The other night I was fortunate enough to talk with Dr. Andy Thomson, Author of the ground breaking Why We Believe in Gods: A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith, and a Trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation Andy Thomson Interview. One of the most impressive aspects of Thomson's work is his relentless pursuit of the most concise naturalistic explanation for the phenomenon of religious belief. This is with regards to the psychology of the self as well as social psychology and its relation to social institutions.
Another impressive fact is Thomson's wide employment of different yet interlocking disciplines such as Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, Psychology and Social Psychology which ultimately presents the case of how we humans have found ourselves with the mind and brain that we possess, necessitated by nature as a consequence of accidental and unforeseen events over time due to evolution. This compounded by the fact that we are conscious, reflective, memory dependent, desire driven, problem solving, causal attributing, mind reading animal beings yet we depend on social interactions is essentially why the human mind believes in the matrimony of God and Religious practices. The former is taken to be an agent and ontological being whilst the latter is its accompanying social institution. Religion is a form of tribalism that enforces collective behaviours as individuals become immersed in a group to find something larger than themselves.
You may have heard some of these arguments or only a few or perhaps none. However the most insightful feature that Dr. Thomson brings to the table is the analytical framework of Decoupled Cognition. This like most of Thomson's ideas can simply be examined and explained as everyday cognitive functions that the human mind possesses simply run amuck and going one step further. Essentially our intelligence, memory, reasoning and overarching cognitive apparatus has spilled over from our everyday domain of social existence into postulating unseen causal agents that are like us just a bit more powerful due to the excesses of our wild imagination. As I like to say God is our super dad only he can't be beaten and lives forever, I will get into attachment styles later. What natural selection gives with one hand she takes away with the other! It is in this most poetically ironic sense that the human mind primarily carved out for survival in everyday existence has duped us into believing that there is an unseen causal agent beyond our very experience of time and space itself.
Before we get there let me introduce some other arguments about Religion and God from the perspective of the Social Sciences. What are the individual and social reasons behind collective religious institutions and their overlap with social functions and mechanism as a whole? Well these socio collective rituals bond individuals together. This is not hard to understand but what is often understated, particularly in today's world where people still ponder about the existence of moral absolutism and the roots of morality itself, is that religious practices serve the function of collectively reinforcing Meta social morality. However religion should not be perceived as the source of morality; on the contrary the relationship is inverse. It is bottom-up not top-down. Morality in part causes religion as a social institution. It is a reinforcing collective mechanism that not only identifies codes but regulates them, dispensing of justice and punishment both in this world and the other by a concoction of fear, deterrence and the questioning of one's own actions in light of the wider community. Many years later we can see this play out with more specified concision as Jurisprudence and the Rule of Law. In this respect religion is more than a sacred covenant as it is also an ancient form of a socio-political covenant. This can be seen in the literal sense in terms of Political Philosophy. Hobbes Leviathan is centered on the Covenant with an external third party agent who, quite uncannily, is the Monarch who stands outside the social political system and is not subject to its laws but maintains order through its capacity as an arbitrator - this should be starting to sound like someone familiar! Hobbes never meant it entirely in a despotic sense but of course it is not difficult to see how this can be perceived as a tyrant and again this probably sounds familiar.
The overlap between Theology and Political Philosophy is where we begin to see the first traces of God as an ontological agent for he is watching you even when others are not. You may get away with it in your local community but you cannot escape the vigilance of this ultimate law bearing big brother. Where there is a covenant we can find a social contract. The exchanging of utilities or resources for another is a primal everyday social fact that has also spilled over into the domain of God. Through barter we exchange, as willful agents, with other willful agents and thus one step from this is exchanging with the most omnipotent willful agent of all - God. The psychology of prayer is often rooted in social contract and exchange. Desperate prayers usually take the form of "If you do this for me God then.....I will do this". It comes as no surprise then that some of the most primitive forms of religious practice involved sacrifices. Often this was the young or livestock illustrating the relinquishment of the most precious to serve the most powerful. This exchange mechanism in terms of cognition is also tied to contractual codes supervised by God because you fulfill an agreement and you get a reward. Initially this probably meant a good harvest of crops but many a millennia later this has been transformed into the warped idea of eternal life.
