Last month a new poll was published by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. In their "about" this research goup claims "to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. It studies public opinion, demographics and other important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world." The graph on the left was a product of this poll and it shows that the number of Americans (polled) that have had a "religious or mystical experience" now exceeds those that have not. Many people (including myself) will find this troubling. Here we are in the 21st Century, our lives here in North America completely shaped by advances in science and technology especially in the urban environment, yet irrational thinking seems to be on the rise. What's going on? Clearly there is a disconnect between scientific thinking and a significant portion of the population.
Of course at the same time there has been a rise in atheist groups like cfi or the Brights and many authors of late have extolled the virtues of atheism. So why are the atheists losing the fight? First let me say that there are atheists who still have mystical beliefs, they just have no religious affiliation and do not believe in a diety but they may believe in vampires, werewolves, horoscopes etc..
Years ago when I was teaching, I introduced some of my classes to an article written by a York University professor James Alcock. Professor Alcock wrote The Belief Engine, which tries to explain the roots of human mysticism. In it Alcock explains that we are hardwired to have “Magical thinking” as children and its not until we start to think critically that we can suppress our tendency to magical thinking and function in the real world. Even as adults we all succumb to magical thinking each time we enter a theater or go to a movie and suspend our disbelief for two hours. The simple truth is that people can have the most irrational belief system imaginable yet still be successful business people, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers etc... Look around you, it’s a fact, some of the smartest and most successful people are deeply religious or have strong mystical beliefs.
Alcock's Belief Engine explains how this irrational magical thinking may be an advantage in certain situations and that its origin in humans is genetic not just from our immediate ancestors but further down the evolutionary tree and it has conferred on these creatures a survival advantage. I tend to agree that religious belief and irrational thinking confer on humanity a survival advantage. Otherwise why does this "belief engine" in our brain still persist? There are many who will support that idea. This brings me to the point, if the Pew Research can be believed than the arguments, the anti-God campaigns all of it may just be a waste of time.
I've often told my students that science is counterintuitive; the way you think something works may be the opposite of the truth. Maybe that’s what’s happening here; the anti-God/anti-mysticism groups are asking the wrong questions. Don’t get me wrong, those questions need to be asked but the Pew research shows that mystical thinking is on the rise; maybe because it fulfils another deeper function that is so ingrained in human nature that it is pointless to fight it. I’ve known for a long time that it is pointless to argue with anyone that has strong religious beliefs. But religion doesn’t just confer irrational beliefs; it bonds the believers by providing an instant community of like-minded individuals, and sets goals for their actions. Bringing together a group of independently thinking atheists toward a common goal is a bit like herding cats.