May 2006

Is God an Accident?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently, psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question….”is God an Accident?

This question is the title of an article by Paul Bloom in the Atlantic Monthly, December 2005. Bloom buttresses these “facts” with observations of the objective world which he believes lend support to them.

“When I was a teenager,” he says, “my rabbi believed that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was living in Crown heights, Brooklyn, was the Messiah, and that the world was soon to end. He believed that the world was a few thousand years old, and that the fossil record was a consequence of the Great Flood. He could describe the afterlife, and was able to answer adolescent questions about the fate of Hitler’s soul.

“My Rabbi was no crackpot; he was an intelligent and amiable man, a teacher and a scholar. But he held views which struck me as strange, even disturbing. Like many secular people, I am comfortable with religion as a source of spirituality and transcendence, tolerance and love, charity and good works… I am uncomfortable, however, with religion when it makes claims about the natural world, let alone a world beyond nature.” It is easy, Bloom says, for those of us who reject supernatural beliefs to agree with Stephen Jay Gould that the best way to accord dignity and respect to both science and religion is to recognize that they apply to “non-overlapping magisteria”: science gets the realm of facts, religion the realm of values.”

But religion, he argues, is much more than a set of ethical principles or a vague sense of transcendence. The anthropologist Edward Tylor got it right in 1871 when he noted that the “minimum definition of religion” is a belief in spiritual beings, in the supernatural. My rabbi’s specific claims define religion as billions of people understand and practice it.

In the United States just about everyone–96 percent in one poll–believes in God. Well over half of Americans believe in miracles, the devil and angels. Most believe in an afterlife, not just in the sense that we will live on in the memories of other people, or in our own good deeds; most Americans believe that after death they will actually reunite with relatives and get to meet God. But Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

Do these facts about America show how much we differ from European countries? Not necessarily, says Bloom. Church attendance is much lower in Europe, but most polls show that a majority of European people are believers. Iceland is the most secular country on earth with only two percent attendance, but four out of five Icelanders say that they pray, and the same proportion believe in life after death. And in America Steven Waldman in the on-line magazine Slate states that one of America’s two political parties is extremely religious. 61% of the party’s voters say they pray daily or more often. 92% believe in life after death. A hard-core subgroup of this party think Bush uses too little religious rhetoric, and 51% believe God gave Israel to the Jews and that its existence fulfills the prophecy about the second coming of Christ. The hardcore group Waldman is talking about is Democrats, and the hard-core subgroup is African-American Democrats.

Scientists? They are less likely than non-scientists to be religious but not by a huge amount. A 1996 poll asked them whether they believed in a real biblical God, one believers could pray to and actually get an answer from. About 40% said yes. Only among the most elite scientists–members of the National Academy of Sciences–do we find a strong majority of atheists and agnostics.

These findings require a new theory of why we are religious–one that draws on research in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and developmental psychology. One traditional approach is the observation that it is difficult to be a person. There is evil all around; everyone we love will soon die–slowly and probably unpleasantly or quickly and probably unpleasantly. For nearly all, life really is nasty, brutish and short. If our lives have some greater meaning, it is hardly obvious. So perhaps as Marx suggested, we have adopted religion as an opiate, to soothe the pain of existence. Supernatural beliefs solve the problem of this chaos by providing meaning. But, as scientist Steven Pinker reminds us, we don’t typically get solace from propositions we don’t already believe to be true. Hungry people don’t cheer themselves by believing they just had a large meal. Heaven is reassuring only insofar as people believe such a place exists. An adequate theory of religion has to explain why such a belief occurs in the first place. Another alternative theory is social; religion brings people together, giving them an edge over those who lack this social glue. It is survival of the fittest working at the level of the social group. The claim is that religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those who do not. This theory also explains why religions are so harsh toward those who do not share the faith, reserving particular ire for apostates. In the Old Testament “a jealous God” commands: “Should your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or your daughter or the wife of your bosom or your companion who is like your own self incite you in secret, saying let us go and worship other gods…you shall surely kill him.” This theory explains how rituals and sacrifices can bring people together and the possibility that a group that does such things may have an advantage over one that doesn’t, but it is not clear why religion has to be involved. Why are gods, souls, an afterlife, miracles, etc., brought in? The theory doesn’t explain what we are most interested in, belief in the supernatural.

Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a different view–that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by accident. One version is the notion that a distinction between the physical and the psychological is fundamental to human thought. Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. Morally, a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can.

Where does this distinction come from? Through experience, or is it somehow pre-wired into our brains? We can find out through the study of babies. It is hard to know what babies are thinking, since they can’t think and have little control over their bodies. But babies, like the rest of us, tend to look longer at something they find unusual or bizarre. Babies show surprise if you (1) put an object on a table and then remove the table, and the object stays there held by a hidden wire (the baby expects the object to fall); (2) show a baby an object then put it behind a screen and later remove the screen and the object is not there. (they understand that objects persist over time if hidden); and (3) place first one object and then another behind a screen and when the screen drops, there are one or three objects, instead of two (they can do simple math). Other experiments find the same numerical understanding in nonhuman primates, including macaques and tamarins, and in dogs. Similar understandings show up in infants’ understanding of the social world. Before they are a year old, they can determine the target of an adult’s gaze and can learn by attending to the emotions of others. It is doubtful that these social capacities can be explained as a set of primitive responses, but rather there is evidence that they reflect a deeper understanding. When twelve-month-olds see one inanimate object chasing another, they seem to understand that it really is chasing it, and they are surprised when it does not continue its pursuit along the most direct path. When babies see one character in a movie help an individual and a different one hurt him, they later expect the individual to approach the character that helped it and avoid the one that hurt it.

How do these findings relate to supernatural belief? Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand–and when they get older, to manipulate–physical and social entities. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and the afterlife. Second, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.

Richard Dawkins may be right when he describes the theory of natural selection as one of our species’ finest accomplishments; it is an intellectually satisfying and empirically supported account of our own existence. But almost nobody believes it. One poll found that more than a third of college undergraduates believe that the Garden of Eden was where the first human beings appeared. And even among those who claim to endorse Darwinian evolution, many distort it in one way or another, often seeing it as a mysterious internal force driving species toward perfection. Dawkins writes that it appears almost as if “the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism.”

Religious authorities and scholars are often motivated to explore and reach out to science, as when the pope embraced evolution and the Dalai Lama became involved with neuroscience. But Bloom argues that “this scenario assumes the wrong account of where supernatural ideas come from. Religious teachings certainly shape many of the specific beliefs we hold; nobody is born with the idea that the birthplace of humanity was the Garden of Eden, or that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception, or that martyrs will be rewarded with sexual access to scores of virgins. These ideas are learned. But the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.”


Enthusiastic Kilo Zamora, executive director of National Conference of Community and Justice of Utah (NCCJ), introduced this nonprofit organization housed currently at Westminster College. Founded in 1927, and known originally as The National Conference for Christians and Jews, NCCJ’s mission is dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism. This organization promotes understanding and respect among all races, religions and cultures through 1] advocacy, 2] conflict resolution, and 3] education.

The mission encompasses all people, and the organization finds all forms of oppression, prejudice and discrimination to be wrong so that no form of discrimination is acceptable. Therefore, the mission includes any type of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia, and discrimination based on physical and mental disabilities.

  • Some of Zamora’s points to consider are the following.
  • Our view of history is traditionally taught from the group in power, e.g. Americans know who our forefathers are when this term is used. When studying history, Zamora said we reach different conclusions at different times in our lives, and history should not always be able to inform us of reality.
  • In NCCJ’s mission of fighting bigotry, Zamora stated passionately that no one is born a bigot, that prejudices and stereotypes are learned, and that hate is carefully taught. Because one can only change oneself, it is our responsibility to change destructive prejudices and stereotypes, a goal that is personal, spiritual, and political.

People are not neutral, expressed Zamora. Learning new ways of thinking and understanding different perspectives, races, religions, and cultures can be difficult, and may mean that one steps back, cleans his or her slate, and listens carefully. Empathy is another way. Using the World Trade tragedy to illustrate how to be more empathetic, one could ask e.g. why would someone wish to attack us? What happened in their history to warrant such action? What lead the attackers to reach this critical point?

To respect differences, one also needs to move from mere tolerance to acceptance. “I don’t want to be just tolerated!” said Zamora. “You can’t bring out the best in me if I am just tolerated.”

