Is Belief in God a Psychological Fluke?

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Could humans’ beliefs in God be our minds playing tricks on us? A popular claim is that religious beliefs resulted from the brain’s tendency to interpret effects (like sudden noises) as being caused by intentional beings (like predators). Let’s think through this argument with the 7 Checks of Critical Thinking.

Heart pounding, I stared into the darkness and strained to listen. There—that thumping sound again! It definitely came from the living room.

Of all the times to be home alone, I lamented, it had to be the night an intruder breaks in!

Rising, I grasped the nearest weapon: a metal three-hole punch. (Okay, so not every burglar is going to faint at the sight of a sophomore wielding a hole punch. But it was either that or my scientific calculator.)

I ventured into the shadows, weapon in hand.

Silence.

I waited a moment, eventually growing self-conscious to the reality that I was standing in my living room in the dead of night, clutching a hole punch. Feeling ridiculous, I went back to sleep. But I stayed within reach of the hole punch.

Hyperactive Agency Detection

While I didn’t know it at the time, I’d fallen for a cognitive bias—a faulty thinking pattern—dubbed the hyperactive agency detection device (HADD).1 That’s a bit of a mouthful, but it describes how humans and animals tend to interpret effects as being caused by an intentional agent. For example, a deer may interpret rustling leaves as the approach of a predator. A student may attribute an ambiguous thump to a burglar. And according to some evolutionists, this tendency to suspect intentional agents helps explain humans’ widespread belief in God.

The idea goes, the HADD gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage by helping them avoid predators. Eventually, this hyper-suspiciousness sparked the rise of religions; for instance, people may have attributed thunderclaps to the anger of deities. So, one suggestion about the HADD is that supernatural beliefs evolved through a cognitive bias, and therefore, beliefs in God are false.

Remember, though, a quick way to spot faulty logic is to ask, “Is this message true or false because...” Here, it’s clear that a message isn’t necessarily false just because humans could have a psychological basis for believing it. Saying so would be a type of flawed logic called the Psychogenic Fallacy. Consequently, instead of falsely claiming that the HADD hypothesis disproves belief in God, people may simply suggest that belief in God is unfounded, because there’s a natural explanation for it.

How might we think through this claim from a biblical worldview?

To find out, let’s apply some of the 7 Checks of Critical Thinking:

1. Check Scripture:2

Besides the fact that evolutionary explanations are incompatible with God’s Word, Scripture says God’s invisible attributes are so plainly seen in creation that there’s no excuse for denying him (Romans 1:20). In other words, attributing the intricacies of nature to a Creator3 isn’t a psychological fluke so much as common sense, to the point that not only is belief in God warranted but also disbelief in God is unwarranted. The Bible, therefore, answers the HADD argument right off the bat.

2. Check the Challenge:

Does the fact that skeptics can think of a naturalistic way to explain belief in God really challenge a biblical worldview? Not unless that explanation were true. (More on this in a minute.) Besides, Scripture is clear that humans don’t often want to believe God, so we’d expect people to try explaining him away. Of course, the fact that a belief is expected doesn’t make it false, just predictable within a biblical worldview.

3. Check the Source:

What’s the worldview authority behind claims the HADD explains away God? It’s certainly not God’s Word. Instead, the presupposition that humans evolved naturalistically (without God) requires a hypothesis like the HADD to explain religions. However, the observation that humans may possess a HADD does not require a naturalistic explanation.

4. Check the Definitions.

Let’s clarify the keyword religions. What kind of religious beliefs would a HADD promote? Agent detection might well help explain how some superstitions got started, like the ancient Greek idea that thunderbolts are a weapon of Zeus. But such superstitions are quite different from a worldview based on historically verifiable events, like the Old Testament’s fulfilled prophecies or the death and resurrection of Jesus, which we have sound external reasons to believe quite apart from a HADD.

5. Check for Propaganda

A psychological explanation for supernatural beliefs might sound persuasive because it comes from intelligent researchers4—or simply because it exists. But no explanation is true (or even good) just because it exists. Implying that something did happen because it could have happened is a fallacy known as Appeal to Possibility.

6. Check the Interpretations.

Which parts of the HADD argument are facts, and which are interpretations? The fact is, humans may attribute things to intentional agents. The interpretation based on evolutionary assumptions states that religions are a psychological fluke. Even within a naturalistic worldview, there’s no way to show this explanation is conclusively true because it’s an assumption about the unrepeatable past. But with a biblical worldview, we can conclusively know this explanation is false because it conflicts with God’s Word, and God cannot lie.5

There you have it—a crash course on thinking through the HADD argument from a biblical starting point.

Speaking of crashes, did I mention I’ve been hearing some strange sounds in the house lately?

I’d better go find that hole punch.

For more on how to think critically about any faith-challenging message, stay tuned for future blog articles and my new video series, CT (Critical Thinking) Scan, available now on the AiG Canada YouTube channel and the AiG Canada Facebook page.

Footnotes

  1. Justin L. Barrett, (2004). Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004). Note: Others have argued for a Hyperactive Intentionality Detection Device instead; the same critical thinking process applies. (Anders Lisdorf, “What's HIDD'n in the HADD?” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 7, no. 3-4 (2007): 341–353.)
  2. Is it circular reasoning for Christians to compare messages against Scripture? No; to find out why not, see Critical Thinking Scan Episodes 36-37 and the associated resources.
  3. Humans are so hardwired to perceive design in nature that education researchers are creating “interventions” to rewire children for belief in evolution. (E.g., Natalie Emmons, Kristin Lees, and Deborah Kelemen, “Young children's near and far transfer of the basic theory of natural selection: an analogical storybook intervention,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 55, no. 3 (2018): 321–347.) From an evolutionary perspective, this tendency to perceive intelligent design is considered a “cognitive bias.” But from a biblical perspective, human’s intuitive recognition of design makes perfect sense.
  4. While experts are usually the most credible human source for a given academic field, even experts are biased by the worldviews they begin with, can believe wrong information, and are subject to cognitive errors like all other humans. See https://answersingenesis.org/logic/faulty-appeal-to-authority/.
  5. E.g., Numbers 23:19.

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