Does Belief Help Us to Survive?
I don’t think religious beliefs are different from any other kind of beliefs: political attitudes, commitments to political parties, or economic ideologies, for example. These are all forms of belief. I think at the base of it is this whole idea that we’re pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots — A connects to B connects to C — and often, they really are connected, and that’s called associative learning. All animals do it. It’s a biological imperative; we grow new synaptic connections when we learn something.
The problem is that there’s no baloney detection module in the brain that says, “That’s a true pattern; that’s a false pattern” with some consistent algorithm that helps us discriminate those. We tend to assume all patterns are real and that they’re infused with intentional agency. And that’s where I think the belief in spirits and ghosts and souls and gods and God and conspiracy theories and so forth comes in.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t hidden agents and predators and conspiracies out there. There are. But, yet again, we only have our intuitions from evolution. In many ways, it is adaptive, in terms of forming beliefs — we have to form beliefs — and to that extent, those adaptations are still vital to survival. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of bogus nonsense out there, and we’re susceptible to believing that as well. And that’s where it’s nonadaptive.
It’s a two-edged sword. If we got rid of all weird beliefs, it would mean, really, that we’re getting rid of all beliefs. I wrote a book called Why People Believe Weird Things. Well, why do people believe weird things? Because they have to believe things, and the weird things go right along with them. In that sense, I’ll always have job security. There will always be people believing these things.
Now, I do think that mass education and the age of science and all that does make a difference, compared with, say, 500 years ago. People are a lot less superstitious than they were then. But, nevertheless, people still harbor all kinds of goofy, weird beliefs. For example: 9/11 was a conspiracy by the Bush administration, flying these planes with remote control devices after the passengers were taken off and whisked away to Canada to be gassed. That’s just the tip of the goofiest part of that particular conspiracy. How could anybody believe that? But they do — lots of people do. So it’s still around. Roughly a third to a half of Americans believe in astrology and tarot cards and psychics that can talk to the dead and UFOs and aliens and Bigfoot. The percentages are striking. Still, it’s not 90 percent. It’s better than it used to be.
This article was originally published on Science and Religion Today.