Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith


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In this groundbreaking volume, J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD, with Clare Aukofer, offers a succinct yet comprehensive study of how and why the human mind generates religious belief. Dr. Thomson, a highly respected practicing psychiatrist with credentials in forensic psychiatry and evolutionary psychology, methodically investigates the components and causes of religious belief in the same way any scientist would investigate the movement of astronomical bodies or the evolution of life over time—that is, as a purely natural phenomenon. Providing compelling evidence from psychology, the cognitive neurosciences, and related fields, he, with Ms. Aukofer, presents an easily accessible and exceptionally convincing case that god(s) were created by man—not vice versa. With this slim volume, Dr. Thomson establishes himself as a must-read thinker and leading voice on the primacy of reason and science over superstition and religion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780984493234
Publisher: Pitchstone Publishing
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 838,212
File size: 620 KB

About the Author

J. Anderson Thomson Jr., MD, is a staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia's Student Health Center and Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy. He maintains a private practice of adult and forensic psychiatry and serves as a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Clare Aukofer is a medical writer and editor. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Richard Dawkins is an ethologist, an evolutionary biologist, and a writer. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and was formerly University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science. Among his previous books are The Ancestor's Tale, The God Delusion, and The Selfish Gene.

Read an Excerpt

Why We Believe in God(s)

A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith

By J. Anderson Thomson Jr., Clare Aukofer

Pitchstone Publishing

Copyright © 2011 J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD, and Clare Aukofer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9844932-3-4


In the Beginning Was the Word

Our Propensity to Believe

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. ... It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

— Charles Darwin

There are those who say that evolution conflicts with faith, or that the natural wonders of evolution were kick-started by some sort of sentient, omniscient being. Yet if an all-powerful, all-seeing god does exist, he designed into the creation and evolution of man something powerful: the propensity to believe in a god.

Throughout recorded history, from the ancient Egyptians to the Aztecs to the Romans and beyond — Polytheist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Satanist, Scientologist — all known cultures have revolved around some concept of at least one god and/or central mystical figure, with or without a corresponding supernatural world. Why? Why is religion an apparently universal feature of humans and the cultures we create?

We are beginning to understand. Over the past two decades there has been a revolution in psychology and the cognitive neurosciences. Out of it has come an evolutionary explanation of why human minds generate religious belief, why we generate specific types of beliefs, and why our minds are prone to accept and spread them.

We now have robust theories with empirical evidence, including evidence from imaging studies — pictures of the brain itself — that supports these explanations. The pieces are in place; we can now look to science for a comprehensive understanding of why human minds produce and accept religious ideas and why humans will alter their behavior for, die for, and kill for these ideas.

Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection remains one of the most important ideas that ever occurred to a human mind, and the evidence proves him right. Natural selection is the sole workable scientific explanation for the variety and design of all life — plant, animal, and every other form — on this earth. It is also the only workable explanation for the design and function of the human mind, which is the real birthplace of gods.

Look around. We are all the same species, Homo sapiens. Yet we come in all shapes and sizes and with varying capacities. But for all the variation, many traits are heritable. We tend to resemble our parents and close kin, sharing strengths and weaknesses with those ancestors who came before. We are all descendents of success.

The term "survival of the fittest" is often misunderstood. In the Darwinian sense, fitness is the ability to adapt, to survive, and to reproductively thrive. The struggle for survival winnows out organisms lacking that ability.

Of course, Darwin did not have the advantage of knowing precisely how traits passed from one generation to the next. That had to wait until 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick unraveled the structure of DNA, and in so doing instantly saw its possible copying mechanism and identified the method of inheritance.

Combining Darwin with Watson and Crick, natural selection with genetics, creates the modern Darwinian synthesis. To survive, we adapt over evolutionary time, just as Darwin's Galapagos creatures adapted to their unique environments. Nowhere else do iguanas live in the ocean, the obvious solution to the problem of finding food and surviving on a tiny island. Even from island to island, each with its own isolated ecosystem, creatures in the Galapagos faced slightly different problems and solved them differently. They adapted. But more importantly, they passed those adaptations on.

Every organism, including the human one, is an integrated collection of adaptations — problem-solving devices — shaped by natural selection over the vast stretches of evolutionary time. Each adaptation promotes in some specific way the survival of the genes that directed the construction of those adaptations.

At every level, from molecules to minds, we see Darwinian natural selection at work.

Look at yourself. To survive, you need oxygen. As a developing organism, you needed to evolve a way to efficiently extract the oxygen from the air and distribute it throughout your body.

The structure of your heart solves the survival problem of pumping blood. The protein hemoglobin solves the problem of transporting oxygen to our brain and other organs. The oxygen in the hemoglobin pumped by the heart comes from lungs that solve the problem of extracting oxygen from the air. And so on. We simply call that whole process "breathing."

