Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wanting to Believe

Nanni Moretti is an Italian movie director. I'm not familiar with his work but the length of his "awards" page on the Internet Movie Database suggests that he's fairly talented. He's also an atheist who says he's "very sorry [he's] not a believer." In a discussion of his new film "Habemus Papam" (Latin for "We Have a Pope," the phrase used to announce the election of a new pontiff), Moretti said, "When the pope says that the world needs a guide, the world needs someone who can provide love and understanding for all, the faithful in my film are full of enthusiasm and very pleased at the thought of this change."

Moretti's apology for being an atheist makes me wince a bit. Apologies are in order when our actions or negligence cause harm to others, not when others take offense at simple, factual statements like "I'm not a believer." Nonetheless, I'd agree that "the world needs" (or at least wants) "someone who can provide love and understanding for all." It doesn't matter how mature and wise and experienced you are; there are still things in this world, both natural and man-made, that'll scare the crap out of you. Whether it's a tornado barreling down on your house or your mortgage company rushing to foreclose, it's human nature to want someone to step in and set things right, and maybe give you a hug and bake you some cookies too.

Wanting doesn't make it so, of course. One of the co-directors of a recent study on belief in gods and an afterlife concluded that "religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies...It isn't just a quirky interest of a few, it's basic human nature," but another researcher said, "This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist," and acknowledged that "Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact."

The Daily Mail article mentions that the study, which was conducted in 20 countries over a three-year period, cost £1.9 million (a bit over three million American dollars, according to Google), but didn't mention that the study was funded by the Templeton Foundation, a group that considers itself a "philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality." The group pledges to support "open-minded inquiry," but the fact that they're asking "Big Questions" about "human purpose" implies that they believe there is an ultimate purpose for humanity. Those who assume that something exists, whether it's the legendary city of Troy or Bigfoot, are bound to find something if they spend enough time and money, but is it the real thing or just a guy in an ape costume?

H/T to Jerry Coyne at "Why Evolution is True" for the link to University of Oxford's 2008 announcement of the study.

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