Teleological Explanations of Nature Relate to Supernatural Agent Detection Among Theists and Atheists
Humans are biased toward teleological explanations of natural phenomena. The promiscuous teleology account posits that this proclivity is rooted in the detection of supernatural agency behind the design of the natural world. This idea is supported by numerous positive correlations of religious belief and agreement with teleological explanations of natural phenomena, but it is challenged by findings that non-believers often agree with them as well, suggesting the need for an adjudicating experiment. The current experiment tested whether considering similar teleological explanations of nature causes explicitly theistic and atheistic people to think about God, which would suggest that the teleological bias has roots in agency detection. Participants (N = 608) were randomly assigned to consider teleological explanations of either human-caused phenomena or natural phenomena, with the main prediction that considering the natural item set would make theists relatively faster to categorize God as real but make atheists relatively slower to categorize God as imaginary. The data did support this hypothesis, suggesting that people across the theistic belief spectrum automatically think of God when thinking about nature’s purpose, and thus the teleological bias might be rooted in the detection of supernatural agency. Implications for theories of teleology, study limitations, and potential future directions are discussed.