Why Do People Believe in Gods?
Promiscuous Teleological Intuition
The work of psychologist Deborah Kelemen and her research colleagues may enable us to now fill the explanatory gaps I have described. Drawing on her own and others’ research programs, Kelemen, director of the Child Cognition Laboratory at Boston University, has found that children around the world “evidence a general bias to treat objects and behaviors as existing for a purpose” (Kelemen 2004, 295). There is now overwhelming evidence that children are innately prone to “promiscuous teleological intuitions,” preferring teleological, purpose-based rather than physical-causal explanations of living and nonliving natural objects (Kelemen et al. 2013).
For example, young children do not see raining as merely what a cloud does but as what it is “made for.” If asked why prehistoric rocks are pointy, children will greatly prefer “so that animals could scratch on them when they got itchy” over “bits of stuff piled up for a long time.”
Early parenting or explaining makes little difference to this strong tendency. It appears to be modifiable only from around ten years of age. For example, the children of both religious fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist parents, when asked why a certain animal exists, favor “God made it” or “a person made it” over “it evolved” or “it appeared.” This tendency declines only after eleven years of age and only in the children of non-fundamentalist parents.
Much research supporting and developing this hypothesis has been undertaken. From infancy, humans are excellent “agency detectors,” sensitive to others’ mental states. Even twelve-month-olds will follow the gaze direction of symbolic faces. Children’s complex imaginary companions, like supernatural agents, occur cross-culturally (Taylor 1999).
Kelemen’s explanatory hypothesis is that this generalized default view, that entities are intentionally caused by someone for a purpose, is a side effect of a socially intelligent mind that privileges intentional explanations.
It is not difficult to posit the evolutionary advantages of such “attribution of agency” among infants and children. An infant’s entire world comprises an intentional agent—its parent. The sooner and more thoroughly an infant can develop a “theory of mind” and respond accordingly, the better for it. It must attach. The parent must bond. It must anticipate and manipulate its world on the assumption of purposeful agency occurring all around it. An absence of such is starkly illustrated by the autistic child, to whom its parents are just another set of shapes in its visual field. No attachment occurs, and in less affluent, protected, aware times than we have now, such children rarely survived. They could not control their (almost entirely interpersonal) environment and starved, ate poison, or just wandered away.
The tendency to attribution of agency extends beyond the world of man-made artifacts to the natural world. Children intuitively identify people as the designing agent of artifacts and God as the designing agent of nature (Kelemen 2004, 299). “All known folk religions involve nonnatural agents and intentional causation—the substrate of intuitive theism” (Kelemen 2004, 297).
Reasoning about all aspects of nature in non-teleological physical-reductionist terms is a relatively recent development in the history of human thought (Kelemen 1999a), and contemporary adults are still surprisingly bad at it. For example, evolution is generally misconstrued as a quasi-intentional needs-responsive designing force (Kelemen 2004). But our brains did not evolve “to enable consciousness.” Our brains evolved, and consciousness resulted. No purpose, just causes.
Aristotle distinguished “efficient” causes (the antecedent sources of objects and events) from “final” causes (the ends, goals, functions, or purposes of objects or events). Unfortunately, his focus was on the latter. He applied teleological explanations to all living and nonliving natural phenomena. For example, leaves exist on a plant to provide shade, and water exists on Earth to sustain life (Kelemen et al. 2013, 1074). Since the Renaissance, physical scientists have overtly rejected teleological explanation in search of physical-causal, “efficient” explanations. However, under psychological stress even physical scientists will tend to revert to default teleological explanations such as endorsement of “trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” (Kelemen et al. 2013). So promiscuous teleological explanation is almost universal among children but is also a developmentally persistent cognitive default position. For example, the tendency returns in strength if a person develops Alzheimer’s disease later in life (Lombrozo et al. 2007).
