Keeping God real takes work
Scholars like the anthropologist Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origin of Religious Thought, and the psychologist Justin L. Barrett, author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God?
Interesting suggestion at the end of the article: prayer as the hard work making God real. I do wonder though whether the analogy between believing in God and constructing a tulip is valid. I can go with the idea that the cognitive structure of our brain allows us to see agency where there is none, and that – combined with Boyer’s description of how ancestry worship and divinisation came to be – constructing an imaginary friend can lead people to believe they have a real friend ‘out there’, ‘in the spirit world’.
But I have two doubts after reading this article: (1) is prayer really good enough to replace hours (each day!) of meditation?; (2) is it possible to maintain the belief that your imaginary friend is real – as real as yourself – in a world where one knows what a tulip is?
The first question is a rather straight forward empirical question: you can assemble a test group, let them pray and see what happens (to put it overly simple).
Let me explain the second question a bit more. The experiment described in the article neglected one thing: the scholar who constructed a fox knew from the beginning he was ‘making it up’. That is: for him, the fox never was an entity in the real world or a real agent but only a product of his imagination. That is basically the position of everyone living in what Ian Barbour called ‘an age of science’. That is the reason I doubt whether someone believing in God today (in whatever form, in whatever religious tradition) could come to this belief through the tulip-constructing process in the first place, let alone hold to this belief. Unless we assume religious believers are a priori not able to reflect critically on their beliefs (which would rule out the possibility of a religious tradition developing theology), this seems implausible.
So I question whether we have a general theory of religion here. It does seem plausible to use experiments like these in research on mystical experiences, but in my view it falls short in describing and explaining how people come to believe in God/a god/gods today.
If I am wrong in this, religion might be in a sorry state: the article also suggests unreflective forms of religion (where the tulip-kind of god-belief is encouraged) are on the rise, the article suggests…
See on www.guelphmercury.com