Are We Born to Believe?

Adam Neiblum

The first time I saw this meme—all that sweetness and purity on the verge of corruption, the spread of ethnicities representing the diverse peoples of our shared world, those innocent cherubic minds naively awaiting indoctrination at the hands of evil-doing religious zealots—I was genuinely upset. Of course, that was the point. It is effective. But …

Is it true?

“Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.”

–Jean-Jacque Rousseau, 1762

The thought is not new. In the proverbial “state of nature,” we Homo sapiens are pure, perfect, and innocent, a squeaky-clean tabula rasa. Then “The Man” gets his hands on us, and we are indoctrinated with all society’s bullshit, including the religion of whatever culture we are born into. Evil religion as cultural indoctrination. Stop the brainwashing, we speculate, and everything will be hunky-dory. Left unfettered and autonomous, people will naturally come to the same god-free, rational conclusions that we freethinkers, skeptics, and atheists embrace. All nurture, no nature.

I genuinely respect the fundamental optimism at the base of such thinking. I was raised in a family that held just such classic idealistic notions of original purity, of perfection in the state of nature. This was a pretty popular 1960s hippie mind-set, a counter to misanthropic viewpoints such as Christianity’s “original sin,” with Margaret Mead, Rousseau, and the “noble savage” weltanschauung paving the road to Woodstock and beyond.

Indoctrination is clearly a very significant component of religious belief. Muslim parents largely produce Muslim offspring. Catholic parents, Catholic offspring. No doubt atheist households tend, by and large, to produce atheist offspring. In this regard, the meme is quite accurate. We like to congratulate ourselves, of course, and see the two as distinct processes. The former is indoctrination, while the latter is more the result of freedom of thought, the result of facts and truth. We are inclined to think of the a-theistic perspective as the natural default position in an objective set of circumstances.

Yet we Homo sapiens suffer from a whole suite of cognitive biases and irrational propensities with which the jerry-rigging, not-so-intelligent process of evolution has endowed us. The fact is that some of these quite “naturally” point us toward supernatural, religious (mis-)interpretations of reality. If not checked or countered in some manner—by cross-cultural or critical analysis; by the inevitable encounter with the flagrant hypocrisy of the devout or even worse the unerring fundamentalism; by immersion in the sciences, or by a good education in general, by readings in scripture itself, and thereupon contact with that “most unpleasant character in all fiction,” as Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker have rightly described the god of the various Abrahamic scriptures—these natural cognitive inclinations can, and often do, result in the kind of problematic beliefs that currently populate the minds of the world’s copious devout. Although indoctrination is clearly a central component in the acquisition or maintenance of religious faith, it is not the whole picture.

While the meme makes clear this important emphasis upon the nurture side of the debate, it is important to recognize the nature side of things. There is a sense in which the meme is literally, factually speaking, inaccurate. And it’s important that we get this right. Religion, love it or hate it, is a big deal. Its impact upon the world of Homo sapiens is so vast as to be immeasurable. This is true whether or not you are inclined, like me and the late, great Christopher Hitchens, to the atheistic viewpoint that “Religion Poisons Everything,” as in the subtitle of his 2007 book. It behooves us to know the full truth of the matter on this very important topic.

Knowledge regarding all the factors that go into the formulation of religious belief is imperative. While arguing that the meme is false may seem like a straw-man move, the tabula rasa mindset it proposes merits resistance wherever and whenever it pokes its oversimplified head up. It’s important to think about, understand, and acquire knowledge regarding the whole story of religion, of what causes religious thinking.

The meme rightly emphasizes the essential role of indoctrination, yet is literally false in its assumption that we are not, in some respects, naturally predisposed toward seeing and interpreting our experiences in superstitious, supernatural, religious ways. What if our default mode is not atheism but rather religious belief? What if the various cognitive biases and predilections of our evolutionarily jerry-rigged brains do, in fact, naturally predispose us toward the kind of understandings, interpretations, and thoughts that characterize the devout?

