God didn't make man; man made gods
Op-Ed NY Times 7/18/11 Science and religion:
In recent years scientists specializing in the
mind have begun to unravel religion's "DNA."
By J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer
Before John Lennon imagined "living life in peace,"
he conjured "no heaven
/ no hell below us
no religion too."
No religion: What was Lennon summoning? For starters,
a world without "divine" messengers, like Osama
bin Laden, sparking violence. A world where mistakes,
like the avoidable loss of life in Hurricane Katrina,
would be rectified rather than chalked up to
"God's will." Where politicians no longer compete
to prove who believes more strongly in the irrational
and untenable. Where critical thinking is an ideal.
In short, a world that makes sense.
In recent years scientists specializing in the
mind have begun to unravel religion's "DNA." They
have produced robust theories, backed by empirical
evidence (including "imaging" studies of the brain
at work), that support the conclusion that it was
humans who created God, not the other way around.
And the better we understand the science, the closer
we can come to "no heaven
and no religion too."
Like our physiological DNA, the psychological
mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons
through natural selection. They helped our ancestors
work effectively in small groups and survive and
reproduce, traits developed long before recorded
history, from foundations deep in our mammalian,
primate and African hunter-gatherer past.
For example, we are born with a powerful need
for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s
by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by
psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival
was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our
mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically
through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain
neural networks completely dedicated to it. We
easily expand that inborn need for protectors to
authority figures of any sort, including religious
leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a
super parent, able to protect us and care for us
even when our more corporeal support systems disappear,
through death or distance.
Scientists have so far identified about 20
hard-wired, evolved "adaptations" as the building
blocks of religion. Like attachment, they are
mechanisms that underlie human interactions:
Brain-imaging studies at the National Institutes
of Health showed that when test subjects were
read statements about religion and asked to agree
or disagree, the same brain networks that process
human social behavior our ability to negotiate
relationships with others were engaged.
Among the psychological adaptations related to
religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency
to attribute unknown events to human agency, our
capacity for romantic love, our fierce "out-group"
hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in
groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these
traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,
for example, or the doctrinal battles between
Protestant and Catholic reflect our "groupish" tendencies.
In addition to these adaptations, humans have
developed the remarkable ability to think about
what goes on in other people's minds and create and
rehearse complex interactions with an unseen other.
In our minds we can de-couple cognition from time,
place and circumstance. We consider what someone
else might do in our place; we project future scenarios;
we replay past events. It's an easy jump to say,
conversing with the dead or to conjuring gods and
praying to them.
Morality, which some see as imposed by gods or
religion on savage humans, science sees as yet
another adaptive strategy handed down to us by
Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom notes that
"it is often beneficial for humans to work together
which means it would have been adaptive to evaluate
the niceness and nastiness of other individuals."
In groundbreaking research, he and his team found
that infants in their first year of life demonstrate
aspects of an innate sense of right and wrong, good
and bad, even fair and unfair. When shown a puppet
climbing a mountain, either helped or hindered by
a second puppet, the babies oriented toward the
helpful puppet. They were able to make an evaluative
social judgment, in a sense a moral response.
Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist
who co-directs the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany,
has also done work related to morality and very
young children. He and his colleagues have produced
a wealth of research that demonstrates children's
capacities for altruism. He argues that we are
born altruists who then have to learn strategic self-interest.
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