Acceptance also means inviting different peoples into one’s home or inviting their children to play with ours.

Eliminating bigotry and changing biases requires conscious effort and conscious decision-making. For example, what are we willing to say when the “other” is not in the room?

Conscious museums is one societal effort to change biases and to educate, like the Museum of Tolerance in LA and the Holocaust Museum. (Built in 1993, the Museum of Tolerance is a high tech, hands-on experiential museum that focuses on two central themes through unique interactive exhibits: the dynamics of racism and prejudice in America and the history of the Holocaust, which is the ultimate example of man’s inhumanity to man. The genesis of the Museum, the first of its kind in the world, came from the leadership of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the internationally recognized Jewish human rights organization named in honor of Simon Wiesenthal)

  • “Conflict resolution” is one of the three methods that NCCJ has identified to help eliminate bigotry. Zamora pointed out that Boyer Jarvis effectively used silence or passivity as a tool to resolve conflicts. Other examples from history of people who used different methods of conflict resolution effectively are Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Tiananmen Square’s Tank Man, and Desmond Tutu.
  • “Education” is another method identified by NCCJ. Cultivating the ability to listen with an open mind to opposing views is part of the education process, as well as actively bringing up issues that separate people–not to be contentious but to create more open dialogue.
  • “Advocacy,” the third NCCJ method, “is tough because once things become political, people get heated,” said Zamora. According to him, politics is an extension of our spirituality, citing Neil Walsh and Bob Marley as examples.

Embodying education, conflict resolution and advocacy are two powerful statements that Zamora quoted, the first by Martin Luther King.

“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

The second is a quote from LDS President Gordon Hinckley:

“Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.”

Zamora concluded by saying that NCCJ is about not knowing all the answers, having the ability to be criticized, being at the table together and building a better place together. Social justice is not only in our head and hearts, but in the way we live.

Author’s Notes:

NCCJ, a part of the Salt Lake City community since 1966, has been active in a variety of community projects. The principal goal of these projects is making life for all people, and especially youth, more equitable, friendly, and free.

Key Facts about NCCJ:

  • NCCJ today has more than 55 regional offices in 32 states and the District of Columbia and has over 400 full and part-time staff members.
  • The National Conference of Christians and Jews, changed its name in the 1990’s to better reflect its mission to build whole and inclusive communities. The historic name confused many, who believed that NCCJ was an interfaith organization. Therefore the new name is not a change in vision, but rather an affirmation of our abiding commitment to embrace the diversity of our nation.
  • NCCJ is the only national human relations organization that focuses on a broad range of “isms,” the multiple manifestations of discrimination and oppression that are based on one’s religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, bias crimes to racial profiling – the challenges ahead are real. To confront and overcome them, NCCJ maintains an abiding commitment to work with decision-makers and leaders to support their work to build an inclusive society.

–Sarah Smith

Marion Craig Essay Contest Winners

The winners of the Marian Craig 2005-2006 Essay contest read their winning entries and received their prize money at the April 13th Humanist of Utah meeting. Kendra Walbeck, 9th grade student at South Jordan Middle School, was awarded first place, receiving $500.00 for her essay “Why Join a Gang?” She says, “Teens join gangs for many reasons including low self esteem and a need for a sense of belonging.” She urged parents and friends to help teens meet those needs “by giving them love, support and recognition.”

Kendra Waleck, First Prize

A check for $250.00 was awarded to second place winner Megan Hurst for her entry regarding “Pressing Environmental Concerns.” Megan is also a 9th grade student at South Jordan Middle School. Her essay observes that “Air along the Wasatch Front can get so dirty the pollution can be seen with the naked eye.” She concluded, “If people took tiny steps and did little things to help, the environment would be much cleaner and everyone would benefit.”

Megan Hurst, Second Prize

Jill Moses, Teacher

Both winners are students of Ms. Jill Moses, who received $250.00 for encouraging her students to participate in the Marian Craig Essay competition. She thanked the Humanists of Utah for getting students involved in community affairs. Congratulations to all of the participants and especially the winners!

Winning Entry

Why Join a Gang?

