Is Belief in the Supernatural Universal?
Can evolutionists exempt themselves from the uneducated masses who cling to supernatural beliefs?
Most educated Americans and Europeans would look with pity on those who appeal to witchcraft to explain disease or misfortune. To varying degrees, evolutionists would include Christians, Jews and other religious people as sadly misinformed about the ability of naturalism to account for all phenomena of the biological world including human nature. Evolutionists commonly study their fellow humans for how natural selection shaped their responses to social stimuli, confident of the ability of Darwinian selection to explain human psychology. A recent example can be found in a University of Texas press release that announced, “People Merge Supernatural and Scientific Beliefs When Reasoning With the Unknown, Study Shows.” In the study, UT psychologist Christine Legare and her team sought to identify predictable and universal ways that people handle “supernatural” and “scientific” explanations for things:
Legare and her colleagues reviewed more than 30 studies on how people (ages 5-75) from various countries reason with three major existential questions: the origin of life, illness and death. They also conducted a study with 366 respondents in South Africa, where biomedical and traditional healing practices are both widely available.
Unexpectedly, respondents’ supernatural beliefs did not decrease with age or education. Instead, they tended to accommodate the supernatural and scientific explanations with either-or or both-and concoctions: e.g., either witchcraft or a virus caused a person to get AIDS, or both were involved.
The team concluded that belief in the supernatural is a universal human trait that children never fully grow out of:
Legare said the findings contradict the common assumption that supernatural beliefs dissipate with age and knowledge.
“The findings show supernatural explanations for topics of core concern to humans are pervasive across cultures,” Legare said. “If anything, in both industrialized and developing countries, supernatural explanations are frequently endorsed more often among adults than younger children.”
The results provide evidence that reasoning about supernatural phenomena is a fundamental and enduring aspect of human thinking, Legare said.
“The standard assumption that scientific and religious explanations compete should be re-evaluated in light of substantial psychological evidence,” Legare said. “The data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education or technology.”
Legare dubs this “coexistence thinking” –
“As children assimilate cultural concepts into their intuitive belief systems — from God to atoms to evolution — they engage in coexistence thinking,” said Cristine Legare, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “When they merge supernatural and scientific explanations, they integrate them in a variety of predictable and universal ways.”
Since the press release tagged this story with “evolutionary psychology,” it can safely be assumed that the University of Texas at Austin was not paying her to think outside the explanatory toolkit of evolution: i.e., mutation and natural selection, studied within the standard academic approach called methodological naturalism. But the question remains: is belief in the supernatural universal? or have evolutionary psychologists managed to escape coexistence thinking, purifying their explanations of the supernatural, to attain purely natural, scientific insight?
Trick question. If it’s natural, it’s not insight; if it’s insight, it’s not natural. Let’s get something straight at the outset: everyone is a supernaturalist. To justify this assertion, we must first provide clarity by defining our terms. Robert Jastrow, the late astronomer, defined materialism (a rough synonym for naturalism and more useful, since “nature” is an equivocal word) as “particles and the forces by which they interact.” He said once you have identified these, you’ve done it all – there’s nothing else to insert into your explanation. What he failed to appreciate is that explanation itself falls outside that box. Explanation is not natural; it’s supernatural!
Lest a reader contend that we are quibbling about words, consider: “explanation” presupposes many things: among them truth and honesty. Nobody wants an explanation that is false or dishonest. Truth and honesty, however, if anything, must refer to concepts (again, immaterial things) that are universal, timeless, necessary, and certain. This is not to say that scientists are capable of attaining certainty; the quest itself, though, presupposes a belief that a good explanation is out there, and when found, will be true and honestly arrived at. Since all these concepts lie outside of particles and forces – the limits of natural things – it means that evolutionary psychologists and all the other metaphysical or methodological naturalists are supernaturalists in spite of themselves. Q.E.D.
One way out would be for the evolutionary psychologist to admit truth and honesty into their definition of nature. This move, however, is a slippery slope. Once they admit the ontological reality of concepts that are timeliness, universal, necessary and certain into their “natural box,” there is no way to keep out God without making an arbitrary distinction (for fuller explication, see “Naturalism Outline” PDF file at this site). So, enough of this nonsense that evolutionists can exempt themselves from belief in the supernatural. The question becomes, who has the most coherent supernatural explanation for human nature?
Most academics would like a way to exclude witchcraft from the explanation for AIDS; so would Christians and Jews, who believe in Satan and evil spirits. These are worthy discussions. However, to pretend that methodological naturalism is the best method is to make an arbitrary rule within the set of supernatural explanations, and risks missing the right explanation. It basically says, “we admit we believe in the supernatural, but we choose to pretend the supernatural does not exist.” Such a position is self-contradictory, self-refuting, and self-limiting. The method that has a solid foundation begins with the nature of God, the ultimate source of truth, the embodiment of all that is timeless, universal, necessary and certain. Honesty, wisdom and other desirable traits for a scientist come pre-justified with this approach.
To know the nature of God, we cannot reason to it from the bottom up with any certainty. It needs to be revealed. Taking the Creator’s self-revelation in the Bible gives us a reliable starting point. The attributes of God as revealed in the Bible give the scientist assurance that truth, honesty, justice, and wisdom matter; therefore, scientific explanations are good to the extent they measure up to those qualities. Knowing that humans are created in the image of God, yet are fallen into sin, provides the grounds for human psychology. From knowledge of man’s fallen mind, it will take a good deal of scholarly debate on the limits of human knowledge (subjects, incidentally, that have generated much lively debate from Augustine to C. S. Lewis).
All these considerations, however, just get us to the starting point for scientific investigation. The Bible is a condensed book; it does not provide exhaustive information on most questions of interest to modern scientists. Knowing that we share the image of God, however, we can utilize our God-given wisdom, creativity and conscience to strive for the best explanations, confident that the “truth” is out there in the mind of God. Other scientists, also working from that foundation, can judge our conclusions, measuring how well they comport with revealed truth and observation. This approach at least has the hope of success and is self-consistent. It’s the approach creation scientists have used for centuries and continue to use. But let us all disabuse ourselves of the notion that evolutionists avoid the supernatural: they just employ an inconsistent supernatural worldview, stealing the concepts of truth and honesty from the Christian worldview while pretending the supernatural doesn’t exist.
Application. Let’s look at the Legare study with a Christian approach. The data show that certain South African people continue to assimilate their belief in witchcraft with scientific explanations for HIV transmission. First of all, we might question Legare’s sample, and be reluctant to speak of all South Africans this way. Second, we would understand that the fallen mind is prey to demonic delusions, such as witchcraft. Third, we might ask different questions, like, how well-informed are the participants about Biblical theology? In our write-up, we might agree with Legare that education doesn’t rid some people of false notions, but would approach the conclusion, not from evolutionary psychology, but from Biblical anthropology, that men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. Applying our findings, we might encourage better Bible education for these people. For fun, we might turn the tables and analyze the “coexistence thinking” of Legare and her colleagues, investigating why they continue holding to naturalistic Darwinism when educated into the fact that scientific explanation implies that naturalism is impossible.