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“Natural Theologians” Are God’s Psychoanalysts

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

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John Burdon Sanderson Haldane

The following is an edited excerpt from The Belief Instinct, which will be released as a paperback on Feb. 20.

When I moved to my previous house in a small village in Northern Ireland in late 2007, there was still quite a bit of work to be done, including laying flooring in an intolerably small, outdated bathroom in the garage. So for about ten seconds each day, over a period of about a year, whenever I stood in my bare feet on that cold concrete floor doing what it is that human males do at a toilet, my eyes would inevitably zero in on an area of flooring just at the crook of the plumbing and the wall. Here the mysterious word ORBY appeared mockingly in white paint, scribbled on the cement like the singular flash of an artist signing a masterpiece in proud haste.

For the longest time, in my usual groggy state first thing in the morning, this “Orby” character didn’t particularly weigh on my thoughts. Rather, more often than not I would simply stumble back to bed, pondering why anyone—perhaps a contractor, a builder, a plumber, maybe the previous owner of the house—would have left this peculiar inscription on the floor behind a toilet. What blue-collar ribaldry between workers could have led to such an inscrutable act? Was it an inside joke? A coded message to someone special, someone who once stood at the very same toilet? And what kind of word or name was “Orby” anyway? Then, also more often than not, I’d drift off to sleep again and forget all about Orby, at least until my bladder would stir me awake next. That is, until one night when, snapping out of a drowsy, blinking delirium, I leaned down and studied it more closely. When I did this, it became obvious that “ORBY” wasn’t a signature at all—just some randomly dribbled droplets of paint that looked, from a height, as if it spelled something meaningful and cryptic.

Embarrassing, yes, but perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. After all, several recent studies with young children have revealed that, from a very early age, humans are prone to attribution errors by associating the appearance of order with intentional agency. For example, in a study by Yale University psychologist George Newman and his colleagues, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of four-year-olds was told a story about a little boy named Billy. Billy had been busy playing with his toys in his bedroom before deciding to go outside to play. The children were shown a picture of Billy’s room when he left it, which revealed several piles of toys. Next they were shown two cards, each depicting different changes to the bedroom that allegedly happened while Billy was outside.

One card showed the piles of toys in the room stacked neatly together, arranged by color and size and so on. The other image showed these same objects, but in disarray. Half of the children in the study were told that a strong gust of wind had come in through an open window and changed the things in the room, whereas the other half were told that Billy’s older sister, Julie, had made the changes while he was away. Then all of the children were simply asked, “Which of these piles looks most like if [Julie, the wind] changed it?” Those in the wind condition pointed strictly to the disordered objects, whereas those in the older-sister condition were just as likely to point to the disordered as they were to the ordered objects. In other words, these preschoolers believed that whereas inanimate causal forces such as wind can lead only to disorder, intentional agents (such as Billy’s older sister, Julie) can cause either order or disorder. Amazingly, Newman and his coauthors used nonverbal measures to discover that even twelve-month-old infants display this same cognitive bias.

These findings have clear implications for understanding the ineradicable plague of religious creationism. Newman and his colleagues write that “the tendency to use intentional agents to explain the existence of order has often been cited as the reason why people have used versions of the ‘Argument from Design’ to motivate intentional deities who create an ordered universe.”

In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Richard Dawkins famously criticized eighteenth-century theologian-philosopher William Paley’s natural theology by showing how mechanical evolutionary processes can create the appearance of creative intent without any forethought or intelligence being involved at all. But all those pre- Darwinian, “ecumaniacal,” and unenlightened thinkers such as Paley weren’t just swooning over some basic insinuation that God produced order simply for the sake of producing order. That in itself wasn’t terribly interesting. Rather, these naturalists wanted to know why He organized things this way and not some other way.

One of the more intriguing implications of Newman’s work, therefore, is its relevance to our search for meaning in nature. For the faithful, God is seen not only as a tidy homemaker who makes things nice and orderly, but as having left us clues—a sort of signature in the seams—so we’d know and understand His intentions in His use of order. If Julie went into her little brother’s room and made a mess, for example, it’s hard not to see this act as her also giving Billy a sneering message (“this is what you get when you tattle on me”), just as she would be sending a more positive message by thoughtfully organizing his toys (“I don’t say it enough, but you’re not half-bad as little brothers go”). Likewise, God is seen as embedding messages in the secret language of plants, organisms, genes, and all the poetic contingencies threading these things continuously together. At least, that’s been the view of many famous naturalists throughout history who’ve strained to use their empiricism to solve the riddle of God, especially, of course, those employing their craft before the mainstreaming of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

