I’m not a psychiatrist, but as a teenager I worked for an elderly woman who I later found out was a paranoid schizophrenic with organic brain decomposition. (As an aside, if you have any empathy at all, it’s impossible to get to know someone like this and not find their situation heartbreaking.) I agree that you cannot talk the mentally ill out of their delusions, hallucinations, etc. But this would only be relevant to the claim that all religious belief is mental illness if it were the case that all religious belief is the result of mental illness. But I don’t think all religious belief is the result of mental illness and I’ve never seen a convincing argument for why we should think otherwise.
For my part, I’m impressed by work in the cognitive science of religion which supports the idea that most humans have a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD). HADD explains why most people, especially most neurotypicals, have an overwhelming tendency to explain mysterious phenomena by appealing to invisible agents. It also explains why people on the Autism spectrum, who have varying degrees of mindblindness (and so to varying degrees are unaware of the beliefs, desires, and even (in severe cases) the existence of visible agents), are more likely than neurotypicals to be naturalists.
If that explanation (HADD) is correct, I wouldn’t call theistic belief a mental illness any more than I would call other types of cognitive biases a form of mental illness. Instead, if I were going to use labels at all, I would call supernatural belief the result of an often effective but imperfect cognitive mechanism, a mechanism which is the byproduct of blind evolution by natural selection.
Also, if it were the case that someone cannot be persuaded to change or give up entirely their religious beliefs, then we would expect that testimonies of converts and deconverts would make no mention of rational arguments. But that isn’t what we find. There are many people who became atheists because of something they read, whether it was Richard Dawkins’ GOD DELUSION, Bertrand Russell’s WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, or whatever.
I’ve been thinking lately about whether HADD, on the assumption that it exists, is evidence for or against the existence of God. I’m starting to think it is neutral, but I’m posting this here for feedback.
Before diving into the details, let’s review a few items for context.
First, let’s address terminology. HADD is an acronym which stands for “Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device.” HADD is a theory in the cognitive science of religion which says that most humans seem to be hard-wired to believe that agents explain various facts; this tendency seems to include all sorts of invisible agents, including God, gods, ghosts, and so forth.
N stands for naturalism; T stands for theism; and I’m continuing to use the same definitions I’ve offered before.
Second, I’ve written before about the structure of explanatory arguments. I’m going to adopt that same argument structure here. So, let’s dub the following argument “the evidential argument from HADD” against theism.
The Evidential Argument from HADD Formulated
(1) HADD is known to be true, i.e., Pr(HADD) is close to 1.
(2) T is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(T | B) is not much more probable than Pr(N | B).
(3) Pr(HADD | N) > Pr(HADD | T).
(4) Other evidence held equal, T is probably false, i.e., Pr(T | B & HADD) < 0.5.
The Evidential Argument from HADD Assessed
For purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that both (1) and (2) are true. If (1), (2), and (3) are true, then (4) is necessarily true. So what I want to do is figure out if there are any good reasons for thinking that (3) is true. Are there?
The “HADD Produces Many False Positives” Argument
Here’s one reason to think (3) is true, what I call the “HADD Produces Many False Positives” argument. This argument focuses on the letter “H” in the acronym HADD: most humans not only have a mental tool called an “agency detection device” (ADD), but this device is literally hypersensitive. Given ambiguous information, most human brains have a tendency to err on the side of assuming that an agent–maybe even an unseen or invisible agent–is responsible for the ambiguous information. This mental tool has survival value because it causes people to be on guard against potential predators. Furthermore, it’s better for ADD to err on the side of false positives than on the side of false negatives. So because HADD generates so many false positives, it is unreliable. On the assumption that naturalism is true (and humans are the result of unguided evolution), this is just what we would expect. If naturalism is true, nature is “blind” and so is indifferent to our beliefs about a non-existent God. On the assumption that theism is true, however, there is much more to reality than just “blind nature.” God not only exists, but cares about human beings such that God would not rely upon an unreliable process like HADD to produce theistic belief.
One reason to doubt this argument has to do with HADD’s reliability in the context of religious beliefs. First, it may be the case that HADD is notoriously unreliable in some contexts (such as hearing strange noises at night), but very reliable in other contexts (such as religious beliefs). Second, it’s doubtful that HADD is the only mental tool involved in the formation of religious beliefs. So what is the reliability of HADD when combined with these other mental tools? In order for the “HADD Produces Many False Positives” argument to work, it seems to me that we would need some way to show that the combination of HADD and other mental tools often leads to false positives about supernatural agents.
The cognitive science of religion is a new field which explains religious belief as emerging from normal cognitive processes such as inferring others’ mental states, agency detection and imposing patterns on noise. This paper investigates the proposal that individual differences in belief will reflect cognitive processing styles, with high functioning autism being an extreme style that will predispose towards nonbelief (atheism and agnosticism). This view was supported by content analysis of discussion forums about religion on an autism website (covering 192 unique posters), and by a survey that included 61 persons with HFA. Persons with autistic spectrum disorder were much more likely than those in our neurotypical comparison group to identify as atheist or agnostic, and, if religious, were more likely to construct their own religious belief system. Nonbelief was also higher in those who were attracted to systemizing activities, as measured by the Systemizing Quotient.
A reader recently asked me this question.
I was raised Catholic and even as a child I just couldn’t believe that if there was a God who created the universe and, by extension, us, that He wouldn’t expect us to use our brain to reason and learn was was real and unreal. My major concern, I guess, is that so very many educated, intelligent, and respected people claim to believe. Why do they believe when I don’t?? What am I missing? Or perhaps, what are they missing? I’m reasonable intelligent but I just cannot reach the same conclusions as believers seem to reach.
I think this is a great question. Atheists throughout history have tried to explain religious belief by appealing to wish fulfillment, the influence of family and culture, the (alleged) irrationality or ignorance of theists, and so forth.
In my opinion, the best explanation comes from the cognitive science of religion: humans evolved a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD). Most humans seem to be hard-wired to believe that agents explain various facts; this tendency seems to include all sorts of invisible agents, including God, gods, ghosts, and so forth. The advance of science has systematically reduced the need to invoke invisible agents, by providing naturalistic explanations for things previously explained by invisible agents.
ETA: Fixed a typo in an earlier version that referred to a “Hyperactive,” as opposed to a “Hypersensitive,” Agency Detection Device.
Another item for the “not new, but new for me” category. Justin Barrett is a cognitive scientist of religion and the author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God? In that book, Barrett advances an intriguing explanatory hypothesis for why most people believe in God: the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD) hypothesis.
I have to admit that, when I first heard about HADD, I considered it to be very plausible on the assumption that humans are the products of evolution. It reminds me of Stewart Guthrie’s important book, Faces in the Clouds. What is interesting about HADD is that it appears to provide a plausible explanation for the pervasiveness of theistic belief, even on the assumption that theism is false.
Of course, the truth of HADD, if it is true, does not in any way logically contradict theism. I think the significance of HADD is that, if true, it provides a defeater for an argument for God’s existence based on the fact of the pervasiveness of theistic belief. (I’ll have to think about this, but for the same reason it may also provide a defeater for C.S. Lewis’s argument from desire. Perhaps Victor Reppert or another Lewis scholar can comment on that.)
I haven’t yet researched what sort of critical responses, if any, have been offered to HADD. It will be most interesting to follow the debate and research on this topic.