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(From the Daily Telegraph, London, by Richard Alleyne, 7 September 2009)

Humans may have evolved to believe in god and superstitions because it helps them to co-ordinate group action better, scientists claimed.
Religion became a survival instinct, according to researchers who studied the way brains develop from childhood and behave during spiritual experiences.

Groups of humans with religious tendencies benefitted from their beliefs, perhaps because they co-operated and had a greater chance of survival.
They thrived compared to their atheist relatives and, after many years, the instinct was passed on in their genes.

The findings challenge campaigners against organised religion, such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He has argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood “indoctrination.”

Prof. Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol University, has suggested that religion is similar to children’s belief in imaginary friends. He said: “Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works. As they grow up, they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches but the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion.”

Prof. Hood, who will present his findings at the British Association’s annual meeting this week, sees organised religion as just one of many supernatural beliefs. In one study, he found that even atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer, because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in their genes. “This shows how superstition is hard-wired into our brains”, he said.

Tags: imaginary friend, religion, supernatural, superstition, survival instinct

Views: 312

Replies to This Discussion


If atheism is a default position then I have returned to atheism after a spell of being a Christian. However, my state of thinking now is magnitudes different from what is was when I was a young child and essentially ignorant of religion. I continue to maintain the two conditions are very different and should be labeled differently.

It is my experience that Christians who maintain that they were once atheists have never ever in a position where they rejected the idea of religion for rational reasons. What they describe are states of indifference or rebellion against something they still believe in at some level.

If the term "atheist" is so encompassing then we should invent a new term to describe those who have come to reject the idea of the existence of supernatural divinities by considered thought. Are we "rational atheists"? "skeptical atheists"? "informed atheists"? "convinced atheists"? something else?
I think "ignostic apatheist" would be more acurate than "a-religious"
Possibly. Interesting definitions which I had not come across before. Thanks.
This is where it gets interesting. Hood doesn't state in any of his work that we are born theists. He does observe that we are born with a tendency to fill in gaps of knowledge and understanding- oftentimes resulting in irrational beliefs or superstitions.

We are born atheist and without the teachings of others we would stay atheist because deity belief and worship are not a natural occurrence but a learned behavior.

"Deity belief and worship" are most definitely natural occurrences. But the fact that an animist bows before a tree doesn't cause that tree to be any more than a tree. This is what makes Hood's work so important. Instead of recoiling at the very mention of of these terms, we do well to attempt to understand belief from a scientific perspective. Sam Harris is applying his expertise in neuroscience to this effort. Too many so-called freethinkers equate this seeking of understanding with apologetics or sympathizing.
No one is scolding anyone here. I urged you to read the article more carefully as well as Hood's own reaction to it and the many others written based upon it. It seemed that you weren't interested in doing that. I made no attacks on you personally. On the other hand, you just called me "ignorant", "born-again", and a "religionist". And you accuse me of "trying to sound...uh...understanding".

What I said is that is we can understand the origins of religious belief, something that has indeed been a naturally occurring part of humanity for most of its history in nearly every culture, from a scientific perspective, instead of simply dismissing it a so much nonsense. This seems to be unpalatable to you. I am frustrated to see that valuable work from an atheist psychologist that states what both you and I know about religion- it's "the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs"- has been spun by journalists with an agenda.(If I refer to them a so-called journalists does that make me a born-again journalist? :) ) What compounded my frustration was reading many atheists here piling on against Hood without separating his points from what the writers were falsely attributing to him.

I'm a layman and I don't need to understand religion any more than I already do.

I think you sell yourself short. We're all capable of a more thorough understanding of the world we've been born into. Isn't that why we're here?

Sorry that you felt scolded. That was not at all my intention.
For that reason, any confusion that may exist is built into the minds of the prejudiced, the ignorant, and the misled, those who lack (or who resist) education as to the term's proper meaning, and not into the term itself. If theists "exploit" their misunderstanding, they do so in flagrant error, by basing their opinions on their ignorance or on deliberate distortion.

Such confusion and its subsequent exploitation is at the heart of the debate ongoing in this discussion. A psychologist finds that religious belief is akin to the belief of children in imaginary friends and it's twisted into "Scientists claim that humans are born to believe in God".
It seems that Alleyne has a tendency towards sloppy journalism.

From just a couple of months ago:

Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Richard Alleyne is a lying piece of shit

He has turned an MSc student's unpublished research (she hasn't even submitted her thesis!) into a torrent of lies about how women who dress provocatively, are outgoing and get drunk incite men to rape them. Ben Goldacre did his thing and revealed it all to be a pack of misogynistic lies. Alleyne and his editor should be pilloried for their role in demonising women.

at 9:49 PM
Labels: Ben Goldacre, mysogyny, Richard Alleyne is a lying piece of shit, science
Kromasome said...
Actually, he's just not very bright, badly informed and way out of his depth. I'm not convinced he even realises how serious his misinterpretation of the data was. Sad, but an excellent reason for not reading the Daily Telegraph. It's a shame though, their Sports coverage is actually quite good.

17 July, 2009 09:56
punkscience said...
In Ben's words:

"This was a litany of errors, on a very sensitive issue, based, laughably, on an unfinished dissertation by a masters student. . . . . Every one of their key assertions was factually incorrect, as the student who did the work explained two weeks ago."

Calling Alleyne "not very bright" and badly informed" is an apology for his incompetence. With gaffs like this the guy should not be writing articles full stop. Likewise, his editor should not be working in publishing. They are not "way out of their depth", they are actively perverting evidence and claiming the complete opposite to what it actually shows. That is called lying.

17 July, 2009 10:21
What about starting a list of sloppy science journalists and publications?
That's an idea. Or we could judge each piece on its individual merits. Even a lousy journalist is capable of some random accuracy.
Where did religion come from?

Where did animism come from?

Theists say that religious belief and experience are the result of the intervention of spiritual entities in human affairs. Atheists, however, seek a rational explanation. Don, Ralph, Prof. Hood and others have offered such explanations. You find them unacceptable. How do you explain the universality of religious experience? To be sure, indoctrination has spread religion and tightened its grip on humanity. But where did religious thinking begin? When ancient peoples anthropomorphized the flora, fauna and forces of nature, were they doing so as part of some conspiracy to oppress and control?
I don't see these views as fundamentally contradictory. Would religious indoctrination work so well if human minds weren't predisposed to abide to it?
Yeah, I'm not sure what the argument is about here. The original post quoted an article by journalists who have an axe to grind, in which they seriously distorted what Prof. Hood had to say. Nate and Ralph exposed them for that. Everybody here seems to agree that humans are born with an innate capacity to connect dots into patterns and that we often come to the wrong conclusion. That doesn't strike me as the least bit controversial, and I don't see any real disagreement with Dawkins's position by A|N posters. Humans are not "predisposed to religion", and Hood didn't say that, the sleazy journos did. Humans are predisposed to find answers to things and suspect agency in the world, but that's not the same thing as being predisposed to a particular answer (god, religion, faeries, Newton's laws, etc). Hood seems to think Dawkins would disagree with him on that score, but I'm not sure why, since it seems to be the same as Dawkins position, at least as I understand it from The God Delusion.

Full-blown religion requires heavy-handed indoctrination, and I don't think anybody here is arguing that it doesn't. It's fairly well documented that children often make up explanations when they don't know a real answer. Children make up more fabulist answers than adults, because they have more and bigger gaps in their knowledge. Education fills those gaps with knowledge. Religion fills those gaps with nonsense. Critical thinking is how we tell the difference. I don't think kids are born with that skill.


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