A new book, "God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human" is being released by Oxford University Press in November, 2015. Based upon arguments from cognitive science and evolution, this book is written by Oxford scholar, Dominic Johnson. Are his arguments valid? Read a rebuttal to his point of view by Think Atheist member Casey Dorman in the journal Lost Coast Review at go to Is the Fear of God Necessary? at Lost Coast Review.com

I'd be interested in readers' comments.

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When we did not understand the cognitive mechanisms of the human brain to the degree that modern science now does, it was easy to understand why “God” was used to explain the sensation we have of being “watched”. Before we understood that we were an evolved species the God explanation was a reasonable one because it did appear to explain why we feel that way. To paraphrase Laplace, “we no longer have need  of that hypothesis”. We have removed “god”, a generic answer for when we don’t know, because we now have a much better explanation, thanks to modern evolutionary biology and scientific work done in the area of cognitive behaviour. We know the “god gene” does not exist but it is easy to fall into a pattern of magical thinking when our critical thinking skills are underdeveloped.

We are evolved to see that stick in the grass as a snake first, rather than waste precious seconds deciding if it actually is one. We cannot prevent that adrenaline shot that makes us hyper vigilant if we hear a noise downstairs as we drift off to sleep. Once we have a basic understanding of (evolved) human nature it makes common sense that we react like that and the god hypothesis has no merit. To try to introduce it nowadays as an explanation in an academic sense is just plain nonsense. I think it was Sam Harris who asked “What has religion explained in the past 500 years that Science has not offered a better explanation for?”

As a behaviour modifier religion hijacked the basic idea of god and built it up over time into various ideologies and dogmas and used it for control purposes. “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful” (Seneca). Religion, at least in the Western world no longer controls access to information. Now that it is more widely available to all, religions are losing their power and belief in god(s) is decreasing.

Michael Shermers’ book “The Believing Brain” is worth a read and it cover most, if not all, of the ground covered in the article. We are compelled to try to make sense of the world around us. Not only have our brains evolved to see faces without much information (as on a slice of toast!) but our brains tend to reinforce this and this in turn can lead to a feedback loop which just confirms our biases or beliefs. We can never see our own delusions until we gain a new perspective and gaining that requires learning to think critically about ourselves. It takes a certain amount of courage and work to be able to rattle our own tree and admit to ourselves that we may have been wrong.

Theists, who swallow their moral code in tablet form (Hitchens) are going to continue to be aware of the presence of this God. At least that is what they will call that sensation. We, as atheists, have a different explanation. We do not live in a “celestial North Korea” (Hitchens). We understand empathy and reciprocity from an evolutionary point of view. We can become more ethical when we come to appreciate how fortunate we are to exist and to respect the rights of other to exist alongside us. Becoming aware of this removes any notion of needing to apply “god” as a label for how we think. I believe (in my own cognitively biased way) that religion is not required to keep us on track. It only works on those that need to keep having to be reminded of how they should behave in society. Imagine having to have a Law to tell us not to kill. If someone cannot grasp that without it having to be repeated regularly or chiselled onto monuments outside their courthouse then I think it is better for us all that they keep believing that they are being watched.

I agree. Johnson, the author of the book does not believe that there is actually a God who originated this idea in our heads, but acknowledges the sense of being watched as an evolutionary adaptation. But he makes the mistake (in my mind) of assuming that the force of such a feeling is the myth of a judgmental God most cultures have attached to it. However, since the cognitive mechanism that produces the feeling of being watched was successful in promoting survival (or else it would not have been selected), no doubt long before the God myth was developed to go along with it, the mechanism itself must be sufficient to discourage antisocial behavior. Therefore we needn't keep the myth of a watchful deity to make it work.

It is like the old notion held by those who think magically that we have a soul. It is probably the same sensation that there is something “more” or external to us but yet still part of us. The idea that the soul exists as an entity separate to our physical self is likely to emanate from the same part of the brain that “god” does. If people can be convinced that they have an eternal soul then they are likely to believe in gods who are also interventionists.

There's a short book out "why we believe in god(s)" (lack of capitalization in the original) by J. Anderson Thompson, as well; he explains (among many other things) why evolution selected us to see agency where none exists.  (Ironically, evolution has selected for being willing to disbelieve evolution!)

Oh God (pardon the expression), someone else who never learned how to paragraph. Those are some of the longest paragraphs I've seen in a long time.

Isn't this basically, "If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him"?

This is a cousin of Kant's notion that (I paraphrase) "God must exist because if he didn't, the wicked would never be punished," is it not?

I think I'm with Reg on this. If the fear of someone (insert preferred deity name here) watching is all that keeps a person from harming others, then absolutely they should keep that belief.

To those of us capable of acting in a civilised fashion without an Eye in the Sky, let's try to make the world a better place through our actions during our lives.

But the point of course is that, since the feeling of someone watching is built into our brains through evolution and served to prohibit antisocial behavior prior to developing the theory that it was God who was doing the watching, if we lose the God part we will still have the same feeling of being watched and it will continue to modify our behavior, but we might not have all those other beliefs that go along with identifying the watching agent as God.

But the point of course is that, since the feeling of someone watching is built into our brains through evolution...

But that's a very unproven hypothesis, not a fact.

Absolutely right. But that's the point of the book, which is to catalog the evidence for the hypothesis. The idea that the feeling of being watched is one which actually prevents antisocial behavior is also a hypothesis, as is the idea that thinking that it is God who is doing the watching is essential to maintaining our prosocial behavior. This is all speculation. Evolutionary hypotheses are almost impossible to prove.

But when you used the word "since" (in the sense of "because") you stated the hypotesis unhypothetically.

You are be right, because it is of course an hypothesis. I was referring to the point of the book, of course, which is, as I said, making arguments for just such an hypothesis. However, a better way of stating it would have been "if the feeling of somone watching is built into our brains through evolution..."

In reply to that hypothesis, I hypothesize that it is not evolution which brings this feeling - it's language. The duality of language - the fact that, by the nature of language, there is always both a speaker and a listener, means that there are always two people in our heads - in this case, the watcher and the watched,

IMO this, coincidently, is why so many people believe in a God. 


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