ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind


A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior
Bering in Mind Home

God’s in Mississippi, where the gettin’ is good

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



At some point over the course of this human life of yours, you may have noticed that wherever there is a trail of woe, God is curiously afoot. At least, since God is often seen both as the cause and the cure of misfortune, the belief in God seems especially likely to be stirred up in the wake of some personal or naturalistic calamity. But just why is it, from a cognitive and evolutionary perspective, that belief in God and the experience of suffering are such natural bedfellows?

If you’re a believer, you might cringe at this sort of scientific question. I’m as put-off by the smugness of atheists–at least, a certain contingent of atheists–as is your average religious fundamentalist. Usually, when people believe they’ve found a sympathetic atheistic ear in me, I just focus my attention somewhere between their eyebrows (if you do it right they hardly notice) while they gab away about why religion is the root of all evil, until they get it out of their system.

However, I’m also an atheist myself–one without a sliver of agnostic hesitation whatsoever. And I must say that it bugs me, profusely, when believers paint atheists all of a single stripe. There are atheists for “good” reasons, who’ve done their homework on the subject, and then there are those who haven’t really thought it through, who brandish their atheism cantankerously as a sociopolitical badge of honor while being painfully oblivious to the central, scientific truth of atheistic reasoning. And at the core of this truth is the fact that atheists are just as vulnerable to thinking about “supernatural” categories such as meaning, purpose, creation, destiny and the afterlife as anyone else. Atheists aren’t a categorically different or more elite species of thinker. We just reject certain natural psychological intuitions, such as the feeling that there must be a purpose to suffering, as being untrustworthy gauges of the reality outside our heads.

And so with this tetchy little backdrop in mind, you might see why, while driving to work this morning, I found the following lyrics from Regina Spektor’s song “Laughing With” beginning to irritate me:

No one laughs at God in a hospital

No one laughs at God in a war

No one’s laughing at God

When they’re starving or freezing or so very poor

 

No one laughs at God

When the doctor calls after some routine tests

No one’s laughing at God

When it’s gotten real late

And their kid’s not back from the party yet

 
 

First, let me try to preemptively dowse an inevitable firestorm on the completely irrelevant subject of Regina Spektor’s talent. I’m clearly a fan–otherwise I wouldn’t have her CD in my car stereo to begin with. And the song itself is beautiful. So why does “Laughing With” bother me so? Well, the not-so-hidden insinuation in these lyrics is that if you are indeed one those militant atheists that Regina Spektor and I mutually abhor, and you find yourself one particularly bad day searching for meaning or appealing to God in the wake of some personal misfortune, well then, at long last, you’re finally acknowledging that God is real. That is to say, when you need Him, when you really need Him, you’ll be sorry for all those cheesy “Flying Spaghetti Monster” jokes you’ve been tossing about the office. (In another song, Spektor speaks of “atheists praying full of sarcasm” which suggests I’ve got her intentions right).

But philosophically speaking, Regina, that’s all nonsense. There may well be no atheists in foxholes (in fact I tend to think there aren’t) but what on earth has that to do with God’s actual existence? Rather, it just says that atheists are human, with human brains, brains that work in predictable human ways–such as invoking God’s will–in response to particular human problems.

In fact, there’s recent evidence showing that the concept of God has a special affinity for the type of suffering described in “Laughing With.” In an article soon to be published in Personality and Social Psychology Review , Harvard psychologists Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner argue that human suffering and God go hand-in-hand because our evolved cognitive systems are inherently unsatisfied with “sh*t happens” types of explanations (that is to say, reality). The main gist of their argument is that, since we’re such a deeply social species, when bad things happen to us we immediately launch a search for the responsible human party. In being morally vigilant this way–in seeking to identify the culpable party–we can effectively punish blameworthy, antisocial people, thus preserving our group’s functional cohesion and preserving each individual’s genetic interests. That’s all fine and dandy, say Gray and Wegner, when someone punches us in the face, steals from us or sleeps with our girlfriend; but when our misfortune is more “abstract” (think cancer or a tsunami) and there’s no obvious single human agent to blame, we see the hand of God.

Thus, according to these authors, attributing moral responsibility to God is a sort of residual spillover from our everyday social psychology in dealing with other people. “Without another person to blame,” write the authors, “people need to find another intentional agent to imbue the event with meaning and allow some sense of control.” The following little vignette may help clarify the researchers’ position:

 

Imagine a young family enjoying a nice picnic somewhere in a peaceful remote valley. The birds are chirping, the sun is out, a nice breeze. It’s positively idyllic. Suddenly, a malevolent dam worker upstream, jealous of the family’s happiness, causes the water level to suddenly rise. The whole family (including the pet dog) drown in the valley that day. Did God cause the family to drown?

