The Believing Brain

The way our minds work, research shows, makes religious beliefs natural—even inevitable


Why do people believe in God? Why is religion universal?

"Every culture in the world that we've ever known, traced all the way back, seems to have behaviors that we would describe as religious," says Northwestern psychology professor Dr. Laird Edman. "Well, among many explanations, some of them have to do with the way our brains work."

The study of the relationship between belief and the mental processes involved in perception, memory, judgment and reasoning is known as the cognitive science of religion—and one of its pioneering researchers is Dr. Justin Barrett. Barrett, a Calvin College graduate, earned a doctorate in experimental psychology from Cornell, was a senior researcher at Oxford University, and now teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Psychology.

Barrett is the author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God? and Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief. He will also be the featured speaker for Northwestern's annual Day of Learning in Community, which will explore topics of science and faith Wednesday, Feb. 10.

It was through Barrett's first book that Edman became captivated by what scientists are discovering in this new, growing field. Edman assigned students to read Why Would Anyone Believe in God? for a senior seminar he was teaching on the psychology of religion, and in the process, discovered a new passion.

"I remember praying, 'Lord, I feel like I have no vision. My research doesn't excite me anymore. What is the next step?'" he recalls. "Within a year, this shows up, and it revitalized my life as a scholar."

A mental toolbox


As the study of religion turns toward theories related to how the brain works, psychologists are identifying empirical questions and designing experiments to test those theories. They're discovering that belief in a god or gods is natural—even inevitable—because of the mental tools with which we are born.

"Our brains are designed to solve problems and react to situations in a particular way, which makes the move toward religious explanations a very short one," says Edman. "Hence, it's very easy to teach a 3-year-old there is a God. They're primed to think that thought."

Among the mental tools linked to religious belief is the ability to differentiate between inanimate objects and what scientists refer to as "agents"—those beings that can intentionally act on their environment.

"Babies seem sensitive to several important features of agents that make them ready to understand humans and animals as agents, but make them receptive to gods, as well," Barrett writes. Early in life, infants learn that agents can move themselves and other things, act to attain goals, need not resemble humans, and need not be visible.

A robust ability to detect the work of agents in the world is a mechanism for survival, says anthropologist Dr. Stewart Guthrie. If you're walking in the forest and hear a twig snap, it's advantageous to assume the sound is caused by a predator. If you do otherwise and are wrong, you become—as Edman puts it—"a calm but easy lunch."

This tendency to look for someone or something as the cause of an event can explain why people believe in gods, spirit ancestors or ghosts. So, too, can our propensity to reason about purpose and design. Work by developmental psychologist Dr. Deborah Kelemen shows that children strongly favor functional explanations for why things exist. And because children associate intentional agents with order and see design in the natural world, they naturally assume someone made it.

Research has revealed that humans early in life develop the ability to understand that others have plans, thoughts and perspectives different from their own—and to use that understanding to explain and predict the actions of others (including gods or spirits). Studies show we tend to view minds and bodies as separate entities and find it hard to imagine someone "not thinking" (even someone who is dead).

Still other research demonstrates we are drawn to ideas that fit naturally occurring assumptions about the world, but that violate an assumption in a way that is interesting, memorable and easy to understand (and therefore likely to be shared). Many religious beliefs, Barrett and others point out, fit that description—for example, ancestor spirits with no physical bodies, an animal that can speak, or a man who can walk on water.

Two sides of a coin

Theories, research and data like these are helping scientists explain religious belief—and for some, explain it away. Scholars and atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Pascal Boyer and Jesse Bering have authored books arguing that because we can account for religious belief, there's no need for the "God hypothesis."

Northwestern philosophy professor Dr. Don Wacome acknowledges the validity of those arguments, which he believes make Christians responsible for providing evidence for their faith.

"The world is filled with religious beliefs, and we now have a theory that generally debunks them," he says, "so how do we deal with that in an honest way?" For Wacome, answering that question begins with abstract philosophical arguments and ends with the historical fact that people in the second century believed Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.

