, an interesting article from the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly
which argues that religious and supernatural beliefs arise from a misfire in babies' cognitive systems
. Republished without permission on a public bulletin board. NOTE: You should not click this link. Instead you should run out at your earliest opportunity to a newsstand and purchase the current issue of The Atlantic.
Here is the argument in a nutshell:
Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby's brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human.
Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand—and, when they get older, to manipulate—physical and social entities. In other words, both these systems are biological adaptations that give human beings a badly needed head start in dealing with objects and people. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.
I've always been very attracted to the idea that religion conveys certain evolutionary advantages (group identity, strong hierarchy, existential comfort, even perhaps the mere willingness to reproduce at all) to religious groups over non-religious groups. Dawkins, for his part, is infamous for thinking that religions are little more than viruses of the mind
). It's heady stuff, wherever the truth lies.