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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

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

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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

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

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