Here are some common experiences that help to cast doubt upon our notion of atheism as the default setting for the brain of Homo sapiens:

  • The mind-body dualism that philosophers are still arguing over to this day has its roots in the experience of apparent ensoulment, our sense of having a coherent self or soul that somehow “transcends” the body, is in some sense more than the sum of its working parts (dendrites, neurons, axons, and so forth).
  • The experience of signs, portents, and dreams as harbingers or similarly supra-natural phenomena—of omens and the like—in which the ordinary is infused with some kind of extraordinary meaning.
  • The prevalence of superstition. I have yet to meet a sports fan who is not at least a wee bit superstitious. My atheist wife, a truly authentic Golden State Warriors basketball fan, puts on her Warriors socks or t-shirt before every game. OK. Fine. I confess: I do, too. But she’s also apparently fully convinced that if she yells and curses at the television with sufficient enthusiasm and volume, it will in fact have a positive impact upon the outcome of the basketball game being played 100 miles away.
  • Belief in cosmic karma is yet another example. I know many otherwise fully rational people who absolutely believe in some concept of divine or cosmic karma. They believe that “what goes around comes around,” and not merely in the rational, secular sense of social reciprocity.

Personal Anecdote: The Omen

One morning, I was awoken by a very disturbing nightmare. I popped up gripped by sudden, intense apprehension and fear. In those critical two or three seconds, that cracked-open window, the cusp of consciousness, cerebral wisps of recall subliming into the substrate of consciousness, I had an omen. A genuine portent of things to come. I had been shown a dreadful premonition of a calamity soon to befall me and my beloved little family.

It took but a few seconds for me to calm down, to press the “on” button and reactivate my slumbering reasoning capacities, to become fully cognizant of the fact that this was not a supernatural prophecy, a sign warning me of impending disaster. Rather, this was just how my primitive, prerational, not-so-intelligently designed brain had evolved to recognize and address my anxiety and fear regarding a specific situation.

The truth of the matter was that I was really worried about my family and my home. My brain had cobbled together tsunami footage from the Indian Ocean (2004) and Japan (2011), with violent flooding images rooted in my knowledge of global warming, of Greenland and Antarctica, the increasingly rapid calving of ice chunks the size of Delaware. My brain took this kind of worrisome imagery and mixed it all together with my considerable ongoing anxiety regarding the location of our family home, which sits right behind the levee of an oft-flooded river delta, a mere minute’s walk from where that river delta meets the mighty Pacific Ocean. Right there, right on our planet’s disturbingly malleable “sea level,” a stone’s throw from my front deck, sits a body of water that spans half our entire planet and is apparently growing with each passing moment.

In its own primitive way, this was my brain shouting, “Run away!!!”

“Know the Enemy, and Prepare to Fight It”

–Christopher Hitchens, 2009

What if religious belief is in fact the fundamental default mode for the brain of the animal Homo sapiens? Atheist households that create atheist persons may not be simply free and open spaces passively devoid of indoctrination. They may actively serve to inculcate us against religious thinking. In other words, in a state of nature, we might well find humans naturally sliding back into religious interpretations of experience. If that is so, it is certainly something very important to know. We should seek to fully understand the process whereby people come to be religious or not, because knowledge is power. The more we know, the more we are empowered to free our world from the pernicious effects of religious institutions, traditions, and beliefs.

As an enthusiastic anti-theist, I think religion is off in two distinct ways: it is simultaneously wrong and bad. It is wrong in the sense that it is an inaccurate picture of reality. It is bad in the moral, ethical sense that it has negative consequences, morally problematic outcomes, in the world. A more accurate understanding of the causes of religious faith can only benefit us going forward. It would be analogous to something like alcoholism or cancer. To address the problem successfully, it behooves us to cultivate a better understanding of its causal mechanisms. This is true whether the goal is to eradicate religion altogether or to embrace the more apologetic perspective, seeking perhaps to respectfully separate the wheat from the chaff, to retain “the good parts.” The more we pin down the exact nature of this phenomenon of religious belief, the better we will be at dealing with it in the most constructive manner possible, whatever that may be.

Nature vs. Nurture

The revolutionary awakening that the great Charles Darwin initiated demands recognition of the fact that we are animals, evolved from other kinds of animals, and through this ongoing process we came to be the kind of animal we are today. This must be the starting point for any informed understanding of human nature.

As much as we like to admire the brain of Homo sapiens, to think it spectacular and wondrous, which it truly is, this same brain is also a hot MacGyver-y mess. Far from being an objective, clear, and clean window unto the world, a perfect and unsullied slate upon which the world of experience is objectively recorded, it is, in fact, a jumble of opportunistically prewired belief instincts, predilections, cognitive biases, and cerebral quirks.

