Book Summary: Why We Believe in God(s) by J. Anderson, Jr.

After listening to a lecture about whether Evolution is fact or theory I decided to explore other people’s beliefs about how the world was created. I have recently read the book Why We Believe in God(s) by J.Anderson, Jr., with Clare Aukofer, from which I have learned about human behaviour that leads to the survival of religion from generation to generation.
The book begins with an introduction by Dawkins, explaining that the ‘cost of a mistake is high’ (being proven wrong is embarrassing) so therefore as humans we often turn to religion even though it is ‘statistically unlikely’. Why We Believe in God(s) explains that living in groups may be beneficial to survival as it ‘helps solve specific social and interpersonal problems’. Perhaps the well known phrase “strength in numbers” is proven here – humans feel safer in groups and this may be due to the fact that it was a survival technique of the past. This is further proven by the fact that there are still three tribes around the world, including the Aborigines of Australia, that live in small communities in extreme climates but continue to survive and thrive. This shows that it is a natural instinct within us to consider those in our group as ‘in’ and those in other groups as ‘out’. We feel naturally competitive when put into groups and feel prepared to ‘fight’ other groups for survival.
The book also goes into detail about the link between craving and pleasure, and how, if we enjoy something, our brain rewards us and therefore we will crave this enjoyment from the same action again repetitively in the future. Anderson compares a craving for fast food to religion in ‘just because we crave something, doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good for us’ and this explains extremist views, such as those of Daesh, and their reasoning for committing inhumane attacks on other humans.
Religion may be an answer to our human ‘Attachment System’ which is our craving to rely on someone else. This system is natural in humans from birth as shown through our connection as a baby with our mothers due to the release of oxytocin, then later in life through connection with romantic lovers and best friends. Religion may particularly appeal to people as it provides a being for people to rely on, that will never pass away or fade, unlike human life. Religion has the ability to ‘shield us from fear, assure our salvation and provide an afterlife’. These positive feelings of security are enjoyable and therefore we crave experiencing them again, and therefore search deeper for religion, relying on it even more.
The ‘mind can be tricked into belief’ as shown by the creation of ‘imaginary friends’ by young children. If something is enjoyable and rewarding we may ‘trick’ our brains into believing it is fact. After receiving many rewards from God, people are bound to believe that God definitely exists.
Religion may also be for ‘sociability’ as humans are united in their beliefs. If someone else is a believer, this may justify ones own beliefs. It may also be for ‘sociability’ with God. Some people imagine God as someone who they have previously had a relationship with so that it is a more personal and closer relationship.
Anderson Jr. also writes about Hyperactive Agency Detection Device which is a belief that beings ‘can alter or affect what happens to us’. This links to religion as people believe that God genuinely dictates a better or worse future for the rest of their lives. People also assume that God is similar to man so that they can relate more easily to Him.
We assume that all people of the same faith may have different opinions about their religion. However, this was not the case during the religion-fuelled 9/11 attack, showing that some people are prepared to cause harm to other members of the human race for proof of their faith. This is an example of a terrorist attack caused by extremist views.
Furthermore, people believe in God because we, as man-kind require a complete story for everything – including how the Earth was created. From a young age we question ‘why?’ – always curious about purpose. Perhaps religion was created in order to provide an answer to those who felt obliged to know, and then the word was spread by all those who thought that this was a good idea.
My favourite part of Why We Believe in God(s) is when Anderson talks about justification of acts of terrorism as examples of extremist views leading to violence. From a young age we are aware of the sense of kin – why we favour blood relatives to friends and friends to strangers. Religion uses this idea of kin to let people feel involved in groups, using God as the closest and most relatable being to man. Terrorist leaders often create an imaginary kin in order to encourage mistreatment of someone’s actual kin, for the promise of everlasting rewards – for example, the fantasy of many virgins and ‘the chance to send this kin to eternal paradise’.
Religion is extremely powerful – even encouraging ‘emotional sacrifice’ in order to get approval from a higher being, and receive eternal rewards. Oxford University has proven that being part of a group for an activity can increase pain threshold. I believe this may be the principal which entices suicide bombers to detonate their bombs – they may truly believe that blowing themselves up will be painless and will gain them great rewards in heaven. Human-kind crave this feeling of reward through being loved and therefore terrorist leaders can influence lonely, vulnerable people with promises of ‘being married in heaven’. We crave a person to support us through life.
Anderson focuses the last couple of chapters of this book on religious ritual and its potential to stimulate the release of key reward hormones and impulses. Singing and dancing release serotonin and dopamine which ‘regulate our self-esteem’ and stimulate ‘uncontrollable repetition’ of rewarding actions, respectively. Adrenaline and noradrenaline allow ‘fight or flight’ by giving ‘temporary bursts of strength’. Oxytocin has a key role in religion as it stimulates our feeling of attachment to God whilst Endorphins ‘facilitate social bonds’. The release of these hormones and impulses through religious practice and rituals leads us to feel happy and assured, encouraging us and the people around us to follow religion.


Emily Buchanan

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