Major Scientific Journal Argues Humans Are Wired to Believe in God: Believers Rejoice, Atheists Rebut

An essay in 'Nature' says we all believe in god, no matter what. Can it be right?

Photo Credit: Gajus/Shutterstock

It's a frequent Christian apologist argument that atheists do not really exist and that everyone believes in god regardless of what they say. But scientists rarely try to make this claim. Yet a new essay published in the journal Nature implies such a thing, yet the findings seem to be missing many core elements and make more assumptions than any actual peer-reviewed scientific paper could ever get away with. 

The essay centers on a philosophical argument and not much empirical science; it says that just about everyone seems to have some sort of internal monologue or “imaginary friends” they talk to solve problems.

“From childhood, people form enduring, stable and important relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasized mates,” says Pascal Boyer, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of the Nature essay.

However, talking to oneself or running any sort of internal dialogue does not imply you believe you're talking to some unseen person. In fact studies have shown that talking to oneself may present cognitive benefits.

In an analysis of Boyer's essay for Science 2.0, journalist Nury Vittachi writes, “This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since we are born believers, not atheists, scientists say.”

Vittachi doesn't supply any scientific evidence, because none exists. Studies have shown that beliefs are taught, so at best Vittachi would have more accurately stated that we are wired to believe in superstitions.

What Vittachi gets wrong about the essay is thinking that superstition — or even a feeling of spirituality — implies that people must believe in some form of god. In his 2012 essay, “In Defense of Spiritual,” atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris wrote that he doesn't see a need to associate spirituality with ghosts, souls or any supreme beings. He speaks of it in terms of something that provokes awe such as art, poetry or music. So when Vittachi says an atheist who speaks of spirituality is being dishonest about his or her belief, he is being naïve about the many uses of the word.

So yes, atheists exist. It's not impossible to look at the evidence and see a naturalist explanation for the universe and reject the concept of a creator no matter how much our evolutionary history prepares us for belief in superstition. Humans continue to evolve and the processes that brought about our superstitious nature may no longer serve a purpose. 

Pascal Boyer’s essay could explain why it is seemingly harder to “sell” atheism to people because of the human predisposition to believe in superstitions, but that does not mean atheism is impossible. There are at least 500 million atheists worldwide who will claim otherwise.

Dan Arel is the author of Parenting Without God and blogs at Danthropology. Follow him on Twitter @danarel.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018