Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:
May 27, 2011 — A person reading this article right now can be simultaneously thinking about what he or she would tell a friend later this evening about the book being described; humans are capable of thinking about and imagining, back and forth in time, people and places that are not physically visible at the moment.
It is only a few turns in that thought process that allow humans to imagine and believe in a god or gods, according to Dr. J. Anderson "Andy" Thomson Jr., a practicing psychiatrist at the University of Virginia with credentials in forensic psychiatry and evolutionary psychology.
In his new book, "Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith," Thomson offers a succinct, yet comprehensive theory of how and why humans generate religion and create a god or gods – and, pointedly, not vice versa.
With local writer Clare Aukofer, Thomson adds his voice to the public debate about evolution and God's existence, drawing evidence from psychology, the cognitive neurosciences and related fields and presenting it in an easily readable and sensitive tone. Instead of making arguments about the irrationality of religious belief, as some other scientists have done, Thomson presents religious belief as a natural phenomenon that can be explained by the complicated processes in our brains.
"A way to think about religion is like reading and writing. We don't have reading and writing modules in our brain," Thomson said. "Reading and writing ... is a cultural creation utilizing basic biological adaptations. We use vision, we use fine motor skills in our hands and we use innate language and innate grammar."
Similarly, he said, "Religion is not heaven-sent; it is man-made. We have made it, we have sculpted it out of basic mechanisms that were originally evolved for other purposes."
Thomson began exploring scientific evidence for religious belief after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. "My son, Matthew, was training for a new job in a building next to the World Trade Center; he witnessed firsthand the nightmare. My response to his brush with death was to study suicide terrorism," Thomson writes in the book's preface.
He sought to write the book because religions are becoming more intrusive and destructive in political and social systems around the world, he said. Raised Presbyterian, he said he stopped practicing the religion a long time ago. The suffering of patients he witnessed in medical school made him question the idea of God.
Humans are capable of changing their dangerous tendencies. The founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were adamant about the separation between church and state, he said.
Part of what motivates suicide terrorists are the strong bonds that develop among the mostly male members of small groups, or terrorist cells, he said. They are brothers banding together who are led to believe their religion, Islam, is threatened and must be protected. Creating ties of kinship in religious groups is a common feature and can even trump blood ties.
"The appeal of such martyrdom is not just the sexual fantasy of multiple heavenly virgins," Thomson said. The other part of the belief is that the suicide bomber is allowed to choose kin members who will also automatically get to go to heaven, he said.
Religious believers and questioning individuals, as well as non-believers, who take the short time of a few hours to read "Why We Believe in God(s)" will find examples of familiar things people do that can be linked to religious beliefs through scientific explanations of how human brains work.
People have all kinds of relationships – or form attachments, as psychology describes it – with parents, children, siblings, friends, spouses and partners, and even strangers. In the early times of human development, these attachments provided protection and help and survival. Neuroscientists have found networks of neurons in the brain, powered by oxytocin, that are dedicated to forming familial and social bonds.
Humans don't just need caretakers in some vague emotional sense; our brains are hardwired to create protective and cooperative relationships for survival, Thomson said. That neural equipment gives us the ability to go one step further in an uncertain world and create an all-knowing, loving caretaker.
"Think of a 2-year-old child reaching out to be picked up and cuddled. He extends his hands above his head and beseeches you," Thomson and Aukofer wrote in the chapter, "Our Daily Bread: Craving a Caretaker."
"Think now of the Pentecostal worshipper who speaks in tongues. He stretches out his hands above his head, beseeching god in the same 'pick-me-up-and-hold-me' gesture. We may lose human attachment figures through death, through misunderstandings, through distance, but a god is always there for us."
He noted that in the Catholic religion, priests are called "Father," monks are "brothers" and nuns "sisters," led by a "Mother Superior," for another example.
Although people can't see God (why some have thought they could has another scientific cognitive explanation, Thomson said), they can imagine a father figure and/or a mother figure, like the Virgin Mary. In prayer, people talk to this invisible caretaker, and do essentially the same thing when they talk to dead ancestors or loved ones or even imaginary friends, as many children do.
To take another aspect of religion – encouraging moral behavior – studies show humans have an innate morality that developed to aid in survival, Thomson said, like the innate ability to learn language. Sophisticated imaging that shows certain areas of brain activity when someone is having different thoughts, emotions or beliefs supports scientific research about brain mechanisms.
"It appears that our emotional moral processes reside in the orbitofrontal cortex, at the bottom midsection of our brains. Those areas constantly monitor our environment, particularly our social environment, and our place in it.
"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 byproduct of adaptations that occurred for other reasons does not negate its incredible power."
Thomson is a staff psychiatrist at U.Va. Student Health and a clinical faculty member at the Institute for Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy. He also maintains a private practice of adult and forensic psychiatry. He serves as a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
The book is available online and in digital form.