowledge.
Also, notice that your answer was not ‘sky, water and ice,’ even though sky, water and ice takes up more space than the men, boat and flag. This was due to your bias that the human is the natural center of attention.
The initial request of this chapter was to give objective identifications, but your answers were subjective. I didn’t ask for your moral judgment of George Washington versus other men, whether a bald eagle is more significant than out of focus background trees or the relative financial value of a watch.
These and other types of subjective judgments are both natural and essential to humans. Quick interpretations of scenes, including judging what is and is not important, is essential to getting through our day to day lives. You wouldn’t have lasted long on this earth if you placed equal visual significance on a twig on the pavement and a car speeding in your path. If someone unexpectedly tosses you a ball, you catch the ball by focusing on it. If you focus on the thrower’s shoes or what’s on TV, it is probable you will drop the ball.
The problem is that, while essential, this type of subjective identification helps make it impossible to make objective identification. One’s identification is always shaped by one’s knowledge level, past experience, aesthetic view, pattern biases and value judgments. As shown with the identification of the three pictures, the human is often not aware of this influence. To many people, biases are what others have.
RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS AND TEXTS ARE FIGURATIVE AND TRANSLATIONS
Depictions of gods and transcendent reality, religious stories and ceremonies are human translations of abstract ideas for understanding, teaching and communication. The learned religious know that they are just translations of ideas that are beyond human understanding.
Teaching must be done in languages the students understand. Jesus taught in parables, Buddha in en riddles. The Christian ‘Kingdom of God,’ doesn’t mean a physical building, but a state of enlightenment. Hindus use deities to represent transcendent reality, because a literal depiction would be beyond normal human comprehension and understanding. As the Hindu student becomes more and more learned the depictions of transcendent reality becomes more and more intricate and complex. Jesus himself, or at least as he is portrayed and symbolized, is a metaphor.
Some anti-theists and atheists make straw man arguments against theism, mocking their beliefs in deities and myths. However, they do not realize that the deities and stories are not taken literally by the learned religious. Learned Christians do not literally believe God is an old man with a white beard and robe sitting on a throne in heaven, and learned Hindus do not believe in thousands of Gods.
ONE’S STYLE OF THINKING INFLUENCES ONE’S BELIEFS
Those who come to conclusions emotionally and intuitively, or ‘from the gut,’ are more likely to believe in God or religious higher power. Those who have had their gut reactions proven correct, are more likely to trust the natural cognitive tendencies described in this chapter, and believe in magic, the paranormal and God.
Those who think logically and in the past had their intuition proven wrong are less likely to believe in God or a religious higher power. They have learned to question, or double check, their normal cognitive biases and innate tendencies. They think of other possibilities.
“It is the standard skeptical narrative that people are biased in numerous ways. The “default mode” of human behavior is to drift along with the currents of our cognitive biases, unless we have critical thinking skills as a rudder or paddle (choose your nautical metaphor). Metacognition – thinking about thinking – is the only way for our higher cognitive function (evidence, analysis, logic) to take control of our beliefs from our baser instincts”– Steve Novella MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University (reference )
MORE CONSCIOUS REASONS
Humans often choose to believe in a god and higher powers for conscious and calculated reasons. These include if they so greatly dislike chaos that they choose an artificial answer, they want purpose in their life, they fear death, like the idea of universal justice, want a way to deal with loss or suffering. Some do it because it makes them feel better.
Many are theists in order to fit in with a theistic culture or community. Many religious beliefs are an integral part of culture. Major reasons people belong to a church for the social aspects and community. Believing in a religion and following its practices is as natural as being a part of the community and culture.
Shared beliefs, purpose and meaning are important for any social group, and many societies and groups have used God or higher power to keep societies together and functioning. Games require rules, often arbitrary ones. This is a standard reason for the belief in God, even today. Of course many leaders have called themselves deities or gods or said they had a special connection to higher power.
“Dogmatic religion stems from a psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning. There is a strong impulse in human beings to define ourselves, whether it’s as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist, an American, a Republican, or as a fan of a sports club. This urge is closely connected to the impulse to be part of a group, to feel that you belong, and share the same beliefs and principles as others. And these impulses work together with the need for certainty—the feeling that you “know,” that you possess the truth, that you are right and others are wrong.”– Leeds Beckett University psychology lecturer Steve Taylor (Reference )
In the beginning and end, humans can only perceive, think about and conceptualize things in human ways– their biases, logic, biology, intuition senses and logic. Thus, the perception of the universe and abstract is seen and described in human ways and with human qualities and concepts. It should be of no surprise that many think of and describe the universe in human-like imagery and with human-like stories and motives. The non-religious do as well, if not invoking a deity.
THESE PROCESSES NEITHER PROVE NOR DISPROVE THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
Some will say these innate psychological processes prove that God does not exist and is merely the product of the human mind. This is not true. They certainly are evidence that religious and other conceptions are in part human creations, but they are not proof against or for the existence of God or higher power.