For example, few would argue with the claim that in-group versus out-group propensities are very strong in Homo sapiens. A recent finding, both humorous and telling, informs us that feelings of affiliation with a group actually reduce the disgust sensation caused by the body odors of that particular group. That’s right: we all know that there is no objective difference between the fetid quality of the air in your opponent’s locker-room as compared with your own team’s. Yet people find their teammates’ smell acceptable, even pleasant, while finding their opponents’ scent rank and malodorous.

Racism is similarly natural. This is supported by a variety of findings, including one that found that babies surrounded by only white faces will freak out when they encounter their first dark-skinned person, and equally so vice versa. Such findings just skim the surface of the mountainous and growing body of data that confirms Homo sapiens has natural predispositions to interpret the world in terms of in-group/out-group, toward loving fellow in-group members while holding less generous sentiments for members of the out-group.

In the same manner, Homo sapiens appears to be hell-bent (sorry, I couldn’t resist) upon interpreting the world religiously. Superstitious and supernatural thinking appears to come quite naturally to our species. Supportive data for this claim begins with the important recognition of religion’s ubiquity, its universality. People from all around the world have religious beliefs with similar essential components. This is most telling in and of itself. What they are indoctrinated in is not theistic thinking per se but in which form to express these natural theistic instincts: which religion, which sect, that kind of thing. Most people acquire the form of their religious belief from the family and culture in which they are raised, as the meme suggests.

Analogously, few would suggest that we are indoctrinated into being a language-using animal. Instead, we understand that the human brain is predisposed toward language, hardwired to do language. Which language we speak is the part that is determined by context, by the teachings of the family and culture within which one is raised—in other words, through indoctrination. Religion is similarly natural, with nurture merely determining in which form our belief instincts will manifest, where precisely one will land on the spectrum between Adonism and Zalmoxianism, Anglican and Zen, Ali-Illahism and Zwinglianism.

Cerebral Compost

Such quirks of the human mind—the cognitive biases, belief instincts, the intrinsic, hardwired cerebral compost from which religious thinking blossoms—are universal human phenomena. The ubiquity of religious belief is an effect of its genesis within the very structure of the human brain itself. Religion is part evolutionary bequest, just as is bipedalism and the opposable thumb.

Many of our traits evolved to be as they are during the millions of years in which our ancestors were hunting and gathering members of small, familial tribes in prehistoric Africa. It was a cooling, drying Africa—climatic changes probably brought about by the impact of the Indian tectonic plate as it moved rapidly northward, ramming into the Eurasian plate, piling up the Himalayas—with the result that savanna-type environs were displacing the shrinking pockets of forest and jungle in which our short-legged, arboreal ancestors thrived, forcing us out onto increasingly open grasslands and thereby encouraging the evolution of our beautiful long legs, our elegant long strides, and, ultimately, Usain Bolt and Betty Grable.

Two well-known bipedal primates and their sporty, gorgeous, famously well-insured long legs.

 

With similar universality, people from all different cultures instinctively believe in ensoulment, or “the ghost in the machine.” This is the belief that a soul—secularly speaking, a self—has some kind of existence independent of the body. Rather than embrace the scientific probability that our sense of self is merely a ploy on the part of our selfish genes to get us to survive and successfully reproduce, we not only believe in an existing self but struggle vainly with an impulse to think of this self or soul as existing independently of the various axons, dendrites, and neurons that in actual fact constitute its true nature. We are highly prone to think of the self or soul as somehow existing independently of body/brain or, in other words, of it having supernatural properties.

Yet traits that evolved to become a part of a species’s repertoire because they were beneficial at one point can find themselves no longer valuable at another point: the whale’s hind legs, the eyes of the cave-dwelling fish, the dodo’s or emu’s wings. With changes in space and time, traits can cease to benefit and even become a drain on an animal’s resources. Consider the strongly inculcated hominid instinct for consuming massive amounts of sugar and fat whenever available, which has certainly backfired on us of late. For humans, this list obviously includes mental traits, predispositions toward certain beliefs, thought patterns, and behaviors that may no longer be as valuable as they were in different contexts or in different times.

Traits may also combine with other traits, leading to complex multi-trait characteristics. Physical, psychological, and social predispositions that were once of value to Homo sapiens may, either by themselves or in concert, become increasingly detrimental. Taking my cue from Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, 2006), Jesse Bering (The Belief Instinct, 2011), and others, I understand religion in this way. Cognitive quirks combine, predisposing us to interpret phenomena in terms of supernatural forces, inclining us toward an instinctively, and distinctively, religious interpretation of the cosmos. Add in the process of familial, tribal, and cultural indoctrination, and you have a one-two-punch combination far more effective than anything Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard ever dished out.

