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A “God-Shaped-Hole” Shaped Hole

May 7th, 2009 · 21 Comments

James Joyner flags the following from Andrew Stuttaford at Secular Right:

Belief in a deity (or deities), and the desire to worship it or them, is an almost universal aspect of human nature. This not something that can be wished or indoctrinated away, and it’s pointless and maybe even destructive to try. It’s far better, surely, to channel that impulse by giving children some sort of gentle religious grounding, preferably in a well-established, undemanding, culturally useful (understanding all that art and so on) and mildly (small c) conservative denomination that doesn’t dwell too much on the supernatural and keeps both ritual and philosophical speculation in their proper place. Better the vicar than Wicca, say I.

I’m suspicious of my own gut reactions to claims like this, because if there is some nigh-universal human religious impulse,  I’m one of the aberrations born without the gene for it. Still, it’s intuitively more plausible to me that someone raised to accept the supernatural in an innocuous guise (unlike Stuttaford, I’m inclined to include Wicca in that group) would be rendered more susceptible to one of the more malign versions. Having accepted a deity, it seems a smaller leap to change your view about what It demands of us. Those raised within a religion also change at fairly high rates, after all, so whatever prophylactic effect such an upbringing has is limited, though it would be interesting to look more closely at how the starting point affects the destination for those who do switch.

It looks like we have some data here, in the form of the Pew survey (and the ensuing New York Times op-ed) to which Stuttaford is responding. That poll found that while the “unaffiliated” are the fastest growing “religious” group, children raised without an affiliation are more likely to end up with one than those raised within a faith are to switch religions (or abandon it altogether).  The problem is, “unaffiliated” isn’t all that helpful a category—it’s easy to conflate with “secular,” but a closer look makes clear that this isn’t the case: Lots of people who lack affiliation to any particular church hold religious, or at least “spiritual” beliefs, and even attend religious services at least sporadically. And in the other direction, there’s no need to fear “ritualistic replacements for ritual, cults of Reason, readings from Dawkins and endless, achingly tedious hours of discussion about the meaning of life,” because plenty of organized religions are not overly concerned with the contents of members’ beliefs.  Neither of my parents are believers, and I was an atheist more or less from the instant I understood what religion was and that (contrary to my first assumption) the adults were not having an elaborate game of pretend for our benefit. But I was arguably “raised Unitarian” at least insofar as, for several years, I was bustled off each week to Sunday School at the Ridgewood UU society, composed chiefly of other atheists and agnostics with a fondness for stained glass and organ music. One was welcome to believe in God, to be sure, but on the rare occasions when the subject came up, it was always with a certain NPRish air of indulgent detachment.

Which brings us around to the core problem with Stuttaford’s claim. As James Joyner observes, it’s a little doubtful whether the need to worship deities can really be an ineradicable, hardwired human trait when polls show that in much of Western Europe, the proportion of the population describing itself as atheist or agnostic approaches or exceeds the 50 percent mark. (My own experience is that self-described agnostics are, pretty much to the last man, just polite atheists: functional unbelievers eager to telegraph that they don’t wish to be jerks about whatever you believe.)  Either they’ve split off into a new species over there, or Stuttaford’s chief assertion is just plainly empirically false: In many human societies, this universal impulse is indeed fading away, and indeed, probably prevented from fading still faster only by high rates of immigration. Bracketing the question of whether this is good or bad, or whether it’s associated with other harmful social trends, it’s clearly possible. The next question, then, is why religion might seem like such an inextricable part of the human condition, and

“But wait,” you cry, “what about all those Scientific American cover teasers I’ve glimpsed over the years about how we’re hardwired for religion?” Well, look again at the reasons people give for joining or switching religions in that Pew poll and you’ll see, not symptoms of some one unified religious impulse, but a variety of rationales. Many people cite what amounts to a desire for community and fellowship, which I have no doubt is close behind food, water, and oxygen on the list of universal human needs. Insofar as it usually takes something a bit thicker than a shared occupational or real estate choice to anchor a stable community, religion does the job well enough, but there’s no obvious reason other forms of civic association are incapable of picking up the slack.

