Examining the Skeptical Brain to Try and Find Why Everyone Doesn’t Believe In God

(Credit: akindo via iStock)
(Credit: akindo via iStock)

Most Americans who grew up in religious households are still religious. But what about the ones who aren’t?

Christopher Obal used to be a Christian. He grew up in Queens, New York, and when he was 5 years old, his parents left Catholicism for a very different form of Christianity. While they didn’t claim a specific denomination, he said the churches they went to would probably be described as Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic.

“We attended churches where people spoke in tongues, and believed in the gifts of the spirit as well as a God who spoke to his people frequently,” he said.

As an adolescent Obal was obsessed with discovering God’s plan for his life and doing God’s will. At the age of 18, he attended Oral Roberts University, a conservative Christian college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But while at college, he began to question his beliefs. Now, while he’s open to the possibility of “god, gods, goddesses, aliens, universal consciousness, or whatever,” he’s not affiliated with any religion. The rest of his family remains devoutly religious.

Obal is one of only a small percentage of Americans who grew up in religious households and are now religion-free. A 2008 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that only 12.7 percent of people raised in a particular faith eventually become unaffiliated with any religious group. Why did Obal abandon Christianity, while his friends and family remained faithful?

As with many things regarding human nature, the answer is complicated. But a good place to start is the nature of belief itself.

It’s no surprise that most Americans believe in God, according to science writer and skeptic Michael Shermer.  In his book “The Believing Brain,” he explains how belief was beneficial to human evolution.  He said that “the tendency to find patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise” — or, as he calls it, “patternicity” — developed as a way to keep humans alive.

He gives the example of an early human hearing a “rustle in the grass.” Is it a hungry predator or is it the wind? If the person assumes it’s a hungry predator but it’s actually the wind, he or she will come to no harm. But if the person believes it’s the wind when it’s actually a hungry predator, it could mean death. So, the tendency to be overly cautious and falsely believe leads to being able to pass on those cautious, believing genes. Or, as Shermer puts it, “we are the descendants of those who were most successful at finding patterns.”

Shermer adds that once humans see the patterns, they tend to infuse them with “meaning, intention, and agency.” He calls this “agenticity.” How does this lead to supernatural belief?

“God is the ultimate pattern that explains everything that happens,” he wrote, “the ultimate intentional agent.”

Shermer cites studies that show a heavy “genetic influence on intentional belief.” And he says that “people who grow up in religious families and later become religious do so because they have inherited a disposition to resonate positively with religious sentiments.”

In the popular book “The God Gene,” American geneticist Dean Hamer proposed something similar. He said that “we have a genetic predisposition for spiritual belief that is expressed in response to, and shaped by, personal experience and the cultural environment.”

Belief was a positive development for the evolution of our species, and we haven’t evolved beyond it. According to a May Gallup poll, 86 percent of Americans believe in God. The question now becomes: Why doesn’t everyone believe in God?

Many researchers have asked this same question. Some studies suggest that a skeptical brain works differently than a believing brain.  One example is a 2012 study titled “Is it Just a Brick Wall or a Sign From the Universe: An fMRI Study of Supernatural Believers and Skeptics.” In this experiment, the participants’ brain activity was monitored while they read a scenario, then looked at a picture. They were asked what thoughts that image would evoke if they were in that scenario, then saw that picture on a poster as they were walking down the street.

For example, imagine you just had a job interview. You walk down the street, and see a poster of a business suit. How would that make you feel? What does that poster mean? The supernaturally inclined were more likely to see it as a meaningful omen, a sign that they would get the job. The skeptics in the group did not see any significance in the image.

The researchers found that one region of the brain (the right inferior frontal gyrus) “was activated more strongly in skeptics than in supernatural believers.” The more active that part of the brain, the less likely participants were to find supernatural meaning in the images. The researchers think this is because the active region of the brain is associated with cognitive inhibition.

Cognitive inhibition is the mind’s ability to stop or override a certain mental process — the ability to stop unwanted thoughts, for example, or to weed out irrelevant information. One example of where cognitive inhibition is useful is in overcoming prejudice. If people want to avoid discriminating, they need to inhibit or suppress any negative stereotypes they might have toward a certain group of people.

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Lala Stone

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