Reasons to Believe

Purpose is Pervasive and Religion Promotes Self-Discipline

True or False:

The NBA, NFL, and other professional sports leagues exist to provide physically gifted athletes a way to utilize their talents and earn a living.

The answer depends on the causes. Did someone create arenas intentionally for athletes to display their abilities? Or did groups of talented competitors play their respective sport and then naturally organize into the leagues? If you struggle to decide, I suspect it's because both scenarios contain truth.

A growing body of research illustrates a similar dilemma that arises as scientists seek to understand the world around us. From the physical laws to the characteristics of Earth to the functioning of the smallest bacteria, things look designed. But are they truly designed or can natural processes provide an explanation?

A recent psychological study produced results that indicate humans are primed to see purpose. In other words, humans tend to agree with purpose-seeking explanations. For example:

  • Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil.
  • Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells.
  • The Sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize.
  • Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates must align.

Do earthworms think, "The soil needs aerating," and then tunnel underground? No. Because earthworms tunnel underground, the soil gets aerated as a by-product.

Researchers in the study noted that, when pressed for time, people tend to agree with the purpose-seeking explanations (like the one above). More time to think facilitated a proper recognition of cause-and-effect. Yet, the study authors noted that subjects still tended to agree with statements like, "The Earth has an ozone layer in order to protect it from UV rays" (which those surveyed deemed false). While ozone clearly protects Earth's surface from UV rays, research demonstrates that the ozone layer arises naturally in an atmosphere enriched in oxygen produced by photosynthetic organisms. But does a "natural" explanation mean that some Being didn't design the whole process to insure a protective ozone layer?

But the study highlights a deeper issue. Along with others, it convincingly demonstrates that people tend to favor purpose-seeking explanations. It also reveals that this tendency exists in the religious as well as the nonreligious. The question is: in what type of worldview does this conclusion fit more comfortably?

On a related topic, another study found that religious belief promotes self-control. Using data accumulated over eight decades, a team of psychologists determined that genuine "religious belief and piety promoted self-control." The same does not apply to "spiritual" people. It seems the important components are the actual religious practices like prayer, meditation and attending religious services. But, it's not just the practices. Those who engage in religious practices for external reasons don't exhibit the greater degree of self-control that true followers do.

If the universe and all it encompasses has no purpose and draws its existence from purposeless processes, does it make sense that people tend to want explanations that favor purpose? Why do people who believe something untrue (that a God exists) exhibit greater self-control? Is self-control unnatural?

On the other hand, if a divine Being created this universe and interacts closely with it, does it make sense that people tend to seek explanations that favor purpose? Would belief in that Being lead to a more disciplined life? The answer seems obvious.

Subjects: Worldviews

Dr. Jeff Zweerink

While many Christians and non-Christians see faith and science as in perpetual conflict, I find they integrate well. They operate by the same principles and are committed to discovering foundational truths. Read more about Dr. Jeff Zweerink.