Let us consider a couple specific examples of the fruits that sprout from this cerebral compost with which natural selection has endowed us.

Agency Attribution

One such quirk is our predisposition to think in terms of agency. That is, to think of self and other as beings with wills, intentions, minds, interests, and such. We use the same cognitive apparatus to understand the self; to understand other Homo sapiens, those entities who comprise the most important elements in our eusocial, tribal environs and lifestyles; and to understand the wider variety of phenomena we experience. We think of self as a being, and we think of others as beings, but we also think in terms of beings more generally, interpreting all kinds of other phenomena in the same manner.

Instinctively, we people the universe around us with invisible agents. The self/soul, ghosts, witches, dragons, werewolves, unicorns, mermaids, fairies, Santa, the Easter Bunny, seraphim and cherubim, serpents, ghouls, spirits, vampires, zombies, leprechauns, giants, ogres, yetis, kachinas, iwa, warlocks, demons, angels, all sorts of semi-divine demi-gods such as Hercules or Romulus and Remus, and finally the thousands upon thousands of differing gods themselves: Yahweh and Allah, Jesus and Mary. Even the Buddha has been deified, as of course have the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

The evolution of our instinct to think in terms of agency is a result of our being eusocial animals. Human beings are not nearly as individual as many of us tend to think. Instead, we Homo sapiens are animals who, not unlike ants or termites, are members of intensely interdependent, interwoven communities, evolved to engage in complex social interactions requiring teamwork on a wide variety of levels with fellow tribemates whose interests, intentions, and desires it is to our benefit to be aware of. The development of our large brains is intimately linked with the development of this collectivist nature.

As a result, the cosmos is interpreted naturally by our brains as something populated with agents, beings with their own will, interests, intentions, and the like. It is not difficult to imagine how our hominid ancestors would acquire such predispositions over hundreds and thousands of generations, surviving by virtue of teamwork on the demanding grasslands of Africa and Eurasia, successfully reproducing and spreading their team-working, agency-assuming propensities into subsequent generations.

Our early ancestors attributed agency to every rock, tree, river, volcano, the sun and the wind, and, of course, every animal as well. Animist religions were ubiquitous prior to the rise of the more monotheistic traditions. Many of these animist, polytheist, and pantheist traditions can still be discerned today, though they generally lie buried, broken and misshapen, beneath the oppressive overlying strata of proselytizing monotheism. The victims of Christian and Islamic missionaries generally seek to keep their old gods alive, even as Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, 1958) all around them. Such syncretism is how we get to Vodou, Santeria, Rastafarianism, and the Easter Bunny as well.

Tucker, Sammy, and Polly

Such cognitive biases instinctively generate theistic interpretations of the experienced cosmos. To offer a simple illustration, I would like to introduce you to a couple of my little friends. Very charming little fellows. Allow me to do the formal introductions.

INSERT “SAMMY AND TUCKER” PIC HERE

Everyone, this is Tucker and Sammy. Tucker, Sammy … this is everyone. Tucker, the mini-rat terrier, is on the left; Sammy, the “rescue” chiweenie, is on the right.

Whenever there is an unusual sound, an unexpected knocking, the mailbox creaking, footsteps at the front door, or the electronic beeping of my wife’s car door locking halfway down the block, these two set about an unrivaled paroxysm of small-dog symphonics that, left unperturbed, will run for a full minute or more. That may not sound like much, but, trust me, in the ears of any sufferer within auditory range, a full minute of small-dog yapping is a truly heinous, torturous eternity.

In the absence of information to the contrary, their little mammalian brains’ default assumption is toward agency of some kind. They are quick-tuned to assume, on the level of doggy-consciousness, the threat of a being with intentions, a will, and interests all its own. Consciousness is not an on/off affair but a matter of degree, as Darwin recognized. While members of Canis lupus are undoubtedly not conscious in the same sense that members of Homo sapiens are, their behavior suggests an evolutionary correlate with the cognitive processes described earlier.

