Yesterday, the Denver Post made the Pew Religious Landscape survey its front page story, posting the admittedly astonishing figure of 92% “of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit” next to the headline: What we believe, and the subtitle: Survey surprise: Many not bound by church doctrine.
Later that day I was in the grocery aisle of my local supermarket when I overheard a conversation between two employees who were restocking colorful peppers. Apparently they were discussing these headlines, and the younger one, in his mid 30s, said: “I’m guess I’m something of an agnostic.” But then he went on to say he also believes “something is out there”.
Maybe attitudes like his explain the odd findings of the survey I commented on in my initial post (that 22% of atheists and 55% of agnostics believe in God or a universal spirit).
However, is this kind of ‘belief’ really any different from that about alien civilizations that we’ll get to meet as soon as Scotty get that bloody warp drive on the Enterprise fixed? I’m not joking here, thanks to Star Trek vast majorities of boomers have soaked up the general idea that plenty of intelligent life is “out there”, not on the basis of a conscious review of arguments and evidence, but through cultural immersion and osmosis.
Admittedly, just as likely this worker had that sense of awe in mind, the feeling many people get when they are overwhelmed with joy or sorrow, or what Richard Dawkins dubs Einsteinian wonder.
I will also posit that cultural acclimatization may be a big part of it. Throughout life Americans are flooded with a vocabulary, with role models, with behavioral norms that make the existence of an imaginary friend called God seem natural and obvious.
Perhaps the suspicion that there’s “something out there” has a deeper root in our psychological makeup.
It’s the tendency of higher organisms to assume or suspect agency. We’re on the lookout for stuff that may be out to get us. That’s why we (and other ‘superstitious’ animals) often interpret shapes and sounds as predators: better to err on the side of caution than ending up as someone’s meal.
I’ll come back to that theory, which I learned about from Stewart Guthrie’s “Faces in the Clouds”.