 

If you’re like most of the participants who read a version of this story in Gray and Wegner’s original study, you’d say of course not. The dam worker did it, dummy. But something interesting happened when the authors stripped the story of any mention of the human agent. Half of the participants read the same story sans the malevolent dam worker. In other words, they learned only that the water level suddenly rose and drowned the whole family; and as you might expect, these people were significantly more likely to attribute the event to God than were those in the dam worker condition. Furthermore, participants only reasoned this way when the family drowned–when there was no “moral harm” (the lunch got ruined, but the family was fine) God wasn’t to blame.

In an even cleverer exploratory study, Gray and Wegner created a state-by-state “suffering index” and found a positive correlation between a state’s relative misery (compared to the rest of the country) and its population’s belief in God. To create an objective measure of such relative misery, the investigators used data from the 2008 United Health Foundation’s comprehensive Health Index. Among other manifestations of human misery, this regularly compiled index includes rates of infant mortality, cancer deaths, infectious disease, violent crime and environmental pathogens. What Gray and Wegner discovered was that suffering and belief in God were highly correlated, even after controlling for income and education . In other words, belief in God is especially high in places like Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina–and so is misery, at least as it was operationalized in this particular study. And that, say the authors, is no coincidence.

I should point out that Gray and Wegner are very much aware of the logical counterargument that God is of course also invoked for explanations of positive events. The authors don’t deny this fact, but nevertheless they argue that God is especially likely to crop up in people’s heads in response to life’s unpleasantries. “God may serve as the emissary of suffering,” they write, “but He can also be an emotional crutch . . . That God may be both the cause and cure of hardship suggests why harm leads us to God more strongly than help–with help people may thank Him, but with harm people both curse and embrace Him.”

So, Regina, we atheists may indeed come to God when things appear most grim, but that doesn’t mean we’re somehow confirming His existence. Even if we did “confess” our “ignorance” and come to “acknowledge” God’s existence during these difficult times, this still would have zero to do with whether or not He actually exists. In fact, someone please take note, don’t take anything I say on my deathbed seriously (unless, of course, it’s especially quotable–but even then just for posterity’s sake). I don’t handle suffering very well; I mean, seriously, having a low-grade fever and a runny nose is enough to have me asking God why he’s being so unspeakably cruel to me. But I’m also pretty sure my wobbly epistemological stance doesn’t have much bearing elsewhere in the metaphysical cosmos.

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns.

Image ©iStockphoto.com/taekwondude





Rights & Permissions

Comments 50 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. mr ohenry 5:27 am 10/10/2009

    My two cents on the topic as we all are pitching our cents (sense) of it all into the pot (point of

    topic).

    Science is just the best ongoing explanation for our understanding of the universe and it laws.

    Religion or lack of one is just the belief system is that each individual has in what ultimately is

    going on.

    In my personal belief system. I am utterly awed and mystified with Nature. From my earliest

    conception of life, I could not fathom anything just existing in the first place. It seemed

    impossible that something could just come from nothing. This seemed counter intuitive.

    God, Supreme Being or Creator offers an easy explanation for all that we cannot explain.

    The "Goldilocks Principle" where all the factors in the Universe The Milky Way, Sun, Earth, where

    its size, distance from the sun,water, magnetic field, atmosphere, moon, water and a myriad of other

    things and properties that are necessary are just right for life as we know it and for us to exist.
    Seems just too perfect,unlikely and amazing to happen without a Guiding Force.

    For this reason I tend to think of the existence of a Supreme Being. That being said, It doesn’t

    mean I believe some person, some where, spouting off is someone I should believe or follow. I’m open

    minded, however, so when you can raise the dead, walk on water (warmer than zero degrees Centigrade)

    and perform other such miracles, then I’ll pay particular to what you say I should believe.

    Even so I am a victim of the Judeo-Christian ethic, where I was taught the brotherhood of all people

    (even though instinct tells me otherwise) and that people should have laws of justice and work

    symbiotically together for our big happy human family (instinct again tell me that humans are a

    danger to me and are not predisposed this way). It has influenced me and I still think it is better

    for people to have a "peaceful" value system than one that is secular or one that believes in

    chopping off heads of those who don’t.

    Link to this
  2. 2. infant 6:31 am 10/10/2009

    you laugh at yourself Jesse

    Link to this
  3. 3. infant 6:33 am 10/10/2009

    you laugh on yourself Jesse

    Link to this
  4. 4. madhu 11:37 am 10/10/2009

    As an analogy consider the situation of color blindness. Presume for the sake of argument that 99% of the population was unable to see a particular color. By dint of their numerical majority, most people would think that the color perceived by the 1% was simply an active imagination, since they themselves were unable to perceive or cognize something beyond their senses. A small percentage of the population, armed with the knowledge that the senses are very limited and prone to error, would have faith that the color perceived by the 1% does in fact exist. While the 1% of the population that could see this special color would simply wonder why everyone else can’t see what they see.
    Numerous scriptures have established the fact that God is beyond the senses and the intellectual capabilities of the mind to perceive, and that it is the offensive attitude of atheists which blinds them to the Absolute Truth.
    I myself was wavered between athiest and agnostic for most of my life until I was shocked by a "revelation" which removed all doubt and settled the debate once and for all (I now believe in God as a supreme being). As part of my revelation, I realized that this was an intensely personal experience that could never be adequately conveyed in words. As for the non-believers, I hope you one day wake up and see the light before you waste this human experience, which is uniquely qualified for such a revalation, by spending it in sense gratification and mental speculation.