Such traits were evolutionarily advantageous. They were therefore adapted into subsequent populations. They led to automatic responses, responses that did not require conscious deliberation per se. Picture an ancient shaman awakening from a sleep-vision, thinking omen, then awakening fellow tribemates and getting them the hell out of this damned floodplain!

The parallel is so striking it has occurred to many, including Charles Darwin himself, whose beloved fox terrier Polly inspired the following quotation:

My dog was lying on the lawn during a hot and still day; but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol, which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog, had any one stood near it. As it was, every time that the parasol slightly moved, the dog growled fiercely and barked. He must, I think, have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner, that movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent, and that no stranger had a right to be on his territory.

For we humans, that scratching sound at night is a burglar and that shadow a ghost or ghoul, a stalker, some form of agent, quite possibly with evil intentions. Even a philosophical materialist and skeptic such as me struggles with my mind’s native talent for populating the unknown. In the city, dastardly ne’er-do-wells lurk in the shadows. Out in the woods, I’ll sometimes peer nervously out from the light and warmth of the central hearth, peopling the surrounding darkness with all manner of imaginary beings, ears pricked for the tell-tale snap of twig beneath predatory footfall, just as were those of my evolutionary forebears.

Fast forward tens of thousands of years, and you’ve got Zeus hurling thunderbolts, Neptune swelling tsunamis to swallow Atlantis whole, Yahweh commanding the genocidal elimination of another out-group, Allah recommending smiting and dismemberment on a scale that would titillate any contemporary online gamer, and, ultimately, the Scots praying:

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

Little do they realize that the Good Lord whom they are beseeching for deliverance was created by the exact same mental machinery responsible for peopling the unknown darkness with ghoulies, ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties in the first place.

We fill in the darkness, the space between things known, with a vast coterie of intentional actors. Monotheistic and Abrahamic gods are the ultimate of these intentional actors, the ultimate instantiation of a being with an agenda; the ultimate explanatory agent, writ large and projected across our internal cosmoscape. All around the world, people believe that he watches over us, controls us, and that we are all pawns and puppets in his divine plan.

Teleology

Similarly, the human mind has evolved to think and understand in terms of purpose and utility, to think teleologically or teleo-functionally. We have evolved to interpret the cosmos in this way because it is advantageous to do so. We bring this particular mental prejudice, the quirk of teleological thinking, to bear upon all the phenomena in our lives. This is very often to highly beneficial effect, as we well know.

To what purpose can we put this stick? A spear is born.

To what purpose can we put this hilltop cave? Safety and security for the tribe.

How can we use these trees? We can build a protective structure or maybe a craft that will float us across the surface of the water to the greener grass on the other side.

Now take this teleological predisposition and add in Homo sapiens’s uniquely cumulative, shared, and applicable form of intelligence. Fast-forward for, say, a million years. Whaddya got? Magnificence! Centrally heated homes; electricity; vaccines for polio, tetanus, and yellow fever; doubled life expectancy; personal computers with instantaneous global communication; encyclopedic information and knowledge; refrigerators full of food; Teslas and Priuses; fewer bedbugs and fleas and less bubonic plague; more Bach, Beatles, and The Clash, all up in my earbuds; Pandora; Skype; 3-D printers; Facebook; aquaculture; women’s rights; the Bill of Rights; soap in every bathroom; hot, cold, and clean running water; flush toilets; renewable energy; the emergence of conscious sustainability and global civilization; gay marriage; wind-generated electricity; tofu and, importantly, over a thousand ways to make it palatable; and so very much more.

Yet as is the case with so many of evolution’s endowments, the teleological instinct clearly has a good side and a not-so-good side. Thinking of everything in terms of purpose or utility is not ideal. If you think of your kids, your spouse, or your friends in terms of their usefulness to you, that kind of makes you a schmuck. If you think of the whole cosmos that way, like a clock made by a giant clockmaker, like something that was planned or designed by an über-being—if you think there is a cosmic design and a cosmic designer—that kind of makes you religious.

It also makes you very much mistaken.

Consider this: Many people today adamantly believe that intelligence predates existence, that some form of intelligent being caused the universe, and that the known universe is in some sense an effect, a result of that intelligent entity’s plan or blueprint. And yet intelligence is a purely biological phenomenon, entirely the result of evolutionary processes. It is nothing more than one on a long list of traits—along with feathers, photosynthesis, seeds, sex, echolocation, the elephant’s sensitive and versatile snout, the octopus’s skilled and thinking tentacles, our bipedal gait—that evolutionary processes cobbled into being from whatever scraps were at hand. If the trait benefits an organism in its effort to survive and successfully reproduce, then the trait sticks around. Thinking of intelligence as cause is erroneous, cart-before-the-horse thinking—not to mention more than a tad anthropocentric!

