Science could deliver the comforts of religion

Research suggests that a scientific worldview actually helps people cope with anxieties about their own mortality

Topics: Boston Review, Religion, Evolution, Gallup poll, Creationism, experimental psychology,

Science could deliver the comforts of religion
This article originally appeared on Boston Review.

Boston ReviewThe claim that humans evolved from non-humans is among the best established in science. It is backed by overwhelming evidence from diverse sources and fits into a rich and elegant picture of the biological world, with modern humans appearing around 200,000 years ago, more than three billion years after the origins of life on earth. Yet, according to a Gallup survey, nearly half of Americans reject evolution, instead endorsing the view that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

Why this resistance to human evolution? Religious commitments play a role, to be sure, but pointing to religion isn’t enough to explain why human evolution, in particular, engenders such a chilly reception in Americans’ hearts and minds. After all, a view of the solar system with humans at its center was eventually displaced (if ungracefully), and people aren’t nearly so troubled by the idea that plants evolve. There’s something special about human evolution—something that many find existentially upsetting, even untenable.

Research in experimental psychology offers a host of compelling explanations for why this could be. Perhaps humans are innately predisposed to creationism. Perhaps religious beliefs are “natural” and contemporary scientific commitments the psychological anomaly. There is something to be said for these claims, but if creationism—and the rejection of human evolution—is the belief toward which our species is naturally predisposed, we’re faced with an equally perplexing mystery: How is it that some people manage to embrace human evolution, and, indeed—to borrow Darwin’s phrase—to find “grandeur in this view of life”?

Can science, with its systematic approach to understanding nature, offer a satisfying portrait of the natural world and our place within it? Can science provide the same existential benefits typically thought to be the sole province of religion? Some recent psychological findings suggest that it can. But before turning to this new research, with its tantalizing promise of a psychologically fulfilling and scientifically grounded worldview, we need to understand the standard tale of why so many people reject human evolution in favor of creationist alternatives.

Is Creationism the “Natural” Human Belief?

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High-profile debates concerning the role of evolution and creationism in public education (remember Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District back in 2005?) and widely cited research documenting Americans’ anomalously high rejection of evolution have left many members of the scientifically inclined public wondering what gives. One response has been to offer psychological, sociological, or historical explanations for people’s beliefs, and in particular for the strong pull of creationism. For example, the psychologist Paul Bloom argues that creationism and belief in God may be “bred in the bone,” byproducts of the very evolutionary forces that shaped the human mind.

On this view, certain features of human psychology leave us pining for a creator. For instance, some have claimed that humans are “promiscuously teleological,” saddled with a tendency to construe objects and their properties as designed for a purpose. Understanding the natural world in terms of design suggests some prolific operator behind the scenes, so theistic stories of creation fill a useful explanatory role for the teleologically minded. Relatedly, humans appear to be overzealous in our attributions of agency, inclined to posit some sort of person or beastie at the slightest provocation—the sound of a broken twig in a forest, the creak on an old staircase, or the face-like constellation of whorls in a cloud. With a hyperactive agency detector constantly acting up, it’s not so hard to entertain a world populated by gods, ghosts, or gremlins.

Beyond these relatively cognitive biases are more emotional and existential benefits associated with religious beliefs. For example, a growing body of research suggests that reducing people’s sense of personal control—by, for example, having them think about randomness and unpredictability or write about an experience over which they had little influence—increases the extent to which they endorse belief in a controlling God. This effect is probably mediated by anxiety and arousal: the negative feelings generated by uncertainty or powerlessness lead to the boost in theistic belief, suggesting that such beliefs compensate for a certain kind of existential unease.

Another line of research has found that when religious people (Christians, in most studies) are reminded of their own mortality, endorsements of religious belief can increase. At least one finding suggests that those who identify most strongly as religious fear death least. Religious beliefs—and perhaps especially belief in an afterlife—seem to play a role in relieving anxiety associated with death. Even non-religious people who are primed to think of death are slower to classify religious supernatural entities as imaginary. While not all aspects of religious belief are comforting—think fire and brimstone—it appears that at least some of them are, making creationist commitments an appealing choice.

Why Human Evolution Is Hard to Swallow

In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Richard Dawkins quips, “It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.” Indeed, many psychologists have argued that, beyond the desire for comforting religious belief, additional tendencies conspire to make natural selection especially difficult to understand and accept, particularly when applied to the case of humans.

For starters, understanding evolution requires wrapping your head around some pretty abstract concepts, such as probability, geologic time, and what the biologist Ernst Mayr called “population thinking”: evolution isn’t a process that occurs at the level of individual organisms changing over time; it is better characterized as change over time in the proportion of individuals within a population who have particular characteristics. But this shift in perspective is difficult to achieve, and in fact mirrors the historical development of evolutionary ideas, with predecessors to Darwin often characterizing processes of change at the level of individuals. For example, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a naturalist who worked a generation before Darwin, believed that offspring acquired the characteristics of their parents, but that many of those characteristics were acquired within the lifetime of the parent, making individual organisms the site of evolutionary change.