Then there’s that large and nebulous category of “spiritual needs,” which probably comes closer to what Stuttaford’s referring to—though to the extent this is a common complaint, I’d expect it to be leveled against the sort of etiolated pro forma religious observance he’s recommending. I’m never sure I know exactly what people are talking about when they use language like this, and I’m skeptical that it’s a well-formed category at all. You can lump together fatigue, illness, impotence, and depression under the heading “diminished qi” or “orgone deficit,” which gives you two dubious assumptions for the price of one: First, that these three very real phenomena are of the same basic type or share a common cause (though of course they sometimes do), and second, that some version of the theory implicit in the label accounts for many such phenomena, even if one or two are misdiagnosed in the instance. We routinely feel bad about a lot of things, and because most religions posit an invisible order or a future realm where everything works out for the best somehow or other, they have an adaptable means for making us feel better about many of them. I doubt any godless carbon-copy of organized religion, as Stuttaford imagines, will do the job as well across the board as the time-tested champs,  but if “spiritual” is a category error, it may turn out that we have an array of better means of dealing with the component problems that make up the ersatz class. Put it this way: Every society has knives and bladed tools, but not because we’re hardwired for knifiness, or because there’s a fundamental, universal human bladed impulse. What’s universal are a variety of diverse problems and situations that knives are good at solving. In a modern society, though, you’ve probably got a dozen task-specific knives that stay in your kitchen, and you manage to get by without a sword or a dagger strapped to your belt.

Finally, to the extent it’s distinct from the previous category, there’s what we call the “religious experience,” the kind of ineffable ecstatic feeling that may be common to some of the respondents who described themselves as “called by God” to their prefered denomination. No doubt that, as a consequence of how we’re wired, a fair number of people will continue to have such experiences for the foreseeable future. There will be epileptics and people who take drugs in every society for a long while to come yet as well, but it doesn’t follow that we’re therefore compelled to think of the former as possessed by demons and the latter as shamans.  On the contrary, those interpretations are pretty much extinct among educated people. Universal phenomena may frequently be read through similar cultural lenses—but the phenomenon does not determine or demand the lens.

If this is roughly on point, a secularist who wants to ensure his kids aren’t easy prey for nutty doctrines has an alternative to inoculating them with some gelded lo-carb form of faith. Instead, he can try to supply them with the array of tools required to address the needs religion satisfies, to interpret the experiences religion purports to explain, and to grapple with the questions to which religion promises pat answers. Inevitably, a thoughtful and independent child will reject some of the parent’s preferred tools and lenses. But they’ll probably end up looking for ways to improve or replace those particular tools and lenses, not for the wonder tonic that does it all. They’ll have the same holes in their hearts we all do from time to time, but less use for the blunt God-shaped plug we carve when we’re trying to fill them all at the same time.

Tags: Religion · Science



21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Better Vicar than Wicca? // May 7, 2009 at 7:44 am

    […] Julian Sanchez weighs in with a lengthy response to Stuttaford.  He argues, persuasively, that the “desire […]

  • 2 Anonymous Associate // May 7, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Wow, great post. I’m sincerely sorry about your recent layoff, but your blogging since then has been of high quality and consistently interesting.

    My religious upbringing was similar to yours (aside from the UU bit), and this post makes a lot of sense out of my own experience. I’ve never been a believer, but I’ve also never experienced any sort of “spiritual emptiness” or “need for god”.

    At the same time, when I hear about the specific things that draw people to religion — need for community, lack of direction or purpose, serious moral and ethical quandaries, grief, fear of mortality, etc. — every single one of them is something I’ve experienced at some point in my life. It just doesn’t naturally occur to me to lump them all together or attach a religious label to them.

  • 3 makarios // May 7, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Fine, fine writing. Very impressive.

