Skeptics versus Believers: The Grip of Magical Thinking

Many conspiracy theorists claim that behind the scenes of world history, secret societies like the Illuminati or Freemasons have worked tirelessly to create artificial dualisms in belief systems. The goal? To keep humanity polarized and fighting straw dogs while they pursued their quest of world domination.

I don’t have the historical expertise to prove or disprove this idea, but it seems to me that the current hysteria building around whether religion is good or evil, is the kind of  straw dog that diverts us from seeing a greater truth – we function best when we believe there is a greater meaning to life than simple materialism.

wired.com The Three Wise Men of Atheism (from left): Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

I agree that religious literalism has led too many times to very un-spiritual behaviours, particularly the slaughter of those who do not believe in the one same God as you. But seriously, is wholesale faith in the mechanistic paradigm really the only alternative?

The idea we are less than dust in an oblivious cosmos, our consciousness a by-product of chemicals, and our brain nothing but an accident of evolution, just no longer works for me. Nature spent aeons developing my capacity to ask, who am I, where did I come from, what is the meaning of it all?

Have we really reached such an intellectual apex that the atheists have it all figured out? Personally, I don’t think so.

Outdated Wiring or Transcendent Evolution?

The term ‘believer” is usually applied to those who have faith in something else, something greater, than what the current scientific materialist definition of reality allows. Skeptics contend our religious impulse is irrational, a “cognitive dysfunction” that must be overcome by developing critical or skeptical thinking.

Dr. Andrew Newberg

But some neuroscientists like Andrew Newberg MD, say it isn’t so simple.” You can’t simply think God out of existence because religious feelings arise more from experience than from thought. They are as real to the brain as any perception of physical reality.”

Newberg is the author of Why We Believe What We Believe and claims that not only have our brains evolved to seek out religious meaning in the world, the very neural architecture of our brains allows us no other option. Research shows the nervous system, the pineal and pituitary glands, our neurotransmitters, the opiate, dopamine, and serotonin systems, all play a role in generating alternative states of consciousness such as religious and transcendent experience.

Skeptics claim this is nothing more than an evolutionary glitch, outdated brain wiring from our primitive past. Our predisposition to interpret rustling leaves as evidence of agency helps us find the predator in the shadows. However, we are equally capable of misinterpreting sudden breezes as intentional action on the part of God or some unseen being.Our tendency towards “magical thinking” (seeking to find patterns and find meaning – even if none exists.) is the result of a system that evolved to assure not truth, logic and reason, but survival.

Author Graham Hancock believes that the explanation of spiritual experience as a by-product of evolution doesn’t quite fit the historical facts. Archaeological evidence shows that religious belief and ritual were “fundamental to the unprecedented and astonishing evolutionary leap forward achieved by our species during the past 40,000 years” and provided the inspiration for the earliest art and ideas of mankind and marked the rise of civilization.

Newberg agrees and argues our brain has two primary functions, self-maintenance (survival) and self-transcendence. “Our brains are set up in such a way that God and religion become among the most powerful tools for helping the brain do its thing—self-maintenance and self-transcendence.” And as Newberg reasonably asks, “Why would the forces of natural selection, which gave the human brain its powers of logical observation and rational analysis—allow that very same organ to place such trust in magical thinking?”

Why indeed?

Sacred or Secular?

Consider the growing body of medical research demonstrating that people who believe in some kind of  “higher power” are healthier and longer lived than their more skeptical counterparts. Consider too that a variety of sociological studies have shown that far from being dysfunctional, “believers” are not just better adjusted and happier, they are also wealthier, better educated and even luckier!

Newberg makes the point some beliefs might be called “constructive” because they help us to better adapt to our world, and result in overall better physical and mental health. Others are “destructive” because they induce stress within us, worsen our health, or create violent feelings towards others.

That’s what bothers me about the whole good versus evil religious debate; it diverts our attention from the fact that we all need to believe – in something. Reducing the meaning of life to procreation and the dumb insistence of survival of the species, reduces us to meat, it denies the spiritual dimension to our lives. It keeps us subordinate to a materialist ideology that serves economic interests. Without spiritual meaning to life we become, as writer Daniel Pinchbeck puts it, “ a planet of ‘kidults’, perpetual adolescents trapped by material desires”.  Isn’t this the real conspiracy?  To keep us buying, clothes, cars, pills, guns, whatever it is, to fill the hole in our souls?

Richard Dawkins and the atheists may well be right that religious beliefs are dangerous. This is certainly the case when power elites use our religious impulse to control behaviour, and especially when fundamentalist and literal interpretations seek to dominate. But isn’t the religion of scientism equally dangerous? The scientific enlightenment certainly didn’t solve the perennial problems of violence and man’s inhumanity to man. It brought us extreme technical progress but in its shadow followed social alienation, nihilism and monstrous mechanization.

Aldus Huxley predicted the rise of the scientific dictatorship. He was right on the money when he warned of a coming fascistic global government of the elite. After all, if God is dead, who says you have the right – to anything?

Spiritual Revolution

Author Karen Armstrong

I agree with esteemed religious historian Karen Armstrong who writes ‘What we need is a new spiritual revolution”. It is time to realize that “the myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality, but because they are life enhancing.“

According to Armstrong we are still failing to grasp religion’s central message.  “It doesn’t matter whether you believe it was Jesus, Mohammad or Buddha that was the ultimate savior, all that matters, is that you practice what they preached.”

“The history of religion shows that when people develop the kind of lifestyle that restrains greed and selfishness, they experience a transcendence that has been interpreted in different ways.  It has sometimes been regarded as a supernatural reality, sometimes as a personality, sometimes as wholly impersonal, and sometimes a dimension that is entirely natural to humanity, but however we see it, this ecstasy has been a fact of human life”.

The atheists can take reality as they like it but I stand with Karen Armstrong. Our yearning for something greater is not necessarily a pacifier for mortality. It is faith in our ability to make a better world and transform our lives. By believing there is an unseen pattern to things, truths beyond our comprehension, a meaning not obvious on the surface, we are encouraged to look deeper into the world and within ourselves.

We must come to terms with our longing for transcendence and direct it responsibly. Besides, even the most ardent atheist has to admit, that if we lived like a Christ or a Buddha, the world would be a much better place.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Axis Mundi says:

    Excellent piece here. To my mind, Darwin and Dawkin’s model has simply become a new Religion, blindly accepted by many by default who haven’t really looked at these theories in depth and the flaws they contain. Interesting you mention the Illuminati conspiracy. Many researchers within this field speak of the plan to introduce a new world religion but to mind it’s already been done and comprises a kind of global ‘cult of the body’, this brute materialism which asserts that mankind has no spirit or higher purpose. I’ve always said that if you can convince millions that they are nothing more than biological machines here by shere dumb luck you can convince them of anything. Anyway, thanks for your balanced insight on this topic 🙂

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