Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

Atheists think like creationists

Purpose SignThe question at the heart of the cognitive science of religion – or "CSR," for those in the know – is why people are religious. Answers usually come in one of two flavors. On the one hand, some say that religion is completely learned from people’s cultures. On the other hand, some say that biology plays an important role in religious behavior, or at least in people's openness to religious ways of thinking. People spend their entire careers exploring these options, but a group from Boston University thought, What if we looked at how atheists think? Could they help us decide between CSR’s two camps?

The research team – Elisa Järnefelt, Caitlin Canfield, and Deborah Keleman – have backgrounds in child and developmental cognitive studies. Kids are well known for explaining almost everything in terms of someone or something doing things on purpose. CSR calls this “promiscuous teleology.” With a lot more sophistication, religious people also engage in purpose-finding in events. For many Christians, for example, every event and every prayer, answered and seemingly unanswered, are part of God’s plan. Religions do something very similar with nature through their creation stories – which just don’t tell how things got here, but explain why we’re here, too.

Now, there’s something about human development that’s important to know. It progresses more like putting up additions to a house and adding wings than it does like a raze and rebuild. The original structure is more or less still there. What this means is that innate cognitive tendencies from childhood never really go away. It’s just that as you get older, with a little thought and concentration, you can override them.

In cognitive studies, speed is the great tool for telling how brains work at their most basic levels. When people aren’t given time to reflect on their answers, those answers will reflect what’s going on in the brain's original structure. Järnefelt, Canfield, and Keleman put this tool to expert use in a series of three online studies conducted with both religious and non-religious subjects first, with just American members of atheist organizations second, and with Finnish non-religious subjects third. The procedure was exactly the same for all three (well, except for being translated into Finnish for the third). The subjects saw a series of pictures, and the instructions told them to answer yes or no to whether “any being purposefully made the thing in the picture.” The test images showed nature, both living and non-living. The remaining pictures were controls designed to allow the scientists to use statistical methods to account for different strategies or biases that subjects might have had. So, if people generally answered yes, no, or anything because they weren't paying close attention, the control images included subsets for each of these scenarios.

The subjects were divvied up into four groups. They were told in the instructions either that the “being” could mean anything that does something for a reason –– people, aliens, ghosts, gods, etc. –– or that “being” meant only a human. About half of each of these groups were given an unlimited amount of time to identify each image, and the rest had less than a second to answer.

The analysis for the first study consisted of comparing subjects by which of the four groups they were in, as well as breaking those groups into further subgroups, separating the subjects by the more and less religious and by older and younger age. Their primary finding was that religious and non-religious people answered no differently when asked if things were human-made, but they didn't answer the same when the meaning of "being" was left open. Religious people said yes to more pictures, but everyone said yes more when they had less than a second to answer compared to those who had all the time in the world. This means that non-religious people, who would typically say, "No, that mountain or that llama were not made by some being," if they were given a moment to think about, answered yes more often when they didn't have any time to think.

It would be completely wrong to interpret this to mean that deep down, everyone's a theist. Rather, the research team says that these results tell us that our brains are wired at first pass to find agency and purpose in everything, regardless if that's true or not. It's like that common example from evolutionary psychology. When early humans saw rattling in a bush, usually it was just the wind, but those humans who interpreted the rattling as coming from a tiger lived longer – because that one time in a hundred or a thousand that it really was a tiger, they were already running away while their companions became a feline feast.

The second and third studies were meant to replicate this finding among non-religious subjects. Because "non-religious" represents a wide spectrum from complete atheism and naturalism to weak theistic or religious naturalist beliefs, the research team worked only with people in atheist and similar organizations on the assumption that such people were most likely not to answer yes to natural items in the speeded condition, since part of having this identity is a kind of self-training to avoid endorsing anything like a religious belief. The team moved to Finland for the third study because Finland is a generally non-religious country and because atheism carries little to no social stigma there, as it does in much of the U.S. So, the third study was meant to control for any cultural influence on the results. And in both cases, they replicated the first study among the non-religious.

So, it really appears that people are neurologically wired to see nature as the creation of some being and to find purpose in that creation. In other words, the pattern of answers cannot be explained by culture. No one, certainly not Järnefelt, Canfield, and Keleman, will say that culture plays no role. It’s just that religion works on a stratum of cognitive thought that runs very deep in all of us – at the subconscious level.

For more, read “The divided mind of a disbeliever: Intuitive beliefs about nature as purposefully created among different groups of non-religious adults” in Cognition.

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