Biological Bases for Religious Belief


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Jesse Bering, a cognitive psychologist in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas, has created one of the first experimental programs in the world that brings together three previously unconnected areas: cognitive science, evolutionary theory and existential psychology.

His most recent research will soon be published in the American Psychology Association's flagship journal, Developmental Psychology. Another more general article on Bering's work, "The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural," has just been published in the March-April issue of American Scientist. Numerous media have cited Bering's research, including The London Times and Science & Theology News.

In fall 2005, he served as an international fellow of the newly formed Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University, Belfast, Ireland, a research center with a strong focus on cognition and religion.

In his research, Bering is studying the natural psychological bases for religious belief. He examines the fundamental question "Is God all in your head?" from an evolutionary perspective.

In 1996, Bering was a student on an anthropology fellowship. He spent the summer studying a 450-pound silverback gorilla named King, who had been trained to entertain audiences by climbing atop a 20-gallon drum three times a day and belly dancing for a head of lettuce.

Bering found himself wondering what King would think of God - or if he thought of God at all.

"We tend to think that the answers to the biggest mysteries in life are somewhere 'out there' in the mysterious universe, when really it's the peculiar way our brains have evolved over the past several hundred thousand years that compels us to ask questions such as 'why am I here?' or 'what happens after I die?' in the first place," Bering said.

He recently conducted an experiment with children from 3 to 7 years old to see how they perceived unexpected events. He told each child that "Princess Alice," a friendly magic princess who could make herself invisible, would help them play a game in which they guessed which one of two boxes held a hidden ball. Bering designed the game so a picture would fall unexpectedly to the ground and a table lamp would flash on and off during the experiment.

Bering found that the oldest children were the most likely to believe that Alice was communicating with them, while the youngest simply shrugged their shoulders. Bering concluded that the three-year-olds were better scientists than the older children since they gave more plausible reasons for the unexpected events. The reason: the younger children had yet to develop the critical psychological ability to see such events as omens or symbols.

"It's a bit of a leap," Bering said, "but we can imagine how these capacities play out in the real world when people reason about the symbolic 'meaning' of, say, natural disasters." Bering cites the remarks of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who suggested that Hurricane Katrina was God's wake-up call to African Americans about rampant urban violence.

Bering asks "Just as canine teeth evolved to help people rip the flesh off bones, could a belief in God have evolved to help people tear off bits of meaning from an otherwise meaningless existence?" While the physical human body evolved by natural design - developing opposable thumbs and bipedal posture - has the human mind borne the thumbprint of evolution as well?

If one day everyone developed autism or otherwise lost the ability to think about other minds, church attendance would hit an all-time low, Bering argues. The reason: a key ingredient for a belief in God, Bering believes, is "an innate disposition to see others as thinking, feeling beings, just like the self."

As a graduate student, he developed an unusual taste for existential writers such as Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Friedrich Nietzshe. It occurred to him that the focus of these authors' works - meaninglessness, death, and the existence of God - had been ignored by mainstream cognitive science.

"I'd spent the last four years working with chimpanzees, and though most researchers in the field were telling us that there was only a matter of degree between chimpanzee and human minds, it was hard for me to believe that apes pondered their existence at any level," he said. "I wanted to know why human minds were strangely saddled with these heavy ideas of meaning and death and God; I was convinced it was something fundamentally unique to the way our minds had evolved since we last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees several million years ago."

More than other sciences, Bering believes cognitive science has the potential to teach us how we all truly fit as individual souls in this world.

"We may not like the answers that Darwinian natural selection provides," Bering said, "but that doesn't make them any less true."