Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

"Natural Theologians" Are God's Psychoanalysts


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in late 2007, there was still quite a bit of work to be done, including laying flooring in an intolerably small, outdated bathroom in the garage.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.”


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

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