    Link to this
  5. 5. sitary 3:10 pm 10/10/2009

    Misery loves company, even if it is God.

    Link to this
  6. 6. BJ Bonobo 4:31 pm 10/10/2009

    Say mahdu—"wake up" from what ? Many humans have "revelations" and if you think those that don’t are spending their "human experience" in "sense gratification & mental speculation" try giving your head a shake.
    Why do you use the term "non believers" ? You are the one who had the "revelation" which you claim was an "intensely personal experience that could never be adequately conveyed in words"

    If we do not have any knowledge of what you experienced how could we be expected to believe or even understand it ?

    At least certain religionists make a valid attempt to explain just what it is that they have conceived. By contrast you come across as a somewhat blissed out mystic wallowing in your own imagination !!!

    Link to this
  7. 7. Piesmith 6:05 pm 10/10/2009

    You know, when you die and actually meet God, we can all be excused if we assume what you say at the point expresses any greater measure of your true beliefs than your currently-espoused worldview.

    Link to this
  8. 8. notslic 7:13 pm 10/10/2009

    Madhu actually talks about something that is contained in the article! Some mystical revelation, great loss, or scary situation that makes one a true believer. I found it interesting that the paper that Jesse cited claimed that a higher degree of suffering leads to a higher degree of belief.

    Now I know why I don’t believe!!!! I have had a life of hard work and I have experienced the same tragedies that most would consider normal. Family and best friend dying too early, setbacks in my career that I had to overcome, a failed first marraige, having to kill for my country. But I decided to never suffer for it. Life was just too fun! How can you have fun when you are suffering from guilt and fear?

    This article was a good comeback for Jesse, considering the gay porn script that was his last piece.

    Link to this
  9. 9. notslic 7:26 pm 10/10/2009

    Mr ohenry…Indeed!!! The chances of all the circumstances that you describe for the origin of life are hard to comprehend. In our solar system there is only one planet that meets these conditions. But in the billions of stars in our galaxy there must be many. And in the billions of years that our present universe has existed, many could have come and gone. Timescales are much harder to conceive than what has ACTUALLY happened here on earth. I, too, am awed by the complexity of life on our planet. But I don’t need a creator to rationalize (oops, oxymoron!) it.

    Link to this
  10. 10. robert schmidt 9:26 pm 10/10/2009

    As with several others here I also faced death. In my case it was in a hut on the shores of the red sea in Egypt. While I was still lucid I took a moment to "re-evaluate" almost expecting myself to relent. I didn’t. And it wasn’t me being stuborn, I just realized that deluding myself wouldn’t change the situation.

    I appreciate what you are saying though. It is not unlike the dying solder or death row inmate calling for their mother seconds before death. Fear makes us do strange things. The important message here is that if an atheist recants on his deathbed, that does not mean there is a fault in atheism, it just means that he’s human.

    As far as "smug atheists" go all I can say is, it is about time! I am tired of apologising for not blindly believing in a primative superstition. The religious fanatics have no problem stepping up and telling us all how things should be, based on the perceived obviousness not only of god but of god’s message; that is until you ask them to explain the inconsistencies and then all of a sudden god is a big mystery. We have to stand up for ourselves and for rational thought in general. If we don’t, we are going to have more Taliban, more holy wars and more presidents like Bush.

    Link to this
  11. 11. robert schmidt 10:07 pm 10/10/2009

    OneEye, it is hilarious that you lecture atheists on logic. The only logic you seem to know is the one fallacy in your quote, "argumentum ad ignorantiam". Of course you realise that that fallacy also covers the case where one assumes a proposition to be true because no one has proven it false. By the way, I appreciate you taking the time to educate us, as you must spend a great deal of time appeasing each and every deity humanity has dreamed up since there is no more evidence for one than the other and by your own logic you must therefore assume they all exist. It must also be tremendously challenging to simultaneously hold so many contradictory propositions to be true. You are truly the superman of logic.

    Rationally thinking folk, on the other hand, don’t need to prove the non-existence of god. The burden of proof is on those that assert the affirmative or the existence of. If they fail to do so, we may not be able to state that their proposition is false but we can, logically, appose their claim that their proposition is true. That is what being an atheist is. We appose the proposition that god exists, simply because it has not been proven. So, even though there is no conclusive proof that god doesn’t exist, we can proceed with confidence as though he doesn’t, just as we can with leprechauns, fairies, dragons and elves. I know this is a very challenging thing for simple minded binary thinkers who believe something is either true or false. In the world of reason and science proof often comes in shades of grey and at the far end of the spectrum is the unknown.

