Raised Presbyterian, neuroscientist John C. Wathey started to question his religious faith in his early teens. His book, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing (Prometheus Books, Jan. 12), examines the belief in God from a scientific standpoint, tracing spiritual longing back to biological origins and making a case that the belief in God evolved to foster the mother-child bond.
What motivated you to write a book that attempts to disprove God?
The book has been sitting in the back of my brain for a long, long, time, since I was a graduate student. I started to come up with this idea that religion has obviously infantile characteristics. There was something new to be said there. [In the 2000's] there were books being written about atheism, but still there was something missing from those books. I finally broke down and let the book out of my brain.
Can you share an example from The Illusion of God's Presence of how biology has shaped people’s belief in a god?
Prayer is almost universal in almost every religion, but if you think about it carefully, it is pretty obvious that prayer is pointless. God knows what we want, what we need, and how sincerely we believe in him, so what is the purpose of asking God for favors? Why do people pray? I think that is a biological phenomenon because I think it comes from an instinct in all humans in infancy to cry out for mother, because human infants are completely helpless.
What sets your book apart from previous works on the origins of religion?
Religion touches upon so many different scientific fields – not just biology, but sociology, anthropology, and psychology. I actually extended its reach, I think, to some fields that most people would think are not related to religion, like the developmental psychology of infants for example.
How do you think about religion, and how do you want readers to think about it?
I treat it more as a fascinating puzzle to be solved. I think evolution is the window by which we should understand religion. Of course, a lot has been written on that subject, but most of the evolutionary takes on religion concern its social aspects, which is very important, but there is a more personal aspect that people have that I think has been largely neglected. It’s the idea that there is this intuitive feeling that there must be this loving being out there somewhere who I can reach out to in a moment of crisis.