Another cognitive bias that challenges population thinking is what psychologists call “psychological essentialism,” the idea that categories—in this case biological species—all share some common, underlying essence by virtue of which they have their characteristic properties and belong to the category they do. On an essentialist view, variation across individual members of a species is incidental. If a species changes over time, it must be because the common, underlying essence is changing in each individual. With natural selection, however, variation isn’t incidental but imperative: it’s a prerequisite to the differential survival and reproduction that fuels evolutionary change. Without variation there is no selection, so failing to appreciate the role of variation is a sure way to misunderstand Darwin’s theory.

People prefer control and order to feeling powerless in a disordered world, and natural selection is largely about luck and death.
Just as cognitive and existential concerns work in tandem to make creationism attractive, additional existential worries raise barriers to endorsing evolution, whether or not it is properly understood. People prefer control and order to feeling powerless in a disordered world, and natural selection is largely about luck and death. One study found that when primed to think about their own powerlessness, even relatively secular students found “random” evolution harder to swallow: they preferred intelligent design more often than when they were primed to feel powerful in a predictable world.

Additional concerns apply to the case of human evolution, in particular. People find it dehumanizing to conceptualize themselves as animals, and human evolution underscores the continuity between humans and our (distant) cockroach cousins. Research in social psychology and social cognition suggests that people endorse something like a great chain of being with moral and spiritual aspects. Humans are somewhere in the middle of the chain, with deities above and non-human animals below. Associating animal characteristics with humans has been used to justify inhumane treatment; it strips people of human uniqueness and certain aspects of agency and moral consideration. An evolutionary history shared with other animals—and even plants and bacteria—might threaten the separation between human and non-human that maintaining our “specialness” seems to require.

Finally, people often draw inappropriate conclusions from evolutionary claims—conclusions that they prefer to reject. One study asked undergraduates to identify whether the truth of evolution would have negative, positive, or neutral implications for a host of social and personal issues. The researchers found that the overwhelming majority of students queried believed that evolution made it harder to find purpose in life, threatened the existence of free will, and justified selfishness and racism, among other undesirable ends. These claims are examples of what philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy,” the error of deriving “ought” from “is”—an error that readers often make in response to strictly descriptive scientific findings. For example, the idea that genes are selfish might offer a compelling description of some evolutionary dynamics (though even that is controversial), but it doesn’t follow that human selfishness is appropriate.

If the vast majority of people fail to understand evolution, find it dehumanizing, and think it justifies all sorts of perversity, is it any wonder they’re disinclined to accept it, especially when creationism offers a more heartening alternative?

It may be that assorted mental dispositions and shortcomings—a preference for teleology, hyperactive agency detection, anxiety concerning death, psychological essentialism, a preference for order and control, an unhealthy fascination with human uniqueness, and the naturalistic fallacy, all wed to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—are enough to explain people’s rejection of human evolution in favor of some form of creationism.

But probably not. Explanations for people’s beliefs can’t be nearly so simple. That’s in part because there is no singular belief shared by all or even most people. There are as many beliefs as there are humans (probably more), and the range and diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs rival the range and diversity of our lives and experiences.

A more straightforward empirical challenge is that variation across people in their levels of anxiety concerning death, their understanding of evolution, or their belief that evolution is bad news for social and personal issues doesn’t reliably predict variation in the presence or strength of religious beliefs. Most studies of evolutionary understanding find that a majority of students hold systematic misconceptions about natural selection and that those who accept evolution aren’t much more likely to have an accurate understanding. So even if some mixture of psychological forces can help explain why particular ideas about human origins are so widespread, they do a poor job explaining why some people believe them and others do not.

And then there’s the puzzle alluded to already: Given the overwhelming number and strength of the psychological forces posited to favor creationism over human evolution, how is it that some people not only accept human evolution, but also embrace it as a deeply elegant and inspiring feature of the biological world, capable of satisfying our existential needs?

Finding Meaning in Science

The writer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan famously offered science as a “candle in the dark” to help illuminate a “demon-haunted world.” Scientists and others, before and after Sagan, have turned to science not only as a useful tool for predicting and controlling the natural world, but also as a source of beauty, comfort, and inspiration. Until very recently, however, such claims about the psychologically transformative potential of scientific ideas and of a scientific worldview were, ironically, restricted to speculation and anecdote.

With a new body of research in experimental psychology, however, this is beginning to change. In fact, four recent papers confirm that science offers many of the same existential benefits as religion. The implications are powerful.

First, consider a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which examines whether belief in science can mitigate stress and anxiety about death. In an initial study, rowers were asked to fill out a questionnaire either immediately before a competition (a high-stress situation) or before a routine practice (a low-stress situation). The questionnaire assessed the rowers’ belief in science by asking them to indicate how much they agreed with statements such as “science provides us with a better understanding of the universe than religion does” and “science is the most valuable part of human culture.” Sure enough, participants in the high-stress condition were significantly more likely than those in the low-stress condition to endorse these claims, suggesting that affirming the value of science was a strategy for mitigating high levels of stress.

