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Apr. 16 2010 - 8:01 pm | 4,121 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

Why We Are Hardwired for Belief in God

On April 10 the Wall Street Journal published a debate between myself and Gregory Paul on the question of whether or not belief in God is innate. Here are the links to the two articles:

http://tinyurl.com/y8n7qg6

http://tinyurl.com/y52ckwf

The online version was well edited but shorter than my original draft, which I present here just for the record. Enjoy.

According to Oxford University Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia, 84 percent of the world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion, which at the end of 2009 equals 5.7 billion people who belong to about 10,000 distinct religions, each one of which may be further subdivided and classified. Christians, for example, may be aportioned among 33,820 different denominations.[1] Among the many bionomial designations granted our species (Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo economicus), a strong case could be made for Homo religiosus. And Americans are among the most religious members of the species. In a 2007 Pew Forum survey of over 35,000 Americans, the following percentages of belief were found:

God or a universal spirit             92%

Heaven                                            74%

Hell                                                 59%

Scripture is word of God           63%

Pray once a day                              58%

Miracles                                          79%

So powerful is the belief that there must be something else out there that even 21% of those who identified themselves as atheists and 55% of those who identified themselves as agnostics expressed a belief in God or a universal spirit.[2]

Why do so many people believe in God? Although there is much cultural variation among different religious faiths, all have in common the belief in supernatural agents in the form of God, gods, or spirits who have intention and interact with us in the world. There are four lines of evidence pointing to the conclusion that such beliefs are hardwired into our brains.

Evolutionary Theory and God

In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin noted that anthropologists conclude that “a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in the reasoning powers of man, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder.”[3] Why would religion and belief in God evolve? Darwin suggested that it might accentuate group cohesiveness in the competition against other groups: “There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection [of the group].”[4]

Picking up where Darwin left off, in my book How We Believe I developed an evolutionary model of belief in God as one of a suite of mechanisms used by religion, which I define as a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community. Around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, as bands and tribes began to coalesce into chiefdoms and states, even before the invention of government, religions were the first social institutions to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles, and God evolved as the ultimate enforcer of the rules.[5]

Human universals are traits shared by all peoples, such as tool use, myths, sex roles, social groups, aggression, gestures, grammar, phonemes, and many related to religion and belief in God, including: anthropomorphizing animals and objects, belief in the supernatural, beliefs and rituals about death, beliefs about fortune and misfortune, divination, folklore, magic, myths, and rituals. Although such universals are not totally controlled by genes alone (almost nothing is), there are good reasons to believe that there is a strong genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures. That is, your culture may dictate which God to believe in, but the belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world is universal to all cultures because it is hard-wired in the brain, a conclusion enhanced by studies on identical twins separated at birth and raised in different environments.

Behavior Genetics and God

In one study of 53 pairs of identical twins reared apart and 31 pairs of fraternal twins reared apart, Niels Waller, Thomas Bouchard, and their colleagues in the Minnesota twins project looked at five different measures of religiosity and found that the correlations between identical twins were typically double those for fraternal twins, a finding suggesting that genetic factors account for approximately half of the observed variance in their measures of religious beliefs.[6]

This finding was corroborated by two much larger twin studies out of Australia (3,810 pairs of twins) and England (825 pairs of twins), that compared identical and fraternal twins on numerous measures of beliefs and social attitudes, concluding that approximately 55 percent of the variance in religious attitudes appears to be genetic.[7] The scientists also concluded that people who grow up in religious families who themselves later become religious do so mostly because they have inherited a disposition, from one or both parents, to resonate positively with religious sentiments. Without such a genetic disposition, the religious teachings of parents appear to have few lasting effects.

Of course, genes do not determine whether one chooses Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, or any other religion. Rather, belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, and demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism). Why did we inherit this tendency?

Cognitive Psychology and God

Long long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency).

Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error (a false positive), but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, you have made a Type II error (a false negative) and there’s a good chance you’ll be lunch and thereby removed from your species’ gene pool. Because we are poor at discriminating between false positives and false negatives, and because the cost of making a Type I error is much lower than making a Type II error, there was a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. This is the basis for the belief not only in God, but in souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

Gods are agents and agents are essences, and agenticity is everywhere. Subjects watching reflective dots move about in a darkened room (especially if the dots take on the shape of two legs and two arms) infer that they represent a person or intentional agent. Children believe that the sun can think and follows them around, and when asked to draw a picture of the sun they often add a smiley face to give agency to sol. Genital-shaped foods such as bananas and oysters are often believed to enhance sexual potency. A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality or essence is transplanted with the organ, and studies show that most people say that they would never wear the sweater of a murderer, showing great disgust (probably an evolved emotion selected to avoid rotting food and disease-carrying substances), but that they would wear the cardigan sweater of the childrens’ television host Mr. Rogers, believing that it would make them better persons.

Neuroscience and God

Why God? In my analogy above, note that “wind” represents an inanimate force whereas “dangerous predator” indicates an intentional agent. There is a big difference between an inanimate force and an intentional agent. Most animals can make this distinction on the superficial life-or-death level, but we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex we have a Theory of Mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others. We “read minds” by projecting ourselves into someone else’s shoes (as in empathy) or by imagining someone out to get us (as in fear).

