While the growth and perpetuation of religious beliefs is an interesting question, we also need to explain how they originated in the first place. How did such unreal information arise at all?
Some have argued in favor of the direct adaptation model, based on Darwinian natural selection principles, that says that the tendency to assign causation and agency to natural events is an evolutionary advantageous strategy. In more primitive times, assigning a conscious agency to natural events may have provided survival benefits that did not accrue to those who did not, since the benefits of a false positive outweighs the disadvantages of a false negative. i.e., having genes that predisposed one to assume that lightning was caused by the anger of some powerful supernatural agency (aka ‘god’) and taking evasive action by cowering in shelters was better in terms of survival value than assuming that lightning was harmless and wandering around in the open, even if the reasoning behind it was faulty. It was only much later that we realized that lightning was dangerous for non-religious reasons and could avoid its hazards using mechanisms that did not involve rituals to appease an angry supernatural power.
In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks elaborates on this:
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,” [Yale psychologist Paul] 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.
Another report in the New Scientist (no subscription required for this one) about a computer model by James Dow provides some support for direct adaptation. (The original paper by Dow can be read here.)
The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.
The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.
Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.
“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.
The interesting conclusion here is that believers in the unreal require the support of nonbelievers in order to have their numbers grow. In other words, the ‘respect for religion’ trope that says that we should treat with respect, and even admire, the faith of sincere religious people, is actually part of the problem. This conclusion supports the strategy of the new/unapologetic atheists who seek diligently to undermine false beliefs such as god and the afterlife.
Brooks also writes that the reason our brains are so susceptible to superstitions is that they are hardwired to do so, which suggests deep evolutionary origins.
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.
What psychologists have found is that during hard times or times when people feel they are losing control of their lives, they are more prone to adopt religious beliefs and superstitions. During the great depression of 1929, for instance, the most authoritarian churches saw a rise in attendance. If this hardwired aspect of the brain is true, then adopting religious beliefs uncritically is the path of least resistance. It takes conscious effort and will to resist religious beliefs, which explains why atheism is a harder sell than religion.
POST SCRIPT: Waiting for Elmo
Have I said how much I love the Muppets comedy sketches on Sesame Street?