This modern synthesis applies also to the human mind and the human brain. The brain is an organ, and as Harvard psychologist and researcher Steven Pinker notes, the mind is what the brain does. And the brain, like every other piece of living tissue, is an elegantly integrated collection of devices designed through natural selection to solve specific problems of survival over vast stretches of evolutionary time. These adaptations, including social adaptations that helped us survive in small groups, evolved within the brain to promote in some way the continuation of the genes that directed their construction.

When you look at a face, the image on your retina actually is upside down and two dimensional. Your brain converts that image into an upright three-dimensional face using a myriad of visual adaptations: color detectors, motion detectors, shape detectors, edge detectors — all working symbiotically, silently, and seamlessly.

Our ancestors evolved a myriad of equally complex social adaptations. When you see that face, you also make abstract judgments about sex, age, attractiveness, status, emotional state, personality, and the contents of that individual's unseen mind, including intentions, beliefs, and desires. These judgment-forming adaptations are largely outside of awareness, many forever unconscious. Your snap judgments are millions of years in the making.

The mind/brain is relentlessly complex. Consider the Apollo spacecraft, a packed array of engineering devices, each dedicated to analyzing a constant stream of information and solving a particular problem, all while the astronauts are consciously aware of only a select few. We work the same way. Consider all of the things you are conscious of; they are a very small part of an entire system, the tip of the iceberg of what goes on in your mind.

This is important to understand because religion, while not an adaptation in itself, derives from the same mind-brain social adaptations that we use to navigate the sea of people who surround us. These adaptations formed to solve specific social and interpersonal problems as humanity evolved. Almost incidentally, but no less powerfully, they come together to construct the foundation of every religious idea, belief, and ritual. Religious beliefs are basic human social survival concepts with slight alterations.

That religion is a by-product of adaptations that occurred for other reasons does not negate its incredible power. As we'll explain in chapter 9, reading and writing are not in themselves adaptations; they also are by-products of adaptations designed for other purposes.

All religions — as sets of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe — begin with belief in one or more central holy figures or teachers. Most also involve a deity or deities capable of interacting with us, able and willing to intervene in our lives, to hear our silent wishes, and to grant them, and capable of doing literally anything. For our purposes, we'll discuss just one, and designate it as male, though some religions have multiples with differing powers and a few have snuck in female personalities. Still, they are all remarkably similar. Certainly the god of the three major Abrahamic religions is the same, so we'll use "him" for our examples.

That god is paternal and, like a good father, loves us unconditionally. Usually, though, he only hears our prayers if we worship him hard enough, make sacrifices of some sort, acknowledge that we are highly imperfect and thank him profusely (whether or not he grants our wishes), and believe that we are all born bad. This god makes decisions based on not only our prayers but also the prayers of every other human being, or at least every other human being who shares the particulars of our beliefs. Even when he refuses our wishes or needs, we continue to believe that whatever occurs is in our best interests, even if it doesn't seem that way, and that this invisible god has a purpose for everything. And all of this goes in our mind even when we're not thinking about it.

If, when you were a teenager, your mother had set you up on a blind date and assured you that your date was extraordinarily good looking, wealthy beyond measure, kind, loving, willing to do anything for you even though you'd never met, and wanted nothing more than for you to have the best of everything, would you have believed her? Well, maybe when you were a teenager. For a few minutes.

So why are we so willing to believe in an invisible god that does all of that, and more?

Compared to what really goes on in our minds, the concept of one holy supernormal entity seems easy. Just to believe in a god, our mind bounces off of no fewer than twenty hardwired adaptations evolved over eons of natural selection to help us coexist and communicate with our fellow Homo sapiens to survive and dominate the planet. In the pages that follow, we'll show you exactly how and why human minds not only accept the impossible but also have created cults of it.

We will show you how and why humans came to, among other things, believe in a god, love a god, fear a god, defer to a god, envision a god like us, pray to a god and assume prayers would be answered, create rituals to worship a god, and even die and kill for a god. And we will show you why these hardwired social traits make it extraordinarily difficult to depart from those beliefs, even if and when you are so inclined.

But let's start with a crash course in evolution.


In the Image and Likeness

Evolution 101

To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.

— Charles Darwin

We are risen apes, not fallen angels — and we now have the evidence to prove it. Our vanity might make it difficult to accept, and those who believe in divine creation find the whole concept outrageous. The mere contemplation that humanity could have developed from the "lower" animals has caused many to reject evolution outright, from the moment Charles Darwin promulgated his theory. But the evidence overwhelmingly shows that we evolved along with all other living things from the primordial ooze, where life on earth really began.

Along the east side of the African continent, the Great Rift Valley runs from Ethiopia to Mozambique. Think of this valley as the birth canal of the human species, the true Garden of Eden. This is where our particular species began its unique evolutionary trail.

We did not descend from apes. From a purely scientific viewpoint, we are apes. We share 98.6 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. We also share with them a common ancestor that lived some 5 to 7 million years ago. From that common ancestor, the human line diverged and developed along many different paths, like the varied branches of a bush. Eventually all but one, the one from which you and I evolved, died out.

We are the last surviving example of a specific African ape, the hominid. As evolutionarily recently as 50,000 years ago there may have been four species of closely related but distinct hominids sharing the planet with us. We alone among the hominids survive.

