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Monday, March 05, 2007

God-shaped hole

There’s a piece on the New York Times website today in which Scott Atran, “an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York”, puts forward a version of the God-shaped hole argument – the idea that human beings are “wired” to believe in the supernatural.

The work done by Atran is fascinating, especially the “African magic box” experiments, but I think he takes his findings a step too far.

“Why do we cross our fingers during turbulence, even the most atheistic among us?” asked Atran when we spoke at his Upper West Side pied-à-terre in January.

I don’t. In fact I quite enjoy turbulence, especially if it’s a long flight. For what it’s worth, I’m not superstitious: I don’t cross my fingers, I don’t mind the number 13, I don’t touch wood, I walk under ladders and on cracks, etc. I’d also quite happily put my hands in Atran’s magic box. I rather suspect I’m not alone in this.

This isn’t to deny that there’s a general tendency towards beliefs in the supernatural in some form. However, it’s far from as strong as some people seem to think. Most superstitious behaviour is probably a result of upbringing – it’s always difficult to shake off the beliefs you were brought up with, and they often remain, lurking, at the back of your mind – and the, understandable, desire to somehow influence events beyond our control.

I’d bet that Atran had a far more ”religious” upbringing than I did – the opening paragraph of the piece seems to confirm that. Which might explain why it appears to be a lot harder for him to shake off superstitious beliefs than for me.

Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case.

For him, atheism is counter-intuitive because he was raised to see the world in a completely different manner. For me, it’s the opposite way round: I find theism to be counter-intuitive and I’m far more comfortable with the atheistic, naturalist view of life.

That the God-shaped hole is more an environmental than biological issue would also seems to be confirmed by the changing attitudes towards religion in the UK, as shown in this Telegraph article. Atran, presenting himself as a typical case, argues that his superstitious side will probably become stronger as he becomes increasingly aware of his impending demise. However, an increasing number of people seem to be heading in the opposite direction.

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