Wild speculation on the origin of religious belief

As mentioned in the introductory post on the Zingularity, like everyone else on earth I was born an atheist, unlike most, I stayed that way. Long before I was old enough to know why super natural beliefs were suspect, I was prone toward skepticism. I always wondered why I was spared, or cursed according to some. Is it possible there’s a genetic component to my view? I don’t know. If there is, it would surely be a complex interplay of genes and culture. But let’s speculate, let’s assume such a genetic basis exists. Purely for the purpose of discussion.

The reason I find this idea so fascinating is because evolution works on genes. One popular definition of evolution is “a change in alleles within a population over time,” where an allele is one of two or more versions of a gene. Most of us alive today descend from the large populations that developed around early city states. It’s a numerical likelihood for one thing, and those populations were the ones that developed resistance to endemic diseases that plagued early settlements and ravaged remaining bands of hunter-gatherers.

If modern history is any guide, many of those early populations held a rich mythology, and they weren’t terribly tolerant of dissenting views. A thought experiment: if, over centuries and thousands of generations, individuals who did not profess a firm belief in local superstition were socially unpopular, up to and including outright massacred, then a propensity to accept the prevailing mythology might confer an adaptive advantage. Iterate countless times, our speculative alleles become fixed, and the resulting population might be composed chiefly of those who believe, or those who excel at pretending they do. We might end up with two main kinds of people, true believers and shameless, one might even infer sociopathic, fakers. Sound familiar?

OK, it’s a giant stretch. An egregious jump with little or no data behind it, and it’s probably difficult to test. Besides, religion probably has all kinds of adaptive value beyond my hasty speculation. Genocide is sure as hell not contigent on religion — humans have been coming up with ugly justifications for it since antiquity and probably long before that. The willingness to suspect unseen, hidden cause and effect, the desire to construct fanciful explanations for observed phenomena, could even help fuel the intellectual engine behind what we call science today.

But it strikes me as an interesting notion nevertheless.


  1. Neil Rickert says

    I’m not sure whether it would require biological evolution, or just human learning. In any case, the adoption of a cultural myth can act as a kind of memory device, passing useful information to future generations. The wrapping of useful information within fanciful stories probably enhances the memorization process.

  2. ursamajor says

    I would not rule out some heritable tendency toward conformity as a factor though I have long assumed other things may be more important. How much of a role did archaic astronomy play in creating the stories of the gods? what of the overactive skills in finding patterns – so good we see things that aren’t there? The tendency to look for agency, for other minds. And what of the contributions of psychosis, synesthesia and drug induced hallucinations?

  3. scenario says

    I’ve read where religious belief may be relate to a child’s drive to believe its caregiver. A two year old will believe anything that a trusted adult tells him or her. This automatic belief fades over the years. But the hypothesis is that some people keep it into their adulthood. They don’t feel right unless they have someone they can believe in completely. God fills this need. Even if the high priest is wrong, he’s just the spokesman, god is still perfect.

    Hunter gathers neither selected for or against this trait. It didn’t really hurt or help the individual. But as you pointed out, early civilizations may have accidentally selected for it.

  4. jesse says

    You know, it just might be that social cohesion is a good thing, and people who selected for things that encourage that were more successful. Hence tribalism, and to some extent religious belief/conformity, though I’d say that it’s likely a byproduct.

    Any group that has a reason to be more cohesive will do much better than one loosely affiliated — think of what happens when another tribe/family group comes over and wants to take your stuff and kill you.

    That’s why family groups are a basic social unit in many preindustrial societies and were such for most people until the 20th century. Even a monarchy is based on family ties, and things like the Scottish kinship/clan system lasted until relatively recently.

    A good example is Judaism. Most of the rules are really designed to show you are different form the “others” in some way, not for any practical immediate benefit.

  5. drlake says

    Modern history isn’t a good guide to ancient societies. Religious exclusivity is a characteristic of monotheism, and throughout most of human history our societies have been polytheists. Polytheistic societies tended to be very tolerant of the gods of other societies, seeing them as either gods they hadn’t met yet or the same gods by a different name.

    It is monotheists who are characterized by the notion that only they know the truth about god, which is why virtually all “religious wars” involve monotheistic faiths. It was only in the last thousand years or so that monotheism has become the dominant type of religion, so unless human evolution happens much quicker than I thought the social advantages of religions conformity couldn’t have had much of an evolutionary impact on our genome yet.

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