By Seth Richardson
Atheists have long been unable to resolve the conundrum of why religion is so ubiquitous and so persistent in human society. They are befuddled by what they see as rank illogic and unreasoning belief in what they call “woo”, which they loosely define as “ludicrous beliefs” or “extraordinary beliefs for which it is felt there is insufficient extraordinary evidence, and people who hold those beliefs.”
It’s a pejorative term that atheists use when dismissing the supernatural claims of religion. Atheists are true believers in the sanctity of science, accepting nothing on faith, and demanding critically robust and falsifiable evidence for just about everything, particularly theistic claims. They are rigorously logical thinkers who have great difficulty comprehending how anyone could possibly believe in, much less worship, an invisible “sky fairy” called God. If you doubt the persistence of their befuddlement, just go to this well-known atheist forum and review any of the many threads in which atheists and religionists tear each other’s hair out, with atheists insisting (more or less politely) that religionists are deluded boobs or mentally defective, and religionists insisting that atheists “just don’t get it.”
And just it may be that atheists don’t get it because they are physically incapable of doing so. In fact, it’s beginning to look like it may be the atheists who are defective, not the religionists.
It’s an undisputed fact that some 85 percent of the population of the planet holds some sort of religious belief. Nobody really understands why, but science is beginning to examine why this social behavior exists and persists over millennia. One cannot see such ubiquitous behavior without asking why people continue to believe in God.
In a November, 2001 edition of the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, Dr. Michael Persinger published a study called “The Neuropsychiatry of Paranormal Experiences” in which he revealed that by manipulating magnetic fields around the brain, a “‘sensed presence’ or sentient being” was experienced by many test subjects. “[W]e found that when we applied specific complex magnetic fields over the right hemisphere, most normal people who were not aware of the purpose of the experiment experienced a “sensed presence” or sentient being. Many individuals felt the presence interact with their thinking and “move in space” as they “focused their thoughts” on it.” Persinger writes. Persinger goes on to point out that paranormal experiences have been shown to be correlated to geomagnetic events, and that the magnetic fluxes involved are very subtle.
Some time later, the BBC’s Horizon program arranged for Cambridge professor and arch-atheist Richard Dawkins to meet with Persinger. Dawkins allowed Persinger to perform his magnetic-field test. Dawkins, the BBC reported, found that the magnetic fields affected his breathing and his limbs, but says “he did not find god.” Why Dawkins did not experience the “God moment” is anyone’s guess, but science seems to be converging on a hypothesis.
A recent University of Toronto Department of Psychology study, “Neural Markers of Religious Conviction” by researchers Michael Inzlicht, Ian McGregor, Jacob B. Hirsh and Kyle Nash demonstrated significant differences in how religious believers and non-believers performed during standardized stress tests. The authors wrote, “These results suggest that religious conviction provides a framework for understanding and acting within one’s environment, thereby acting as a buffer against anxiety and minimizing the experience of error.” The researchers suggest that religion provides a method for people to reduce the stress and uncertainty of life and a way to focus on stress-reducing thoughts while suppressing inconsistent thought patterns, which helps to reduce judgmental errors.
These two studies, along with others, add weight to the proposition that there is a biological, and perhaps an evolutionary basis for religious belief. If this proposition is true, it would help answer the atheist’s conundrum. We may be genetically programmed for religious belief because religion offers significant species-wide survival benefits, like reduced stress and reduced decision-making errors, among the many other social and individual benefits religion has offered mankind over the millennia.
If religious belief helps people cope with the stresses of life, which it clearly does, and if the capacity to experience paranormal or “sensed presences” exists to a greater degree in religionists that in atheists, as suggested by the Dawkins experience, perhaps it is not the religionists who suffer from some mental incapacity manifested in their belief in God, perhaps it is atheists who are lacking the “God gene” that allows people to believe in that which they do not see, feel, hear, touch or taste. Whether or not God exists, it’s apparent that belief in God is good for humankind.
Does this mean that atheists are the next wave of evolutionary advancement for humankind, or are they a Darwinian dead-end that will fade away over time? Or, could atheists and religionists evolve into entirely different species deep in the future?
© 2009 Altnews