The Biological Basis of Belief

Are humans designed to believe? Or is it an unintended by-product of our ballooning brains?
Alistair Jennings, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Religion means a huge amount to a huge amount of people. Across the world, eight out of every 10 people are religious. In the U.S. alone, seven out of every 10 people are Christian and one of every 12,000 people is a Scientologist. Societies past and present have worshiped their own Gods and spirits. Religion is inextricably intertwined with the history of humanity.

So, are humans naturally religious? Are we born to believe? Well, yes, actually, we are born to believe. Children begin life thinking that things happen for a reason. They want events to have some deeper meaning.

So, for example, if you ask a 5-year-old, “Why did Brianna’s pet puppy run away from home?” they’re more likely to say, “It was meant to happen to teach Brianna that having a pet is a big responsibility,” rather than, “Because Brianna left the door open.” This is called teleological thinking -- and it’s one of the hallmarks of religious thought.

If you think that things happen for a reason you’re more likely to conjure up some sort of God to make sense of that. As we age, in general we think less teleologically --although interestingly, only in societies with a strong education system -- but nevertheless, we never quite lose our disposition to think that events are part some grand design. Even highly trained academics will slip unwittingly into teleology when put under pressure.

Another social instinct that underlies religious belief is our ability to mentalize: that is to realize that other things in the world have minds as well as ourselves. Unlike teleological thinking, we grow into our “theory of mind” -- we need to learn to imagine how others might be thinking and feeling.

And it’s this ability that allows us to conceive of a godly mind, and also to imagine how that godly mind might want us to behave. You can even see the brain areas responsible for “theory of mind” activate during religious thought.

It’s these social instincts, teleology and theory of mind, that allow us to understand the actions of others, but they also work very well to establish religious thought.

So, here’s the question: Are gods and goddesses merely ghost in the machinery, originally designed to allow us to understand a world and our neighbors? Or has this apparatus been placed in our brains to allow us to detect the divine?

Well, whatever you think the answer is, religion has a profound effect on our brains. Religious experiences and even religious thinking activates the reward pathways in our brains, and if you prime people with religious words, you actually make them more generous and it’s even been suggested that religions that emphasize generosity between neighbors have driven the creation of our modern high-functioning societies.

So, if indeed God did not exist, he may well have been necessary to invent him.


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Ali Jennings has his PhD in neuroscience from University College London.