The Gods Must Be Crazy

Title of a 1980 South African film, expressing a Botswana tribesman's puzzlement after seeing a discarded Coca Cola bottle fall to earth.

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A few years ago there were news stories about scientists trying to identify the "God gene" (it even has a name: VMAT2. Look up "God gene" on Wikipedia) -- a theorized component of the human genetic code that predisposes us to believe in God, or gods.

To me, saying that a "God gene" exists in our chromosomes that causes us to believe in God makes as little sense as saying that some people have a specific gene for preferring the 6-ounce size of Colgate toothpaste instead of the 8-ounce size. I believe there is a limit to what part of our psychological makeup can be directly caused by the genetic code, and I think that having a "gene to make us believe in God" is well past that limit.

So if there's no God gene (as I believe), then why is it that somewhere around 92 to 95 percent of all humans believe in the existence of some sort of god or gods? And if there really isn't a God, then how could such a universal belief be wrong?

Leaving aside the obvious fact that a lot of universal beliefs have turned out to be wrong (flat Earth, etc.), there are several reasons why nearly every human society has evolved one or more belief systems involving gods. Any one of these reasons may well be sufficient by itself, but they acquire a lot of power working together:

(1) The internal narrative, common to all human minds (and perhaps those of some other animals), the storyteller in our heads that weaves our lifetime of experiences into a "story of me" that is at the core of our self-consciousness. The narrative, among other things, tries to describe the causes of anything that happens to us or around us, including the cause of the universe around us existing to begin with;

(2) The in-born "sense of justice" possessed by humans (and some near relations among other animals), which leads to the hope that some being or beings are in charge of dispensing justice satisfactorily;

(3) The near-impossibility of disbelieving in an afterlife of some sort, which leads to the hope that, again, some being or beings will be in charge of it so that it's not too unpleasant;

(4) The need for a source of comfort in times of stress, and the hope that there is Someone Out There who can always fill that need.

I want to explore these points in greater detail.

To start with (1), above: It is reasonable to suspect that one of the natural consequences of possessing the superbly efficient brain that humans have is that it automatically organizes incoming sensory data into a narrative, including a cause-and-effect commentary ("I am experiencing unpleasant sensations because I haven't eaten anything since noon yesterday"). The narrative contributes to our consciousness of me-being-me, but not only that -- I have also seen the narrative given as the reason for dreams: it is believed by some researchers that in reality dreams are just random, disconnected images dumped from our resting mind, but the narrative takes those images and weaves them into a story, because this is what the narrative tries to do: make a sensible story out of everything.

Within the narrative, analyzing cause and effect (though we often get it wrong) is one of many things that account for the survival of our particular species through the tens of thousands of years it has existed. All higher animals react to the world in terms of prior experiences rather than only current events (which helps all of those animals survive), but the narrative in the human mind takes reactions-based-on-experiences to a higher, more effective level. The cause-and-effect analysis within the narrative is important to us exactly because it has proven so useful, saving us from, say, putting our hand into a fire more than once.

Of course, we do the analysis whether it's going to be useful or not (how can we know in advance whether it will be useful?), automatically. The narrative dislikes a vacuum, anything left unexplained. That search for causes is a basic psychological need, in the same way hunger in the absence of food is a physical one. When we are looking for an explanation, mere happenstance is rarely (for some people, never) enough. It doesn't feed the hunger.

So when it comes to the ultimate question of "what caused the world to be?", we feel a need for an answer. We try out explanations, and share them among ourselves (something language makes possible), sharpening our ideas in search of consensus. It is not at all surprising that the end result is a story of one or more beings -- gods -- with greater powers than we ourselves have, since we ourselves don't have the ability to create the universe (as far as we can tell). The story of the supreme father-figure God, responsible for all we see around us, seems almost inevitable. (Even in cultures with multiple gods there is usually one among them who reigns supreme, though occasionally instead of a father it is a mother.) In most religions this supreme God is said to have all of the characteristics we once imagined that our parents had when we were children: omnipotence, unlimited power; omniscience, knowing all there is to know; omnipresence, being everywhere (without necessarily being visible).

