Psychological origins of religion

THE VAGARIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE by Daniel Gilbert

As Albert Einstein wrote:

“(I had) a deep religiosity, which, however, found an abrupt ending at the age of 12. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies. It was a crushing impression. Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment ? an attitude which has never again left me.” (Autobiographical Notes, 1949)

Einstein’s orgy of freethinking forever changed our understanding of space and time, and the phrase “Religion for Dummies” became, in the view of many scientists, a redundancy.

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Our tendency to underestimate the power of random processes to create order leads us to seek explanations where none are needed. Our tendency to be satisfied by well-formed utterances that are devoid of content compels us to accept explanations when none are provided.

When people look out on the natural world and declare that there must be a God because all of this could surely not have happened by chance, they are not overestimating the orderly complexity of nature. Rather, they are underestimating the power of chance to produce it.

Luckily for us, the human brain tends to search for and hold onto the most rewarding view of events, much as it does of objects. Our ability to find and embrace the most rewarding view of the circumstances that befall us is nothing short of remarkable, which is why people adapt so quickly and so well to almost every form of tragedy and trauma.

Brains strive to provide the best view of things, but because the owners of those brains don’t know this, they are surprised when things seem to turn out for the best. To explain this surprising fact, people sometimes invoke an external source ? a subliminal message in the laboratory, God in everyday life.