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Religion as a Human Reflex

By September 1, 2010One Comment

This week I heard a truly fascinating story on NPR about why ALL humans, no matter their skepticism, are inclined to sense or experience the supernatural. The story began with a scientist named Jesse Bering who was a confessing atheist but, upon losing his mom, had a supernatural experience. The evening after her passing, he heard the wind chimes chiming outside her room, as if to indicate that his mother had safely “passed to the other side.”

Upon having this thought, Bering was surprised at himself. Where did this thought come from? As a seasoned skeptic and proud scientist, why did his brain so easily drift into this non-scientific belief? Bering was fascinated by the psychological implications of his experience, so he decided to study it.

Bering is not the first to ask this question. As the NPR story explained, “In the history of the world, every culture in every location at every point in time has developed some supernatural belief system,” a reality that has grabbed the attention of the scientific community and warranted much research.

You can read more about Bering’s study here, but for the moment I want to focus on his conclusions. After years of research, Bering has slightly altered his formerly atheist stance: “I’ve always said that I don’t believe in God, but I don’t really believe in atheists either.” He explains, “Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives.”

The article goes on to summarize Bering’s findings: The belief that “supernatural beings are watching you is so basic to being human that even committed atheists regularly have moments where their minds turn in a supernatural direction, as his did in the wake of his mother’s death.” As Bering puts it, “They experience it but they reject it. [They] sort of override or stomp on their immediate intuition. But that’s not to say that they don’t experience it. We all have the same basic brain. And our brains have evolved to work in a particular way.”

The story goes on to interview other scientists who speculate that this belief in God may be some kind of evolutionary development, a type of survival mechanism. But as the narrator herself concludes, these theories are nothing more than pure speculation. Scientists can never really know from where this human inclination originated. They can only draw on evolutionary theory to guess.

Now, I find two things about this story particularly fascinating. The first is that, in spite of his findings, Bering has persisted in espousing an anti-supernatural worldview. As a scientist, he is simply not open to the possibility that every human culture throughout the history of the world has believed in some sort of god because there might actually be one. The irony of his unflinching stance is the unscientific nature of it. He approached a problem with a foregone conclusion. If ever there was an argument to be made for the “religious faith” that individuals have in science, this is it. Bering admits to experiencing the transcendent echoes of a grander reality, and simultaneously denies it.

However this study also has interesting implications for how Christians approach atheists. So often we feel the need to defend God aggressively, as if He can’t defend Himself. Let us not be so proud. In Luke 19:40 Jesus reminds us that even if we are silent, the rocks themselves will cry out. God’s fingerprints can be found all over this world, including the humans who inhabit it. He created our very souls–in His image, no less–which means the most staunch of skeptics cannot help but encounter the divine…a point that human philosophers and theologians have always claimed throughout history, and that scientists are just now discovering.

Given this human tendency, Christians are reminded that when unbelievers deny the existence of God, it’s not always for lack of belief. As Bering so aptly put it, many atheists engage in a willful suppression of their natural inclinations. Bering might be surprised to learn that his wording is almost a direct quote from Romans 1:18.

But let’s get back to the practical implications of Bering’s admission. One of the things we learn is that the battle is not always fought and won in the arena of logic. That is why Jesus so heavily emphasizes an apologetic of love, not rhetoric. It’s not that reason has no place in this debate, but logic isn’t always the real issue. Rather than play a game of tit for tat with people who may argue with science but have also been frustrated or hurt by the church, it’s important to recognize the power of gentleness and grace. It is indeed discouraging to dialogue with individuals who have pre-existing biases no matter what you say and no matter what evidence there is to the contrary, but it is also true that atheists feel the same about us. Let us therefore be known foremost by our unreasonable love, and trust that God is always on the move in invisible but undeniable ways.

One Comment

  • mama jaja says:

    I heard the same report- I found it fascinating but wasn’t able to listen to the rest b/c I end to pick up my kiddo from the sitter.

    I loved how they referred to “supernatural agents” watching over us. I can’t remember if Bering coined the term but it was used several times. LOL…

    great post!

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