    I suggest you have another look at those fallacies. This time, apply all of them to your own views instead of just seizing on the one you think supports them.

    Link to this
  12. 12. pcunix 9:51 am 10/11/2009

    GroupThink? Among Atheists?

    That’s good for a hearty belly laugh.

    Link to this
  13. 13. pcunix 10:12 am 10/11/2009

    ", while I can’t be absolutely certain there is no God, I can be *very* certain that your particular notion of God is implausible if not almost certainly false. "

    I don’t agree with that. I CAN be quite certain that there are no gods. I can’t be certain that this universe wasn’t created by a sentient being, and I can’t be certain that the physics of whatever universe that being might have existed in aren’t wildly different than those that apply here. I can’t even be certain that this imagined creator isn’t clinically insane and THINKS that it is a "god".

    But I CAN be certain that there are no supernatural beings (unless you want to overload the word to include that different universe I posited above).

    I CAN be absolutely certain that even if such a being did exist, I owe it nothing and have no reason to "worship it" – even if it is again insane enough to desire that from me. In fact, if you presented me with absolute proof that such a creature did exist, I would feel nothing but pity for it and absolute contempt for those of you who continued to grovel at its feet.

    If any of theists really thought about this, they’d come to the same conclusion. As they do not, I can only conclude that they do NOT think. Whether that is because they are not equipped for that function or are wilfully refusing to do so can only be determined on an individual basis.

    Link to this
  14. 14. pcunix 10:26 am 10/11/2009

    Being so many theists are unthinking, whether willfully or because of impotence, let me spell it out for you.

    Let’s pretend that I am a physicist from some future century and that I can create another universe. Moreover, I can fine tune the physics of that universe and even arrange things so that intelligent life will develop within.

    As I control the physics, I control time: a billion years in that Universe is but minutes or hours to me. Not only that, but I can interfere with events there, adjust the passage of time, effectively do whatever I want: I can play "god".

    Would I? Oh, I’m sure some would, but I would not. I might watch and learn, and I might be tempted (like right now I’d be tempted to give all you theists a lesson in reality), but I’d stand firm as a moral being. I would not interfere.

    In that universe that I created, unwitting fools like you would be fervently praying daily and frantically trying to convince others to do the same. If I were not a moral being, I’d reach in and snuff you into non-existence.

    But your god? Your Invisible Boopy? Is it anything like me? No, it is petty, vengeful, nasty, cruel and very ready to interfere – your religious works make that plain.

    So – it’s plain to me that *I* am a superior creature to the being you imagine. WHY WOULD I WORSHIP SUCH A THING?

    Link to this
  15. 15. pcunix 10:48 am 10/11/2009

    By the way, amusingly enough I ran that by a theist once and he immediately replied "Oh, that’s the Old Testament – Jesus changed all that."

    So there we have it: Invisible Boopy was a nasty teenager, but he grew up, had a son, settled down and realized what a jackass he’d been. It’s sweetness and light from now on – well, until the Old Booger gets senile and forgets about his toy universe.

    Maybe he/it knows that’s in the cards. Do you suppose that’s where the "carved you in the palm of my hand" came from?
    :-)

    Link to this
  16. 16. pcunix 11:36 am 10/11/2009

    You might be interested to know that scientists (*scientists*, not priests, prophets, soothsayers) have discovered that that "religious experience" can be artificially created.

    In other words, it’s a physical manifestation of your very physical brain.

    Link to this
  17. 17. fafnesbane 1:03 pm 10/11/2009

    I think it’s a fairly well accepted concept that the human brains concocts patterns where they often don’t exist. Isn’t the idea of unseen (supernatural) agencies wielding power over and shaping the human condition ultimately nothing more than the imposition of patterns on random events? I also think we all agree that human beings have barely begun to understand the world around us; to feel compelled to fall back on a supernatural explanation for what we don’t yet understand is ridiculous.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Clivestaples 3:43 pm 10/11/2009

    It’s clear that those who have written entries here have made up their minds. My opinion is unlikely to change those minds. Yet my experience–a basis of my belief about the world–tells me that there may be something missing in this discussion, something which warrants a more careful consideration than some might be willing to give.
    I was brought up in a family which attended Christian worship services in churches in the US. My family was not perfect and those churches were not perfect, yet we were taught of a perfect God who loved the world so much that he gave his only Son to suffer and die, and rise again from the dead. Maybe part of the reason people in regions fraught with suffering are drawn to that God is the attraction of an all-powerful God who relates so intimately to such conditions. I don’t know, but maybe this is so.
    My degrees are in music and philosophy so I’ll acknowledge my insufficiency to comment on science. I am also willing to acknowledge the insufficiency of the arguments placed here to invalidate my experience or the truths of the Bible. I cannot think it curse that I’ve been taught to love others and treat them the way I want to be treated, nor is there some deficiency in the functioning of my neurons which causes me to be open to the idea that God might want to speak to me and that he often has. I have chosen to accept this as a possibility and have functioned according to that assumption. I have not been disappointed in the results.

