An article at livescience.com titled, “The Virgin Birth: Why We Believe”, seemed appropriate for this time of the year. The article attempts explain the belief in the supernatural in scientific terms. It tries to describe why some humans believe in God and miracles- as if being able to understand, describe and rationalize it gives science some semblance of control over religion.
A recent Pew survey indicates that about three-quarters of Americans believe in the Virgin Birth, and another Pew study found that about 80% of Americans believe in miracles. I think some scientists find it fascinating, or maybe even surprising, that people still believe in the supernatural because “science”, in their minds, has disproven the existence of God and the supernatural. The acceptance of blind evolution, chance, and purely natural processes are enough to explain our existence without resorting to God, they believe. So they try to understand why anyone would still believe in a god(s) when we “know” that they don’t exist and that it’s all mythology. They tend to think of people who still believe in God as archaic, superstitious and uneducated. Many wish they could better educate the masses so that they would be freed from such nonsense.
But this article provides a slightly different perspective, as if humans are victims of evolution and aren’t really at fault- science just needs to better understand our ability to believe in the supernatural.
According to Live Science, experts aren’t surprised that so many people believe in the Virgin Birth and miracles because they’ve learned that the human brain is “primed” for a belief in God and the supernatural. This priming, then, causes us to accept the possibility of miracles and the supernatural.
According to Psychologist Will Gervais at the University of Kentucky, the ability of humans to imagine that others have a mind of their own gives us the ability to conceive of God. And psychologist and neuroscientist Wade Rowatt at Baylor University also said, “Over 90 percent of Americans believe in God, in part, because we have brains that are well-suited to agent detection.” He explains that humans have a built-in cognitive bias that allows us to believe that the mind and body are essentially separate, and these separate cognitive systems allow us to navigate the physical world differently from the social world. Further, our ability to understand metaphors and symbols plays a role in whether or not we believe in the supernatural.
Our belief in God, according to these scientists, is a byproduct of evolution- we evolved the ability to empathize, separate the body and mind and understand metaphors and symbols… things our early ancestors weren’t able to do. But these advantages, unfortunately, lead some people to believe metaphorical stories as literal truth. Philip Clayton at Claremont School of Theology in California explains that “Children don’t distinguish between the literal and the symbolic”, and that some adults may not have overcome the tendency that children have to conflate the symbolic. So Clayton seems to believe that the Virgin Birth is a metaphor and not truth because he’s matured enough to distinguish metaphors in a way that those who believe in the supernatural haven’t been able to. Nice.
Despite this derogatory and reductionist explanation of our spiritual beliefs, there are plenty of scientists who do believe in God and the supernatural because they understand that the realms of science and religion are compatible and not mutually exclusive. They understand that science isn’t enough to explain everything, including our existence.
I find studies like this a bit annoying because they typically don’t consider the existence of God a possibility; they just consider that our ability to consider the existence of God makes sense from a cognitive, scientific perspective. And then they treat it as a flaw in our development, even though it had some kind of evolutionary advantage.
Lastly, I think there’s a better explanation as to why we have the ability to believe in God and the supernatural. And that’s because God does exist. If God does exist, then it stands to reason that he gave us the cognitive ability to know and understand him on a spiritual level. He gave us the ability to communicate with him and know him personally. And that’s why many of us believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin on Christmas day.