"I would contend that the best explanation for why people believed that Jesus was resurrected is because it really happened," he says. "Connect that with arguments about the nature of reality and why our world exists, and I think it's reasonable to believe Jesus really was who the Scriptures say he claimed to be."

Edman, meanwhile, views the cognitive science of religion as agnostic. "You can make an argument that this science is completely consistent with faith, or you can make an argument that this science helps us understand why there is faith even if there's no God," he says. "Since most of the people initially involved in the cognitive science of religion were atheists, their interpretations were, 'Aha! Now we've explained away religion.'"

Edman, by contrast, thinks it would be problematic if, as physical beings, we didn't find any evidence of "God's fingerprints" in how our brains are made and function. "How else would God work if he didn't work with our bodies?" he asks. "You can reason that if there is a God, God would have put in place something that gives us a sense of his presence. Calvin called it the sensus divinitatis. Maybe that's what we've found here. Maybe we've found evidence of the sensus divinitatis in human cognition."

Research questions


The scarcity of Christians studying the cognitive science of religion was the impetus for how Edman came to meet and collaborate with Barrett. In 2012 Calvin College hosted a two-week summer seminar led by Barrett that was designed to help Christian scholars learn about and begin doing research in the field. Edman was one of 12 applicants chosen to participate.

Edman was also one of just 25 scholars from around the world selected for a series of summer research seminars in Oxford, England. Hosted by Scholarship & Christianity In Oxford, the monthlong seminars provide an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary issues of science and religion. They also provide funding for Edman's own research and for establishing a science and religion club at Northwestern.

Equipped with such funding and his love for the subject, Edman has plunged into a variety of research projects, assisted by several Northwestern psychology majors. One study—conducted in cooperation with Barrett and colleagues at Calvin and a Canadian university—debunks research that purportedly shows analytical thinking decreases religious belief. After testing 200 students at Calvin and 2,700 people across North America, Edman and the others demonstrated the role prior beliefs play in that phenomenon.

"Particularly at Calvin, where people are supposed to learn to think critically about their faith, when we primed analytical thinking, their religiosity scores went up," he explains.

Another study is examining how people experience prayer. That research is being conducted with Dr. Rebekah Richert, a psychology professor at the University of California-Riverside, and Richert's lead graduate student in that study, Kirsten (McConnel '13) Lesage. Lesage, who spent four years on Edman's research teams while a student at Northwestern, is working on a doctorate in developmental psychology and plans to devote her career to the study of the cognitive science of religion.

Edman is also working on a book to help church leaders use the knowledge gained through the cognitive science of religion to better design worship and opportunities for spiritual formation.

"One of the Oxford participants last summer told me that, for Christians, the cognitive science of religion is really the cognitive science of idolatry," Edman says. Why, after all the sermons and Bible studies Christians hear throughout their lives, do they continue to have wrong beliefs—to think, for example, that they have to work hard to be good enough to get into heaven? "We can explain a lot of that with the cognitive science of religion. Their brains default there."

Courageous learning

While Edman finds the cognitive science of religion both useful and intriguing, he recognizes the subject can be challenging for students. But what better place to tackle those challenges, he asks, than in Northwestern's community of faith?

Edman cautions against a belief system that relies solely on God as an explanation for what we don't know. "If students' assurance of the existence of God has to do with human ignorance, that's a God-of-the-gaps theology," he says. "So then when something gets explained by science, our God gets smaller."

Rather than becoming anti-intellectual and anti-science, Edman wants his students to approach learning about the cognitive science of religion with intellectual integrity and humility. "God isn't afraid of our questions, and we shouldn't be afraid to ask them," he maintains. "That's at the core for what we mean when we talk about courageous and faithful learning and living."

Classic Comments

All comments are moderated and need approval from the moderator before they are posted. Comments that include profanity, or personal attacks, or antisocial behavior such as "spamming" or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. We will take steps to block users who violate any of our terms of use. You are fully responsible for the content that you post. Comments posted do not reflect the views or values of Northwestern College.