An interesting article out of the Department of Psychology in Yale University made itself known to me, via the outstanding Why Evolution is True. The question being discussed is: do our religious beliefs stem from an intrinsic desire on the part of human beings to explain the world religiously? Or do they come from our cultural backgrounds? In other words, are our spiritual lives cognitive adaptations or social imperatives?
The conversation is not a new one. The article notes that many cognitive scientists view the pervasive existence of religion in human culture to be an outcrop of a biological need. For example, fearing an angry god may provide the moral guidance that allows for social bonding in the absence of instinct. If this concept sounds familiar, that’s because the same basic idea is echoed by many religious leaders seeking to legitimize spirituality as the only source of morality.
But the most interesting question raised in the article is: if belief in a god is biologically necessary, why don’t we all believe in our own individual gods?:
Consider belief in a divine creator. Young children are prone to generate purpose-based explanations of the origins of natural objects and biological kinds. They believe, for example, that clouds are ‘for raining’ and animals are ‘to go in the zoo’…
However, these older children do not spontaneously propose novel divine creators. Instead, they adopt the particular creationist account that their culture supplies. This might be a singular God or multiple gods; it might be alien visitors or Mother Earth. If children are not exposed to such cultural beliefs, the explicit notion of an intentional creator might never arise.
So, a predisposition to think in terms of purpose certainly lends itself to a spiritual understanding of the world. But it does not automatically mean that the child will believe in god, much less create a god out of whole cloth which his peers will also recognize and respond to. That is for religion to do, and religion is an entirely cultural affair.
Both sides of the argument, I think, miss the point. The research on childhood development that shows kids reaching for existential and epidemiological answers demonstrates that it is the question not the answer that defines human cognition. Whether we seek those answers though faith, or through science or, as I suspect is the most common choice, a bit from Column A and a bit from Column B, is a matter of preference.