Some people who believe that a Higher Power created the universe make no further use of the idea, and believe God is no longer around: He made the world, His job is done, end of story. But that need for identifying causes, so that we can fit them into our narrative, is so strong in many people that they refuse to accept that any occurrence can fail to have an identifiable cause. Once the existence of a Higher Power has been imagined, it comes in very handy in exactly these cases. For many people, God fills that void left by any event whose explanation proves elusive, because something must have caused it.

In 1954, a meteorite, after eons of traveling through space, fell to Earth near Sylacauga, Alabama, and part of it crashed through the roof of the home of Ann Hodges, grazing her side as she lay napping on the couch. Luckily she was just badly bruised but not otherwise seriously injured. The question arises (at the very least in the mind of Ann Hodges, but as the occurrence made worldwide news the same question occurred to many people): why did it happen? Why, after traveling all those billions of miles, did a space rock hit this woman? Because of the way our minds work, for many of us it is not easy to shrug and say, "It had to land somewhere. She just happened to be there." For some people, such an explanation is completely unacceptable: In their minds, the only possible explanation is that God controlled the trajectory of that meteorite, and had His own reasons for having it strike Mrs. Hodges. Interestingly, it wasn't God's theatrical way of ending Mrs. Hodges' life, since she didn't die; it wasn't a peculiarly elaborate plan by God to help bring money into the Hodges household, since after a number of legal battles over the ownership of the rock the Hodgeses were unable to sell it, and after using it for, of all things, a doorstop, they ended up donating it to a museum. The meteorite, in fact, had no obvious consequence at all in the life of the Hodges family except for a lot of very unwanted, and eventually rejected, attention. (Contrary to popular belief years later, it didn't even lead to the composition of the popular song "Stars Fell On Alabama," because that had actually been done twenty years earlier.) So it is hard to come up with a reason why God might have wanted to hit Mrs. Hodges with a meteorite, but the firm believer will simply say, "The Lord has a plan for all of us but we won't know what it is. He works in mysterious ways."

For the very religious, even clear, understandable causes are rejected in favor of the conviction that God directly made an event happen. If it rained today, what caused that? Was it meteorological preconditions (which could be seen coming days in advance), or was it that God decided to make it rain? If a man dies, is it because stress within his body, which may have been building for years (or perhaps only seconds, from traumatic injuries in a car accident) exceeded his body's ability to cope with it, or did God decide it was time for him to die? (And what caused the car accident?) For many people, the answer, in every case, is that the event was a result of God exercising His prerogative to bring it about.

The belief in God the Micromanager is widespread, and is often carried to lengths that defy common sense.

In the 1990s, the television show "3rd Rock From the Sun" was a popular comedy involving a quartet of space aliens who had taken on human form hoping to "blend in" with the local population in an Earthly metropolitan area. One of my favorite TV scenes ever involved the youngest of the aliens, junior-high-aged Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who had joined one of the school's athletic teams. Prior to the start of a game, the team's coach had gathered his players together for a team prayer.

Tommy, looking across the field: "Coach, the other team is praying too."

Coach: "Of course they're praying."

Tommy: "Ah, but our god is stronger, right?"

Coach, irritably: "It's the same God."

Tommy, puzzled, looking around at teammates: "Am I the only one who sees a conflict of interest here?"

I share Tommy's puzzlement. The somehow commonly-believed notion that God would choose sides in an athletic contest, based on which team prayed harder, or more sincerely, or that He would protect the praying athletes from injury (or humiliation) while non-praying ones competed in greater danger -- I don't accept any of that, because if it were true it would be so easy to prove it true, because every game would furnish clear, tangible evidence that it was. They don't.

People who believe God does answer all prayers cherry-pick their evidence, citing all the times when they got what they asked for and ignoring all the times when they didn't; or, alternatively, they say of the failures that "God answered my prayer in a negative way. He decided not to grant my petition, because He has something better in mind for me or is testing me," which they consider a can't-lose way arguing the effectiveness of prayer: God answered me, whether I got what I wanted or not. I don't consider it to be a can't-lose argument: If you can't show that events would have turned out differently if there were no God at all -- and to date I have never seen anyone able to do that -- then you've lost the argument.

