We learned from our recent survey that you like C. S. Lewis a lot. Which is great because I do too. Lewis spoke to me when I first opened up Mere Christianity as a seeker in 1978, and his wisdom continues to resonate. One of his key arguments is this: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.” Babies feel hunger for which there is food. Ducklings want to swim; there is water. Human beings have sexual desire, and there is sex. Thus,
“If I find in myself desires which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Connections with Scientists, Past and Present
Put simply, this desire for something transcendent convinced Lewis that philosophical materialism (all that exists is the material world) was inadequate. He looked around, read centuries of human reflection, and concluded that there must be more than meets the eye.
Lewis believed that this argument from desire constitutes a strong and virtually universal sign of God’s existence, and it showed up throughout his work. But it wasn’t just Lewis. He’s joined by pioneering mathematician Blaise Pascal about 300 years earlier—right at the flowering of modern science. “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? “Some in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” Yet we crave more:
“What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.”
What is especially amazing is that Lewis’s and Pascal’s observations are backed up not only by a long history of scientists and philosophers, but also by the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), “which investigates how human cognitive systems inform and constrain religious thought, experience, and expression.” And this leads me introduce you to—if you don’t know his work already—Justin Barrett, who writes that CSR “is probably best known for its efforts to explain broad, cross-cultural questions concerning why people generally tend to be religious throughout history and around the globe.” Put another way, CSR reveals that our brains’ structure leads us toward a desire for more than this world has to offer.
- Sarah Lane Ritchie produced this engaging video introduction to CSR.
- For a contrasting voice on CSR, see this thoughtful video interview with Pascal Boyer or his book, Religion Explained, as well as this video of Paul Bloom, who sees CSR as cognitive accidents or by-products that produce religion.
- A much longer version of this piece is in Connecting Faith and Science.
- We’ve written a few times about CSR including
- Justin Barrett’s Science for Seminaries video and his succinct intro to CSR are the best places to start. You might also check out the blog post he guest-wrote for us in our 2019 Advent series.
- If those leave you wanting more, try his books: Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology and Born Believers
- I have more to say about Lewis on the argument from desire, also called “joy” (or Sehnsucht) in C.S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, as does theologian Alister McGrath.
- Leadership Journal did a whole issue on the insights of cognitive science and neuroscience, “Neuro Ministry.”
Connecting JB, CSR, & CSL
Justin Barrett, often credited with coining the term the “Cognitive Science of Religion,” adapts the findings of the cognitive sciences to argue that evolution has developed human beings so that we implicitly see purposes in events or are predisposed toward teleology. (This is also called Hyperactive Agency Detection.) Barrett writes, “Evidence exists that people are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered,” which naturally leads to belief in a Creator. For example, before they are argued out of this default as it were, preschoolers “are inclined to see the world as purposefully designed and tend to see an intelligent, intentional agent behind this natural design.”
Similarly, neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, in studying our brain’s activity, found a remarkable cognitive function that supports belief in God, thereby answering the question Why God Won’t Go Away. Robert McCauley, in his counterintuitively titled book Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, demonstrates that the practices of religion (such as story and ritual) are comfortable or “natural” to our brains, while the hard, analytic work of scientific investigation is not.
Some, like cognitive anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Pascal Boyer and others (linked above) use this tendency to argue against belief in God—i.e., we cannot help but believe (a classic case of a circular argument). The problem is that they start with a philosophical naturalism that denies God and then argue that we make a god in our own image. Instead, Barrett, Lewis, and I (it’s fun to put myself in that list) argue that it makes as much sense that God created the structures of our mind with an openness to belief. And now I’ll add the Apostle Paul, who wrote all human beings perceive God’s “eternal power and deity” (Romans 1:19).
Lewis observed, quite similarly to Justin (I’ve actually asked the latter), that human beings have an intuitive sense of God. As he wrote in The Problem of Pain, this sense of the “Numinous” is powerful and omnipresent. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7 NRSV). It is the feeling of being out in a forest at night, not sure if anyone is there, but feeling something. (In fact, this sense sets the stage for hearing the Gospel of Christ. But I’ll leave that topic for another day.)