Hardwired for God?

Question: Why does religious belief exist?

Paul Bloom: Most humans are religious. If you ask most people, they'll tell you they belong to one or another religion. The most common religion on earth is Christianity, but Islam is coming a close second. And then there's just all sorts of religions. They differ in many ways, both in the beliefs that they have and in their practices, but they share certain common properties. So, all religions believe in some sort of supernatural entities, preachers without bodies, but have minds, like gods and spirits and ghosts and angels. All religions believe that one or more of these supernatural created the earth and created animals and created us. And they all believe in different forms, that we can survive the death of our body, that we are immortal.

And I'm very interested in where these beliefs come from, why they exist at all. And you can imagine different extremes, so some scholars argue that they're social constructions, they're inventions of culture, and that's why they're universal. Others argue they're biological adaptations. They exist because of the selective advantage they gave to our ancestors.

I have a view which is different from both of those. I think they're accidents. I think they're accidental byproducts of cognitive systems that we've evolved for different reasons. More specifically, we've evolved a highly powerful social cognition. A highly powerful cognitive mechanism for thinking about the mental states of others and evaluating them and judging them. And I think that the system is so powerful that it sometimes leads to certain unpredicted byproducts. Things that we haven't evolved to do. So, for instance, we're highly animistic. We see consciousness and agency and humanity all over, even when, you know, a scientist would tell us it doesn't exist. We're natural creationists. In that when we see structure in the world, like a tree or a tiger, we think somebody must have made that, again, we're on the look out for design. And I think we're natural born dualists. And what I mean by that is, that we see our minds as inherently separate from our bodies. And so this makes possible idea that our mind could survive the destruction of our body, or that it could go to another body, as in reincarnation.

So, I think that these three habits of mind, animisms, creationism, dualism, are present in all of us. They're not biological adaptations, they're accidents. But I think they're what make religious belief attractive and plausible and universal.

Question: What connection, if any, exists between religion and morality?

Paul Bloom: Many people, many religious people, many people in general, think that religion plays an important role in one's moral life. The very strong view, which I think nobody can take seriously, is that without religion we'd be monsters, we wouldn't care about other people. And the existence of atheists, who don't rape and murder and so on, seems to falsify that claim. But what about a more subtle claim, which is that religion on the whole makes you nicer? Well, this isn't a crazy theory, there's actually some statistical evidence in favor of it. So, for instance, religious people in the United States tend to give more to charity than atheists, even when you factor out religious charities, even when you think about things like donating blood or giving to the homeless.

And so you might think that religion is sort of ramping up your niceness in general, but I think there's another explanation, which is that religious in the United States are part of the vast majority and they tend to be happier and they tend to be parts of communities to a greater extent than atheists. And it might be the happiness and the community nature that explains this difference in giving, not religion per se.

And the reason why I believe this to be correct, is that you have now societies in Europe, like Scandinavian countries, that are quite a bit atheist, far more than the United States, and if religion makes you nice, you would expect these societies to be monstrous, high rates of crime, of exploiting one another, and none of that's true. In fact, these are swell places to live. These atheist communities are filled with people who don't tend to murder each other, don't tend to rape each other, don't tend to have all sorts of social ills that the United States have.

So I think the relationship from religion from morality is going to be complicated and interesting. I think it won't be hard to find places where religion corrodes morality, where religious belief leads to people rejecting their gut and appropriate moral feelings and doing monstrous things. Religion is an ideology and all ideologies have that power. But for the most part, I think people can be religious and good and be atheists and good, and that's what the data shows us.

Recorded on November 20, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

According to Paul Bloom, many religious notions arise out of innate features of our brains, including the tendency to "see consciousness all over."

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Image source: NASA/Big Think
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The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

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"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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