The late philosopher Antony Flew once offered a parable of what he saw as the trouble with most theological assertions: Two explorers came upon a clearing in the woods, in which they found flowers and weeds. “Some gardener must tend this plot,” said one explorer. But the other replied, “No, there is no gardener.” So they pitched camp and set a watch. No gardener appeared. “Perhaps,” said the believer, “he is an invisible gardener.” So they built barbed-wire fence, electrified it, and patrolled with bloodhounds. But no cries suggested that an intruder had been shocked, and the bloodhounds smelled nothing.

But the believer was not convinced: “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At this point, his companion despaired, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

Limitless revisability and qualification do often attend the more anthropomorphic claims believers make about divine intervention. And many, like Flew, find it good reason to reject belief in such intervention. After all, if no claims about God can be falsified, in what sense are they true?

The theist has his work cut out for him. But this old criticism can just as easily be turned on atheism’s prevalent, perhaps unconscious overconfidence in popular science as the defining explanatory system.

Take, for example, Jesse Bering’s new book The Belief Instinct . A professor of psychology at Wells College, Bering proposes an explanation for theological assertions that might have startled even Flew: The parable’s believer isn’t capable of defending his description of the inscrutable gardener, not because it is revised ad absurdum , but because it’s only the result of adaptive illusion.

He informs us that exhaustive experimentation shows that human beings are cognitively disposed to detect signs of order, purpose, and justice in the world. It’s almost impossible to conceive of our eternal annihilation, which in turn confirms psychological immortality; we anxiously read meaning and purpose into confusing situations that appear arbitrary or nonsensical; we attribute agency and intention to many naturally occurring events; we tend to feel that everything happens for a reason, and we believe that our trials and tribulations somehow relate to a divine plan or a long-forgotten moral breach. We trace this cosmic meaningfulness, Bering says, to the existence of a divine being, even while faced with what seems to be obvious evidence to the contrary.

Bering argues that our proto-human ancestors were unselfconsciously “impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited.” But sooner or later humans recognized that they were capable of and subject to judgment. In time, the reproductive success of humans incapable of regulating their behavior dwindled, resulting in reproductive privileges for those with self-control. Here Bering stakes his claim: Those with maximum self-control were those who believed they were always being watched by a supernatural entity. The conclusion: Judgment coupled with the imperative to reproduce resulted in human beings naturally disposed to religious belief. God is, as one playful reviewer put it, that inhibitor than which none greater can be conceived.

Bering’s simplistic book has heftier neighbors on the shelf of reductionist scientific explanations. Skeptical biologism asserts that humans are merely complex, sophisticated animals, while neuroscience as the primary explanation for human behavior is enjoying increasingly wider purchase in scientific academia. Both assume that any experience of human life has its corresponding explanatory brain state, the necessary and sufficient condition for consciousness.

But even these seemingly weightier positions are often as indefensible as belief in the gardener. Bering, for example, leaves so many unanswered questions that it is difficult to take him seriously: Why and when did humans decide that their actions mattered to the divine being? Why was the primordial uninhibited life ever thought morally reprehensible? He shifts from modern experimentation to groundless speculation about our ancestors too easily. And to seal his case, Bering assures us that because our evolutionary inheritance so strongly predisposes us toward theological thinking, a change in our behavior is not likely, “no matter how many books evolutionary biologists write and promote.” He can’t be wrong, because there’s no way of knowing that he’s right. Like Flew’s believer, Bering presupposes what he seeks to prove.

The claims of biologism are similar. In his book Straw Dogs , John Gray tells us that “the advance of knowledge deludes us into thinking we are different from other animals, when history shows that we are not.” The significance of the fact that our nearest of kin in the animal kingdom could never arrive at such a conclusion seems to escape Gray. The progress made in the budding and brilliant fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are important. But beyond special pleading and innumerable qualifications, those who would appeal to these as exhaustive explanations of the human person simply can’t deliver. Even the subjective consensus of the scientific community”too often mistaken for objective truth”admits that it is only extrapolation that allows reductionist anthropologies to be speculative possibilities.

Science’s more morally deadly offspring are not immune to scrutiny, and Flew would have as much trouble with the claims of reductionist evolutionary psychology as he did with uncritical theological assertions.

Mark Misulia is a junior fellow at First Things .

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Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct

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Articles by Mark Misulia

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