Sapolsky’s explanation for the benefits of religiosity

I agree with most of what he says.

One exception, but I think it’s just a minor wording problem.

And believing that there is something, someone responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that you believe there is not only something out there responsible for all of this but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress reducing explanation.

If then on top of it you believe that individual out there is benevolent—even more so control and predictability. Benevolent and listens to human entreaties? More elements of control.

Benevolent, listens to human entreaties, and prefers to listen to people like you who look like you, pray like you, request like you? Even more so. They’re just all these levels of control, predictability; they’re stress reducing.

Where he says “control”, I’d say “illusion of control”, and I also think that’s key to answering his final question: what’s up with those atheists who don’t embrace the stress-reducing benefits of religion? I think the answer is simple. If the purpose of this belief is to help us feel in control and reduce stress, it fails on both counts if you see through the illusion and realize that prayer and worship to an invisible being do nothing.

It’s like driving along in the passenger side of a car when a deer darts out in front of you; you may slam your foot down on the floorboards as if you’ve got a brake on your side, but you don’t, and it doesn’t matter. Atheists choose not to believe in an invisible parallel brake pedal on the passenger side of the car that you can push to assist the driver in stopping faster, and we don’t see what genuine virtue would be attached to pretending there is one.

But still, there are lots of people who clutch armrests and stomp on the floor to give themselves that feeling of control.

Never when I’m driving, of course.


  1. René says

    I’m not much of a fanboy, but this wonderful Sapolsky comes close to being a hero.

    My take on this: the sadder the wiser. I’d rather see the universe as it truly is, depressing indeed.

  2. cag says

    So there is no stress in believing that one wrong move and eternal punishment is the reward?

  3. says

    I agree with Sapolsky as well. I’ve seen this all my life. Humans simply cope better when they think they have pinned down an explanation for reality which includes a handy source, to lament, praise, and tearfully blame in a back-handed way (Oh, it was my fault, I didn’t listen, I sinned, whatever).

    Most humans really feel a requirement for an outside source of some sort. Taking responsibility and facing up to the reality of the ever random shit happens is not something most people are up to at all.

  4. says


    So there is no stress in believing that one wrong move and eternal punishment is the reward?

    That gives a whole lot of people a great deal of joy; it allows them to be purveyors of thunderous judgement and hatred. For those of us, like myself, who seriously stressed over such shit, we end up being atheists.

  5. says

    I even see a lot of stress from liberal christians. One endorsed the movie “Higher Ground”…try watching it. To me it seems like a good cautionary tale against both fundamentalist and liberal christianity. At the end of the movie, the chrisitan is now liberal but feels very lost. Kinda like, “what do I even believe and why, again? will my life ever make sense?” or something. It’s sad.

    Learning how causality and control really works is obviously an improvement. I’ve recently been thinking about some related stuff that is helping me with my depressed lack of motivation stuff. I’ll have to write about it.

    Control Systems on wikipedia.

    control system demonstration video.

  6. says

    He should go talk to the people embroiled in the sunni/shia religious war and ask them how they’re liking the antidepressant effects of religion.

  7. pacal says

    So if believing a lie / falsehood makes you feel good etc. you should believe!? All this is the utilitarian argument for Religion dressed up with modern Sciency talk.

    All the crap about people feeling it gives them some sort of control etc., sort of ignores the fact as mentioned by PZ, that the control you feel is a delusion and false.

    The sort of argument that Sapolsky makes is the old “useful lie” argument. I prefer the unvarnished truth.

  8. Owlmirror says

    So if believing a lie / falsehood makes you feel good etc. you should believe!?

    I don’t think Sapolsky intends to be prescriptive. Explaining why social & psychological phenomena exist is not necessarily an endorsement of them.

  9. anat says

    I actually found atheism brought more relief than religious belief. It meant that the bad things that happened were not because some god decided people deserved them.

  10. screechymonkey says

    Speaking of religion and driving, anyone else note that the driver who killed a woman in Times Square earlier this week said that God told him to do it? You had to read deep into most news accounts to find that out, though. Now, if he had said that Allah told him to do it….

  11. captainjack says

    I think belief is more like taking a fake steering wheel on a roller coaster, but the brake analogy’s good, too.

  12. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Regardless of how proper it may be, there is a personal advantage to be able to slough off anxiety about the explanation for an extraordinary event but being able to say “oh well, Gahd haz a plan we can’t see”. When the “event” is complete and nothing can change it, it hurts one physically to stay worried about it, “stuck in the past”, so to speak.
    That is the challenge of Atheism, as it provides no alternative, only “get over it”, or “let it go”. I prefer those to the theist “goddidit”.
    but but but uh loss of words. I hope I got something intelligible across…never mind

  13. lanir says

    I understand the argument in the video but I’m not really a fan of it. Don’t really care about it one way or the other until or unless it’s used to justify religion; then it can die in a flaming bush or something. I’ll bring the lighter fluid.

    It did make me think of something new though. I’d mostly written off organized religion as one big proxy abuser standing in for the imaginary abuser that’s supposedly screwing everyone over. Admittedly this did not take into account the less blatantly awful sides of religion – I mostly considered those a somewhat separate thing.

    After this video however, I realize that organize religion loosely fits a model where it wanders drunkely between proxy abuser and abuse support group. No wonder it’s so damaging and confusing…

  14. Ed Seedhouse says

    I don’t think hiding your anxiety behind a veil of belief is any long term solution to anxiety about control. I think it lies in understanding that there is no way to be “in control” at all, and thus to give up. You drop the illusion of control, and then you find that things still run along quite nicely without the need for any “controller” outside the world as it is.

    Life isn’t a drama, and it isn’t a war, it’s more like a dance. And the point of any dance is right here and right now. We aren’t in a race and we aren’t going anywhere. We’re just watching it as it passes, and digging it. And of course we are part of the “passing by” ourselves.

    One does not need to have any rigid belief system to understand this nor am I advocating any sort of mysticism. Well, if you want to continue being anxious and afraid that’s fine too. It’s just a different pattern of dancing.

  15. leerudolph says

    Not only is God not my co-pilot, he’s not even my invisible parallel brake pedal.

    Maybe too long for a normal-sized bumpersticker, but it does have a certain je ne sais quoi.

  16. zibble says

    My problem with these utilitarian arguments for religion is that you can’t really take the alleged increase in happiness from self-indulgent delusions and compare it to the decrease in happiness that comes from the the tangibly negative effects religion has on culture. Even if the comfort of religion really does make up for all the pain and suffering religion causes, you’d have a situation where you’re making everyone else suffer for the comfort only you benefit from.

    So, frankly, is it moral to hold beliefs that cause suffering to others just for the cheap comfort you get from them? How many Inquisitions and Crusades is your fucking comfort worth, exactly?

    You notice you never see people making this argument about beliefs like racism. I imagine white supremacy makes white people feel better about themselves, too. I guess that proves the world would be a better place if we were all more racist!

  17. Arnie says

    PZ wrote:

    Atheists choose not to believe in …

    I think that’s wrong: Honest beliefs and disbeliefs aren’t choices.

  18. jrkrideau says

    This sounds like a weird version Pascal’s Wager. If I believe in God I’ll have a happier and healthier life.

    It sounds reasonable but how do you persuade yourself to believe in nonsense? Well I supppose one can just keep repeating the mantra,”Credo”.