On his deathbed in 1829, for example, an eccentric British aristocrat named Francis Egerton (also known as the 8th Earl of Bridgewater)—eccentric, among other things, because he was known to throw dinner parties for his dogs while dressing them up in the day’s trendiest couture—left the Royal Society a portion of his financially swollen estate. The money was to be used to commission a group of prominent naturalists to write a major apologist creed “on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” (In other words, let’s have a look at the natural world to see what’s going on in God’s mind.) Eventually, eight authors were selected as contributors, each paid a thousand pounds sterling, a handsome sum at the time. The individual books that were published as part of the project—what became known as The Bridgewater Treatises—trickled out over a period of seven long years (1833–1840). One of these, a hefty two-volume work by noted entomologist William Kirby, sought to reconcile popular theological teachings with the extraordinary and subtle biological diversity in the animal kingdom that was so apparent to him. Kirby, an original member of the Linnean Society who had made a name for himself studying English bees on the grounds of a rural parsonage in Suffolk, seems to have seen himself more as detective than naturalist:

Since God created nothing in vain, we may rest assured that this system of representation was established with a particular view. The most common mode of instruction is placing certain signs or symbols before the eye of the learner, which represent sounds or ideas; and so the great Instructor of man placed this world before him as an open though mystical book, in which the different objects were the letters and words of a language, from the study of which he might gain wisdom of various kinds.

Even in their day, The Bridgewater Treatises were so larded with Christian propaganda that most scientists dismissed them entirely. The anatomist Robert Knox, a known critic of natural theology (but better known as the anatomy professor involved in the infamous Burke and Hare body-snatching case, in which Knox paid a pair of murderers to supply him with fresh corpses for his dissection lectures at the University of Edinburgh), apparently had a good sense of humor too, referring to them as “The Bilgewater Treatises.” But despite the dubious quality of the work, one can see from the Kirby passage highlighted above just how central theory of mind was, at the time, to the burgeoning field of natural theology. Theory of mind, the ability to reason about unobservable psychological states, is an evolved social cognitive trait that may or may not be unique to human beings, and which enables us to explain and predict other people’s and animals’ actions.

In fact, it continues to be central to this day, and it is part of the reason that many contemporary natural scientists see no inherent conflict between their faith and their work. In self-proclaimed “evolutionary evangelist” Michael Dowd’s Thank God for Evolution (2009), the same old theme emerges anew. Dowd, who brandishes the unusual self-identity as both Darwinian and Christian apologist, writes that “facts are God’s native tongue!”:

The discovery of facts through science is one very powerful way to encounter God directly. It is through the now-global community of scientists, working together, challenging one another’s findings, and assisted by the miracles of technology, that “God’s Word” is still being revealed. It is through this ever-expectant, yet ever-ready to-be-humbled, stance of universal inquiry that God’s Word is discerned as more wondrous and more this-world relevant than could have possibly been comprehended in any time past.

You may be surprised to learn that natural theology still has its supporters among some rather prominent philosophers and scientists. In 2008, the John Templeton Foundation sponsored a major international conference on the subject at Oxford’s Museum of Natural History. The primary aim of this gathering—fittingly called “Beyond Paley: Renewing the Vision of Natural Theology”—was “to review every aspect of the question of whether the divine can be known through nature.” Just like William Kirby, modern-day advocates of natural theology tend to view God as a sort of enigmatic foreigner speaking a foreign tongue, the intricate and beautiful language of nature. And their primary scientific task is to translate this strange, almost unintelligible language into a form that reveals His benevolent, creative intentions for humanity. (Or at least one that satisfies their own personal view of what His intentions should be.)

Guest speakers at the Oxford event were well-known figures in the Christian community, such as Simon Conway Morris (a Cambridge evolutionary paleobiologist whose Gifford Lecture the previous year had been titled “Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution Discovers the Song of Creation”), Justin Barrett (a psychologist who believes that the human mind evolved in the way that God intended it to evolve, for us to perceive Him more accurately), and Alister McGrath (controversial author of The Dawkins Delusion, and one of the principal advocates of a modern-day “scientific theology”).

What is ironic is that these contemporary scholars are, in all probability, using their mindlessly evolved theory of mind to make meaning of the meaningless. Either that, or we must concur with them that meaning is in fact “out there” and that the evolution of the human brain was indeed guided by God, a God that slowly, methodically, over billions of years, placed our ancestors into the perfect selective conditions in which they were able to develop the one adaptive trait— theory of mind—that, in addition to serving its own huge, independent, adaptive functions for interacting with other human beings, also enabled this one species to finally ponder His highly cryptic ways and to begin guessing about what’s on His mind.

