Born to believe



Michael Brooks writes in the New Scientest (click Skip in the lower right hand corner if you get an ad):

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. Until recently, science has largely shied away from asking why. “It’s not that religion is not important,” says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, “it’s that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress.”

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.


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.

The headline on the NS article refers to the brain “creating” God, but one can argue, based on the same data, that the brain doesn’t create so much as imperfectly apprehend.

Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily

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4 Responses to "Born to believe"
  1. Ann, I don't see anything in the study of Sweden that indicates that religiosity was socialized out of population. The researcher didn't come up with an explanation. What he found was that it was a nonissue. People weren't anti-religion or atheist, and many claimed to be Christian but not tied to creeds.

    The two studies seem in harmony to me. Sweden is a land where the population is homogeneous and people are willing to cooperate and support a large social safety net. That's not a model that would work in every country. But what it means is the trauma that usually creates the reaching out for an explanation is softened by the cooperativeness of society.

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  2. The assumption that religion is one universal phenomenon from primitive times on is nonsense! "Religion" itself is a Western, Latin term, as Jacques Derrida said, emphasizing a binding or linking of some kind. Some Christians don't like the term and prefer to speak of faith as eschatological hope, if one must bring in the specifics of the Christian tradition. Different cultural practices which are called by the same word, such as religion, may have nothing in common other than contingent similarities or "family resemblances," to use a term from Wittgenstein.

    The conflation of religion with belief in the supernatural is very bizarre. Do all people who use religious language necessarily believe in the supernatural? I do not. Do all cultures which practice rain dances believe the dances will cause rain? And does the supernatural exist in cultures which lack Western science? In cultures where all phenomena are thought to involve the intervention of spirits or gods there is no such thing really as a miracle as a violation of nature.

    The part in the article about mind/body dualism betrays an almost total ignorance of Western philosophy, which, from the time of Descartes has introduced this untenable notion of a physical body and an incorporeal yet linked mind. Cartesian dualism takes many forms and I would argue has returned in this silly article. One needn't know anything about science to see that the argument in this article is meaningless. It has nothing to do with science but merely projects Western culture onto the world.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

    The following passage is full of logical flaws and undefined terms:

    It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

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