Stemming from this acute interaction between the individual's self-awareness and the perception of the social and natural world around them, whether it's an a animal of prey, an animal to be preyed upon or other members of our species that may be a help or hindrance, we found the Hyper Agency Detection mechanism as a natural and necessary function for survival that arms the Homosapien. Our minds are designed to detect agency even when agency may be absent. We hear rustling in the trees and this could a be a predator or a rival human thus our danger detection mechanism postulates an agency because assuming there is an agent present when there isn't may be bothersome, tedious and mentally draining resulting in anxiety and lost time yet it is far better than assuming there is no agency present when agency really is present because the danger here is not time wasting but death. As a result this meant that detecting agency when it is really absent did not face the same natural selection pressures that its mirror counterpart did; that of not detecting agency when agency is really present.
Our minds are far from done in terms of playing tricks on us. Attachment styles and transference also play a significant role in transferring another existing agent that you have interacted with into another agent and eventually even a God figure. "Someone or something has been in my cave" may be interpreted as a human agent being responsible for this and once you are here it is not too strenuous to process the stormy weather as also having a responsible agent. However we are also capable of transferring our conceptions of the "other" from one agent to another. Nietzsche said God is dead but Freud said God is dad. Fear of abandonment, perceptions of invincibility, justice, punishment and reward all stem from our childhood yearning to both make sense of the world and be assured of its benevolence. In an elaborately subconscious way, ideas of God are partly hyper inflated transferred conceptual forms of your parents reared from you attachment style as a child. This is also strikingly apparent in the projection of human qualities, whether ourselves, our parents or others in society, onto the idea of a God who is extraordinarily similar to us in terms of human faculties yet is simultaneously omnipotent and omnipresent. This concept of a God that is also human entails, by definition, a logical contradiction that is too readily overlooked.
The unfastidious conjoining of God with human like qualities leads us to Minimally Counter Intuitive worlds. These are ideas and conceptual schemas that we are aware of through everyday experience just with one little twist of logic and rational experience as to make the dissonance as minute as possible hence Minimalyl Counter Intuitive Worlds. The Virgin Mary was a woman who gave birth to a child and this is reasonably expected. This premise fits our expected rationality and world view and can be testified by previous experience. The one little twist on the modulated nob is that the child was not actually conceived sexually. This is minimally counter intuitive. Women cannot become pregnant without sexual intercourse but it is not as counter intuitive as saying that the Virgin Mary was a giant frog, who doubled up as the planet mercury and moon lighted as the abstract number 7, who then also gave birth to a human baby boy. Religious tails from talking bushes to Devine cows to resurrected men and human heads with the body of bulls are littered with this kind of MCW. They ask us to temporarily suspend rationality but not completely disown ontological logic. Fairytales do the same. Mermaids are essentially female humans with fish bodies, Little Red Riding Hood can survive death and somewhere in the ancient world a young lady called Pandora had a prominently profound and powerful box. Religions are fairytales in more ways than one.
From a psychological perspective it is not difficult to understand how the human mind has projected, transferred and postulated a God like being even if its conceptual locality sits at the outer boundaries of logical definition and rational experience. The most proud illustration of how our minds imagine unseen agents in highly abstract worlds is represented by Decoupled Cognition. This in Andy Thomson's own words is one of the best if not the best explanatory reason behind psychological belief in God. With internal and psychological states, we perceive the social and natural world around us. Memory and observation allows us to learn from experience and anticipate future events. A prominent feature of this mechanism is that we can recall or rehearse conversations with unseen agents and attempt to understand their reasoning and motivation because we also have cognitive minds. However this abstraction is not limited to our social world; we can of course imagine how certain animals would react if they were confronted with us. This allows the human mind to divorce itself from the time and space zone that it currently occupies and imagine other worlds with other agents with human, animal or natural traits. Therefore because we can imagine what it would be like to laugh and joke with a friend or relative tomorrow or why we were stupid to try and out run that dog yesterday we can envision agents that are outside our immediate perception of time and space and this abstraction, reasoning and transference coupled with constructing unseen agents outside our immediate experience of space and time allows the human mind to imagine an agent that is not materially in front of us but that does "exist"; has causal powers and is like a human. Belief in God and the very idea of God is the abstract, cognitive function we have in everyday reasoning, imagination and reflection just taken a few steps further and an unfortunate downside of our mental ability to imagine situations occupied with agents that are not immediately in front of us in time and space. The same reason you can imagine what a daisy flower would look like playing the role of King Macbeth set on a comet in another Galaxy is the same reason you can imagine a God up in heaven listening to you inner thoughts and orchestrating natural events and the affairs of mortals. This abstract imagination divorced of physical time and space combined with our obsession to seek out willful agents and project and transfer from one "other" to another "other" are the most profound neuropsychological explanations of why we believe in Gods.
For more on Atheism, Reason and Logic read the Essay "Eradicating God as a Causal Hypothesis" in Open Society, The Journal of Rationality and Humanism