Inventing gods to control the things that scare us

April 28, 2013 | By | Reply More

Why would someone invent a god? There are lots of conceivable reasons. One might be lonely, scared or feeling lost, and belief in could provide comfort.

Two books I’m reading have provided a different but consistent perspective on this question of why people invent gods. One of the books, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2013), is one of the most insightful and useful books I’ve ever read—I refer to Kahneman’s findings almost every day in my work as a lawyer and in dealing with my own flawed thinking process.  It took a careful reading of Kahneman to see how flawed and cobbled-together my thought process was.  He details dozens of cognitive biases, offering vivid illustrations and caveats the cognitive heuristics (shortcuts) that often lighten our cognitive loads, but occasionally blind us to dangers and thereby cause us to act in ways that are counterproductive. Kahneman’s foundation for discussing these biases is his bifurcation of cognition into two systems he labels “System One” (quick automatic cognition) and “System Two.” (engaged consciously and only with effort).

One of these biases is that we engage in “substitution”: we unconsciously convert questions we can’t answer into questions we can answer: “This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing (p. 12).

I propose a simple account of how we generate intuitive opinions on complex matters. If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution. I also adopt the following terms: The target question is the assessment you intend to produce. The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answer instead. The technical definition of heuristic is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka.

(p. 98).  Kahneman explains that people simplify impossible, when required to make conclusions regarding probability,

people actually judge something else and believe they have judged probability. System 1 often makes this move when faced with difficult target questions, if the answer to a related and easier heuristic question comes readily to mind. Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy for solving difficult problems, and George Pólya included substitution in his classic How to Solve It: “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.

Dealing with complex problems of the modern world is impossible. But “substitution” is an heuristic alternative to careful reasoning that gives us easy answers, doesn’t tax cognitive System 2 (which is lazy), sometimes works fairly well but sometimes leads to serious errors.

(p. 98). Here are some samples:

Should we work hard to save endangered species? (Substitution causes us to answer a different question: “How do I FEEL about endangered species?”).

How happy are you with your life these days? (Substitution causes us to answer “What is my current mood?”).

How should we deal with financial predators? (Substitution causes us to answer “How angry am I about financial predators?”)

I think that the principle of substitution also  offers a potential answer to why people create gods. Keep in mind, first of all, that those who believe in god assume that they assert significant control over their god.  I admit they don’t go around saying “I control god,” but they do assert that god cares about them, listens to them and at least sometimes answers their prayers. The weak/insignificant humans who believe in gods feel it in their bones that they can’t control society and nature.  All of us have seen others ripped to shreds by society and nature. We life in world filled equally with beauty and danger. How can we protect ourselves from these dangers? We can’t control society or nature directly, but to anyone who has a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.   The thing that we humans do extremely well is to size up and interact with other humans.  In other words, we have evolved to constantly employ what Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance.”

Here is how it works: first you decide to treat the object whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its beliefs. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in most instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do.

Similarly, Michael Shermer has discussed the human tendency to engage in “agenticity,” the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents.”  We deal with sentient beings as sentient beings. We don’t deal with our grandparents as a cluster of sub-atomic particles, or even as complex robots.

The intentional stance is in our wheelhouse. To bad we can’t use it to “understand” non-sentient agents such as tornadoes and economic collapses. But actually, we can seemingly employ the intentional stance toward these non-sentient entities through substitution. We have no control over many of the big problems we face, but what if we were to concoct a god who DOES have such control over the big problems that terrify us, and what if we were to design our God such that “He” is very much like a person. If we go that route, we can control nature and society because can become buddies with god, and our Buddy can control the huge problems of life. By substituting god for nature, we can argue with nature, plead with nature and bargain with nature. We can control the huge dangers we face if we anthropomorphize these problems and the engage with them through our concocted intermediary.

A new book by Matthew Hutson, The God7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane (2013) fortifies this idea that people invent gods to create a means by which they can control the world. gods give us this feeling of control, which we often exercise through prayer and religious rituals.

Here is the main theme of Hutson’s new book:

Most of the world is religious, and millions more are openly superstitious, spiritual, or credulous of the paranormal. But I argue that we all believe in magic—luck, mind over matter, destiny, jinxes, life after death, evil, and heavenly helpers—even when we say we don’t.
I draw on cognitive science, neuroscience, social and evolutionary psychology, and cultural observation to show that we engage in magical thinking all the time—and that it’s not all bad. Supernaturalism leads us to think that we actually have free will. It makes us believe that we have an underlying purpose in the world. It can even protect us from the paralyzing awareness of our own mortality. Irrationality makes our lives make sense.

Here are some relevant excerpts from Hutson’s book that pertain to my thesis that we create gods in order to have a feeling that we exercise control over the big problems of life, the ones to which we otherwise have no sense of control.  First of all, are gods are not randomly created.  We create our gods in our own image and likeness:

We see gods in our own image: “Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that they are blue-eyed and red-haired.”

(page 175)

As discussed above regarding Shermer’s concept of agenticity, we are rigged to assume that the things around us are sentient. Hutson calls this “error management theory.”