The idea of a non-random, deterministic evolutionary process helped relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless.
In a second study, the researchers had participants write their thoughts about their own death, increasing the salience of their own mortality. In a control condition, participants wrote about experiencing dental pain. Those in the former condition expressed greater faith in science, mirroring documented effects of mortality salience on religious belief. Again, the finding suggests that science—like religion—can offer comfort in the face of existential anxiety.

Next consider a 2010 study that examined the psychological role of belief in scientific and technological progress. Participants were primed to feel powerful or powerless by writing about an unpleasant episode in which they did or did not have control, along with three reasons to believe the future is or is not controllable. Those in the latter condition were more likely to value funding for scientific research and to anticipate long-term technological progress, suggesting that belief in science and scientific progress helped to mitigate the negative effects of feeling powerless in an unpredictable world. Again, these findings mirror those with respect to religion, where belief in a controlling God appears to help people cope with feelings of low personal control.

Of course, not all religious ideas are equally comforting, and there is no reason to expect scientific ideas to be any more homogeneous in this respect. Another study investigated whether some kinds of scientific theories are regarded as more orderly and predictable and, if so, whether a threat to personal control would result in a preference for more orderly and predictable theories over alternatives. To test this hypothesis, the researchers contrasted “stage” theories—which posit that processes of change and development occur in fixed and discrete stages, such as Kohlberg’s stage theory of moral development—with “continuum” theories, according to which change is more variable and occurs along one or more continua. Although study participants judged stage theories less credible, they also judged such theories more orderly and predictable. And experiments confirmed that when subjects were primed to feel powerless or to consider randomness and uncertainty, their relative preference for the stage theories increased, suggesting that the more orderly and predictable the scientific theory, the better it compensated for a lack of personal control.

Finding Meaning in Evolution

Having seen that belief in science and scientific progress can have existential benefits that parallel those of religion, we can return to where we began and consider what this means for belief in evolution. Recall a study mentioned already, in which secular university students were primed to feel powerful or powerless and subsequently asked to choose between two accounts of life on earth. When the two options were the theory of evolution and intelligent design, the majority of students opted for the former. However, they were less likely to do so when they had been primed to feel powerless as opposed to powerful. This suggests that intelligent design—the idea of a supervised, goal-directed process of change—was comforting in a way that compensated for the unease induced by the prime to feel powerless.

However, the researchers also considered a third option: a version of evolution inspired by the paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, which downplays the role of “random processes” and instead describes evolution as highly deterministic. When researchers asked participants to choose between the theory of evolution and this modified variant, the results were similar to those involving intelligent design: participants preferred the theory of evolution overall, but they were more likely to choose the variant when they were primed to feel powerless than when they were primed to feel powerful. This suggests that, like intelligent design, the idea of a non-random, deterministic evolutionary process helped relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless. In fact the prime to feel powerless had no effect on the proportion of participants choosing intelligent design over the deterministic variant of evolution—the two appeared to be equivalent in their ability to compensate for low personal control.

So perhaps belief in a designer—be it the well-known Judeo-Christian version or the unspecified mover of intelligent design—isn’t unique in its ability to compensate for feelings of low personal control. When it comes to evolution, that leaves room for naturalistic accounts of human origins that offer at least some of the psychological benefits of religious belief.

Research on the existential and emotional aspects of particular scientific beliefs or of a scientific worldview is in its infancy, but the findings so far suggest we’ve been asking the wrong questions when it comes to understanding the widespread rejection of human evolution in favor of divine creation. The relevant contrast might not be between science and religion but between beliefs that promise an orderly universe—one in which individual humans or some external forces, be they natural or divine, impose structure and corral uncertainty—and those that do not.

Perhaps it is no surprise that religious beliefs have tended to fit the more psychologically attractive profile. Religion isn’t tethered to empirical facts the way scientific theories are; it is free to shift, to fit the contours of the human mind. When it comes to science, however, the empirical world offers hard constraints. We can hope for scientific theories that offer an orderly and predictable view of the natural world, but we can’t enforce them.

What we can do is rethink the way evolutionary ideas are presented, and work to improve people’s understanding of the ways in which natural selection is—and is not—a random and unpredictable process. While humanity may be an evolutionary accident in some sense, our place in the tree of life can be characterized in highly systematic ways that highlight the exquisite dynamics of evolutionary change. There are patterns in the natural world, and grasping them can be revelatory.

These new strands of research can’t promise a scientifically grounded account of human origins that rivals creationism in its psychological appeal, but they can help to explain how some people find beauty and fulfillment in a naturalistic worldview. There is something deeply satisfying in broadening the scope of what we understand. And that is part of the seductive grandeur of science.

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