"Andy" Thomson and Clare Aukofer's small book, Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith (Pitchstone Publishing), is generating some big buzz on newspaper op-ed pages, including this recent piece in the L.A. Times.
That's because the authors--J. Anderson Thompson, a University of Virginia-affiliated psychiatrist, and writer Clare Aukofer--have clearly and concisely put together an argument about how human neurology affects human beliefs in divinities and the development of religious faith, fundamentalism and fanaticism.
Speaking by telephone from his Charlottesville office, Thomson explained that he became interested in the science of faith while researching suicide terrorism, which he began doing after 9/11. His son worked close to Ground Zero, and although he was not injured in that day's terrible events, Thomson wanted to know how and why people would carry out such brutal acts in the name of a god. Eventually, Thomson put together a talk that he filmed and put on the Web. When it garnered more than 350,000 page views, he thought: other people want to learn about this, too.
"At that point I was not thinking about writing any sort of book," Thomson said. "I'm a practicing psychiatrist--not an academic, and not an author. But after I posted another talk based on the material included in the book's second half, we realized that there is not other publication like this, one that is short, easily read, and provides the basics of how human minds generate religious belief."
One of the human traits Thomson and Aukofer examine is attachment. "Any time you see a trait, you want to think in functional terms," Thomson explained. "What does it do? What problem does it solve?" Attachment helps us to literally and figuratively latch on to our earliest caretakers, providing safety and survival. "The attachment system probably started to evolve 65 to 70 million years ago, when mammals survived the wipeout of dinosaurs, and their spread led to more and more helpless infants who needed to have a system to keep them connected to their sources of survival."
For Thomson, this illustrates one of the basic parts of human religious belief: attachment to a being that helps them to survive. He continued, "It shows that the basics of religion are tied to the basics of our evolutionary adaptation."
Sound simple? "That was one of the other purposes of writing this book," Thomson said. "We wanted to do something that would demonstrate that you don't need specialty knowledge to understand the dynamics of religion and how it grew out of our neurology. We wanted to lay this out in a way that anybody could understand, grasp, and turn around and share this knowledge."
A few of their key devices are worth highlighting. For example, the "fast-food analogy." "We're quite serious," Thomson said. "We think if you understand the psychology of fast food, you'll understand the psychology of religion."
He explained that our common human origins in Africa as hunter-gatherers meant that there were certain foods that were very difficult to obtain--so when a person or group happened upon one of the sources of those foods, they would binge on that substance, be it animal flesh, fatty nuts or fresh berries. "We don't have cravings for greens and grains because those were relatively easy to get, and they weren't crucial to survival. Meat, being a compact source of calories and protein, created cravings. The people who didn't crave things that gave them crucial nutrients like vitamin C didn't survive. We're the descendants of the ones who had cravings."
Religion, as Thomson and Aukofer carefully show, gives us ways to get a "hit" of pleasure, just like that much-craved food does. "Religion gives us a parent more powerful than any ordinary parent, a sense of safety and reassurance much greater than anything a mere human can provide," Thomson said. "You don't even have to have zealots and fundamentalists to illustrate this. Handel's Messiah sung in a cathedral will move me, an atheist, in a way that singing on my own never could. It's a powerful stimulus."
If you crave an easily digested overview of how modern science can explain religious faith, you might want to take a look at Why We Believe in God(s)--it might not be fast food, but it is a fast read.
Portrait of the Artist: J. Anderson Thomson