The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion

By Pinker, Steven | The Humanist, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion


Pinker, Steven, The Humanist


WHEN I FIRST BEGAN to write about the biology of the human mind, I found myself the target of attacks from many directions. The academic left went after me because I seemed to be dewing the perfectibility of humankind and the biological indistinguishability of all people. The religious right sent flaming arrows in my direction because I argued for evolution and denied the existence of an immaterial soul.

Now, you can't write honestly about human beings if you just want to be popular. And I certainly don't believe that a biological understanding of human nature is inconsistent with a commitment to moral principles and a hope that we can improve our condition--on the contrary, I think a better understanding of what makes us tick puts these principles on a firmer foundation. But it did feel a bit lonely to be vilified from so many directions. Then a few years ago I made a welcome discovery. I wasn't alone--I was a Humanist! It was therefore a tremendous honor and especially touching to be named 2006 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

One of the questions I am asked most often is one I suspect stumps many Humanists: why is religious belief still so widespread? Do we have a "God gene" or a "God module"? I'm referring to claims like those made in a Time magazine cover story last year called "The God Gene" in which the question was asked, "Does our DNA compel us to seek a higher power? Believe it or not, some scientists say yes" A number of years earlier, claims were made that the human brain is equipped with a "God module" a subsystem of the brain shaped by evolution to cause us to have a religious belief ("Brain's God Module May Affect Religious Intensity," ran the headline of the Los Angeles Times).

There certainly is a phenomenon that needs to be explained, namely religious belief. According to surveys by ethnographers, religion is a human universal. In all human cultures, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that ritual can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by a variety of invisible person-like entities: spirits, ghosts, saints, demons, cherubim or Jesus, devils and gods.

All cultures, you might ask? Yes, all cultures. I give you an example of a culture we're well familiar with, that of the contemporary United States. The last time I checked the figures, 25 percent of Americans believe in witches, 50 percent in ghosts, 50 percent in the devil, 50 percent believe that the Book of Genesis is literally true, 69 percent believe in angels, 87 percent believe Jesus was raised from the dead, and 96 percent believe in a god or a universal spirit. Humanists have their work cut out for them!

So what's going on? In many regards, the human mind appears to be well engineered. It's not literally well engineered, of course, but it has the signs or appearance of engineering in the biologist's sense. That is, we can see, think, move, talk, understand, and attain goals better than any robot or computer. You can't go to Circuit City and buy Rosie the Maid from The Jetsons and expect to it to put away the dishes or run simple errands. These feats are too difficult for human-made creations, though they're things that a five-year-old child could do effortlessly. The explanation for signs of engineering in the natural world is Charles Darwin's theory of national selection, the only theory we've come up with so far that can explain the illusion of design in causal terms.

The question is, how can a powerful taste for apparently irrational beliefs evolve? H.L. Mencken said that "the most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It's the chief occupation of mankind." This poses an enigma to the psychologist.

But perhaps religious belief could be an adaptation. Many of our faculties are adaptations to enduring properties of the real world. We have depth perception because the world really is three dimensional. …

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