I’d like to elaborate on one of the theories of religion discussed in “The God Experiments.” The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie proposes that religious experiences—and particularly those involving visions or intuitions of a personal God--may stem from our innate tendency toward anthropomorphism, “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events.” Guthrie called his book on this theory Faces in the Clouds, but he could have called it Jesus in the Tortilla.
Recent findings in developmental psychology dovetail with Guthrie’s theory. By the age of three or four all healthy children manifest an apparently innate ability to infer the state of mind of other people. This so-called theory-of-mind capacity has obvious survival value, because it helps us predict the actions of others for our own benefit. Psychologists postulate that autism stems from a malfunction of the theory-of-mind module. Autistics have difficulty inferring others’ thoughts, and even see no fundamental distinction between people and inanimate objects, such as chairs or tables. That is why autism is sometimes called “mind-blindness.”
Neuroscientists have linked autism with damage to the amygdala, which underpins emotion and social interactions, and to mirror neurons, which help us distinguish between ourselves and others. (See my post “Autism and ‘Mirror Neurons’”.) But many of us have the opposite problem—an overactive theory-of-mind capacity, which leads to what the psychologist Justin Barrett calls “hyperactive agent detection.” When we see squares and triangles moving around a screen, we cannot help but see the squares “chasing” the triangles, or vice versa, even when we are told that the movements are random. For the same reason, many of us intuit divine intentions behind hurricanes, earthquakes, shooting stars, rainbows, tsunamis, sporting events, Presidential elections and even suicidal attacks on skyscrapers.
In other words, religion may be the pathological inverse--the mirror image--of autism. But does that mean belief in God is always a delusion, as Richard Dawkins argues? More later.