Kelemen et al. (2013) concluded that the teleological tendency is robust, resilient, developmentally enduring, arises early, and becomes masked with cognitive maturity and education but is not replaced. Hence religious belief is cognitively natural and culturally resilient. “Notions of purpose are central underpinnings of the world’s religions” (Kelemen et al. 2013, 1081).
The rise and persistence of the intelligent design argument for God in the wake of the demolition of creationism’s simplistic claims is an illustration of this resilience (Kelemen and Rosset 2009). Children naturally see lions, mountains, and icebergs as “made for something” (Kelemen 1999b), irrespective of parental explanations (Kelemen et al. 2005) or ambient cultural religiosity (Kelemen 2003). Later in life they will still tend to assume that “Mother Nature” or “Gaia” is a goal-directed, self-preserving organism (Kelemen and Rosset 2009)—another “attribution of agency.” “As evidenced by many religions, artifact design represents a powerful analogical base that children and adults use to understand the natural world” (Kelemen et al. 2012, 440).
“Promiscuous teleological intuition” and excessive “attribution of agency” do not explain all indiscriminate, non-skeptical, or paranormal beliefs. Other cognitive errors, such as confirmation bias, must be invoked to understand why so many think that acupuncture will cure migraine or that a plesiosaur lurks in Loch Ness.
However, a tendency toward conspiracism may be explained in exactly the same way as ubiquitous god-belief. The dictum “If it’s a choice between a conspiracy and a cock-up . . .” contrasts purposeful, powerful, inferred, possibly malevolent agency with natural, caused-but-not-directed, “random” events controlled by only the laws of nature and mathematics. Some people clearly have a strong cognitive trait tendency to assume conscious purposeful agents are behind most events in society. If not God or Satan, then powerful people.
If the similarity is meaningful, we would expect that people with a strong cognitive bias toward promiscuous teleological intuition would also tend toward both god-belief and conspiracism. This is exactly what we find. For example, Oliver and Wood (2012) found that a supernatural belief scale strongly predicted support for conspiracism. Both correlated with a measure of magical thinking. To illustrate, they found an extremely high correlation between conspiracism and belief that “We are currently living in End Times as foretold by Biblical Prophecy.”
The bizarre and surprising observation that, even in the face of profound advances in the scientific physical-reductionist understanding of nature, most of humanity insists on clinging to evidence-sparse, redundant, arbitrary notions of gods, demons, goblins, nature spirits, or the recent vacuous fallback “feeling” that “there just must be something there,” has not been adequately explained until now. This has left psychologists unsatisfied, allowed theists to argue that the cross-cultural profusion of metaphysical belief is evidence that there must be something to it, and atheists and agnostics with some uncertainty as to how to correct this widespread “dangerous delusion.”
A recently developed, well-supported explanatory hypothesis suggests that the ubiquity of human belief in supernatural agents in the face of a paucity of evidence derives from an innate cognitive tendency to attribute agency to all active entities in the world and to therefore assume purposive motivations within those entities, and indeed to the world itself. This tendency is highly adaptive for infants and young children and will therefore be favored in evolutionary terms.
That it is innate is supported by its universality among children and its cross-cultural dominance among adults. Kelemen (2004) has described a scientific education as suppressing rather than replacing teleological explanatory tendencies, citing the finding that scientifically uneducated Romanian Gypsy adults have promiscuous teleological intuitions much like scientifically naïve British and American elementary school children (Casler and Kelemen 2008).
However, such findings do not imply a dramatically new solution. We have long known that education can make people less superstitious and less religious. Less educated and politically knowledgeable people exhibit higher levels of conspiracism (Oliver and Wood 2012). Interestingly, Kelemen et al.’s (2013) physical scientists (who became more teleological under pressure) performed no better than equivalently schooled humanities scholars, and both held their line better than undergraduates. So a specialized scientific training and knowledge base is not necessary. Any further education seems to help one outgrow teleological promiscuity.