Theory of Mind is part of a larger mind-brain dualism, in which we tend to think of the mind as something separate from the brain. We speak of “my body” as if “my” and “body” are dissimilar. We revel in books and films that are dualistic, as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a man falls asleep and wakes up as a cockroach with the man’s personality intact inside it, or in Freaky Friday where mother and daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsey Lohan) trade bodies with their essences unbroken. This belief in mind and essence is a byproduct of the brain’s inability to perceive itself. Thus, we can “decenter” ourselves and imagine, say, being on a beach in Hawaii, which most people tend to see from above looking down on themselves as if out of their bodies. Out-of-body and Near-Death Experiences can both be triggered by electromagnetic fields bombarding the temporal lobes (just above the ears) of the brain, as well as through oxygen deprivation in pilot centrifuge training exercises. As well there is the well-known “third-man factor” in which solo sailors, mountain climbers, ultra-marathon athletes, and arctic explorers report a sensed presence of someone else on the expedition.

We believe in the supernatural because we believe in the natural and we cannot discriminate between the two. We create gods because we are natural-born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. The gods will always be with us because they are hard-wired into our brains.


[1] Barrett, D. B., G. T. Kurian, T. M. Johnson (Eds.). 2001. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World. 2 Vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2religious-landscape-study-key-findings.pdf

[3] Darwin, C. 1871. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray, Vol. 2, 395.

[4] Ibid., Vol. 1, 166.

[5] Shermer, Michael. 1999. How We Believe. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books.

[6] Waller, N.G., B. Kojetin, T. Bouchard, D. Lykken, and A. Tellegen. 1990. “Genetic and environmental influences on religious attitudes and values: A study of twins reared apart and together.” Psychological Science 1(2): 138-42.

[7] Martin, N. G., L. J. Eaves, A. C. Heath, R. Jardine, L. M. Feingold, and H. J. Eysenck. 1986. Transmission of social attitudes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 83: 4364-68.

Eaves, L. J., H. J. Eysenck, and N. G. Martin. 1989. Genes, culture and personality: An empirical approach. London and San Diego: Academic Press.


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  1. collapse expand

    Since I like to call myself a “born again Atheist”, I thought I’d chime in.

    I personally view worshiping an unknown deity and believing in a nebulous after-life much like most people view believing in Zeus or Athena. It just does not click with me. I see believing in God as some hold over from an ancient society that we haven’t been able to shake off. It’s like a vestigial behavior. It serves no real purpose anymore, or at least it shouldn’t.

    I think I am one of the few whose brain has clicked the other way. I just don’t get it. It means nothing to me. I look at Churches and the statues and the depiction of violence and how the Catholic church is so sexist and corrupt and question how anyone can be religious anymore. The Catholic church isn’t the only one. The Apostolic Reformers – or whatever they are – are the real scary ones.

    Some people are talking about the “New Atheists”. I have no idea what that is, I really try to take the position that as long as you don’t look down on me or try to force me to believe what you believe, then that is all I ask. However, it seems that these Evangelicals are cult-like in their behavior in that if you don’t believe in what they say, you are seen as almost evil. You will burn in Hell, right? They have a plan that they have been working on for over 40 years to infiltrate all areas of government so they can force their believes into the laws of this country.

    To think that we have evolved so far that we are able to fly into space and harness the power of the atom, yet most people still believe is Heaven and Hell and the Anti-Christ is kind of scary to me. It makes people act irrationally. It foments hate and violence.

  2. collapse expand

    We aren’t hardwired for this. It is a belief that is taught. End of story.

  3. collapse expand

    I think you might be interested in this blog post by Jonah Lehrer:

    http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/03/magical_thinking.php

    “A new paper by psychologists at the University of Waterloo explores the connection between the presence of randomness and our belief in the supernatural. (The existence of God is the ultimate refutation of randomness, unless God throws dice.) The scientists argue that we abhor randomness so much that when confronted with it – when we’re reminded that nothing makes very much sense – we become more likely to subscribe to “spiritual control,” or the belief that everything is caused by an invisible hand.”

    Certainly adds credence to your argument.

  4. collapse expand

    “Those who know don’t have the words to tell, and the ones with the words don’t know too well…” Bruce Cockburn

    Primates on a tiny speck of rock floating in an unimaginably huge universe, debating the reality or origin of God. Is there no limit to human arrogance?

  5. collapse expand

    Atheists,

    but you have NO ANSWER TO DEATH… therefore you FAIL…

    THE DEATH TRAP

    http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/FaceOff/
    ********

    THE REAL QUESTION:

    DOES ATHEISM HAVE A FUTURE?

    AND THE ANSWER – NO!

    http://www.disclose.tv/forum/does-ath-ism-have-a-future-no-t19859.html

    Shermer – Harris – Myers – Dawkins – Randi VS. NOSTRADAMUS – EINSTEIN – MARKUZE

    you’re ANNIHILATED!

    Atheists,

    Repent and turn to God.

  6. collapse expand

    How then do explain people like myself who do not believe in god/s or the supernatural in any way? Personally I think we are simply more evolved though I have no empirical evidence to back that up.

  7. collapse expand

    Not wishing to be too pedantic, but did you really mean “..a hominid on the PLANES of Africa”?
    Otherwise I feel your explanation of the development of a general religiosity makes a great deal of sense, to a retired biologist that is.

    • collapse expand

      I noticed this, too, but I’ve decided that I much prefer the imagery of hominids on planes in Africa. “What’s that shaking the bushes?” is then more easily brought to “Is this plane supposed to make that noise?”

      As to the rest of the piece, “tabula rasa” guy here, so learned behavior always has first appeal. I quickly confess to a fondness for Feurbach and the lines of thought that come down from there.

      The neuro-work (short of the leap in some cognitive psychology that moves too easily to evolutionary conjecture) — I hope those with the labs keep looking, because what’s turned up so far is intriguing. I just don’t find it compelling, yet.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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