In recent years, psychologists have come to understand religion and paranormal belief as resulting, in most people, from simple errors in reasoning. You believe in God or astrology or a purpose in life because you apply ideas about people—that they have thoughts and intentions—to the natural world. Some display this tendency more than others, but it’s there in everyone, even atheistic heathens like me. What has not been clarified is exactly how the various cognitive biases interact to produce specific ideas about the supernatural—until now.
In a 2012 Gallup poll, only 15 percent of Americans said humans evolved without God’s guidance. By comparison, 32 percent said God guided our evolution, and 46 percent said God created us in our present form (appendix and all). Many countries have done a better job than we have at quashing creationism and intelligent design, but we do teach evolution in (most of) our schools, so what’s going on? Why are those nonscientific beliefs so persistent? It could be human nature: New research suggests even top scientists are not immune to such magical intuitions.
Your answer to this question will help me guess whether you believe in God.
Tonight I attended a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences titled “The Thinking Ape: The Enigma of Human Consciousness.” The panel was presented by the NYAS, The Nour Foundation, and To the Best of Our Knowledge, a nationally-syndicated program on Wisconsin Public Radio.
In 2010, Insane Clown Posse released their now-infamous music video “Miracles.” (See below.) They described their wonder at all the things around them, from the spectacular (rainbows, childbirth) to the mundane (water, fire, air, dirt). People mocked them for their apparent misunderstanding of science, thanks especially to the line “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” Continue reading
The Puritans often serve as a punch line—the kind of people who would outlaw dancing—but their history is complex, and as Americans we may carry their candle to a larger degree than you think. In Sunday’s New York Times I wrote about their influence on our modern culture and morality, but there’s more to the story than could fit in the final article: Continue reading
In general, what goes around comes around. If you’re nice to people, good things come your way, but if you’re jag-off, look out. (Or as I like to say, “Don’t put shit on a boomerang.”) These expectations make sense in social situations, where people can retaliate or return favors, and where reputation matters. But, as I explain in chapter 7 of my book, we expect the universe to play by the same rules—to manifest karma. And new research indicates that when we want something from the universe, we’ll invest in karma by doing a good deed. Continue reading
Humans have a tendency to see faces everywhere—including in medical images. In my book I note a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine titled “The Case of the Haunted Scrotum.” J. R. Harding, a British radiologist, performed a CT scan on a patient with an undescended right testicle. On the left side he saw a “screaming ghostlike apparition” (click to enlarge). On the right, no testicle was found. “If you were a right testis,” he wrote, “would you want to share the scrotum with that?” Continue reading
In most religions—and arguably anything worth being called a religion—God is not just an impersonal force or creator. He has a mind that humans can relate to. Maybe you’re not gossiping on the phone with him late at night, but he has personality traits, thoughts, moods, and ways of communicating with you. If you didn’t know what a mind was or how it worked, not only would you not understand people, you would not understand God, and you would not be religious. Continue reading