For people with extreme religious beliefs, it is important to them that citing God's will should trump any other possible explanation. For them it is no longer sufficient that events have some explanation. The explanation has to be God. That is why religious extremists often search for any reason to disparage "science", which is a method of exploring cause-and-effect that is usually seen as competing with God. It surprises such people that many scientists themselves believe in God, but there is no contradiction involved: The scientist who believes in God simply doesn't have that extreme need to have God be the universal explanation for every event.

I recall the host of a television news-and-opinion show making an on-the-air attempt to prove God's hand controlled the universe, by claiming that "No one knows what causes the tides." When hundreds of callers pointed out that scientists have long known that the tides are a consequence of the gravity of the moon as it orbits the Earth (and to a lesser extent, the gravity of the sun), and that the mathematics that describes the tides is well-known, the host blustered, "Okay, but who put the moon there?" To him, it is crucial that every explanation of any phenomenon whatsoever come down to God eventually.

Moving on to item (2) on the list above: A "sense of justice," which, among other things, triggers an automatic anger reaction when we are treated worse than someone else for no reason, is not unique to humans. Chimpanzees, for example, are known to reject angrily a food treat they usually like if they see another chimp being given a better one.

However, due to our greater capacity for abstract thought, it may be unique to humans to be able to imagine a world in which we are not only always treated fairly, but where in fact everyone, generally, gets the treatment we believe they "deserve." We want to believe we are actually in that world.

I remember sitting in the passenger seat, while my mother was driving through city traffic, when a car passed us driving well beyond the speed limit. My mother commented loftily that it wouldn't do the driver any good: "They always get stopped at the next red light until we catch up, and they don't get where they're going any faster than we do." At age twelve, I was no longer inclined to accept everything my mother told me, and I knew she was wrong: we might occasionally catch up to the speeding driver at a stoplight, but eventually, inevitably, he would pass a green light that turned red before we got there, and he would, as he desired, get where he was going sooner than if he had driven slower. I never cared for face-to-face arguments, and didn't say anything, but I knew in any case my mother wasn't about to give up her "there is justice in the world" point of view. In her eyes, the driver was behaving badly, and deserved to have his intentions frustrated, and she firmly believed there was (literally) a mechanism in place -- traffic lights -- that would make that happen.

She believed in God, too, and was demonstrating one of the reasons the belief in a deity is so nearly universal in all human cultures: we want to think there is an always-present force that will ensure that justice is dispensed, but it should not be a mechanism in the sense of being cold and emotionless, like a traffic light; we want it to have humanizing traits so that it will recognize that we are trying to deserve to be treated well. The result of our desire for justice: God.

Of course, we observe that the world is not always a just place. Bad people -- for example, greedy people who have acquired money, legally or illegally, that should belong to others, or violent people who have injured or killed others for no acceptable reason -- often die unrepentant and unbroken. They even often die happily, the worst of all possibilities from our viewpoint.

So death itself is not allowed to end the possibility of justice being meted out: if justice does not come to a person in their lifetime, it is crucial for us to believe it will come later. That requires an afterlife.

So let's consider (3), the afterlife. Why does nearly everybody believe that we will go someplace and, at the very least, observe the universe, after we die? We believe that because it's almost impossible not to believe it. When we try to picture what will happen after our own death, we are unable to imagine a universe that doesn't include us in it imagining it. The mere act of our visualizing such a place puts us within it doing the visualizing. (It's important to note that I didn't say it's impossible for the universe to exist without us; just that we can't imagine it existing without us. Our imagination has been known to fall short in a wide variety of other ways.) Most of us fear death exactly because we believe that, after we die, the narrative will continue, and that we're going to lie there motionless in our coffins thinking, "Damn, this is really boring. And dark. I wish I could do stuff." And that we'll remember, since it's the freshest thing in our minds, all the pain we went through during the dying process. All very unpleasant. So we construct stories of it being much more enjoyable than that, and picture it according to those stories instead (though the coffin is still there in the backs of our minds, maintaining the fear). To be in charge of the after-death experience, we nominate the same Higher Power who created the world since, with those superior powers He has, He can handle it. So we picture Him around in the afterlife, being the boss of it.