    There is also a basis of belief about the world beyond experience which is under-discussed and under-rated, that we have a will and choose to believe according to that will.

    The evangelists for atheism who have written here so skillfully concerning their beliefs have made a decision not to accept any form of communication from God, or to explain away any such experience as so many chemical reactions in their bodies. All are free to choose so. But we are equally free to choose otherwise, and to do so without being accused of being either intellectually deprived or insane.
    I, as some others in this discussion, have faced death on a few occasions. As a minister, I’ve also seen more than my share of human suffering. In this exceedingly short and turbulent life the joy of the Lord has been my strength. Not a fairytale, or a pixie, or a myth, but a very present Help in time of need.
    The desire of an atheist to be intellectually honest is valid and good. Atheism is, however, not the only honest option. I would be a liar if i denied the faith that lies within me.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Robert Zahn 5:32 pm 10/11/2009

    "GroupThink? Among Atheists?

    That’s good for a hearty belly laugh" – pcunix

    As an "atheist" (though I do think Sam Harris is correct to say it is reason that counts and I also can understand his problem with atheism) and no, it would not be easy to pigeonhole me as arguing from the stand point of "an atheist, but…" or so easily labeled a "accomodationist" or "apologist", there has become an obvious "group think" amongst atheist as exemplified the past few years on web sites such as dawkins.net, Myers’ and usually in comment campaigns to stories such as this one (an old trick mastered by religionist which we used to make fun of).

    One of the most insulting of the "group think" claims (since I tend to take some of it personally) made by a sub-set of atheist these days is "science can study the supernatural". It is said as fact and has become an embarrassment but is defended based on nothing except to say that if one disagrees then they are claiming that science can say nothing about "supernaturalism". I could point out that we can even offer study’s of prayer, theories of why people believe in "god", yet the "group thinkers" will insist on waxing idiotic about "science can study the supernatural", usually with examples of refuting young earth creationist claims. These "group think" atheist simply will defend it was is obviously become propaganda and show little respect for science and reason.

    That’s one example, there are others that are accumulating at an astounding rate. Ayn Randian, Objectivist, have and had clearly gone through periods of "group think", so have certain Humanist organizations, being "atheist" (I’ll steer clear of the "group think" communist here) doesn’t come close to inoculating one from becoming intertwined in "group think", it happens and sometimes dangerously so (as I think we are witnessing these days).

    Link to this
  20. 20. Robert Zahn 5:33 pm 10/11/2009

    "GroupThink? Among Atheists?

    That’s good for a hearty belly laugh" – pcunix

    As an "atheist" (though I do think Sam Harris is correct to say it is reason that counts and I also can understand his problem with atheism) and no, it would not be easy to pigeonhole me as arguing from the stand point of "an atheist, but…" or so easily labeled a "accomodationist" or "apologist", there has become an obvious "group think" amongst atheist as exemplified the past few years on web sites such as dawkins.net, Myers’ and usually in comment campaigns to stories such as this one (an old trick mastered by religionist which we used to make fun of).

    One of the most insulting of the "group think" claims (since I tend to take some of it personally) made by a sub-set of atheist these days is "science can study the supernatural". It is said as fact and has become an embarrassment but is defended based on nothing except to say that if one disagrees then they are claiming that science can say nothing about "supernaturalism". I could point out that we can even offer study’s of prayer, theories of why people believe in "god", yet the "group thinkers" will insist on waxing idiotic about "science can study the supernatural", usually with examples of refuting young earth creationist claims. These "group think" atheist simply will defend it was is obviously become propaganda and show little respect for science and reason.

    That’s one example, there are others that are accumulating at an astounding rate. Ayn Randian, Objectivist, have and had clearly gone through periods of "group think", so have certain Humanist organizations, being "atheist" (I’ll steer clear of the "group think" communist here) doesn’t come close to inoculating one from becoming intertwined in "group think", it happens and sometimes dangerously so (as I think we are witnessing these days).

    Robert

    Link to this
  21. 21. E_Merrick 10:16 pm 10/11/2009

    prayer, the last refuge of scoundrels

    Link to this
  22. 22. dslaby 11:50 pm 10/11/2009

    Foxholes are filled with Atheists; When people experience (not just fearfully imagine) war they inevitably question the sanity and existence of God, and how the hell they are living through can in anyway justify belief in God. Before the hell, when people are fearfully anticipating the horrors of fighting, they tend to hedge their bets and do religious rituals or make bargains. Going through the hell of war will certainly raise the thoughts that either God does not exist or is sadistic. Afterwards, some survivors think that somehow God favored them and helped them through, but don’t ask the question about the justice of those who died. All the young men I’ve seen at the last moments of death cried for their mothers, not mercy from God.

