The origin of religion-5: The struggle between the primal and thinking brains

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks says:

There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others: roughly half of all 4-year-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As [University of Oxford anthropologist Justin] Barrett points out, this is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. “Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability,” he says.

Useful as it is, common-sense dualism also appears to prime the brain for supernatural concepts such as life after death.

[Queens University, Belfast’s Jesse] Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods’ minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people. (my italics)

As Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson write in their article The Evolution of Religion:

A significant adaptation that guided the course of human evolution has been our capacity to view the world through the eyes of another — known as ‘theory of mind’. This ability, which allows us to attribute mental states such as beliefs and desires to others, and intentions that differ from our own, is so complex, it does not fully develop in children until around the age of four. While some scientists argue that our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, possess some abilities to perceive the intentions of others — it is humans who have honed this ability to a fine art.

What does this have to do with religion? As our ancestors developed a sensitivity to the thoughts of others as an aid to second-guessing their outward and visible behavior, they would have started to see an intelligent creative force wherever they looked. An individual watching another chip away at a flint would attribute to him a purpose, similar to his own when he created a tool. So too would he assume that lightning, rain, the sun, the stars, the moon must have had some sort of purposeful creative force behind them.

Here lie the very deepest roots of our religious beliefs.

The reason religion is so successful is that it taps into our primal-brains in much the same way that a Big Mac does — only more so. Religion gained its foothold by hijacking the need to give purpose at a time when humans had only their imagination — as opposed to the evidence and reason that we have today — to fathom their world. Spirits and demons were the explanation for illnesses that we now know are caused by bacterial diseases and genetic disorders. The whims of the gods were why earthquakes, volcanos, floods and droughts occurred. Our ancestors were driven to sacrifice everything from goats to one another to satisfy those gods.

To understand this propensity to believe in the supernatural, Cornwell and Thomson suggest that we have to look deep into our evolutionary history, in particular the fact that our powerful primal brain, which deals with our basic instincts of survival and reproduction developed earlier in evolutionary history than the frontal cortex that controls our reasoning capacity. This staggered development is mimicked even in the growth of a human brain now.

The brain configuration of a pre-adolescent child is far different from the one she will possess as an adult. It takes about 12 years or so for the frontal lobes to develop fully after reaching puberty. Our frontal lobes are key to social behavior, abstract thinking, planning and solving complex problems.

Let’s call our frontal lobes the ‘smart-self’ and the more archaic part of our brain the ‘primal-self’. Our smart-selves know that over-eating and under-exercising is bad for us, leading to heart disease, diabetes, and a shorter life-span. But our primal-selves are still primed for the risk of starvation, thus it simply cannot understand why the smart-self would deny you a nice Big Mac with a large order of fries and a chocolate shake… The smart-brain is just not designed to prevent the primal brain from taking over because the abundance of food most of us are surrounded by is a fairly new development in human history. Perhaps given another few thousand years, those individuals with the will-power to resist all that tasty fat, protein, sugar and salt will out-reproduce those that don’t.

The point is, that there is an instant conflict between what we know is good for us and what we feel we want — and we often fall victim to our more primal needs even when we know they are harmful.

Religion arises from the drives of the primal brain that is instinctual while science and reason is the product of the frontal cortex, the later brain, that controls thinking and reasoning. The catch is that the primal brain, the source of what we call instinct, tends to drive our behavior more than the frontal cortex. This is why children find it easy to accept uncritically the religious beliefs that their parents foist on them and why it takes effort to reject such beliefs even when they grow into adulthood. As Cornwell and Thomson say:

Much of the world’s population still believe in a god forged out of the fears of a desert people and, worse, fully believe not only that their view of god and his wishes are right, but that those who disagree must be converted or face eternal torment (sometimes even offering some help to get there). The primal fears instilled by religious fever act as impenetrable walls to reason. According to a recent Gallup poll, 66% of the US population agrees strongly with the statement ‘God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years’. Given the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, such obstinate belief should frighten any reasonable thinking person. It also is testimony to the wealthy and powerful religious organizations who spend billions of dollars on public relations, creating controversies where none exist and spewing lies about the evidence for evolution. But none of this would be possible without our brains being ready and available to take in the message they are delivering. It is easy enough for atheists and humanists to chuckle at the credulity of believers, but we do so at our own peril. (my italics)

Religion needs to be taken seriously. Understanding its roots, how it can seize command of our psychology and take control of our culture, may well be one of the most important endeavors we pursue. For even with all our grand technology, modern medical advances, and volumes of knowledge, if we do not stop our archaic past from overriding our modern reason we are surely doomed.

Current religious beliefs are a kind of parasitic system that latches onto the primal brain’s needs. As I will discuss in the next post, the primal brain dominates during early childhood, making children more susceptible to magical thinking. By the time more mature reasoning powers start to develop, the brain is already encumbered with religious thinking that it has to fight against.

POST SCRIPT: BP’s oil killing the gulf

This aerial video shows the scale of the damage caused by the BP oil spill and whales and dolphins and sharks trying to find clean water.

There are also still photos of animals and birds bathed in oil and they are heartbreaking.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    By the time more mature reasoning powers start to develop, the brain is already encumbered with religious thinking that it has to fight against.

    And this is why Dawkins’s oft-derided description of childhood religious indoctrination as child abuse is right on the money. Such indoctrination constitutes deliberate crippling of the child’s mental development, causing a diminution of adult capacity for rational, critical thought that all too often proves irremediable, and that contributes greatly to the social problems of religiose societies like the US.

  2. peter lafond says

    I recently watched an episode of ” The Deadilist Catch,” and can recall an example of ” higher power,” that can be misleading.

    In the episode the fleet is in the middle of a major sea storm ( this is the Bering Sea so the storms are tremendous ) and one of the deck hands makes a comment about ” proof of a higher power. The view of the storm is awe inspiring to say the least, and should make one hesitant to ply these seas. Anyway the deck hand remarked something along lines of ” if you need proof of a higher power, look..” as he points to 40 foot seas. I think he meant to say ” if you need proof that we humans need to knock it off and be a bit more humble take a look at that sea- it has no conscience, no soul, and if you fail to respect the dangers inherent in it then you will die and disappear in this sea.”
    In other words his mistake was imbibing the sea with a purpose, giving it telos, giving it a conscience. then again i maybe out of my mind

  3. says

    As for ancestors I think it is ignorance that forced them to believe on supernatural things around them and be easily deceived from the truth. And this being the case was taken advantage of those who have first understood science and use it to impose religion.
    Since today’s scenario is different, resolve on the conflict between what we know is good and what we feel we want lies on the capability of each individual to validate reasoning based on his personality.

  4. says

    As an undergraduate philosophy student I would have loved to explore these topics, rather than having professors regurgitate what hey had been fed when they were students. As for my two cents, the analysis is compelling and I’ve often wondered whether, both collectively and individually, if humans give their gods more power and significance, when they are at their weakest. I vaguely remember recounted instances of peaceful gods becoming warlike as the believers were either enslaved or at their weakest.

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