We have now met many of our ancestors. We possess fossils of Ardipithecus, probably one of the closest species to the distant ancestor we share with chimps. They seem to have been a pair-bonded species with low levels of aggression.

The Australopithecus, meaning the southern ape of Africa, is best known through its most famous fossil, Lucy, found in Ethiopia nearly forty years ago. Fossils of Paranthropus (meaning "beside human") found in southern Africa in 1938 and 1948 show it to have had a brain about 40 percent the size of ours; it likely died out because it could not adapt to changes in environment and diet.

In 2008, a nine-year-old boy, the son of a paleontologist, discovered the skull of a considerably older nine-year-old boy in Africa. This skull, also of a hominid since named Australopithicus sediba, may provide further links between the australopithecines and us.

Those species, along with our earliest hominid ancestors, coexisted in Africa for about 2 million years, surviving mind-bendingly longer than we have so far.

Our group, Homo, shows up in the fossil record about 2 million years ago and includes Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo heidelbergensis. Homo erectus made it out of Africa, probably without language, more than a million years ago, migrating as far as the Caucasus Mountains, China, and Indonesia.

It appears that some members of Homo heidelbergensis gave rise to the Neanderthals after migrating to Europe, and recent DNA sequencing data suggests that there was some hybridizing between our Homo sapiens ancestors and Neanderthals. Those Homo heidelbergensis who remained in Africa ultimately gave rise to early, anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

The earliest recognized fossils of Homo sapiens occur back to nearly 200,000 years ago. There is evidence of symbolic abilities, such as pigments potentially used in coloring, and also evidence of long -distance exchanges and trade between groups, which required a sophisticated means of symbolic communication. It seems likely that the oldest known members of our species probably had the most significant species-specific cognitive, social, and behavioral feature — the ability for language.

You and I, modern Homo sapiens with our ability for language, began to leave Africa 60,000 years ago, a blink of the eye in evolutionary time.

Put aside our ethnic, racial, nationalistic, and religious differences. Underneath our skins we are all Africans, the sons and daughters of a small group of hunter-gatherers who arose in Africa, outsurvived all others, and conquered the world.

What is even more amazing is that a severe climate variation between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago apparently reduced our population to perhaps as few as 600 breeding individuals. That is what modern genetics now tells us. That means that every one of the 7 billion people on this planet is a descendant of that small group of hunter -gatherers who lived in Africa and survived the harsh climate change.

Why us? How and why did we survive? Comparing Australopithecus, Homo erectus, and modern human skulls shows a gradual transformation in the area above the eyes. The forehead loses its steep slope and becomes rounded. A brain size of 400 to 500 cubic centimeters in Australopithecus doubles for Homo erectus and almost triples by the time of modern Homo sapiens. That change is particularly notable in the frontal lobe regions. These are the areas of our brain that contain the complex machinery, the evolved adaptations that enable us to negotiate our social worlds.

So what drove the evolution of these big brains of ours? We did. Or, more specifically, others of our species did, because we needed to work together to survive. Physical survival required social survival; we developed "groupishness."

If you arbitrarily divide a room full of people into two groups for a game, they will invariably begin to identify with the group to which they've been assigned. They will consider those in their group as "in," and those in the other as "out." There likely will be strong competition between the two groups, even if the people in them were strangers to each other when the game began. The strangers have become teammates. Hasn't that ever struck you as odd? Probably not, because it is quite literally natural. You most likely would do the same thing. This "groupishness" is hardwired and helped our ancestors survive the worlds in which they evolved.

The crucible of small, tightly knit bands of kin sculpted us into the people we are today. This is not ancient history. As recently as five hundred years ago, two-thirds of the world's population still lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes, the kind of social environment that shaped us and to which we are adapted. In many ways we are still quite tribal in our psychology. But then we are still very young.

So, you ask, what does this have to do with religion? Everything.

Religion utilizes and piggybacks onto everyday social-thought processes, adaptive psychological mechanisms that evolved to help us negotiate our relationships with other people, to detect agency and intent, and to generate a sense of safety. These mechanisms were forged in the not-so-distant world of our African homeland. They are why we survived.


Excerpted from Why We Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson Thomson Jr., Clare Aukofer. Copyright © 2011 J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., MD, and Clare Aukofer. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Richard Dawkins,
1. In the Beginning Was the Word: Our Propensity to Believe,
2. In the Image and Likeness: Evolution 101,
3. Our Daily Bread: Craving a Caretaker,
4. All That Is Seen and Unseen: Conceiving Souls,
5. Because the Bible Tells Me So: Believing in the Invisible,
6. And Deliver Us from Evil: Anthropomorphizing God(s),
7. Thy Will Be Done: Submitting to the Law of God(s),
8. Wherever Two or More of You Are Gathered: Harnessing Brain Chemistry through Ritual,
9. Oh Ye of Little Faith: Discovering the Physical Evidence of God(s) as By-product,
10. Lest Ye Be Judged: Educating Our Minds,

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