Thinking and seeing in terms of purpose and utility is likewise a biologically adaptive, evolved trait. We have no reason to extend our teleological cognitive biases onto the greater cosmos—to think that the cosmos, or human beings for that matter, are here for something. We again reverse cause-and-effect when we think of the cosmos as having a purpose, ourselves as being part of a plan. Human beings have no cosmic purpose; there is no master plan, and it’s not all for anything. But such thoughts—of divine purpose, utility, a blueprint, human beings having a cosmic-scale destiny, a god with a plan—as unsupported by evidence or reason as they are all arise quite naturally within the mind of the animal Homo sapiens, predisposing us toward some very theistic, religious perspectives.

There is no rational or empirical justification for interpreting nature teleo-functionally. That is, neither planets, stars, moons, mountains, rivers, creeks, animals, nor persons exist for a purpose. There is no evidence-based, rational reason to assert that natural phenomena have such instrumental or utilitarian reasons for their existence. Rather, all the evidence we have strongly suggests that the phenomena of the universe are simply because they are, not for any reason. We are the ones who overlay the whole shebang with cognitive projections of utility, destiny, purpose, blueprint, or plan, and we do it from surprisingly early in life.

The solution to this puzzle is within the creature that thinks and interprets in terms of utility and purpose. We are the source of teleology. Value exists only within the mind of the valuer. This cerebral instinct leads us to believe that our very lives, even Homo sapiens’s existence as a whole, possesses a cosmic purpose, or is in some way an expression of a divine destiny. Thus is born the notion of God’s plan, the religious belief that an overlord has a blueprint and that we humans figure into it prominently. Wrapped up in one tidy little package we find the roots of our belief in a designer, a god with a plan, as well as humanity’s errant view of itself, alone among all nature’s products, as predestined for some grand cosmic purpose—in other words, our highly problematic sense of human exceptionalism.

Religious and teleological thinking are nearly indistinguishable in some respects and work together to bias our understanding accordingly. Consider our deepest ontological and metaphysical inquiries, the very shape and form of the questions we consider deep and profound yet that, as Dawkins and others have rightly observed, are in point of fact meaningless:

  • The question “Why are we here?” biases our inquiry toward the teleo-functional perspective. This is patently absurd when one instead considers our existence from a scientific, evolutionary perspective. The answer has been so elusive because the question is fundamentally absurd.
  • “What is our purpose?” is merely a variant on the above, and therefore vulnerable to the same critique. Despite its profound appearance, it does more to confuse than enlighten us.
  • “What is the meaning of life?” presupposes not merely that it is intelligible to describe the existence of the animal Homo sapiens in terms of meaning but also that such meaning is in some sense preordained. This again presupposes some conception of a plan or blueprint. Our inability to grasp this divine destiny is chalked up to his ways being perpetually mysterious, God’s oft-played get-out-of-jail free card, whereas the truth of the matter is far more probably that no such destiny exists nor any blueprint to define, describe, shape, or direct this alleged destiny, purpose, or meaning.

And yet such thinking comes quite naturally to us human beings. Children will answer questions about worldly phenomena by emphasizing their teleo-functional value to humans or other animals. For example, what is the purpose of an apple? For deer, or for people, to eat. As Jesse Bering observes in his excellent work The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life (2012): “It’s only around fourth or fifth grade that children begin abandoning these incorrect teleo-functional answers in favor of scientifically accurate accounts, and without a basic science education, promiscuous teleology remains a fixture of adult thought” (emphasis added).

Such teleological biases shape our understanding of human nature and of the larger cosmos of which we are part. We are hardwired with this telos. We project it Imax-style across the internal and external firmaments. Combine this with our tendency to generously attribute agency to every wind in the willows, and you’ve got the fertile ground from which natural religious beliefs prodigiously sprout, such as that the universe has a design and a designer; that human beings have purpose on some grand, celestial scale; that there is a watchmaker-type god, a divine being with a cosmic plan, into which we human beings fit in some supernaturally important regard.