[I]t would be better to overestimate the likelihood of an anthropomorphized agent watching you. And if you believe in invisible spirits who are interested in the affairs of humans—in anthropomorphic gods and ghosts—then you always have a witness over your shoulder.

(p. 185)

[W]hen people feel out of control they’ll attempt to make up for it with superstitious rituals. . . . According to Freud, “If everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely . . . we can try to adjure them, to appease them, to bribe them, and, by so influencing them, we may rob them of a part of their power.” . . . [P]eople who reported more problems with their computers were more likely to say their computers behaved as if they had their own beliefs and desires. . . Humans have a fundamental need to belong, and over the years people have suggested that we anthropomorphize to populate the world with allies. . . Ancient navigators personified mountains and rocks in response to solitude.

We look for minds especially when we have a need for control or when we feel lonely. And our mind reading continually spills over to entities that don’t actually have minds.

(p. 197).

Seeing an unintentional act as intentional, I argue, constitutes momentary anthropomorphizing.

(p. 191).

  We are also rigged to believe that “Everything happens for a reason.”

(p. 195).

Asking “why” taps into the same sort of magical thinking as saying that something was meant to happen, or that everything happens for a reason.

(p. 197).

[A] god sitting impotently on the bench for the last fourteen billion years or so isn’t what most people think of when they think of God. They see him as an active meddler.

(p. 198).

What magical thinking can offer is an increased sense of predictability and, perhaps more important, a sense of purpose.

tornado(p. 199).

We are also wired to believe in teleological reasoning.

Even fourth graders prefer teleological explanations to physical ones: rocks are pointy so animals can scratch themselves on them, not because little bits of stuff pile up. Kelemen calls kids “intuitive theists.” . . . We assume design by default.

(p. 200).

Why do we so quickly jump to explaining a series of events as necessary steps leading to a preordained destination? . . . 85 percent of surviving spouses and 91 percent of parents asked themselves, “Why me?” or “Why my [spouse/child]?” They understood that people die in crashes, but they wanted to know why their families were specifically targeted. An explanation of “these things happen” provides no satisfaction and no sense of control. But when a mind is behind an event—whether it’s the mind of a person or God—you just might be able to influence or at least predict the mind’s future behavior.

(p. 203).

“God is a magical cause, and so you don’t need to explain further,” Jesse Preston, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me. I asked her why agents (such as God) don’t need causes. “Part of it, I think, is our understanding of action,” she said. “We see the action of agents as being caused by itself. We have this idea of free will, and I can’t find anyone who believes in free will who can explain that further. It’s free, right? . … “If we can attribute an event to an agent’s free will, it shuts down that infinite regress.” Therefore, there is no need to explain God because he is a person with free will.

(p. 203).

Hutson concludes:

[There are] two seemingly incompatible accounts of why resting an explanation on an agent satisfies us. To the degree that we lean on the presumed predictability of an agent that we can psychoanalyze or placate, we can’t also lean on the inherent unpredictability of its freedom of will. And yet my hunch is that we do lean on both. How is that possible? I have no solution except to say that, perhaps in our everyday thoughts about causes, we don’t think deeply enough to notice the logical contradiction. Satisfaction isn’t always about logic, after all.

(p. 204).

To summarize, substitution allows us to invent supernatural agents, and this is a good thing for those of use who are able to sufficiently compartmentalize our thinking process so as to not think too much about our own thought process.  We mere mortals are helpless to control many of the biggest dangers (both nature and societal) that concern us.  We have evolved to be highly social beings easily able to invoke the intentional stance.  Even though nature isn’t sentient we are happy to over-apply the intentional stance pursuant to Shermer’s concept of agenticity.   Our desire for find agents where they don’t exist, combined with the great fear we have of being squished by society or nature, leads us invent gods who engage with us much like we would engage with a super-powerful human being. The heuristic of substitution makes this an easy swap. In fact, as Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated, substitution allows an unconscious swap, and we gain a lot from substituting a personal god for nature. We can’t control nature, but we can control our god, and we can do it through human like interactions that we are very familiar with, as many people do when they “talk with god” through prayer.  We pray regularly to maintain a solid friendship with god who, because “He” is our buddy, and he is willing to protect us from big problems that we otherwise cannot control.  Much like Jimmy Olsen calls on Superman, we call upon our god.  It’s not up to us to try to figure out why God has made his decisions, which often seem destructive and vicious.  That’s because our god has free will, something with which we endow all of the agents in our lives. We can no more figure god than we can figure out any other person with free will.  Why does god sometimes help us and sometimes not?  We utter “free will,” and the problem almost solved.


But what happens huge disasters strike?  What happens when that big hurricane blows down our house ? It was our god’s will. That’s what he wanted. We’re still better off clinging to our belief in god than giving it up because although god can be hard to capricious, he is our friend, meaning he is on our side whereas nature doesn’t give a shit about us.

We have no control over nature and giving up god terrifies us because that means we would be living a meaningless danger-permeated life without any big Buddy to cajole. Using the god approach, we can cajole and bargain with Him because our god still loves us (even though he let our house blow down) and He does what is best for us, and we still retain control—at least some control.




Category: cognitive biases, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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