There is no perfect negative correlation between intelligence and teleological delusion. Great minds have applied themselves to the arbitrary theological intricacies of the gods’ purposes for us. The ability to see past or see through our unjustified attributions of agency and purpose in the world may have more to do with imagination (Bakker 2013) once an alternative physical-causal worldview has been introduced, by education, as a sufficient explanatory option. The question “What if…?” has led to more insights than has brute intellectual power.
The question “What if the world is really big and round and there is no absolute ‘up’ and ‘down’?” overtook the flat-Earth theory. “What if the world is not 6,000 years old but is billions of years old?” has nearly supplanted creationism. “What if I am my brain? How would it look to me?” has dented the need for a soul or immaterial mind to explain consciousness (Bakker 2013). So the best cures for teleological delusion are those we already know of: A high level of education; encouragement to think independently, flexibly, and with insatiable curiosity; and having an input as soon as people are capable of abstract conceptual thought.
The major contribution of this new evidence-based conceptualization of the problem is that we now know more clearly what we are fighting. Promiscuous teleological intuition is powerful, innate, and adaptive for the young. But it is not adaptive for the adolescent or adult leaving the human environment of the family hut for the natural world of the forest, where food does not present in the hands of intentional beings but on the branches of naturally occurring trees. Similarly, humanity may now use its growing knowledge and insight to escape its dependent teleological worldview in favor of a more mature one.
Ironically, the motto thus reinforced may be a biblically sourced one:
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11)
Bakker, Gary M. 2013. God: A Psychological Assessment. Boca Raton, FL: Universal-Publishers.
Bering, J. 2012. The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Casler, K., and D. Kelemen. 2008. Developmental continuity in teleo-functional explanation: Reasoning about nature among Romanian Romani adults. Journal of Cognition and Development 9: 340–362.
d’Mayberry, D. 2014. The psychology of faith: The human quest for meaning. The Australian Atheist 43(1): 15–18.
Kelemen, D. 1999a. Beliefs about purpose: On the origins of teleological thought. In M. Corballis and S. Lea (Eds.), The Descent of Mind: Psychological Perspectives on Hominid Evolution (pp. 278–294). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
———. 1999b. The scope of teleological thinking in preschool children. Cognition 70: 241–272.
———. 2003. British and American children’s preferences for teleo-functional explanations of the natural world. Cognition 88: 201–221.
———. 2004. Are children “intuitive theists”? Reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychological Science 15(5): 295–301.
Kelemen, D., M. Callanan, K. Casler, et al. 2005. Why things happen: Teleological explanation in parent-child conversations. Developmental Psychology 41: 251–164.
Kelemen, D., and E. Rosset. 2009. The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults. Cognition 111: 138–143.
Kelemen, D., J. Rottman, and R. Seston. 2013. Professional physical scientists display tenacious teleological tendencies: Purpose-based reasoning as a cognitive default. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 142(4): 1074–1083.
Kelemen, D., R. Seston, and L. Saint Georges. 2012. The designing mind: Children’s reasoning about intended function and artifact structure. Journal of Cognition and Development 13(4): 439–453.
Lombrozo, T., D. Kelemen, and D. Zaitchik. 2007. Inferring design: Evidence of a preference for teleological explanations in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Psychological Science 18(11): 999–1006.
Oliver, J.E., and T.J. Wood. 2012. Conspiracy theories, magical thinking, and the paranoid style(s) of mass opinion. University of Chicago Department of Political Science Working Paper Series. Online at http://political-science.uchicago.edu/faculty-workingpapers/.
Satel, S.L., and S.O. Lilienfeld. 2013. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. New York: Basic Civitas Books.
Taylor, M. 1999. Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gary M. Bakker
Gary M. Bakker's photo
Gary M. Bakker is a practicing clinical psychologist and clinical lecturer at the University of Tasmania, Australia, who has published in both clinical (Practical CBT) and skeptical (God: A Psychological Assessment) fields.