Why People Believe in God And Distrust Evolution

Chris Mooney, the author who wrote “The Republican War on Science”, has this article up at Mother Jones magazine where he goes over seven reasons why people are more likely to believe in God than evolution. It’s actually a great article. It shows that there are a lot of smart people out there, but they have reasons they think are legitimate for not wanting to accept evolution. So I thought it would be helpful to elaborate these seven reasons.

Let’s go over these reasons because those are things that we, as science advocates, have to put up with. We have to find a way to overcome that, at least in the way we talk about science. That is if we really want to get people to accept evolution.

Number 1 is biological essentialism. What this basically means is, when you see a group of lions a lot of people are prone to assume that those lions have nothing to do with us as humans. Like they are that species, or spiders are that species and we’re a totally different species. We’re not interconnected. Evolution teaches us the opposite – that we are actually all distant relatives, like every living thing is connected in this web. A lot of people find it very hard to believe that we’re related to trees, that we’re related to bugs, and we’re related to elephants. That’s something we have to overcome if we want to teach people how evolution works.

Number 2 is teleological thinking. This is the idea that everything has a purpose. If you ask a little kid stuff like, “why is that cloud so dark?” or “what’s the point of that cloud?” The kid has an explanation: It’s to bring rain. Why does the zebra have stripes? Well, there’s a reason for that. Everything has a reason. Evolutionarily speaking, yes, there are reasons for a lot of these things. Why does the chameleon change color? There are reasons for that. Then we automatically think everything has a purpose. Why is that mountain there? Well, because God put it there.

Not everything has to have a purpose that goes back to God. There may be natural explanations for it, but for a lot of things that don’t have a natural explanation, and for things that look so incredibly designed that they couldn’t possibly have been naturally designed, at least from people’s perspective, they’re very likely to just say a higher power must have been involved. I can understand why people believe that, but it’s not true and there’s no evidence for that.

Number 3 is overactive agency detection. Have you ever seen those pieces of toast that are burnt, and people say they see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in it? Why does that happen? That sort of pareidolia happens because we look at something and we’re very prone to see a face. We’re very prone to see humans at work even if we don’t have direct evidence for it.

So when you see humans designed as seemingly amazingly as we are, you don’t just say a higher power did it – we want to say a person did it. We want to say God did it. For an evolutionary biologist to come around and say, “well, no, you are the process of natural selection just like that tree was and just like that mountain was”. That’s very hard to overcome when you think God designed you and a person had a hand in your creation.

Number 4 is dualism. Without getting too philosophical about this, dualism is the idea that there is a difference between your mind and your body. A lot of people have this belief that they have a physical body here, but there is a soul there. When they die, their body may die, but their soul will live on and those are two separated things.

Because biologists haven’t really come up with a good explanation for how our conscious evolved, and how our ability to think evolved the way it did, it’s very hard for people to believe that we just naturally grew our brains, our ability to think cognitively and do all these amazing processes with our brains. They assume that God has put that smart thing into us. It’s hard for them to realize that our mind and body evolved at the same time. That the concept of a soul is just fictional.

Number 5 is inability to comprehend vast time scales. I think this is probably one of the main reasons people believe in God. The earth has been around for a billion years, and humans as we know them, has been around for less than a million years. People have no idea how to think about these sorts of time-frames. Think about this; if you’re looking at this screen and the screen represents a billion years, how much space would human existence take up? The truth is the life of humans would be corresponding to less than a pixel of the screen.

We are so recent given the vast time the earth has existed for. I’ve heard it said by some scientists that if you stretch your hands completely out, humans existed on the tip. Humans came into existence at the very end of your fingertips, at the very end of your fingernails. That’s when humans came into being. It’s such a small percentage of all the time that has passed.  There’s so much time for evolution to have done it’s work and for natural selection to have an effect, but people like to think it has to happen in their lifetime.

Number 6 is group morality and tribalism. Think about this: You go into any church and the people there think they are good. They probably are generally good, but they believe their religion is the reason for why they are good. Christians believe God is the reason; is the social glue that holds people together.

All of a sudden, evolution comes along and says, “Well, you know how you thought God created you and it happened 6000 years ago and all that?” That’s not true. Evolution is what actually happened, and we have the evidence to back it up. People’s beliefs start to crumble.

These are the people who think that if you allow evolution, or the thinking of how it works, to permeate into our minds, everything will crumble in our society. It’s ridiculous. This is where tribalism enters the picture; this idea that we are, as a group, cohesive because of certain beliefs, and as soon as those beliefs go away, everything else is going to fall by the wayside as well. That’s not going to happen, but you can understand why people might fear that.

Number 7 is fear and the need for certainty. Think about the options you have on the table here. Do you believe that God just puffed us into existence several thousand years ago? It is very easy to understand, very simplistic and it is what the stories of Genesis claims. Or would you rather believe that nature guided us into existence over the course of billions of years if you go back to the microbes? That explanation, where the evidence backs it up, is a lot harder to understand. You have to put a lot of thinking into understanding how evolution works.

There’s a lot more uncertainty with evolutionary thinking, whereas the Genesis tells the story of creation, i.e. the story of Adam and Eve. It’s easy to believe hat God just created us – that doesn’t take a lot of thought. You just have to believe it. It’s much harder for people to accept the evolutionary train of thought.

We don’t know everything. That to me is exciting. Not to mention the fact that the evidence supports the evolution, whereas the evidence doesn’t support anything the bible says in regards to creation. But you can understand why people would be afraid of believing in evolution after a lifetime of believing that God created us.

Remember, the point of all this is not to give any justification to why people shouldn’t believe in God. This is to point out that there are obvious reasons for why people don’t immidiately accept evolution. You can throw mountains of evidence at them, and they’re still not going to accept it. What I think Chris Mooney was trying to show us is that there are reasons as to why people are afraid to board the “evolution-ship”.

That doesn’t mean they’re all good reasons. It doesn’t mean those are good defenses. It means that if we want to be good science communicators, if we want to convince people of why they should accept evolution, we have to understand that these reasons are some big obstacles that we have to help them overcome if we want them to accept the evidence.

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