A blank slate?
If I had grown up in a sufficient degree of isolation from religious influences, I suspect the concept of god would never have crossed my mind, for the same reason that the concept of “thicklepsaur” – or any other novel notion you care to contrive – has not, that is extreme statistical improbability. Though of course as a baby I was incapable of active disbelief in a concept of which I was unaware, I was (at least in the sense of “absence of belief in god(s) of which my elders were aware”) born an atheist and only became aware of religion after being exposed to the swish of sweaty cassock and hard pews of school.
Assuming this was the natural state of every infant’s mind, I wondered how religious proclivities came to arise in the human brain in the first place and why, despite the scientific provision of far more lucid, elegant and empirical explanations for human existence, its irrational influence persists so fiercely today. To state the obvious, the solution is likely to lurk in a combination of “nature and nurture”, though nurture, with its positive connotations, is (at least for some) rather an unfortunate misnomer.
Digging first into the pockets of our genes, one
frayed picture of a cat answer immediately emerges: natural selection favoured religious behaviour because there must be (or at least have been) a survival advantage involved. In other words, a random genetic mutation that conferred a religious inclination on its host was selected for and became more prevalent as it was passed down the generations. One can certainly imagine that when humans did not have access to today’s scientific knowledge and civilised societal constructs, a religious bent could have been helpful to survival and procreation.
Hidden agent detection
Pascal Boyer suggests in Religion Explained that culturally-widespread beliefs in the “supernatural” are a consequence of “hidden agent detection: the intuitive modular process of assuming intervention by conscious agents, regardless of whether they are present.” To put it more bluntly, before we understood natural phenomena, such as thunder and tornadoes, we couldn’t help but ascribe them to gods, spirits, and witches. This process may have stemmed from our survival-driven hypersensitivity to potential threats. For example, it is prudent to fear that a rustle in the bushes might be a hungry boar with a sore paw, even if nine times out of ten it turns out to merely be the breeze. Ultimately this notion of causal agents led to a belief in the daddy of hidden causal agents, i.e a god. A provocative but interesting theory.
Getting high on god
More controversially perhaps, Rutgers University evolutionary biologist Lionel “hear me roar” (not really) Tiger claims that the root of religious belief is an evolutionary drive to produce a “secretion” (serotonin) within the brain which provides the believer with feelings of well-being. His colleague Michael McGuire “discovered that serotonin in primates was associated with high status and that when animals had high status they felt better. If you took away their high status their serotonin levels would crash. Their brains would begin producing more cortisol and other neurotransmitters that are associated with feeling mean and feeling bad and feeling low, so we decided that one of the ways of looking at religion is to what extent and how does it generate the serotonergic juices that make us feel good.”
If indeed religious fervour is based on a neurochemical reward mechanism (though the connection with high status does not exactly leap out at me), I can understand more clearly why people might persist with their faith even while their conscious mind accepts contrary scientific evidence. Threatened with having its precious high removed, the primitive brain simply suppresses this evidence. Reward mechanisms can be incredibly powerful: consciously, I know that smoking is odious and provides no tangible benefit whatsoever, yet the drive to poison my brain with nicotine easily overrules the conscious mind. I can see a clear parallel with the warm fuzzy serotonin rush that might accompany a belief in the afterlife or a guardian angel.
The “god gene”?
Research by geneticist Dean Hamer at the NIH finds god in a single gene–vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2). Hamer identifies this as the “god gene,” a leading gene among many others written into our genetic code that predisposes people to religiosity. A genetic origin point of religiosity might stem from an evolutionary drive toward inclusion. In this way, learning a society’s religion, like learning its language, is hard-wired into humans through inherited genes. (Quote from here).
The god module
By observing epileptic seizures originating in the temporal lobes, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran speculates about the existence of a “god module”:
But most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communion with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, “I finally understand what it’s all about. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense.” Or, “Finally have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.” I find it ironic that this sense of enlightenment, this absolute conviction that Truth is revealed at last, should derive from limbic structures concerned with emotions rather than from the thinking, rational parts of the brain that take so much pride in their ability to discern truth and falsehood.
Could it be that human beings have actually evolved specialized neural circuitry for the sole purpose of mediating religious experience? The human belief in the supernatural is so widespread in all societies all over the world that it’s tempting to ask whether the propensity for such beliefs might have a biological basis.
The one clear conclusion that emerges from all this is that there are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics.”
(from Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran, Sandra Blakeslee)
This phenomenon has been repeated time and time again and offers powerful evidence of an innate predilection for all things godly.
Finally, by providing some form of comfort blanket against myriad inexplicable, frightening aspects of nature, religious belief may even have diverted some of our weaker ancestors from simply giving up onto the more fruitful path of reproduction.
A mere accident
A starker alternative to these suppositions is that it is simply an exaptation (accidental evolutionary by-product) of other adaptations that did confer a survival advantage, such as enhanced intelligence and cognitive finesse. Richard Dawkins makes the distinction here between believing in god (no advantage) and having a brain with the capacity to believe in god (advantage, because of other benefits conferred).
On balance, I think it is likely that some of us possess a certain configuration in part of our brain which causes us to be predisposed to faith and, for some, startling episodes wrongly interpreted as religious revelation. Without allowing for some form of innate religious capacity, I would find it completely baffling why people hang onto their gods in the teeth of such a persuasive body of evidence that they are both redundant and extremely improbable. This innate predilection is then reinforced by society.
Given primitive ancestral communities riddled with disease, war, a high infant mortality rate and savage competition for scant resources, both from within and without, perhaps religion “both enforced moral instincts and motivated people to pay any cost in defense of their community. Religion secured a new level of social cohesion by implanting in people’s minds a stern overseer of their actions.” (Quote from here).