    It seems that a preponderance of those who believe in God believe in war; and those who don’t believe in God don’t see the point of war. Eventually, the consequences of believing in God will weary the faithfulness of those beliefs and people will consider a more practical and limited expectation of human life.

    Link to this
  23. 23. dslaby 11:52 pm 10/11/2009

    Foxholes are filled with Atheists; When people experience (not just fearfully imagine) war they inevitably question the sanity and existence of God, and how the hell they are living through can in anyway justify belief in God. Before the hell, when people are fearfully anticipating the horrors of fighting, they tend to hedge their bets and do religious rituals or make bargains. Going through the hell of war will certainly raise the thoughts that either God does not exist or is sadistic. Afterwards, some survivors think that somehow God favored them and helped them through, but don’t ask the question about the justice of those who died. All the young men I’ve seen at the last moments of death cried for their mothers, not mercy from God.

    It seems that a preponderance of those who believe in God believe in war; and those who don’t believe in God don’t see the point of war. Eventually, the consequences of believing in God will weary the faithfulness of those beliefs and people will consider a more practical and limited expectation of human life.

    Link to this
  24. 24. DeniseM-TorontoOnt 2:45 am 10/12/2009

    I agree with much of what is said. Yes, we feel there must be a cause for the tsunami or cancer, and probably some rational intential cause. But that we have a tendancy to attribute causation to God, also doesn’t prove or disprove his existence. As for foxholes, I’m sure there are more disbelievers than it appears. Some number in the foxholes feel they have nothing to lose, and might have something to gain, if they appealed to God. But it is placing a side bet just in case. To say they really believe in God is, I think, a bit generous.

    Link to this
  25. 25. DeniseM-TorontoOnt 2:59 am 10/12/2009

    "Numerous scriptures have established the fact that God is beyond the senses and the intellectual capabilities of the mind to perceive, and that it is the offensive attitude of atheists which blinds them to the Absolute Truth."

    Not the scriptures I believe.

    And if that were so…. Who created them with that nature? Who put God beyond their senses and capabilities? And then to blame them for how He created them and the situation He put up for them. Sounds like a rather cruel jokester, not a God.

    "I myself was wavered between athiest and agnostic for most of my life until I was shocked by a "revelation" which removed all doubt and settled the debate once and for all (I now believe in God as a supreme being). As part of my revelation, I realized that this was an intensely personal experience that could never be adequately conveyed in words. As for the non-believers, I hope you one day wake up and see the light before you waste this human experience, which is uniquely qualified for such a revalation, by spending it in sense gratification and mental speculation."

    Well, well, again. I’m glad he picked you out for that. Kinda makes you very special doesn’t it? Quite sincerely, I’m glad for you. I believe in God —- and I do mean the God of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition. But he’s given me no personal revelation. No personal experiental relationship of the kind you had. No proof at all. None. He gave me no easy answer. And I think many, many Believers are in that same situation. Yet we believe.

    And since I do believe in a God full of love, that knows no bounds, that forgives even his supposed enemies, I’m not worried about the fate of athiests.

    Link to this
  26. 26. DeniseM-TorontoOnt 5:03 am 10/12/2009

    pcunix, well, we’re talking about some supposed religious experiences. I tend to be sceptical of those religious experiences for various reasons, but I remain a Believer. To both you and fasnebane, I would point out that the idea of something supernatural OTHER than God is problematic. Yes, we do believe God is outside of space and time, yet also that God is present in space and time and history. That there’s a physical basis for certain brain experiences is fine. We have to have some human basis for the way our thoughts of God have form. We invent incorrectly? Or we imagine correctly? I think it is not obvious which is true. Ultimately we still have to ask ourselves what the cause is? I believe that cause is God and that it is somehow, if inexplicably, meaningful to describe that God as personal, rational, good, loving, and so on. But that God is not like an elephant, which you can believe exists because you can see it in a zoo or, however unlikely it might be, going down the street. Show me an elephant, and I might enjoy the show, and appreciate the elephant’s majesty, but it is still an elephant. Not really something to believe in. We can argue philosophy, but most of us do inherently have some concepts of such things as truth, goodness, etc., that seem to us us to have some inherent existence. From where? From God we believers say. From somewhere else, I suppose an athiest would say. Perhaps only from ourselves? Pure chance and random luck? Possible, I suppose, but that seems an unsatisfactory explanation. It seems that doesn’t really explain at all.

    Link to this
  27. 27. Abelard 11:03 am 10/12/2009

    OneEye. God is not the default explanation in the absence of evidence. The mere lack of physical evidence proves no metaphysics, I’m sorry. It is sad that your stripe relegates scientific empiricism to such a low order. One wonders if you even understand it. But by all means, prize your mental phantasms and live in your philosophical prison with the other fairy-tale believers. Just don’t come near my lab.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Abelard 11:05 am 10/12/2009

    OneEye. God is not the default explanation in the absence of evidence. The mere lack of physical evidence proves no metaphysics, I’m sorry. It is sad that your stripe relegates scientific empiricism to such a low order. One wonders if you even understand it. But by all means, prize your mental phantasms and live in your philosophical prison with the other fairy-tale believers. Live in your cave. I’ll be in my lab.

