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January 29, 2006

Why Gods?

Old question. And, of course, just asking it is a step in the direction of disbelief. The sophist Prodicus, for example, believed gods were a way of explaining natural phenomena. That's different than saying gods do explain natural phenomena.

Discussions of why we have gods can get, I've found, a bit testy. Beliefs in the causes of religions occasionally seem to be held with the intensity of beliefs in religions: "No, that's not it! It is to deal with death!"

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new book out on this subject. Here's the first explanation for religion he gives, in a New York Times Magazine interview:

"We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof."

That, after reading a book by Scott Atran, is the first explanation I would give. But the point, I guess, is that there is more than one reason why so much of humankind is convinced of the existence of never-quite-seen supernatural entities.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at January 29, 2006 12:12 PM


It certainly seems plausible that as humans we are hard-wired to seek explanations for everything. After all, we need to know whether any particular event--including snow falling off the roof--has a cause that we need to worry about. I'm not particularly enamored of most hard-wiring explanations, but if we have any built-in tendency, figuring out when and why we are in danger would seem to be it. Maybe the usual default explanation, then, why we can't figure out some other cause, is god.
By the way, Tommy Lee Jones is being heard these days paraphrasing his favorite quote from Flannery O'Connor; she apparently defined "faith" as what we believe, regardless of whether we know whether or not it's true. And here, theists and atheists would seem to have some faith in common.

Posted by: george at January 29, 2006 5:42 PM

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