If a child turns to her parents and asks why the sun shines, the knee-jerk response might be to tell her that it shines to give us light or to help the plants grow. Hidden in this response, however, is an assumption of purpose or design. It assumes that the sun was put there for a reason, and that its light serves an intentional purpose – not that the benefits of its light are a coincidental side-effect of a natural process.
A more analytical response might be that the sun shines because of a process of nuclear fusion which produces protons and light waves so intense that they reach earth in great enough quantities to be seen. Of course this response explains “how” the sun shines, but not “why.” The fact that children seem hard-wired to ask “why” questions, and that people of all stripes seem hard-wired to assign purpose and design to things in the natural world is telling.
Conventional atheist wisdom says that “we are all born atheists” – that is, no person is born believing in God. Protestant reformer John Calvin, on the other hand, argued that all people have a “sensus divinitatis,” that is, an inherent sense of God. Later Christian theologian Alvin Plantinga argued that belief in God is “properly basic,” that is to say, that believing that there is a God is as fundamental as the belief that one exists or that the world outside is real – things that everyone is born believing.
This concept of sensus divinitatis – once firmly in the realm of crackpot theologians and Christian Fundamentalists – is being lent support by an unlikely source: scientific research.
Studies are increasingly beginning to show that belief in God – or some general aspect of theism – may be woven into the very essence of human assumptions right from birth, and remain a lingering instinct, even for atheists.
In her 2004 article, titled “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’,” Psychologist Deborah Kelemen draws together a broad spectrum of research which suggests that from their very infancy, children hold the assumption that the world around them was created, exists for a purpose, and that things in the natural world have intentional design. Says Kelemen:
“…although children are not entirely indiscriminate, they do indeed evidence a general bias to treat objects and behaviors as existing for a purpose (Kelemen, 1999b, 1999c, 2003; but see Keil, 1992) and are also broadly inclined to view natural phenomena as intentionally created, albeit by a nonhuman agent (Evans, 2000b, 2001; Gelman & Kremer, 1991).”
In a 2011 study from Oxford, titled “Humans ‘predisposed’ to believe in gods and the afterlife,” it was found that across a wide variety of cultures, people are not only instinctively prone to a belief in gods, but also in a dualistic nature – that humans are both physical and non-physical in nature.
“The researchers point out that the project was not setting out to prove the existence of god or otherwise, but sought to find out whether concepts such as gods and an afterlife appear to be entirely taught or basic expressions of human nature.”
The study found that, no matter the culture, human instincts tended to be the same when it came to concepts of God and the afterlife. Like Kelemen’s research, this study looked at the fundamental assumptions of young children:
“Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box in which she could not see. Children aged three believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of four, children start to understand that their mothers are not all-seeing and all knowing. However, children may continue to believe in all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agents, such as a god or gods.”
Adults were also examined to see what kinds of instinctual beliefs they might maintain:
“Experiments involving adults… suggest that people across many different cultures instinctively believe that some part of their mind, soul or spirit lives on after-death.”
This research has extended, believe it or not, to atheist sections of the population, as well. In a 2011 study titled “Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer,” self-professed atheists were prompted with images and words related to God. In a statistically significant number of those tested, these images and words triggered feelings of anger. Anger not toward religion or the religious, but toward God.
Moreover, studies have suggested that even scientists and the highly rational, if forced to answer “why” questions quickly, will tend to give answers which suggest intentionality and design in nature, rather than mechanical processes.
Popular Scientist, and the voice of the phenomenally successful ‘Cosmos’ series, Neil Degrasse Tyson, has expressed his frustration with the term ‘Atheist’:
“…it’s odd that the word ‘Atheist’ even exists! I don’t play golf. Is there a word for ‘non-golf-players?’ Do non-golf-players gather and strategize? Do non-skiers have a word? And come together, and talk about the fact that they don’t ski? I can’t do that. I can’t gather ‘round and talk about why everyone in the room doesn’t believe in God.”
However, this research may suggest why the term “atheist” is necessary. According to the project Co-Director Professor Roger Trigg, “This project suggests that religion is not just something for a peculiar few to do on Sundays instead of playing golf. We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies. This suggests that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.”