Some atheists argue that religious belief has its origins in cognitive functions such as hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD). Justin L. Barrett describes HADD this way: “our perceptual and conceptual systems readily attribute minded agency with little provocation—even in conditions in which we reflectively think that such attribution is in error.” For example, we hear a twig snap in the woods, think a predator must be near, and start running. From an evolutionary point of view, HADD is beneficial, even if it generates false positives, because it is better to run from an imaginary predator than to be dinner for an actual one. The atheist application of HADD to religious belief is straightforward: Religious belief—belief in God, gods, or supernatural causes—is a byproduct of HADD, understandable since human beings “readily attribute minded agency,” but nonetheless a false positive.
Christian theists have at least three responses available to them:
(1) One could simply deny that HADD explains or has anything to do with the origins of religious belief.
(2) One could argue that in and of itself, HADD is insufficient to determine whether belief in God is false. It is adaptive, biologically speaking, precisely because it alerts us to true positives, even as it generates false negatives. So, to show that religious belief is false, an atheist needs to do more than show that religious belief arises from HADD. He or she must also show—on other grounds—that HADD has generated a false positive in the case of religious belief.
(3) One could argue that HADD explains, at least partially, the origin of religious belief. If God exists, after all, and if he has made embodied creatures such as we are, then perhaps HADD is exactly the kind of cognitive function God would use to help us come to know him.
Today’s theological question is compound: Which response do you think is best, and why?