What is the relation between God belief and ignorance? I have a colleague in the science department at my college who said this to me yesterday (I’m paraphrasing): “I’m less sympathetic to the young Earth creationist of today than the one from, say, four hundred years ago because the latter was simply in ignorance, but the former is in willful ignorance.”
I thought this was a wonderfully sharp distinction, and it got me to thinking: what is the relation between ignorance and religion generally?
Hyperactive agent detection and God. Three things that evolutionary psychologists tell us are the following: (1) as well as being integrated, the brain is also modular, and among its modules is an agent detection system; (2) natural selection works by selecting among variations in organisms along a continuum, which means that different people have evolved different set points for their agent detection systems (some are more hyperactive in detecting agents in phenomena than others); and (3) the brain’s agent detection system is generally biased by natural selection toward the hyperactive side of the continuum (it tends to be better to assume that a rustling in a bush might be a large cat, like a lion, and be anxious about it, even if it’s usually just the wind).
So agent detection systems that are biased toward assuming potentially threatening agents are behind just about everything may account in some significant measure for the evolution of religion, conspiracy belief, and superstition generally.
God belief and over-arching conspiracy theories are obvious examples of an overactive agent imagination, for they unify our agent detection proclivities at the grandest scale. They are the ultimate superstitions; the last superstitions; all superstitions rolled up into One. If it’s not God, it’s the Illuminati or the Bilderbergers. Paranoia is next to godliness.
Perhaps this is why Pascal’s Wager is such a pervasive and effective evangelism tool: in your present state of ignorance, you’ve got a lot to lose. Even if there are only hints that God might exist, you better believe–just in case. You don’t want to end up in hell, do you?
This appeal exploits and hijacks to religious ends one’s hyperactive agent detection complex, which has always been a form of fire insurance.
From ignorance to knowledge. If a bush rustles, we might approach it with caution, but once we’ve investigated, and find there is no large predator behind it, we have moved from ignorance to knowledge. Our hyperactive agent detection system initially biased our approach to the bush when we were in a state of ignorance and anxiety, but it can now stand down. When we investigate, we learn what is in fact the case, and we no longer are in need of engaging our agent detection system on that particular matter.
Something like this is what has happened to us collectively, within global culture, over the past 400 years (since the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that accompanied it). When we were in broad ignorance concerning the nature of the world, religion and superstition were the sources for our first theses about it, and these theses were grounded in hyperactive agent detection. There were presumed to be devils, gods, angels, ghosts, and systems set in place by divine agents–and these were lurking behind all that we saw.
We are no longer in ignorance.
That means we can now see how far our pre-scientific era religious and superstitious theses veer from reality. And it isn’t pretty.
Wind things and contingent things vs. agent things and conspiracy things. Because religion and superstition have had such an atrocious explanatory track record, we now tend, in the 21st century, to make science our go to source for our first theses concerning what’s going on around us. This isn’t “scientism,” it’s pragmatism; it’s the habit of skepticism. We have science now. There are many things on which we no longer have to speculate. We know. And where we don’t know, we’re skeptical of supernatural agent explanations because they’ve failed so spectacularly in the past. They’ve always brought us to a dead end.
So if we tend to cling to agent detection explanations even after scientists have discovered more “wind things” than “agent things” at work behind natural objects–and historians have discovered more “contingent things” than “conspiracy things” behind history–then we are being superstitious–and willingly so. We’re ignoring what science and historiography have worked out over the past four centuries.
Put another way, no reasonable person can pretend to unspill the milk of the scientific revolution. We have moved from innocence to experience. And this brings us to intellectual religion–the last refuge for superstition.
Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my! Science has not yet looked behind all of our anxious bushes yet, and so supernatural agent detection theories frequently take on the form of intellectual religion, retreating ever further to the boundaries of our knowledge. Intellectual religionists can always say, “Of course we no longer believe in Noah’s ark on Ararat, and Adam and Eve in a garden in Mesopotamia, but beneath it all is still a supernatural agent, beyond empirical access. This is the Ultimate Agent: a personal, all-knowing designer God who makes everything work to his purposes (there are no accidents). This Being wants our absolute submission and obedience.”
But we don’t really know this, and if history is any indication, it’s probably an incorrect thesis. (And notice how similar the all-knowing and controlling God thesis is to the all-knowing and controlling Bilderberger thesis.)
So I submit that we believe in God (the last superstition) because we were once afraid of lions. The dreaded lion in the bush has become, in the 21st century, God behind the Oz curtain. Both are the targets of an evolved and hyperactive agent detection system born of ignorance and fear.