The Biological Roots of Religion; Is Faith in Our Genes?

Article excerpt


Why are atheists so different from the overwhelming majority of humankind? Why don't they need to believe in a god of any traditional sort - and most of them not even in a primary force who merely lit the fuse of the Big Bang and then let everything take its own course?

Are they simply more intelligent than almost everybody else? I'm willing to believe they're smarter and more knowledgeable about reality than club-wielding hunter-gatherers, or the members of the Christian Coalition. But can I suppose they're more intelligent than such profoundly religious believers as Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Newton, William James, or even Einstein? Or, for that matter, the majority of today's American scientists, who, according to surveys, profess some kind of religious belief?(1)

But the obverse of my puzzlement is far more mystifying: Why have nearly all human beings in every known culture believed in God or gods and accepted the customs, dogmas, and institutional apparatus of an immense array of different religions?


What makes this so strange is that we human beings have survived, multiplied, and come to dominate the earth by virtue of our innate tendency to solve problems by taking note of cause-and-effect relationships and making use of them - by observing and using empirical data ranging from the superior flight of an arrow when leathered to the extraordinary expansion of our cognitive powers achieved with computers.

Yet while this indicates that the human mind is basically pragmatic, nearly every human being during recorded history (and to judge from archeological evidence much of prehistory) has held religious beliefs based on no empirical evidence whatever. To be sure, our ancestors of the Homeric and Pentateuchal era often thought they heard the gods talking to them in their minds and sometimes thought they saw them, and even today some mentally ill people, and others who are technically sane but exceedingly pietistic, think they hear God speaking to them or see some fleeting divine apparition. But the great majority of believers neither hear nor see such things. While many sometimes experience a surge of feeling in touch with the divine, the world's believers see not their gods but idols, symbols, and documents representing or telling about their gods.

What other evidence might there be? Many kinds, all highly dubious; real-world events interpreted as God's handiwork can almost always be explained in commonsense or scientific terms. Moreover, the occurrences of miraculous events are almost never weighed against the occurrences of comparable nonevents. We often read in the news of some adorable child dying of inoperable cancer who was marvelously cured when the whole town prayed - but never of the cases in which equally fervent praying did not save the lives of equally adorable children. Nobody remembers them, because human beings have a tendency toward "confirmation bias," as psychologists call it - we remember events that confirm our beliefs but forget those that do not, which is probably why 69% of adults in a recent poll said they believe in miracles.(2)

Although realistic knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships has been accumulating over the three centuries of the era of science, it has not eliminated religion. Some believers modify their beliefs to accommodate that evidence, while others reinterpret it most extraordinarily (the fundamentalists say that the geological and fossil traces of earth's history and of evolution were made by God and planted in the ground during the six days of Creation).

Religion has survived the vast expansion of scientific knowledge by adaptation; except for fundamentalism, it has minimized explaining in supernatural terms whatever can be better explained in natural ones and focused instead on phenomena that cannot be tested or disproved, such as God's mercy, the existence of soul, and the afterlife. …