Is Belief Inherent?


I recently read an article that caused me to pause. It is an essay in Quillette that tries to explain how and why people seem to be drawn to the spiritual even as we leave traditional religion behind. I don’t disagree that yes, more and more people are leaving the traditions of their parents and grandparents behind, and yes, there are people that want to believe in something, and gravitate to other forms of what I refer to as mumbo-jumbo, but it was one paragraph that specifically caught my attention.

The paragraph begins with explaining what most scholars believe about religion, that we all start with a blank slate, and that religion is a cultural and social influence:

Scholars have proposed a wide range of theories to explain the persistence of religious faith in all human societies. Many of these theories involve a heavy dose of what may be described as “blank slate” thinking—by which human interests and beliefs are shaped entirely by social influence. Yet such top-down, culturally-driven explanations ignore the possibility that religious faith originates in bottom-up brain-driven cognitive and motivational processes.

The emphasis of the last sentence is mine. It’s that last sentence that caught my attention and had me continue to read the essay to see what the author meant about this bottom-up process. It didn’t take long. It’s an interesting method of writing: draw the reader in with statements they would agree with, in that religion is in decline, then slowly, but perceptively, show what the essay is really all about, that what most scholars believe about religious faith may be completely wrong. But we’re not at the real thesis of this essay yet as the author goes on to explain his hypothesis.

Ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning. This need is inherent, not learned. It is a fundamental component of the human condition.

And there’s the crux, or thesis of this essay, that religion provides us a meaning for life, which is inherent.

Yep, he’s saying it’s built into us to need to find a meaning for life and that, of course leads directly to religious belief. So, we’re programmed to need to know something about life that only, as far as the author can determine, that some sort of spiritual belief may satisfy.

Well, as you can guess, I disagree with that hypothesis, having been an evangelical myself. A a small child, I was taken to church, never forced, was there to be introduced to belief, something had I never been there, I would never have known about, I think. Most others I know would say the same and that kind of throws a wrench into the idea that we’re born with a need.  I’m not sure how he can prove any of this, but he attempts to later in the article by showing how people who have left organized religion tend to move to other forms of spirituality. 

That’s not good enough.  There’s no reason to believe that just because people leave organized religion that they have given up any or all of their supernatural beliefs.  But those beliefs  were taught to them. They’re inherited over generations. There’s no indication whatsoever that people are born with the need to find a meaning for life. 

Whether it’s belief in ghosts, or tarot cards or anything else mentioned in the linked essay, nothing indicates that any of this behavior is inherent. It’s learned. It can be unlearned.


4 thoughts on “Is Belief Inherent?

  1. The need to know is inherent. When we don’t know, we make up stories. We feel we have an inner self (a soul?) and since we can’t know what happens after death, we can imagine that the immaterial inner self continues to exist after death. Humans create, in the space between the ears, a supernatural realm where gods and spirits cavort to the singing of angels, for eternity! That solves the problem of ‘what happens’. GROG


  2. I can only speak for myself. I was not raised in a religious atmosphere and the people close to me in my life were not particularly religious. I’m an atheist and feel “meaning” is only what you make of your own life in what you do and like and aim for.

    But having said that, I have wondered about meaning at large…universal, not mine, but the big picture. The old “why is there something rather than nothing” and what does that mean, if anything.

    Sometimes it just seems like there should be some big meaning as to why the universe and life exists at all. Not the how but the why. I guess the reality is it just does with no why.

    But my mind sometimes wants more…meaning..if you will. So is that an inherent longing, or evolutionary drive?

    It in no way leads to spiritual thoughts, but it does lead me, personally, to scientific ones like quantum fields connectiveness, consciousness continuing controversies, energy fields, we’re all connected by stardust thoughts etc.

    Is that in some way an inherent need for meaning also that has nothing to do with religion or spirituality?


  3. I think even before human beings had the time to consider the “why” of it all, they were aware of the perplexities of life and death. Why doesn’t my parent move, breathe, eat, respond anymore? What happened and where is my parent, whose body now rots? How did this little creature get inside my body and then come out and suckle and grow to be like me?

    But, it was as it was and it still is as it is. And, as we gained much more time to ponder, we filled in the mysteries in ways that seemed satisfactory until they no longer were.

    The more we know, the more we learn, until we become apathetic about such fluffy stuff, being far too busy on social media or with the current outrage to bother with what doesn’t much matter to us anymore. Either we are inclined to believe for our need or we are not. It is only that humans tend to bring conflict to those beliefs that really matters during the current era.

    This is the legacy of a reasoning brain.

    Walt Whitman said it best:

    ““I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.

    They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

    It is impossible to rear children to adulthood without them being influenced by deity beliefs and the religions that support those beliefs. Well…unless one deliberately isolates one’s family from all outside influence. Yet, I suspect that even so isolated, a young mind would ponder these things and the why of it all, but perhaps the answer would be that thus is the way it is, and no more.


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