Why Do We Believe in God?
by Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin
Meridian Magazine

The relationship between psychology and related disciplines, on the one hand, and religion, on the other, has not always been a happy one. Sigmund Freud, for example, disdained religious belief as infantile, a “collective neurosis.” Disbelieving mental health professionals often seek to understand what allegedly abnormal and irrational factors impel the overwhelming majority of humankind to believe in God and the supernatural.

Justin L. Barrett, a psychologist, addresses precisely that question in his new book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? His answer, flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that dominates many graduate programs in psychology and psychiatry.

A Natural Concept

Barrett argues that religious belief is neither peculiar nor strange, but natural, and that it is to be expected as almost inevitable, because it arises from the natural functioning of normal human minds working in normal and natural contexts. Neither coercion nor brainwashing nor special persuasive techniques need be invoked in order to account for widespread human belief in God or gods. By contrast, he suggests — and his suggestion is bound to upset and enrage certain readers — that atheism is relatively unnatural, an “oddity,” which accounts for its being a quite uncommon worldview both historically and on today’s international scene. “Atheistic academics marveling about how strange it is for people to be religious,” he says, “is a bit like two-headed people discovering one-headed people and thinking how odd they are.”

Barrett cites psychological data indicating that children are biased from a very young age, by the very nature of their minds even prior to theological indoctrination, toward acceptance of the world as having been created by a “nonhuman superbeing.” He quotes another psychologist’s suggestion of “the possibility that children naturally develop as ‘intuitive theists,’” and that “religious instruction merely fills in the forms that already exist in children’s minds.” At one point, without committing himself to the view, Barrett even cites an Indian man — part of Barrett’s research has been conducted in India — who explained to him that children are less corrupted than adults because they have more recently been in the presence of “the Divine.”

How to be a Good Atheist

So what about atheism? Does it represent, as many atheists would claim, a maturing beyond childish silliness? Barrett’s answer is subtle, but negative. In his eighth chapter (to which our short summary here cannot do justice), he offers suggestions to those who wish to overcome their natural predisposition to believe in divine agents. Atheists or would-be atheists, he advises, should spend as much time as possible in urban or otherwise largely human environments, avoiding nature. They should reinforce their atheism with alternative explanations for anything seemingly divine, and should associate as much as possible (e.g., on message boards or in organizations) with like-minded nonbelievers.

Atheists should avoid believers or, they should emphasize the plurality of supernaturalist belief so as to blunt the force of its cumulative testimony against their own unbelief. They should avoid urgent or life-threatening situations, or situations (such as agricultural pursuits) where human effort is insufficient to guarantee results and in which humans seem small and relatively powerless. Otherwise, they might be tempted to invoke the help of a superhuman agent.

They should immerse themselves in environments favoring reflective thought, such as universities — not because all reflective thought points to atheism, and not because atheists are more intelligent, but because serious reflective effort will be required to fight off the strong pre-reflective or subreflective inclination to believe in the supernatural.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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