  • 4 Number 6 // May 7, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    The Unitarianism you mentioned is a complicating factor in religious affiliation surveys, albeit a small one. I (and, from the sound of it, your family) am an example. I’m an agnostic or atheist, depending on the mood I’m in when asked, but I’m also a church-going UU. In fact, my wife and I are taking my daughter to a “child dedication ceremony” in the church this Sunday. I’m honestly not sure what that entails, but it’s certainly not the same thing as having her baptised.
    So, to a survey taker, my family and I are church-goers, and should be marked as such. But I’m emphatically not a believer, and we attend church for reasons that have nothing to do with obeisance to any deity. There may not be enough people like me to seriously affect the validity of those surveys, but there must be some effect.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // May 7, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Well, UU is the rare case of a denomination where you’ll often find entire churches where unbelievers are in the majority. But I think you’ll find a chunk in many others—the “cultural” Catholic or Jew who shows up to mass or synagogue occasionally as a nod to tradition, say. Even among self-identified believers, there’s the question of what, exactly, they mean. Some people talk about “God” or a “Higher Power” and seem to mean, not some kind of purposive intelligence, but something like “the underlying order of the universe” or “the capacity for goodness in all people” or “whatever I’m encountering in certain kinds of ego-shattering experiences I have.” I don’t want to quibble with the terms people want to use, but there’s a point where people’s definitions vary so widely that it’s not clear they’re even talking about the same very broad *type* of entity.

  • 6 Number 6 // May 7, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    That’s a fair point, Julian. At some point, you have to wonder if those surveys say anything useful at all. I suppose that they can point-in a very general way-to trends in the way people describe themselves. But that’s probably about it.

    As far as the UUs go, I still find it amusing that I’ve been able to check out books by Dawkins, Sagan, Dennet, and Hitchens from the church library. And I must remember to pick up The Voyage of the Beagle from the in-church bookstore. A conventional church, it ain’t.

  • 7 Anderson // May 7, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    I think it’s quite plausible that we have a hardwired tendency to believe in God. It’s part of a broader tendency to attribute unexplained events to agents rather than natural processes. The hypothesis from evolutionary psychology is that such a tendency is adaptive. Or at least that it was adaptive in our ancestral environment. If you hear a rustling sound in the bushes, you’re more likely to survive in the long run if you tend to attribute the sound to a stalking predator and run away than if you dismiss it as the wind, even if you’re wrong most of the time.

    But even if there is an innate tendency to believe in God, that doesn’t mean the tendency cannot be suppressed or overcome through education and reason. I expect the ranks of atheists/agnostics to rise further as more and more people come to see the implausibility of theism, and religion in general, in light of science and reason.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // May 8, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Sure, I think Pascal Boyer is one of many who have pointed to the “intentionality detector” module as a source of religion’s ubiquity. But again, I think it’s important to be precise about this: This is not the same thing as a “hardwired tendency to believe in God.” It is a hardwired tendency to posit agents behind patterns. That explains why people might very naturally *come up* with gods in an attempt to explain natural events with mysterious causes. But as you say, it’s obviously a defeasible tendency or we’d all scoff incredulously at modern meteorology between prayers to Zeus or Thor. People react more strongly to evolution than to meteorology, not because the intention-detection module is somehow more stubborn in that case, but because the hypothesis it produced has been opportunistically adapted to serve other functions in that case.

  • 9 willibrord // May 9, 2009 at 12:23 am

    Children should be inculcated in the values espoused by the Founders in the Constitution.
    The Rational belief in the rights of Citizens and obligations thereof is more powerful than any mere religion.

    America is the only Nation with a Constitution that stands inviolable against any hierarchical power, yet defined the right of the citizen to choose any Religion without let or hindrance.

    America is the only Nation that guarantees the right of the citizen to arm himself against the predations of Government, this alone is worthy of Celebration.

  • 10 Anderson // May 9, 2009 at 1:08 am

    But again, I think it’s important to be precise about this: This is not the same thing as a “hardwired tendency to believe in God.” It is a hardwired tendency to posit agents behind patterns.

    I don’t really understand your argument here. The hypothesis is that our caveman ancestors were more likely to survive if they had oversensitive agent-detectors. More likely to survive if they tended to believe that the rustling in the bushes was caused by a tiger than that it was caused by the wind. And a tendency to explain events of unknown cause in terms of agents rather than natural processes will tend to lead to belief in a god or gods. Makes sense to me.

    I don’t understand your last sentence at all. I think the reason religious people tend to be more resistant to evolution that to, say, meteorology is that naturalistic explanations of the basic nature and origin of human beings are far more different to reconcile with most religious worldviews than a naturalistic explanation of things like the weather.

  • 11 razib // May 9, 2009 at 1:38 am

    the proportion of the population describing itself as atheist or agnostic approaches or exceeds the 50 percent mark.

    this isn’t really true julian. some people, e.g., sam harris, have been asserting it is true, but it isn’t.


