In my essay on the origin of religion earlier this month, I describe new research tackling the question of how belief in unseen deities arose. One leading model from cognitive science suggests that religion is a natural consequence of human social cognition and that we are primed to see the work of another thinking being—an agent—in the natural world and our lives. But a person of faith might give a different kind of answer: Religion arose because divinity exists, and belief in deities represents the human response to it.
Does the cognitive science model conflict with that religious perspective? Some creationists find the research an attack on faith. But the scientists I interviewed said that the question of whether God exists is distinct from their research. For example, Deborah Kelemen of Boston University, whose psychological studies have found that children and adults have a natural penchant for creationist explanations, says that her work “does not speak to the existence of God; it speaks to why and how we might believe. Whether God exists is a separate question, one we can’t scientifically test.” Those who are upset by the idea that human minds are likely to construct gods, or that evolution has shaped religion, “are misreading the message of this work,” she says.
Charles Darwin neatly articulated the distinction between studying the mechanism of religious belief and its truth. When considering the origin of religion in The Descent of Man, he wrote: “The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by some of the highest intellects that have ever existed.” (He did not, however, report how he himself stood on the question of God’s existence.)
Some scientists say that the cognitive model of religion is compatible with belief in God. The science explains why humans are receptive to religion, a notion that theologians of various religions have explored, says Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who studies the psychology of belief and is an observant Christian. “Embedded in all of us is a receptiveness to the idea of transcendence—an idea you see in many of the world’s religions. From their point of view, we trot out the scientific evidence for this receptiveness, and their response is, ‘Yeah, right, we knew that,’ ” says Barrett.
Barrett and others do sometimes get letters from angry believers, but they also receive letters from irate atheists, who don’t buy the notion of religion as part of human nature. “I’m not seen as a friend of atheists either,” says Jesse Bering of Queen’s University, Belfast. “I’m arguing there are no atheists proper.”
All the same, some scientists do see a potential conflict between the cognitive research and faith, if researchers one day find that belief in God stems from trivial or untrustworthy psychological reasons. “The study of why people believe in God can shed light on whether they do so for a good reason or a bad reason,” says Paul Bloom of Yale University. “If I were religious, this would matter to me a lot.”