We are built to believe, say scientists
Do humans need spirituality? An intriguing study has found that 71% of atheists believe in the supernatural. Why is belief so pervasive, even as we abandon traditional religion?
For years, philosophers have declared that belief is dying. In 2017, the UK became a majority non-religious country for the first time in its history. But a new study has complicated the picture.
For its “Understanding Unbelief” project, researchers from the University of Kent questioned thousands of self-described atheists and agnostics across six countries (Britain, the US, Brazil, China, Denmark and Japan) about their beliefs.
What they found surprised them. In Britain, a third of atheists and 40% of agnostics believe that some events are “meant to be”, compared to just over 60% of the general population. Roughly the same percentages of each group believe that there are underlying forces of good and evil in the world.
Perhaps most strange of all, just under 20% of atheists say they believe in life after death — a belief shared by 55% of the general population. In total, 71% of atheists and 92% of agnostics held at least one supernatural belief, such as karma or astrology.
Why is belief so pervasive, even when we reject traditional religion?
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg thinks it might be down to the structure of our brains, and one region in particular.
The parietal lobe is where our sense of self is formed. During ritual activities, this area of the brain becomes less active.
“Since it normally helps to create a sense of self, that sense of self starts to blur, and the boundaries between self and other – God, the universe, whatever it is you feel connected to – begins to dissipate and you feel one with it,” he explains.
Other studies have found that those with injuries to the right parietal lobe showed an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power.
The question of why our brains seem to be built to undergo spiritual experiences puzzles scientists. One popular theory is that it is a by-product of evolution.
Over millions of years, the primate brain evolved to think socially to help us survive in groups. As we learned to understand each other’s minds, we conceptualised the world around us in these metaphorical terms: gods, angels and ghosts.
But, for believers, the solution is evident: we were born to connect with a supernatural world.
Do humans need the supernatural? All of our noblest instincts — justice, compassion, awe, fellowship — have always been closely linked to our beliefs. Thanks to a god or evolution, our brains are primed to reach beyond what we see — towards something bigger. Spirituality is the most powerful force we have.
But what exactly is spirituality? Any belief that isn’t grounded in the material world? Can practising yoga or having acupuncture be a spiritual activity? We all have irrational beliefs and coping mechanisms. That’s all this study shows.
- Do you have any supernatural beliefs?
- Would the world be better or worse without religion?
- As a class, think of as many common superstitions as you can. For example, don’t walk under a ladder.
- Choose a major religion and research its attitude and belief about the afterlife.
Some People Say...
“A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”Francis Bacon, English philosopher and a Lord Chancellor (1561-1626).
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The “Understanding Unbelief” study was produced for a major atheism conference hosted by the Vatican last month. While religious belief is declining in the UK, 84% of the population around the world identifies with a religion. China, particularly, is seeing a religious renaissance with Christian numbers rising.
- What do we not know?
- Whether there really are underlying forces of good and evil in the world. A recent study (see BBC Future piece in Expert Links) suggests that three-month-old infants make the same moral judgments about social and anti-social behaviour as adults do.
- In a survey by the National Centre for Social Research, 53% of Britons described themselves as having “no religion”.
- In the study, atheists were defined as people who don’t believe in God.
- Defined by the researchers as people who “don’t know whether there is a God, and […] don’t believe there is a way to find out”.
- A spiritual principle that a person’s actions — whether good or bad — will impact on the person’s future, either in the form of punishment or reward.
- Studying the movement and relative positions of the planets and stars to try and tell the future of a person’s life. Horoscope signs are the most popular type of astrology in the UK.
- To disappear or make disappear.
- Something created as a result of a process that was not its main purpose.