The origin of religious belief is something of a mystery, but in recent years scientists have started to make suggestions. One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society (New Scientist, 28 January 2006, p 30)
The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. “I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion,” he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.
It’s quite a lengthy piece and it is worth reading all of it.
The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. “You see bushes rustle, you assume there’s somebody or something there,” Bloom says.
This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don’t have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real.
Again, experiments on young children reveal this default state of the mind. Children as young as three readily attribute design and purpose to inanimate objects. When Deborah Kelemen of the University of Arizona in Tucson asked 7 and 8-year-old children questions about inanimate objects and animals, she found that most believed they were created for a specific purpose. Pointy rocks are there for animals to scratch themselves on. Birds exist “to make nice music”, while rivers exist so boats have something to float on. “It was extraordinary to hear children saying that things like mountains and clouds were ‘for’ a purpose and appearing highly resistant to any counter-suggestion,” says Kelemen.
In similar experiments, Olivera Petrovich of the University of Oxford asked pre-school children about the origins of natural things such as plants and animals. She found they were seven times as likely to answer that they were made by god than made by people.
These cognitive biases are so strong, says Petrovich, that children tend to spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention: “They rely on their everyday experience of the physical world and construct the concept of god on the basis of this experience.” Because of this, when children hear the claims of religion they seem to make perfect sense.
Our predisposition to believe in a supernatural world stays with us as we get older. Kelemen has found that adults are just as inclined to see design and intention where there is none. Put under pressure to explain natural phenomena, adults often fall back on teleological arguments, such as “trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe” or “the sun is hot because warmth nurtures life”. Though she doesn’t yet have evidence that this tendency is linked to belief in god, Kelemen does have results showing that most adults tacitly believe they have souls.
So if religion is a natural consequence of how our brains work, where does that leave god? All the researchers involved stress that none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods: as Barratt points out, whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it.
It does, however, suggests that god isn’t going away, and that atheism will always be a hard sell. Religious belief is the “path of least resistance”, says Boyer, while disbelief requires effort.
These findings also challenge the idea that religion is an adaptation. “Yes, religion helps create large societies – and once you have large societies you can outcompete groups that don’t,” Atran says. “But it arises as an artefact of the ability to build fictive worlds. I don’t think there’s an adaptation for religion any more than there’s an adaptation to make airplanes.”
Further to this, is another interesting New Scientist piece:
Scott Wiltermuth of Stanford University in California and colleagues have found that activities performed in unison, such as marching or dancing, increase loyalty to the group. “It makes us feel as though we’re part of a larger entity, so we see the group’s welfare as being as important as our own,” he says.
Wiltermuth’s team separated 96 people into four groups who performed these tasks together: listening to a song while silently mouthing the words, singing along, singing and dancing, or listening to different versions of the song so that they sang and danced out of sync. In a later game, when asked to decide whether to stick with the group or strive for personal gain, those in the non-synchronised group behaved less loyally than the rest (Psychological Science, vol 20, p 1).
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville thinks this research helps explain why fascist leaders, amongst others, use organised marching and chanting to whip crowds into a frenzy of devotion to their cause, though these tactics can be used just as well for peace, he stresses. Community dances and group singing can ease local tension, for example – a theory he plans to test experimentally (Journal of Legal Studies, DOI: 10.1086/529447).
On a personal level I find similar things related to religion. When a large group of people are involved in almost any activity, the results are powerfully emotional. For example, my recent visit to the National Mall for the inauguration of Barack Obama was an emotional experience, among a crowd of up to 2m people. But it was not a religious one.
But I can imagine that a religious person attending an event of similar scale (for example the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979) would have felt similarly emotional, but have attributed it to other reasons, like the spiritual nature of the event, or the personality (god’s representative on Earth) of the speaker. They might describe it as a religious or spiritual experience, when really it was the emotion of the crowd mixed with a religious subject.