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For example, while kindergarten-age kids were in high agreement (88 percent) that the dead mouse's brain no longer worked, only a small number (24 percent) didn't think he'd still want to go home. Older kids (10 to 12 years old) were also in agreement about the first question (81 percent), but a larger number (46 percent) were skeptical about the mouse's continued desire to go home. The same pattern repeated throughout the experiment and over different groups of children younger kids understood the physical reality of death but were more apt to believe that sensory perceptions and feelings existed after life ceased.
Bjorklund and Bering argue that if ideas about an afterlife were solely a cultural phenomenon, the opposite would be true: Younger children would be less likely to believe, not more. If humans are blank slates when it comes to religious belief, then the exposure to society's ideas about souls and heaven would influence young skeptics to take on these ideas and become believers as they aged. Instead, the data shows that older kids are more skeptical.
Anticipating that some might question the effect of living in a secular South Florida culture, the scientists later repeated the experiment with a group of children in a parochial school in Spain who would be immersed in religious belief in and outside of school. Again, the same results: The children grew more skeptical of afterlife effects over time.
To Bjorklund and Bering, the findings were clear: children come into the world with a strong tendency to believe in a soul that survives death. The children responded, in other words, exactly the way they would if there were systems already in their brains that prevented them from thinking that intentions, thoughts, and feelings ceased after death.
"This is precisely the opposite of the pattern that one would expect to find if the origins of such beliefs could be traced exclusively to cultural indoctrination," Bering wrote recently.
What the scientists don't know is whether this propensity to believe in an afterlife is an adaptation a useful trait that somehow helps humans survive or merely an accident, a byproduct of the way our minds were shaped by evolution. While Bjorklund holds the prevailing view that religious beliefs are accidental, Bering thinks that a belief in the supernatural might have helped proto-humans survive on the savanna. "If you think you're being monitored, your behavior will be enhanced in a fitness-enhancing fashion," Bering says. In other words, believing that a God was watching might have made our ancestors more likely to survive.
"God is a way of thinking that was rendered permanent by natural selection."
That's the bomb Jesse Bering dropped in January into the middle of what the scientific establishment considers its most exclusive clubhouse: Edge.com, a science website where scientists and thinkers gather annually to answer a provocative question chosen by a prominent thinker. This year, the question was, "What is your dangerous idea?"
"God is not an idea, nor a cultural invention, nor an 'opiate of the masses' or any such thing," Bering wrote in his contribution to the discussion. Instead, belief in the supernatural is something wired into the brain itself, the result of evolution.
Bjorklund watched his protégé nervously "I was a little concerned about my scientific peers saying, 'Why are you going into this "soft science?" This is highly speculative,'" he confides.
He needn't have worried; nobody has accused Bjorklund and Bering of being flaky. In fact, nobody has accused them of much of anything. Despite their efforts in the best scholarly publications, they've received little attention. Even when their afterlife study was featured prominently in a recent Atlantic Monthlyarticle written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale, and titled provocatively "Is God an Accident?," there was scant response.
"I tell you, a couple of years ago, there was a science article on a dog, Rico, that could obey verbal commands," Bloom tells New Times. "That got me ten times more angry e-mails than this. Souls and gods are one thing, but people care a lot about their dogs. So my rule is: I can write about God but not dogs."
Bjorklund was surprised at the lack of outrage. He didn't expect that his classes would be picketed, but he thought Bering's might. "In a way, I've been surprised that other people haven't picked up on this and been offended," he says. "Given the controversy we're having about the teaching of evolution versus intelligent design, these would seem to be topics that could be hot."
But Bering has been frustrated at how little other scientists are paying attention. NPR's OpenSource radio show devoted an episode to Edge.com's "Dangerous Idea" discussion, featuring Steven Pinker, a renowned Harvard professor and well-known evolutionary psychologist, as commentator, and Bering as a guest. But when Bering explained his ideas about evolution being responsible for God, he says Pinker misunderstood and glossed over the implications of the study. Pinker languidly disagreed with Bering ("He said religious beliefs were really plummeting, which isn't really true," Bering says), while NPR's promotional material for the broadcast got Bering's idea backward, saying he believed that "God is in our genes."