The theory of natural selection, of course, has more than enough explanatory oomph to get us from the primordial soup of Day 1 of life on earth to the head-spinning, space-traveling, finger-pointing, technologically ripe conurbations we see today. Even if an intentional God were needed for Existence with a capital “E” (which is by no means obvious), He certainly wasn’t needed for our particular human existence. Neither was He needed for the evolution of the cognitive system—theory of mind—that has allowed us to develop theories about unobservable mental states, including His. And He definitely wasn’t needed to account for what we’ve evolved to perceive as “good” and “evil”; that, too, is the clear handiwork of natural selection operating on our brains and behaviors.

There’s no more reason to believe that God frets about the social, sexual, or moral behaviors of human beings—just one of hundreds of presently living species of primates—than there is to believe that He’s deeply concerned about what Mediterranean geckos have for lunch or that He loses sleep over whether red-billed oxpeckers decide to pick bloated parasites off the backs of cows or rhinoceroses in the Sudan. We are just one of billions of species occupying this carbon-infused planet spinning in this solar system, and every single one of these species, along with every single detail of their bodies, behaviors, and brains (even if they lack bodies, behaviors, and brains) can be accounted for by natural evolutionary processes.

As the legendary biologist J. B. S. Haldane replied cheekily after being asked what he had learned about God from his work in studying evolution, “The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”


Jesse Bering About the Author: Jesse Bering is Associate Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011), Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? (2012) and Perv (2013). To learn more about Jesse's work, visit or add him on Facebook ( Follow on Twitter @JesseBering.

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

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  1. 1. denysYeo 5:32 pm 01/25/2012

    A lot to think about in this article. I think it is interesting, that if “Natural Theologians” are sort of psychoanalysing God, that they haven’t made more attempt to uncover the defense mechanisms (such as rationalization, denial, repression, projection, rejection and reaction formation) God was using as he went about “creating his world”. After all, isn’t uncovering these mechanisms one of the key aims of psychoanalysis? It would be interesting to work through each of the mechanisms and see how they may have been an underlying factor in some aspect of how the world came into being. Or maybe God has more deep seated problems, such as an obsessive-compulsive disorder (everything in the world has to be “just right”), than even the analysts realised. The paradox is that, in reality, man created God in is own image; therefore anyone who may be attempting to psychoanalyse God is in fact really engaging in self-anaylsis! Now, what defense mechanisms are involved here? I look forward to reading the book.

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  2. 2. Michael Dowd 11:00 am 01/26/2012

    Jesse, thanks so much for the mention of me and my book. When I speak of “facts as God’s native tongue”, however, I am hardly trying to psychoanalyze God, as if God were a supernatural conscious entity.

    When I use the word “God” I am doing so as a mythic PERSONIFICATION of reality, not as a person. As Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Paul Tillich, David Sloan Wilson, Loyal Rue, and others remind us, we simply cannot understand religion if we don’t understand the how the human mind instinctually relationalizes, or personifies, reality. (Shermer speaks of it as “agenticity”.) Evidence from a wide range of disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience to anthropology to cross-cultural studies of the world’s myths and religions, all support the claim that God is a personification, not a person, and that we instinctually forget this. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, there is no counter-evidence. This fact alone makes sense of the hundreds of competing stories around the world as to what God supposedly said or did.

    Poseidon was not the god of the oceans, as if some supernatural entity separate from water was looking down from on high or rising from the deep. Poseidon was the personification of the incomprehensibly powerful and capricious seas. Sol was not the spirit of the sun, as if there were a separation between the two. Sol was a sacred name for that seemingly eternal, life-giving source of heat and light, and occasionally a life-taking source in times of desperate drought. By saying “Sol,” “Helios” or some other proper name, our ancestors experienced that reality as a “Thou” to be related to. Today, of course, most of us have a starkly different subjective experience. We look up and say “the sun” and think of “it” in a depersonalised way: not as the God “Helios” but as the generator of elemental helium through stellar nucleosynthesis.

    Whenever any story or any scriptural passage claims that “God said this” or “God did that”, what follows is always an interpretation of what some person or group of people thought or felt or sensed or wished reality (life/the universe/nature) was saying or doing, and almost always as justification after the fact or to make a theological point. Such subjectively meaningful claims are never objective, measurable truth. In other words, had CNN or ABC News been there to record the moment of “divine revelation” there would have been nothing miraculous to report on the evening news – nothing other than what was coming out of someone’s mouth, or pen, or whatever folks wrote with back then. If we fail to grasp this, not only will we trivialise the divine but, more tragically still, we will miss what reality is “saying” and “doing” today.

