[P]eople do not have beliefs because they somehow made their minds receptive to belief and then acquired the material for belief. They have some beliefs because, among all the material they acquired, some of it triggered these particular effects.I've often thought that I really don't have any choice about not being religious - the whole thing just strikes me as nonsensical, and I can't help that. So if God were real, he surely couldn't justly blame atheists for their honest disbelief. Yet some Christians seem to do just that; they think that if we just 'opened our minds' to religious possibilities, then we would see the light. Hmph.
But I guess it goes both ways. Perhaps it is unreasonable of skeptics to disparage religious people for their credulity and irrational superstitions. At least, blame seems inappropriate. But I don't think most skeptics do blame theists, in any case. Rather, I think the idea is that people should be encouraged to critically examine their beliefs - and I don't think the article provides any good reason to doubt the worth of this goal.
[E]xperimental tests show that people's actual religious concepts often diverge from what they believe they believe... For instance, psychologist Justin Barrett showed that Christians' concept of God was much more complex than the believers themselves assumed. Most Christians would describe their notion of God in terms of transcendence and extraordinary physical and mental characteristics. God is everywhere, attends to everything at the same time. However, subtle experimental tasks reveal that, when they are not reflecting upon their own beliefs, these same people use another concept of God, as a human-like agent with a particular viewpoint, a particular position and serial attention. God considers one problem and then another. Now that concept is mostly tacit. It drives people's thoughts about particular events, episodes of interaction with God, but it is not accessible to people as "their belief." In other words, people do not believe what they believe they believe.That's a very interesting (and surprising) finding. But hasn't that judgement I put in bold, got the conclusion exactly backward? They've shown that, deep down, most Christians conceive of God as merely a super-powerful invisible man. Surely this is far less complex than their professed notion of God as transcendent, omni-present, and capable of multiple (indeed, infinite) simultaneous thoughts.
Although people often state that their moral rules are a consequence of the existence (or of the decrees) of supernatural agents, it is quite clear that such intuitions are present, independent of religious concepts. Moral intuitions appear long before children represent the powers of supernatural agents, they appear in the same way in cultures where no one is much interested in supernatural agents, and in similar ways regardless of what kind of supernatural agents are locally important. Indeed, it is difficult to find evidence that religious teachings have any effect on people's moral intuitions.So much for religion being the source of all morality!
Religious concepts do not change people's moral intuitions but frame these intuitions in terms that make them easier to think about. For instance, in most human groups supernatural agents are thought to be interested parties in people's interactions. Given this assumption, having the intuition that an action is wrong becomes having the expectation that a personalized agent disapproves of it. The social consequences of the latter way of representing the situation are much clearer to the agent, as they are handled by specialized mental systems for social interaction. This notion of gods and spirits as interested parties is far more salient in people's moral inferences than the notion of these agents as moral legislators or moral exemplars.
That second part is interesting too. I wonder if the notion of 'God' arises from our tendency to anthropomorphise? In particular, I wonder if 'God' is really just the concept which results from humans applying their theory of mind to nature itself. That is, we could be thinking of Nature (or perhaps Society) as just another agent (albeit with some fairly special properties added on!). The key point, then, would be that religious reasoning involves the same mental modules we use to reason about other people. In the case of religious morality, it seems that we might just be personifying the society at large, and then asking whether this society-person ('God') would approve of our actions or not.
The article is basically suggesting that religious concepts arose by co-opting pre-existing (non-religious) mental modules, and applying them to a new situation:
To sum up, we can explain human sensitivity to particular kinds of supernatural concepts as a by-product of the way human minds operate in ordinary, non-religious contexts. Because our assumptions about fundamental categories like person, artifact, animal, etc., are so entrenched, violations of these assumptions create salient and memorable concepts...Paul Kurtz's article on The Science of Religion is also interesting, though less insightful, IMO.
Although the [supernatural] agents are said to be very special, the way people think about interaction with them is directly mapped from their interaction with actual people...
A variety of mental systems, functionally specialized for the treatment of particular (non-religious) domains of information, are activated by religious notions and norms, in such a way that these notions and norms become highly salient, easy to acquire, easy to remember and communicate, as well as intuitively plausible...
People do not adhere to concepts of invisible ghosts or ancestors or spirits because they suspend ordinary cognitive resources, but rather because they use these cognitive resources in a context for which they were not designed in the first place. However, the "tweaking" of ordinary cognition that is required to sustain religious thought is so small that one should not be surprised if religious concepts are so widespread and so resistant to argument. To some extent, the situation is similar to domains where science has clearly demonstrated the limits or falsity of our common intuitions. We now know that solid objects are largely made up of empty space, that our minds are only billions of neurons firing in ordered ways, that some physical processes can go backwards in time, that species do not have an eternal essence, that gravitation is a curvature of space-time. Yet even scientists go through their daily lives with an intuitive commitment to solid objects being full of matter, to people having non-physical minds, to time being irreversible, to cats being essentially different from dogs, and to objects falling down because they are heavy.
Update: Cf. Mixing Memory's evidence that human and God concepts diverge from a very young age.