1. Bloom sees two major problems with the idea that religion is essentially an opiate, meant to dull the pain of existence and provide us with a source of meaning. First, he writes that “we don’t typically get solace from propositions that we don’t already believe to be true.” People can only be comforted by religious beliefs they actually believe, so while solace might be a major function of religion, it does not explain it. Bloom also calls into question the assumption that all religions provide meaning and comfort. It is true that some religions feature an omnipotent, just, and merciful God. It is also true that some religions are filled with malevolent spirits and fail to provide reassurance of an afterlife. The theory of religion-as-opiate does little to explain this second category of beliefs.
The other common explanation, that religion is a source of community cohesion, is also flawed. It explains several common features of religions, for example initiation rites, dietary restrictions, and antagonism towards outsiders. However, it does not explain the essential feature that makes a religion different from a fraternity. It does not explain why some combination of God(s), spirits, souls, demons, and other supernatural elements exists so universally in all religions.1
2. Our first belief system allows us to understand physical objects, and our second belief system allows us to understand psychological ones. Although physical understanding develops somewhat earlier than social understanding, even infants younger than one year old possess both to some extent. (They are surprised when an apparently unsupported object does not fall, which shows physical understanding. When they see one object chasing another, they expect the first object to take the most direct path toward the second one. This shows that they are able to attribute a goal to the first object, which is a type of psychological understanding.)
3. Our two belief systems make it easy for us to imagine ourselves as souls inhabiting bodies. As Bloom says, “We don’t feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.” Although dualism is not the view best supported by science, it seem intuitive to most people. From the belief that souls and bodies are separate, it is only a small jump to the belief that souls could exist independently of bodies. If this is true, then after death and the destruction of the body, the soul could continue to exist. It could retain the essence of its individuality and eventually be reincarnated.2
4. We are good at applying our physical mode of understanding to simple situations, but when we encounter complex systems that don’t obviously obey natural laws, we tend to apply our psychological mode of understanding instead. We do this even when our psychological mode of understanding is not actually applicable. Our psychological understanding is primarily designed to make sense of human behavior, so when we use it to understand non-human entities such as tumors or sharks, we end up anthropomorphizing them.
5. It is much easier to understand the biological basis of psychological phenomena intellectually than it is to feel at a gut level that these biological explanations represent the complete truth. Humans will always have a tendency either to disbelieve biological explanations entirely, or to distort them with elements originating in social understanding rather than physical understanding.3
6. While I find it disconcerting to learn another way in which the human mind is not predisposed to believe objective truth, Bloom’s ideas do make sense. I also have a lot of respect for him as an author. So often, it seems that when nonreligious scientists write about religion, they lapse into belligerent scorn of those who are religious. Just as scorn is ineffective at convincing parents that vaccines do not cause autism, it is not a productive way to address the relationship between religion and science. Bloom avoids this pitfall; he writes respectfully, and this gives his ideas credence.
One question I have after reading his article is this: What should we do with the knowledge that a belief in the supernatural is part of human nature? In many ways, the world would be a saner place if people sought objective truth in science only.4 Religion is valuable as a source of community, humility, moral guidance, meaning, and human connection. But religion also necessarily includes a belief in the supernatural. This is risky, because it equates to a partial rejection of reason. Societies whose members embrace irrationality are much easier to derail. Before reading Bloom’s article, I would have said that we should attempt to maintain the positive aspects of religion while gradually discarding the supernatural ones. Knowing, however, that a predisposition towards supernatural beliefs is contained in the very structure of human thought, I wonder if this is actually feasible.
In this case, as in so many others, we can attain progress but never perfection. Humans will likely never let go of the supernatural entirely, but if more people understood the roots of their beliefs, perhaps some of our current irrationality could be avoided. For better or worse, we are not perfectly logical creatures. Our strength lies in the fact that we can recognize this, embrace it, and move forward anyway.
1. I’ve noticed an interesting inverse relationship between group cohesion and rationality. For instance, at political rallies, when a candidate is listing policies and supportive evidence, there’s not much of a sense of group unity. But when they start shouting meaningless slogans like, “Fired Up! Ready to Go!”, the individuals suddenly become collective.
2. I wonder if this would change at all if we could somehow feel ourselves thinking, if it entailed an experience of physical exertion.
3. Also, the computational complexity of what happens in the brain of another human is too great to comprehend. We’re stuck with shortcuts one way or another.
4. This is what Sam Harris writes about significantly. It’s tempting to think that if everyone shifted their views from religious to a kind of rational empiricism, the world would become a much better place, but there are all sorts of confounding variables. For instance, atheism correlates with liberal social views and higher levels of educational attainment, though it is unlikely to cause them.