Why We Believe in god(s) | Review

Posted on September 15, 2011


Andy Thomson’s talk, ‘Why We Believe in Gods,’ given at the American Atheist 2009 convention in Atlanta, Georgia:

— VIA —

The discussion of science and religion continues to the arenas of neurobiology. I appreciate Thomson’s work, his careful attention to the studies, and the references to good scientific work. I consider this to be an important player in the public discourse, and am thankful for Thomson’s contribution to the discussion, and his passionate plea for scientific inquiry and reasoning to prevail.

However, I would like to offer a few comments and notes that I think are important to consider. In addition, I have a few questions.

1. Both science and religion claim to be global explanations. That is, science, whatever its theories, must include understanding and explanations of religious ideas, beliefs, concepts, and behaviors. Religions, too, must provide explanations for scientific inquiry and understanding, and the (what I’ll call) “scientific reality” of our universe.

They must do so, however, within the context and limits of its own discipline. In other words — and in response to this video — it makes sense for science to provide scientific explanations for religious existence and behavior when using the discipline of science. Thus, when Thomson declares that the components of religious belief are served by well known neuro-circuits, and that religion is “integrated into the brain using networks for social cognition; that they are not specific networks in the brain or in various individuals,” why is this such a fantastic insight? Why is it “powerful evidence,” that religions arise from cognitive mechanism? It simply makes sense that what they would find would be found within the context of their discipline and framework. This is no different from religious explanations touting the deficiencies of “natural explanations” because it cannot theologically be sustained in light of the sovereignty of God. Or, suggesting that science has led us to disbelief in God, because, well, God said it would. Making the discoveries that Thomson is making are good, but to elevate them to “powerful” and “compelling” is simply patting one’s self on the back and saying to yourself, “See, I told you so.”

Let me make clear that I am appreciative of the work and supportive of the findings. I actually think it is an excellent study, and as I mentioned above, important for public discourse and understanding. What I don’t understand is why this is so profound. A, I start with observation. B, my observation leads me to conclude that evolutionary theory is an explanation of the universe. C, religious beliefs must be part of that full evolutionary explanation.

I’m sorry if I’m over simplifying, but this just seems to make sense.

2. If religion and religious ideas are merely the “next steps,” logically and cognitively from our evolutionary environmental adaptations, why is there a “conflict” as Thomson purports? I think I understand why, when it comes to public policy, social discourse, and educational curriculum. Both sides are vitriolic and “at war” (a war that still does not make good sense). But from mere ontology, saying there is a conflict between science and religion seems to be akin to saying (and I’ll try a few analogies) there is a conflict between metallurgy and the symbolism of wedding rings. Or, perhaps, a conflict between fabric and fashion. Or, to approach it another way, a conflict between science and adaptation. None of these would be conflicts. Each of these are intricate parts of each other. The only way to make them be in conflict is to pervert their ontology, seeing the other through the lens of one’s own essence of being.

Again, I understand from a philosophical standpoint, and even from a sociological standpoint why the tension. But, if these explanations are accepted as true, which is evident by the audience and the speaker, then it is simply reasonable to conclude that conflict is not a category that ought to be used when discussing these two phenomena, science (an explanation of things), and religion (the thing being explained).

Which leads me to 3.

3. As was alluded to in the inquiry, there is no answer to the reason “why” this development came about. Because science can only offer explanations within the context of its own discipline, then perhaps other questions that exist in our universe must be addressed through other kinds of means. This is what I have previously called a “disciplinary breach,” in which one discipline attempts to be the explaining authority for all things. Yet, using the scientific ethic of observation, there are simply some things that cannot be explained by one discipline alone. This is the hubris and weakness of those who stand strongly on science at the disdain of metaphysics or philosophy. Even in this lecture, again, Thomson does not have “explanation.” He only has, what I call, “observation.”

4. A bit different from the above, but notice the pejorative terminology used by Thomson in his lecture when discussing religions and their “exploitation” of these neurobiological realities, without acknowledging that religion is not the “exploiter.” If anything, his very own explanation ought to conclude that humans are the exploiter, that it is written in our neurobiology, and there are plenty of examples of this kind of exploitation found within and outside of religious adherents (not to mention the relationship between religion and culture and where one ends and where one begins). This, to me, is dishonest scholarship. If you’re going to say this is a human trait, a neurological, biological, and evolutionary trait, then acknowledge the fact that the “exploitation” of these realities is done by “human” people, not “religious” people. This is a human problem/reality.

5. As Thomson sets his case for “the next Scopes trial,” I would hope that their posture would calm a bit. I love atheists and their rigorous academic, intellectual, and scientific pursuits. I fully accept these methodologies and explanations as truths, and I completely agree that they are important aspects of our humanity that must take a prominent place at the table of public discourse, policy, education, etc. I am perplexed, however, as to why this then leads them with such passion and justice-minded values to fight so vigorously against a reality that they themselves admit — and continually explain — is hard-wired into our existence. And I will continue to believe that other disciplines are needed to grasp a fuller explanation of our existence and reality. “Why” can never be explained by neuro-biology. Yet, “Why?” exists.