    To be clear: I am a skeptic, a religious naturalist, an anti-supernaturalist, a neohumanist. My main goal in life is to help as many religious people as I possibly can A) value scientific and historical evidence over ancient texts and superstitious beliefs, and B) be more committed to the health and wellbeing of the entire Earth community than with their own otherworldly salvation when they die. It seems to me that we’re pretty screwed as a species if tens of millions of religious people in the coming decades, of all kinds, don’t start valuing evidence over myths.

    The people I admire and respect most deeply on the science and religion issue (most are also friends of mine) are people such as David Sloan Wilson, Loyal Rue, Terry Deacon, Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, Dan Dennett, Loyal Rue, PZ Myers, Ursula Goodenough, Michael Shermer, Jon Haidt, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Paul Kurtz, James Randi, and D.J. Grothe. As you can see, not a believer or woo-meister in the bunch.

    The main program I’m now delivering in all secular and religious settings, a version of which I also presented at the United Nations in 2009 and at James Randi’s The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas last year, can be found on YouTube in two versions: one narrated (in two parts) and one live (“Darwin Day”). Both are accessible here:

    In any event, thanks again for mentioning my book and quoting me. I look forward to reading your new book.

    Natural blessings,

    ~ Michael

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  3. 3. Michael Dowd 11:25 am 01/26/2012

    P.S. – A few weeks ago I was a keynote speaker at a large conference in California. After my presentation: “Big Integrity: Right Relationship to Reality in the 21st Century” I was asked by nearly a dozen people, “Where can I go to to learn more about the science-based, non-religious approach to spirituality that you just presented?“ In response, I posted the following on my Evolutionary Christianity blog site a few days ago.

    Big Integrity Resources: Growing in Right Relationship to Reality:

    It is intended as a key resource page for those interested in deepening their knowledge base and/or improving their skill-set re living in right relationship to Reality/God and supporting others and our species in doing the same.

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  4. 4. Michael Dowd 11:48 am 01/26/2012

    One more thing: I’m no more a “Christian apologist” than a secular Jew is a Jewish apologist. I’m a naturalist, period. All miracle stories and so-called supernatural people, places, and things are myths. See Appendix A and Appendix B of my book, Thank God for Evolution. Richard Dawkins wrote Appendix A:

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  5. 5. JeffCorkern 7:06 pm 01/26/2012

    If belief is an instinct, why does Dr. Bering not believe? And precisely where in the genome is the belief, or tendency to believe, encoded? And while you’re at it, please list the precise DNA sequence, the proteins made, and precisely how they induce belief.

    If you can do all this—outstanding.

    But if you can’t, this entire article is hot air.

    This entire article appears to be an indirect attack on the existence of God, by claiming belief is somehow built into the human being.

    But science is hypothesis, observation—and TESTING. (Not necessarily in that order.)

    So if the author believes God does not exist—I invite him TO PROVE IT IN THE LABORATORY. What you’re doing here is beating around the bush, not striking to the heart of the matter, the existence of God.

    What he’s got written here now is a religious tract, and uses exactly the same methods of persuasion.

    So—PROVE IT, man. Prove it the laboratory to scientific rigor.

    If he can’t do this, if he can’t even propose a method of testing for the existence of God in the laboratory—then the above article is a PURELY religious article and does not belong in a scientific magazine.

    Jeff Corkern
    Consider the following as a statement of logic, and rank it as “True” or “False”:

    “If people possess immortal souls, it should be possible to logically deduce this by objective analysis of their behavior.”

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  6. 6. JeffCorkern 7:08 pm 01/26/2012

    The above should have a link at the bottom.

    *long sigh* I guess I get to experiment until I find the correct html syntax to make my link appear.

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  7. 7. woppok 2:08 pm 06/24/2012

    Jesse – Not sure where the wee Northern Irish village is that you call home. Anyway had I seen ORBY as you say you did, I would have remembered that ORBY won the Epsom Derby in 1907. True. According to reports this was a famous victory. I lived as a kid near a street called Orby Drive in Belfast and, like you, wondered for years, until Wikipedia, what on earth Orby meant. Assumed it was the site of some famous/infamous military event where British/Irish valour won the day. My field is suicidology. Doctorate from Ulster Univ 2010. All best. Philip O’Keeffe

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