And now, the brain scientists who have famously sought the wellspring of faith in the grey matter of nuns and monks are turning their
attention to the other side. In the past two years, an international scientific
network has been formed to collect research on atheism. Pitzer College in Los
Angeles is expected to announce the first secular studies department in the
world this spring. Last December, social scientists gathered at the University
of Oxford for a conference on atheism – a rare academic event, according to one
of the organizers, Stephen Bullivant. They were looking at the natural next challenge in
neurotheology: If religion or spiritual belief is the human default position,
how does atheism happen?
The widespread idea that human brains have a special area that governs spiritual belief – a “God Spot” – has been disputed by scientists
such as Jordan Grafman, a neuropsychologist at the National Institute of
Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md.
Doing brain imagining on believers while they prayed and meditated, he found that the areas of the brain involved were the expected areas
of memory and feeling; no special section was suddenly activated. “Maybe we are special in the eyes of God, but God didn't
place anything special in our brains – at least as far as we can see,” Dr.
Grafman says. Other studies have shown that beliefs about God, for or
against, originate in the same part of the brain. Only the interpretation of
information is different.
Are atheists smarter than people who believe in God?
Historically, atheism has been a position open mainly to educated, upper-class people – a segment of society with the resources and
leisure time to ponder life's larger questions, as well as the freedom to break
with social norms. A study released in February using survey data and IQ tests
from British teenagers found that the teens with higher intelligence scores were
more likely to be atheists.
Is religion innate? “There is a lot of evidence that religious beliefs flow very naturally from the way the mind is designed,” Dr. Shackelford says. It has long
been believed, he says, that atheism is a harder position to maintain because it
goes against the natural instinct to want to attach some kind of meaning to
phenomena we can't explain. “Perhaps religion is natural, but not inevitable.”
As in a primitive tendency that can be reversed by logic and reason, perhaps?