  • 12 DavidD // May 10, 2009 at 10:10 am

    There is so much metaphor and vagueness here. You don’t seem to understand why anyone might turn from atheism in reality, as I did in my thirties, except from being “thoughtful and independent” in addressing the problems of “fatigue, illness, impotence, and depression”.

    Yes, prayer is like a knife, and different prayers are different knives, as are rituals, doctrines, institutions, congregations and leaders. Some of them are paper knives that aren’t worth a damn, as I discovered when I tried to use them, but some of them are as underrated by atheists as evolution is underrated by Bible-believers.

    I’ve benefited from prayer for the last 20 years and from a personal companion named God. I’ve received direction, strength, comfort, hope, and love this way that I can’t find in me otherwise. It’s not so simple as saying God runs everything, so no worries. I knew God didn’t run everything when I was raised in science. I know that now, even though I was willing to consider that traditionalists are right when religion started paying off for me. They aren’t right, for many reasons, but it’s not so simple as saying it’s just a grand illusion.

    The term “God-shaped void” doesn’t come up explicitly in the book Religion Explained by academic anthropologist and apparent atheist Pascal Boyer, but I found a new way to think of that idea from his book. There is a God-shaped void that evolution created in our brain through a number of needs, such as the desire for power, knowledge, love, and goodness, along with our neurophysiological bias toward hidden causes. Atheists say they can fill this void better than theists, or they would if this concept were universally believed, and that theists are really just delivering smoke and mirrors, not any real benefit. I’m quite sure atheists are wrong on the latter point, from the benefits I’ve received, despite the skepticism I learned in science and remain grateful for, and they’ve yet to prove the first point. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors from everyone about this. That’s human nature, theist or atheist, but that is never all reality is.

  • 13 razib // May 10, 2009 at 10:19 am

    ok, updated statistics:

  • 14 Freddie // May 10, 2009 at 10:38 am

    You are not an atheist, of course, you are antitheist, and your inability to understand the difference is precisely what makes intellectual life for nonbelievers like myself such an exercise in guilt by association.

  • 15 pragmatic idealist // May 10, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    I grew up in Reform Judaism, which is pretty close to UU. More importantly, I had a secure childhood. You’ve summed up my point of view very well. This Iris DeMent song is more succinct:

    Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
    Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
    But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
    I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

    Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
    Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack.
    Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
    I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

    Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
    Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
    But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
    I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

    Some say they’re goin’ to a place called Glory and I ain’t saying it ain’t a fact.
    But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to purgatory and I don’t like the sound of that.
    Well, I believe in love and I live my life accordingly.
    But I choose to let the mystery be.

    Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
    Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
    But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
    I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
    I think I’ll just let the mystery be

  • 16 Julian Sanchez // May 10, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    I’d thought I’d included a link to the poll I’d been looking at; it’s there now.

  • 17 Julian Sanchez // May 10, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    It’s true; you just can’t take me anywhere.

  • 18 Matt // May 11, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    The biggest difference that I’ve noticed between atheists and theists tends to be on the relative importance they put on truth and peace of mind. That’s not to say that theists have no commitment to truth or atheists cannot find peace of mind, but when they argue that seems to be where they come from. An atheist will talk about the lack of objective evidence for any meaningful theist belief. A theist will counter with evidence of psychological benefit from said belief.

    I guess what I’m saying is that if filling “god shaped holes” becomes the most important motivating factor in an individual’s life, he or she is likely to grasp onto some kind of religious belief regardless of their upbringing. If another individual is more concerned with what is actually true, that will take precidence to a quick fix sort of peace of mind.

  • 19 Paging Michael Stipe « Around The Sphere // May 12, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    […] #2: We got Julian Sanchez on the original Stuttaford […]

  • 20 Adam // May 13, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Somewhat off topic, but count me as an atheist who’s always thought that Wiccanism seems preferable to the vicar. Irritating New Age overtones aside, paganism seems a lot less morally problematic than monotheism. It also seems a hell of a lot more fun.

  • 21 The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room » MORNING READ // Jun 19, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    […] Beat the Press Matlock!!! – Attaturk, firedoglake Stress test finale – Kevin Drum, Mother Jones A ‘God-shaped hole’ shaped hole – Julian Sanchez Put children first – Moe Lane, RedState Hawaii passes ‘Islam Day’ law – Michelle […]