Born to Believe

In the end, I argue that we are in fact born to believe. We have evolved a suite of characteristics, two of which I have described, that incline us toward theistic interpretations of the cosmos. Indoctrination determines the form and structure of these religious beliefs.

At the same time, the meme is right on target: it points to the fact that household and cultural environments free of religious indoctrination, characterized by science education and well-informed, rational discourse, can and do easily override these natural instincts. Fortunately, our natural predisposition toward religious thinking is not robust and is easily steamrolled by a range of variants on the nurture side of the nature/nurture schism. Human neuroplasticity, our overall flexible, adaptable nature, and the fact that we are very much a learning animal allows us to enjoy great cognitive freedom. It is increasingly easy to be a rational, religion-free, secular infidel. Thank god!

A comprehensive education, one that does not include ongoing indoctrination in narrow religions-of-origin, consistently results in secular, humanist, rational thinkers who have respect for evidence, facts, and data, while likewise being similar in their repudiation of scriptural and supernatural explanations. A well-rounded education inoculates us all against religion and will almost always result in more Nones, secular thinkers, nonbelievers, infidels, freethinkers, humanists, agnostics, and atheists.

At the same time, we must always be on guard against our ancestral instincts and inclinations. As Bering points out, without a basic science education certain features of such “belief instincts” remain a fixture of adult thought. While a proper education undoubtedly serves to counter both theistic instincts and indoctrination well beyond our formative, impressionable childhood years, it is important to understand how densely populated the human mind is by the ghosts of old, how closely they slumber just below the surface of consciousness.

All these observations and insights can be synthesized into a few important points that, taken together, can serve as a take-home formula for the kind of principles and practices that will free any society of Homo sapiens, anywhere, anytime, that chooses to embrace them, thereby inoculating itself from the evils and errors of religion:

  • Cease indoctrination in any single religious tradition.
  • Teach religion:
    • To understand its biological origins;
    • To compare and contrast it cross-culturally;
    • As fiction, proto-science, and cultural mythology;
    • To immunize against it, as you would teach about, for example, America’s history of slavery and racism, Hitler’s “Final Solution,” or the Rwandan genocide;
    • In a historically accurate, revisionist manner. This would include such examples as the oppression of women, children, castes, and other marginalized out-groups; the horrors of ethnocentrism, colonialism, racism, genocide, and imperialism; problems caused by religious intolerance and intransigence, such as Africa’s AIDS epidemic or America’s current war on science.
  • Create an atheist curriculum for high schools and colleges, offering specific courses that emphasize some of the central, empowering principles that characterize the atheist perspective, including:
    • The history of freethinkers through time, their ubiquity, their thoughts, and their oppression;
    • Scientific vs. religious epistemology, illuminating the value of the scientific method;
    • Mandatory science curriculum for all;
    • Examination and analysis of natural biases, predilections, and belief instincts that give rise to religious thought; indoctrination versus knowledge;
    • The common features of the atheist perspective: empiricism, rejection of arguments from authority, reason as standard, faith as ignorance, etc.;
    • Alternative: Cat Herding 101 (optional).

Atheism is not a four-letter word. In normalizing atheism, we must emphasize that it is both a more accurate picture of reality and better overall for humanity. Yet our cognitive default mode may always be set to the kinds of supernatural interpretations of the cosmos that threaten to generate religious belief. It is therefore very important that we know, understand, and guard against this. At the very least, we will need to ensure every Homo sapiens has a good science education to counter the kind of supernatural garbage that is spawned by the biases of our childish, Paleolithic minds.

We atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and humanists have our work cut out for us. Like Sisyphus, we will always be pushing uphill against the grain. Fortunately, the rock we push back against is not so large. But it will always be there. Religion still holds our world hostage, making billions into sheep, deluded by misunderstanding and ignorance, their minds partnered in the deception. We freethinkers may forever be pushing upstream against the natural current if our goal is to keep Homo sapiens as free from the blinders, shackles, and chains of mental slavery as is humanly possible.

Adam Neiblum

Adam Neiblum is the author of Unexceptional: Darwin, Atheism & Human Nature and Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous. He is currently writing about human progress and utopian thought.


The first time I saw this meme—all that sweetness and purity on the verge of corruption, the spread of ethnicities representing the diverse peoples of our shared world, those innocent cherubic minds naively awaiting indoctrination at the hands of evil-doing religious zealots—I was genuinely upset. Of course, that was the point. It is effective. But …

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