In a paper that came out a few days ago, Georgetown neuroscientists examine correlations between pattern-learning neural pathways and belief in God. They had subjects from the United States and Afghanistan do some pattern-learning tasks that involved blocks on screens and tapping keys and then administered surveys about their religious and existential beliefs.
The basic logic, supported by prior research, is that “order-related perceptual information processing” (looking around and figuring out what’s going on) influences what we think about the world.
Importantly, this work points to a “bottom-up learning of predictive order in the environment without conscious awareness,” meaning we are basically unaware that we are forming ideas about how the world works as we simply exist in it. Those of us who are more disposed to this type of subconscious implicit learning and pattern-building are also more likely to self-report as “intuitive,” or “knowing without knowing how one knows.” Woo woo stuff.
But that’s how intuitions work, basically. As we’re going about our days, we’re constantly devising these predictive orders to build theories about our environments. It’s how we survive.
This all ties in with the belief in God because “a core belief across major religions is that the sequence and structure of events in human lives (and in the universe more broadly) reflects an underlying order determined by the intervention of Gods.” While implicit learning patterns do not directly predict specific beliefs about particular deities, they do suggest that those who have this more automatic pattern are more likely to have a general sense in some sort of ambient order.
What this means is: “Evidence linking religious belief to IL-pat (implicit learning pattern) suggests that belief, and variation in belief, may be embedded in fundamental bottom-up perceptual processing more deeply than has previously been empirically explored.
Although they don’t bring it up in the paper, this more broadly fits into the long debated question of nature vs. nurture.
And, of course, the question remains what this automatic pattern learning and belief in order means. There are obvious real world implications (for example, if you have a ~bad feeling~ about someone, this may mildly or seriously alter how you interact with them to your benefit or detriment.) How vulnerable are our subconscious minds to committing fallacies?
Finally, thank you to Dr.’s Natalie Gallagher and Adam Weinberger for conducting this research!