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Jul 08 2009

Why people believe in god-5: The evolutionary origins of belief

Today I want to look at why people believe in god, starting with its origins.

As to why religious beliefs arise in the first place, this is a fascinating and yet open question and any theories are at best speculative. The vast number of gods that have been independently invented in human history (see Machines Like Us for an exhaustive list) suggest that it is quite plausible that there is some propensity to create god beliefs that has nothing to do with the popular perception that religion arose to provide us with a moral code. As Robert Wright argues in his new book The Evolution of God (2009):

People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn’t originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

It is possible that a small naturally occurring tendency to assign a causal agent to certain natural events provided a survival advantage that grew over time according to the Darwinian natural selection algorithm. For example, early humans who ascribed thunder and lightning to the anger of some unseen agent and hid in fear in their caves were more likely to survive than those who did not assign agency and wandered about freely in the storm. The natural selection algorithm worked on this advantage so that over the long period of evolutionary time, people have evolved a tendency to believe in causal agents for natural phenomena that make them more easily susceptible to religious-type explanations than to scientific ones, and this tendency would become ingrained and dominant.

It is similar to how we all seem to have a fear of snakes. It seems fairly well established that we have evolved to have an instinctive fear of snakes. Even baby chimpanzees have such a fear, suggesting that this fear developed fairly early in primate development, during the time when the common ancestors of chimpanzees and humans lived.

Once you are susceptible to assigning a mysterious invisible agency to natural phenomena, certain culture-based beliefs can take root. For example, it makes sense to postulate things like a life after death to overcome the fear of death and this, coupled with beliefs about an unseen agency, would lead quite naturally towards a belief in a god-like entity that rules the afterlife.

It is easier to understand why these beliefs, once originated, continue to be perpetuated. While childhood indoctrination by parents and priests and society at large is undoubtedly a major factor in perpetuating religious beliefs, the more interesting question is why children are so susceptible to this particular kind of brainwashing.

There seems to be a clear survival advantage for young children to believe unquestioningly what their parents and other adults tell them. Those children who unquestioningly heeded warnings not to touch fire or to eat poisonous plants or try and play with lions or wade into crocodile infested rivers were more likely to survive than those who rebelled and ignored the warnings of adults. So the propensity of children to believe authoritative adults could easily have evolved to become hardwired in the brain.

The combination of assigning agency to natural phenomena and believing adults makes it easy to understand how religion originated and is perpetuated and why children are so easily indoctrinated into religious beliefs, because they do not distinguish between those adult edicts that are truly beneficial (“Don’t pick up snakes”) with those that are nonsensical (“If you pray silently to god he can hear your thoughts and will answer your requests” or “If you get together with others and pray for rain, it will rain.”)

But what is really interesting is why people still cling on to these beliefs long after they reach adulthood. After all, as we age we develop reasoning capacities that enable us to subject ideas to close scrutiny. As a consequence, there are a lot of childish beliefs we give up as we grow up, like Santa Claus. Children soon figure out for themselves that it is highly implausible for one man to fly around the entire world in one night to deliver toys, going up and down chimneys.

Why isn’t belief in god one of the beliefs we discard, since it has as much evidence in support as Santa Claus?

Next: Why religious beliefs persist.

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3 comments

  1. 1
    Norm

    I think adults no longer believe in Santa Clause because at some point in their early lives adults confirmed their suspicions that Santa didn’t really exist. With many religious beliefs—such as the resurrection of Jesus—such an admission was never provided.

    If adults never admitted to children that Santa Clause did not exist, we would all still belief that he did!

  2. 2
    Brock

    I think there’s a logical leap in this post, going from a ‘healthy’ instinctive fear of deadly snakes to a supposedly ‘healthy’ disregard for death in general.

    “it makes sense to postulate things like a life after death to overcome the fear of death” — well maybe, but why?

    Perhaps the reason you’re looking for is that *too much* fear is crippling; a caveman with an overwhelming phobia of non-lethal snakes would never leave his cave, right? So maybe there’s a balance, where some fear is beneficial, whereas excess fear is harmful.

    I’d be inclined to tack the words ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ on there, but as you already stated, even irrational fear of a causal agent behind lightning storms can be evolutionarily beneficial.

  3. 3
    Brock

    Of course that still doesn’t really explain why “life after death” is a useful mental tool to overcome the fear of dying. Wouldn’t that nullify a beneficial moderate fear of snakes or lightning?

    What keeps believers in an afterlife from being totally reckless with this life? Have there been moral ‘requirements’ for entering the afterlife since the earliest civilizations? Obviously Egypt had tons of burial rituals and beliefs about various souls/spirits, but I don’t know much about the Sumerians’ (or earlier?) morals and beliefs for the afterlife.

    And even so, what connects the moral imperatives to the natural fears? I suppose the belief in a causal agent (god/devil made snakes to challenge us) would give rise to a tenuous link. But why would this persist? Even casual observation of most snakes revels that they aren’t particularly interested in humans, let alone in existence “for us” somehow.

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