This quote makes me uncomfortable as it implies that people are incapable of acting morally without the threat of ‘divine retribution’ (not to mention the ineluctable corollary that unpleasant people will then only act ‘morally’ because they believe the threat) but this objection need not affect the end result: a nibble at the conscience on an individual level from whichever gods were fashionable at the time contributed to a form of reciprocal altruism in the community and thus aided the perpetuation of more of their genes.
Echoing this gene-centric view with a more complex flavour of the wildly unpopular group selection theory, David Sloan Wilson proposes in “Darwin’s Cathedral” that religion is a product of cultural evolution, developed through a process of multilevel selection for more cooperative and cohesive groups. By studying religious concepts in their group settings (religions are well known for their in-group morality and out-group hostility), Wilson places the evolution of social behavior, and religion in particular, on the same playing field as biological entities.
Whatever the initial cause, religion is still very much a prevalent social phenomenon, passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and crack of whip. Seneca opined that it “is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Whatever you think of the first two observations, the latter is as spot on now as it was then. Throughout the world countless unfortunates are brainwashed, subjugated, persecuted and oppressed by religious regimes, which justify outrageous moral edicts by claiming – oh so conveniently – that they derive from a god. Attempts to merely exercise free speech and offer a conflicting view are often punishable by torture or even death.
A religious apologist might counter by saying this is not the fault of the religion itself, but abuse of it. The problem here is that the authoritative text in question, such as the Bible, invariably contains a wealth of disparate, contradictory and often inflammatory material. While moderates may follow only the moderate instructions (many of which are perfectly sensible, such as the principle of reciprocity) and behave decently, those with more extreme aims can and do cherry pick wildly in order to “justify” just about any abuse they choose. If the hold these books have over people were to disappear overnight, these abuses would undoubtedly be harder to perpetrate.
Likewise, if a gun is used to commit murder, the NRA apologist will smugly declare it is not the gun’s fault at all; yet in the absence of the gun, that murder would not – or at least, have been much more unlikely to – have occurred. Guns and religion are both powerful facilitators, though if I were to be glib, my smirk would doubtless imply that at least guns have an iota of practical use. Poor squirrel? Think of it with bacon on its back!
Spare the kids
In countries where the barbaric edges of religious influence have been softened by liberal democracy – not without a prolonged and bloody fight, I might add – large numbers of young children are nevertheless routinely conditioned to accept religious doctrine when they are at their most vulnerable and credulous, often by well-meaning but misguided parents. Though I admit this is not necessarily a tragedy, it is at best a little depressing and, at worst, borders on abuse. The idea and practice of calling someone a “Muslim child” or “Christian child” before they are old enough to make a rational choice of their own is reprehensible, as is scaring them witless with, say, an assurance that the price of disbelief is to burn in hell for eternity, or that to be gay is evil, unnatural and a “matter of choice”.
One must remember that children’s brains are predisposed to take everything they are taught by their parents pretty much at face value, as this allows them to learn essential rules of survival, such as “don’t pursue a scampering cat onto a busy road” very quickly. So at this age, it is essential that children are taught to think critically, with recourse to logic and evidence, not fed the contents of cultural relics such as the Koran and Bible – and the often bizarre, contradictory and deeply unpleasant moral precepts contained within them – as truths not to be questioned. I have no objection to consenting adults practising religion in private among themselves, but please leave the kids out of it1.
In the UK, as in many progressive countries that supposedly value free speech, where any concept, person or institution is fair game for satire and criticism, religion appears to enjoy a special exemption, which I pompously call theocratic immunity. We are continually admonished to show respect to, to not offend, to not question religion. No reason is given as to why: we are expected meekly to accept this hypocritical doublethink. Invariably, religious extremists find ways to take offence at the most trivial of things. Yet when their bewildering and utterly disproportionate response takes the form of burning down embassies and killing innocent people, instead of hearing universal condemnation, as one would hope and expect, one hears sympathy and appeasement, people bleating for the source of the offence (a cartoon, or video, say) to be banned. Indeed, there is even talk of the UN enacting an “International Blasphemy Law”, whereby to denigrate the protagonists of best-selling fictional works would become a crime. This is ridiculous, especially as you can bet it would not apply to, say, Harry Potter. Again, on what grounds is this special treatment granted? Religious privilege sucks.
Meanwhile on panel shows that feature a number of people discussing a topic in which they have expertise, qualifications or relevant experience, a religious spokesperson is also invariably wheeled out, as if their belief in a god automatically confers on them some special authority or insight in any subject. Why is this? Why are a bishop’s backward views on abortion allowed equal, indeed often greater, prominence than those of qualified experts?
Of course there are millions of sane, ethical people who quietly, privately believe in a god or gods, draw strength from their belief, treat women and homosexuals decently and don’t coerce others into sharing their faith. My beef is not with them and I do not wish to mock their belief. I am fortunate enough to live in a country where such people form the majority of a shrinking religious demographic, but many aren’t.
Religion can also be an oppressive umbrella under which loathsome individuals and institutions acquire a great deal of influence, money and power, from where they disseminate wicked, backward ideas and make the lives of a multitude of people a misery. Furthermore, in some cases, they clearly wish to extend the reach of this umbrella over people who prefer not to be forced to stand in the shade of ignorance and repression. One can only hope that the advance of science, humanism and liberal values will continue to weaken its pernicious global stranglehold.
1. That is not to say that kids should not be exposed to them, of course. They are fascinating historical works which deserve critical study. Just don’t teach them “as gospel” please.