How Your Brain Creates God… or Maybe Not

How Your Brain Creates God… or Maybe Not February 12, 2009

New Scientist magazine has an interesting article titled “Born believers: How your brain creates God.” I encourage you to go read it – it’s not particularly long. Here are some excerpts with my commentary:

It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human.

That’s pretty obvious. But why are humans innately religious? Why do we believe in God or Goddess or gods and goddesses?

One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation … shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare

I have a hard time with this. The bonds of family and the instinct to pass your genes down to the next generation are enough to forge those tightly knit groups, something we also see in other species who don’t have our brain capacity.

An alternative … is that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works.

The mind has … 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,” 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.

This is obviously true. But is it enough to explain the origin and persistence of religion? Only if there aren’t any gods or spirits, something that can’t be proved one way or the other.

children tend to spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention: “They rely on their everyday experience of the physical world and construct the concept of god on the basis of this experience.” Because of this, when children hear the claims of religion they seem to make perfect sense.

Now we come to the key point – experience. All religions began with someone’s religious experience. And as I discussed in the previous entry on the origins of language, that religious experience is frequently incapable of being described with words. Experience leads to beliefs about the experience, and those beliefs lead to practices designed to recreate the experience, put it into practice or both.

Other studies have looked at brain functions during religious activities – researchers have done MRIs of Buddhist monks in meditation and Catholic nuns in prayer. As with the studies in this article, they show that there are specific areas of the brain that are stimulated during religious activities.

Perhaps these areas of the brain evolved in response to the stimulus of religious experience. Perhaps they are still very active (even among non-believers) because there’s something in us that whispers there’s more to life than the apparent world. Perhaps the world’s many varied religions are just imperfect attempts to articulate something that can’t be properly described with words.

Perhaps I need to turn the computer off and go watch the stars come out.

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  • Or you could leave your computer on and pay attention to what happens when our star goes out as it were. . . 😉

    Why do we believe in God or Goddess or gods and goddesses?

    Perhaps because our minds were, and apparently still are, finely tuned to believe in God by God. . .

  • Robin, that’s entirely possible.

    Although we can learn how our brains perceive God/dess and we can speculate about how those facilities came to be, I suspect that this is one of those questions whose ultimate answer lies beyond our ability to understand.