Adolescents will do anything to feel a sense of belonging. They’ll try everything; even if it means joining a gang. Teenagers lacking love, support, and a place of security often turn to gangs. The home environment can greatly impact the way teenagers feel about themselves. Having a low self esteem can also be a factor in adolescents’ choices. Especially during the teenage years, friends have a big influence on their peers. The reasons in joining a gang can vary, but it’s basically to feel like they belong.

In the world today, there can be many problems in the family and environment of the home. As in the book Oliver Twist, teenagers and kids without a source of stability commonly make poor choices that could have been prevented. Lacking support from the family can greatly affect children. Without love from a family, which every child needs, where else can they find comfort? Obviously one answer is gangs. On the other hand, there are some teenagers who join gangs despite the fact that they come from a loving home. Home support is very important and is vital to the lives of adolescents.

Having a low self esteem can explain why some youth feel as though they need to be part of a gang. A low self esteem can be caused by many things, including peers and friends. Bullying is also one of the many events that can lead to the lowering of one’s self esteem. Those who are victims of bullying can easily become angry and bitter. Therefore, in turn, they feel as though they need to treat others in the same way. As a result of these irate feelings, gangs can become an ideal, but mistaken, solution. A low self esteem can lead to events that take place in gangs.

Especially during one’s adolescent years, the social environment in which they interact plays a big role in their choices. “Hanging out” with the wrong group of friends usually has dire consequences. Friends have a big influence over friends. Peer pressure is hard to ignore for a teenager with an unstable background. One may be lured into joining a gang if his peers choose to become involved. They can become self conscious or taunted by their “friends.” It is very important for adolescents to have friends that will influence them for the good.

Teenagers join gangs for a variety of reasons. First, youth who don’t have a supportive family feel neglected and want to belong. Secondly, possessing a low self esteem can explain why some become part of a gang. Finally, the influence of a friend is one of the most vital influences in one’s life. Overall, the joining of teenagers to gangs can be prevented if they are given the love and support they need. Without love and support, adolescents will seek it somewhere else; and it is often i>thought to be found in a gang.

–Kendra Waleck

2nd Place Entry


Keeping the environment clean has become a more pressing concern, especially in Utah. Issues such as clean air, energy losses, and using up landfills are becoming even more of a cause for concern. These issues are especially important to Utah. If citizens took a bit more time and effort to recycle, carpool, and other little various things, we could help the environment immensely. Utah could have cleaner air; fossil fuels and other types of nonrenewable energy would be saved longer. The environment would be much cleaner.

Air along the Wasatch Front can get so dirty the pollution can be seen with the naked eye. Pollution is a major concern with Utah environmentalists. The pollution is mostly caused by automobile emissions and major industries. Research has proven that air pollution has a direct relationship to increased strokes and asthma attacks in America. Cleaning up the air will have good effect on asthma victims, and fewer strokes will occur. Power plants are also a major cause for air pollution in Utah. If scientists spend more time looking for a sufficient non-polluting renewable source of energy, the sooner the air can be cleaned up.

Energy is a growing concern not only in Utah, but internationally as well. Nonrenewable fossil fuels are rapidly diminishing. Not only are the amounts decreasing, but coal, oil, and nuclear power has been detrimental to human health. Using renewable resources are practical to use; hybrid cars and other ways of using nonpolluting renewable resources have been introduced to the public. The problem is that the public isn’t purchasing them. The knowledge that better energy sources are out there needs to be advertised. There are many ways that knowledge about saving energy can be given to the public so that more energy can be saved.

Recycling is a very easy and efficient way to help the environment. Many of Utah’s local waste management companies provide recycling. Recycling reduces the costs of waste management and it is much cheaper than harvesting virgin material. Landfills, apart from being very ugly to look at anyway, threaten water supplies also. Recycling helps reduce these risks, and can also help air quality. It is a very useful and efficient way to help the environment.

All in all, if people took these tiny steps and tried to do little things to help, the environment would be much cleaner and everyone would benefit. If air pollution is reduced, people would have less strokes and asthma attacks. Advertisement of renewable energy saving products will help air pollution and countless other types of pollution decrease. Finally, if recycling were used more, water supplies wouldn’t be as threatened and unsightly landfills wouldn’t have to grow. It is so simple to make little changes; Utah’s citizens should consider the benefits of doing these things.

–Megan Hurst