    Link to this
  29. 29. hotblack 11:45 am 10/12/2009

    I was an atheist in a foxhole (well we didn’t use foxholes, but…)

    Link to this
  30. 30. dmarie23 1:26 pm 10/12/2009

    hahah this shit is funny. talking about god and all as if he really exists…
    cause he doesnt.

    Link to this
  31. 31. The Dude 6:34 pm 10/12/2009

    Denise…I think that YOU are the one full of love and that god has nothing to do with it. I give YOU credit for your virtues. One of them is that you are humble.

    Link to this
  32. 32. matthewt1969 11:13 pm 10/12/2009

    OneEye, you could base your judgements about the argument presented on its merits. The logic of the argument, and the facts used to back it up are independent of the beliefs of the person presenting them. Play the ball, not the man.

    Link to this
  33. 33. danjd84 2:15 pm 10/13/2009

    Food for thought, since I see most of you tend toward not believing in a supernatural god or God.

    If, indeed, God does not exist, to be sure of that, you would be required to know everything about the universe. Because if you did not, you might be compelled to ask yourself, "What if God (or gods) exist in the part of the universe of which I am unaware?" If, however, God does exist, you could be thoroughly convinced of it by whatever it takes to convince you personally. Some are more difficult to convince than others. Great. All I’m saying is, it is more difficult to prove a universal negative than it is to prove a universal positive.

    Aside from this, I read some of you mentioning the fact that your belief or lack thereof has absolutely no bearing on whether God really exists or not. I could not agree more. But have you seen that from the theists side? All the disdain of an atheist for the belief in gods or God has no effect on their/His existence.

    Link to this
  34. 34. danjd84 2:16 pm 10/13/2009

    Food for thought, since I see most of you tend toward not believing in a supernatural god or God.

    If, indeed, God does not exist, to be sure of that, you would be required to know everything about the universe. Because if you did not, you might be compelled to ask yourself, "What if God (or gods) exist in the part of the universe of which I am unaware?" If, however, God does exist, you could be thoroughly convinced of it by whatever it takes to convince you personally. Some are more difficult to convince than others. Great. All I’m saying is, it is more difficult to prove a universal negative than it is to prove a universal positive.

    Aside from this, I read some of you mentioning the fact that your belief or lack thereof has absolutely no bearing on whether God really exists or not. I could not agree more. But have you seen that from the theists side? All the disdain of an atheist for the belief in gods or God has no effect on their/His existence.

    Link to this
  35. 35. danjd84 2:18 pm 10/13/2009

    Sorry about the double post. Accident.

    Link to this
  36. 36. pedromgf 3:05 pm 10/14/2009

    Well, I have only one question to atheists: what is a (the) sufficient condition (reason) for the existence of the universe?

    Link to this
  37. 37. pedromgf 3:15 pm 10/14/2009

    I posted this comment before, but I think I made some mistake, in posting it, so I repeat it:
    My only question to an atheist is: what is the (a) sufficient reason (condition) for the existence of the universe?

    Link to this
  38. 38. danmacduff 5:17 pm 10/14/2009

    I too am an atheist, perhaps best described as semi-aggressive. When I think of christian priests in the "dark" ages, and present-day middle-easterners contentedly blowing up themselves and everyone around them, I can become very angry. I also experience deep joy and deep feelings of connectedness while listening to some music written by people who thought that their own creative impulses are just something being channeled from a guy in the sky. The author is correct, in that we atheists experience the same catalog of feelings as everyone else. However, since I don’t attribute the feelings to an external source, I am unlikely to end up driving an airplane into a skyscraper, encouraged and given permission by some loon who can convince me of great rewards in paradise. Besides, I’ve always wondered what a disembodied spirit would do with a virgin anyway. In conclusion, the mis-attribution of normal feelings to some deity of other IS responsible for the majority of evil in the past and in the present. That does make me mad, and sometimes even sarcastic! S**t happens.

    Link to this
  39. 39. danmacduff 5:24 pm 10/14/2009

    The fact that I don’t know, doesn’t have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not there exists a supernatural entity that does all the stuff attributed to gods. Every time scientists learn something new, the poor religionist has to tick off another item on the still long list of acts and conditions thought to be supernatural.

    Link to this
  40. 40. ArthurDental 5:25 pm 10/14/2009

    Pretty dumb intro that almost turned me away before reading about the clever study. There are tons of atheists in foxholes – a scientific survey actually found MORE atheists in the military than the general public. There are plenty of people, including yours truly, who never thought of god with a gun to his head.