But our sense of justice adds structure to the afterlife that goes beyond the mere fact of afterlife existing. Since we see justice not sufficiently evenly distributed in life, that leaves only the afterlife as the place where it can finally be handed down. We imagine two poles of existence in the afterlife, one in which the good people (including, presumably, ourselves) experience endless pleasure, and one where the bad people suffer eternal agonizing punishment. The poles go by many names. In our own English-language culture, we most often call them Heaven and Hell. And the gatekeeper, the great Decider of who goes to which place: who else but that superior being, God.

The belief in Heaven and Hell is near-universal. Not only religions followed by most of the world's people accept them as real places, but the existence of such places even frequently draws people into those religions: so badly do we need that assurance of complete, permanent justice that many of us will follow anyone who offers them to us.

To anyone reading this, I can't offer proof that these places, Heaven and Hell, don't exist. I can only point to the complete absence of any tangible evidence that they do. Sometimes people claim to have "died on the operating table and seen Heaven" only to be "brought back to life afterward." My response: the fact of doctors thinking they were dead does not imply that they actually were -- the medical profession has famously struggled with even trying to define exactly what "death" is -- and I haven't seen any reason not to think that what these people saw while they were "dead" was really something all of us experience nearly every time we sleep for an extended time: a dream. Meanwhile, for various reasons, the experience of visiting Heaven is sometimes a complete fabrication by people who know they have made no such visit: Google "Alex Malarkey" for a perfect, if sad and innocent, example.

The fact that a lot of people point to these afterlife claims (made by people they don't know and have never met) as "proof" of the existence of Heaven or Hell owes to the fact that they want to believe in the afterlife SO badly.

Addressing the final item (4) on the list: We all went through a period of infancy, in which we were utterly, completely dependent on other people to take care of our needs -- it may be the only universal experience shared by all of the billions of humans on Earth. For some of us, the meeting of our needs came with nurturing and love, while for some it was accompanied by relatively cold neglect, with everyone's experience falling at some point on the scale between those two poles. But for all of us, it taught us that it is possible for our needs to be met by someone else.

We grow up, we become less dependent. But any of us who experience stress (sometimes mild, sometimes severe) know the relief that we feel when we find out that the burden can be shared, lessening its weight, or even taken away from us entirely. Admittedly there are those among us who find it a psychological necessity to fight through the stress entirely on their own, but such a need is rare.

Consider, then, the advantage of being able to say that an all-powerful and ever-present being who loves us and knows everything we are going through is available to take our burden away, if only we ask for the help. Just read the words of the Christian hymn "What A Friend We Have In Jesus". Of all of the reasons why so many people believe in God, this need for a comforter may be the strongest of all, the most attractive and satisfying. The possibility that such help doesn't really exist is very scary for some, so much so that they can't imagine considering the idea.

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The idea of a God, or gods, is a perfect example of the subject of my chapter on "Belief": People believe in God because they really, really want to, and there are, as we've seen, many reasons why they want to. The mere act of believing, in itself, satisfies so many needs.

To me, it's clear that the (near-)universality of belief in God doesn't require that there actually be a God, nor in any respect prove that there must be one. For our species to evolve beliefs in a higher being is natural and inevitable, simply because of how our minds work (points (1), (2), and (3)) and a very natural reaction to our experiences and environment (point (4)). For all of these reasons, the vast majority of humans do believe there is some sort of God or gods -- despite having no physical evidence for it.

Of course, in the matter of specific details, those beliefs have taken wildly different forms, and questions about the nature and the policies of God will be answered very differently by different people. Nearly all followers of most religions are absolutely positive that the adherents to other religions are wrong, and in far too many cases feel that those adherents to other religions are, as I said in chapter 2, a threat. My question is: If there is a God out there somewhere, then why has He not cleared up those disputes among rival theologies so that people at least don't continue killing each other over them? That He has never done so is, to my mind, a strong reason to believe that there is no such being.