- Belief systems arise to address the time and social conditions of each era and culture.
- Your relationship to your community and environment is very influential in what you believe.
- Neuroscience explains many of the questions as to why we believe in the first place.
When I was studying for my degree in religion, I was most fascinated by what people believe. The fact that members of the same species could invent such diverse ideas about the invisible speaks volumes about the human imagination. During that period, I recognized how essential place and time were in the formation of religious ideologies. Regardless of your belief system, we can agree that the creation of Christianity today would look nothing like the historical accounts we rely on.
It was neuroscience that stopped me from focusing on what and begin to investigate why. Why do we believe in anything metaphysical? What function do gods play in our psychology? Why do we resist the fact that we might not be right, sometimes to the point where we’ll murder opposing tribes?
Environmental and genetic conditions conspire to create what we feel (or don’t) about the ethereal. I get it: Many religious believers think they’ve got the special sauce, some hidden insight revealed only to their tribe. Yet so many conflicting ideologies cannot be right; there must be something else at play, and that thing is our unique biology.
The first few quotes below are big-picture social questions, while the remaining come from neuroscience and psychology books. They are not all atheistic per se, but they do point to the fact that humans tend to think very highly of themselves and what we believe, and that there are biological explanations for why we feel the way we do. The more we recognize that, the more likely we are to stop thinking there is only one way to discover truth.
“How much vanity must be concealed—not too effectively at that—in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan?” — Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Here comes logic
“Monotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: To argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe—and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.” — Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
The difference is often language
“In America, belief in the unreal seems to be very fungible. Individuals don’t so much abandon religious fantasy in favor of reason as find different fantasies that better suit their particular excitement and credulity quotients.” — Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire
A Buddhist approach
“Mindfulness accepts as its focus of inquiry whatever arises in one’s field of awareness, no matter how disturbing or painful it might be. One neither seeks nor expects to find some greater truth lurking behind the veil of appearances. What appears and how you respond to it: that alone is what matters.” — Stephen Batchelor, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist
“Comprehension, far from being a Godlike talent from which all design must flow, is an emergent effect of systems of uncomprehending competence: natural selection on the one hand, and mindless computation on the other.” — Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds
The physical can be spiritual
“Evolution simply happened—foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against—not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.” — Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self
“Supernatural thinking is simply the natural consequence of failing to match our intuitions with the true reality of the world.” — Bruce M. Hood, The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs
Out of body is still in the body
“Out-of-body flight “really happens,” then—it is a real physical event, but only in the patient’s brain and, as a result, in his subjective experience. The out-of-body state is, by and large, an exacerbated form of the dizziness that we all experience when our vision disagrees with our vestibular system, as on a rocking boat.” — Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts
Randomness produces beautiful (or efficient) results
“If you let something tumble long enough, it comes out almost perfect. Such is the power of random collisions and patience, and that constitutes the sum total of nature’s intelligence. All the rough edges, the flaws, the things that don’t work are systematically dispatched by natural selection. What remains and carries on into the next generation and the next after that and so on are the advantageous aspects, what does workwhat makes survival easier. And survival is the fuel of natural selection.” — Rodolfo R. Llinas, I of the vortex: From Neurons to Self
“Everything happens for a reason”
“A long line of research in cognitive science has documented that people make causal attributions about events as a means of maintaining personal control. It is the feeling that things are spinning out of control that motivates the human brain to find a pattern in events and try to predict what is going to happen next. The left-brain interpreter thus will be activated whenever the individual senses a lack of control. Superstitions and conspiracy theories can be seen as the societal consequences of the interpreter’s drive to find a causal explanation for events that are seemingly out of control.” — Ronald T. Kellogg, The Making of the Mind: The Nueroscience of Human Nature