    Link to this
  41. 41. robert schmidt 5:49 pm 10/14/2009

    @pedromgf, "what is (the) (reason) for the existence of the universe?" what does that have to do with being an atheist? Science could have no explanation for the universe; it could have no explanation for life. That would not mean that god exists. The god hypothesis must stand or fall on its own merits and it has none. There is no evidence for any of it. End of story. Fortunately science does provide us with a better understanding of the universe than that. Evolution is one of the most studied theories in science. Cosmology is looking further and further back in time every year to the point that we can explain the universe as it is, with existing theories to within fractions of a second after the big bang. The mystery of the big bang itself has still to be unravelled but we are getting there. Again, the god hypothesis must prove itself; it cannot claim to be the default hypothesis until something else comes along.

    Also, in regards to the question "what is the reason"; the words "Reason" and "Why" usually imply intent. So implying that science’s inability to answer the "why" of the universe means that it has "failed" to explain the universe would be a "begging the question" fallacy. There is no more reason for the universe’s existence than there is for why a leaf falling from a tree lands at a particular spot. There is a mechanism though, in other words, there is a "how". We can apply classical mechanics to the leaf and maybe some chaos theory and understand how it came to be where it landed but it won’t tell us why, and that is not because the universe is a great metaphysical mystery, it is because not every effect has an intention therefore we cannot expect that there is a reason why for everything.

    Link to this
  42. 42. ormondotvos 6:01 pm 10/14/2009

    Group think is called culture. Why do you scorn it? The culture currently tells the ordinary person to believe in a male white god with a beard who used to do miracles, but no longer does, used to be a vengeful nationalist, but isn’t any more since his son died. He seems to have taken this personally, since we have had wars and disease and hunger and hate since then (not that we didn’t before). Culture can be silly, and often totally in conflict with reality, and society can often exile and brutally punish those who try to use their reason to escape the cultural traps. Witness that atheists are the least likely people to be elected, despite being the best reasoners and scientists, of all kinds, especially sociologists, whom we desperately need to run our governments, large and small, and teach our children how to reach beyond hate and xenophobia. Of course, if there weren’t religious conflicts, it would be much easier to do so…

    Link to this
  43. 43. PeterT 6:13 pm 10/14/2009

    The statement that " All major organized religions in modern times are mono-theistic" is NONSENSE! Have you ever heard of Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto? These organized religions constitute roughly half of humanity!

    PeterT

    Link to this
  44. 44. ormondotvos 6:28 pm 10/14/2009

    As a minister, are you not heavily invested in the cultural soup you live in? You’re being paid to spout this argument (which it is) which tries to self-prove by talking about what would no doubt turn out to be unverifiable personal experiences. I might as well counter them with the wisdom of my Aunt Louise, who seemed pretty authoritative, and ALSO, like you, tried to force me to think her way. Well, I knew better than, and I know better now. Where are the people who use evidence to prove their assumptions. "God" in the form you carefully outline, but never really define, is a huge assumption, and you have no proof, other than your assent to the popular culture. I suspect you’d have been a mullah if raised in Indonesia, unless you were in a cultural backwater, and then you’d have been a pantheist. Give me a break with your pseudo-honest "testimony". It doesn’t fly with the grownups.

    Link to this
  45. 45. ormondotvos 6:28 pm 10/14/2009

    Atheists are too smart to join the Army.

    Link to this
  46. 46. ronb 12:01 am 10/15/2009

    I admire skeptics like you because you probe. Skeptics are however very capable of coming to conclusions.
    Try C.S. Lewis.. he says (and goes on to answer)…
    "If the universe is so bad…how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?"
    –The Problem of Pain

    Would you trade pain for free will?
    I offer this podcast for your rewiew.
    http://www.rbc.org/radio-tv/discover-the-word/2006/12/27/program.aspx#

    I conclude that you are not here by accident but were known by our creator, Jesus Christ, before you were born.

    Link to this
  47. 47. questionanswer 11:52 am 10/30/2009

    god???

    Link to this
  48. 48. questionanswer 12:46 pm 10/30/2009

    god???if there is god then i think there should be only one religion…but there are hundreds of religion in this worid and every religion has its own god.so if god exist then which religion’s god ???so god doesn’t exist.

    Link to this
  49. 49. queenofcats 12:16 pm 11/5/2009

    Very interesting! When will Gray and Wegner’s article be published? Is there any way to get an unpublished manuscript online?

    Link to this
  50. 50. geotheo 7:45 pm 11/27/2009

    Unfortunately many believers and atheists alike seem to have a notion of God as a bigger and better version of themselves. Using this definition they either argue for against God’s existence. Those guilty of this falacy generally come up with interesting yet unhelpful conclusions. If we describe God (as if we could) as totally transcendent, beyond all forms and categories, we might then imagine a being/nonbeing. In Christian thought, this would then require a supernatural intervention to teach us as much "godliness" as we are capable of learning. Merry Christmas.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Dinosaurs

Get Total Access to our Digital Anthology

1,200 Articles

Order Now - Just $39! >

X

Email this Article

X