ScienceSocietySpiegeloog 406: The Unknown

Why God Exists – The Evolution of Religion

By September 16, 2020No Comments

When it comes to explaining the unknown, the answer has often been to attribute it to an act of God. Belief in supernatural beings seems to be central to pretty much every human society on the planet. What is the psychology behind supernatural beliefs, and how did they evolve into the monotheistic religions?

When it comes to explaining the unknown, the answer has often been to attribute it to an act of God. Belief in supernatural beings seems to be central to pretty much every human society on the planet. What is the psychology behind supernatural beliefs, and how did they evolve into the monotheistic religions?

Image: Anja

Fresh from being told how God created the universe in just seven days, my son returned home from school and asked me, ‘but who created God?’ It’s a good point, did God create man in his own image as written in Genesis? Or was it man that created God in his own image, as comedian Ricky Gervais declared recently during an interview to celebrate his receipt of the Richard Dawkins Award for Atheism (Center for Inquiry, 2020). Gervais, who has a degree in philosophy, highlights that as a rational atheist, you must also be an agnostic.

The term agnosticism was first coined by the prominent evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley in 1889. It describes people who believe there are insufficient scientific grounds for professing to know the ultimate truth regarding creation. Huxley was an advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which provided a very different answer to the mystery of human creation to that offered by the Bible. Darwin was also an agnostic atheist, responding to the question of whether he still believed in the new testament with, “I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, and therefore, not in Jesus Christ as the son of God” (Barry, 2017). As Gervais points out, such overt atheism is still very taboo today, as illustrated by US research that ranked atheists alongside rapists for untrustworthiness (Gervais, Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011). This intense negative stereotyping is a symptom of the overt social pressure that has been exerted by mainstream religions over the last two thousand years. However, research reveals such stereotyping is entirely unfounded, with atheists no more likely to cheat on a maths test than those with religious beliefs (Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011). Interestingly the only group that did cheat more in the maths test were those who believed in a loving, forgiving, God (Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011). An experimental anomaly, perhaps, but it could also point towards an underlying link between accepting intuition-based beliefs and fearing the consequences of your actions.

“Activity in the ACC has been found to correlate with decision making in tasks concerning religiosity and moral decision making.”

If there are underlying neurobiological differences that make it easier for certain people to accept unsubstantiated beliefs then it would make religiosity heritable. Twin studies put the genetic contribution towards religiosity at somewhere between 25 and 45% (Lewis, & Bates, 2013). One brain area where individual differences are associated with religiosity is part of the pain network known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Activity in the ACC has been found to correlate with decision making in tasks concerning religiosity and moral decision making. The ACC’s primary function appears to be error detection. The ACC becomes active whenever your automatic, subconscious, behaviour is about to cause a problem. It is there to raise a red flag about anything from picking up a hot pan to answering that email from the man in Nigeria needing help to claim his inheritance. It is the ACC that activates to warn you of the painful consequences of being caught cheating, or that something you are being told is not logically consistent. As such, the ACC plays a key role in mediating between intuitive, fast thinking and rational deliberate decision making. Studies have shown both that activity in the ACC is inversely correlated to cheating (Speer, Smidts, & Boksem, 2020) and that people who believe in a loving God have less active ACCs (Good et al., 2014). Less activity in the ACC means less concern with being caught cheating and a lower need for logical consistency. Such people are likely to be more inclined to rely on intuitive reasoning, which includes the cognitive biases and heuristics that feed supernatural beliefs. 

Given that supernatural beliefs have permeated virtually every society that has walked the earth, it seems our intuitive biases make religiosity inevitable. We model the world in terms of cause and effect. As well as the physical consequences of a prior event, we also consider how the intentions of others influence events. Historically, it has been far more likely that another animal will kill you than it is a rock falling on your head. For this reason, we seem to have evolved to pay more attention to the intentions of others than to factors in our environment (Mercier, Kramer & Sharrif, 2018). This bias towards the effects of others leads to correspondence bias, where we attribute behaviour to personal rather than situational factors. It also leads to animism, where we give intentions to inanimate objects (the shopping trolley with a mind of its own); as well as anthropomorphism, the projection of human thoughts and emotions onto non-human entities (your guilty dog). Research suggests that the greater the need to understand the cause of an outcome, the more likely we are to attribute it to the intentions of an unknown agent. People find it harder to regulate their irrational thinking when under stress and more accepting of supernatural explanations (Brenner et al., 2015).  Perhaps this is why the appearance of gods in human history coincided with a period when life became significantly more stressful. 

“As Karl Marx observed, from this point the state seems to have had a vested interest in promoting religious conformity as a means of social control.”

Evidence of organised religion began to appear during the agricultural revolution around 10,000 BC (Power, 2010). The Agricultural Revolution is also credited with the introduction of human-made psychological stressors. The dependency on favourable weather for crops to succeed meant that we became reliant on good weather to avoid starvation (Brenner et al., 2015). Early religion probably evolved out of superstitions that gave people a sense of control over unpredictable natural phenomena. Just as people like sitting in a lucky chair when watching their favourite sports team play live, religious rituals such as prayer and meditation have been shown to reduce anxiety (Brenner et al., 2015). Honouring whatever supernatural force you believe is responsible for unpredictable events gives a sense of control and psychological relief. 

 Once the existence of gods became a socially acceptable construct, the will of gods became an explanation for pretty much everything we cannot comprehend, including the origins of life and the universe itself. Polytheism gave rise to gods for everything from lightning (Thor) to stupidity (Koalemos), although ironically there was no God for certainty itself.  The consolidation of polytheism into monotheism occurred in ancient Egypt. The origins of the God of Abrahamic religions appears to be derived from a God of gods, named Amun.  When Tutankhamun changed his name to mean ‘the living embodiment of Amun’, he set about integrating many practices from the existing polytheistic and pagan traditions to produce a religion of religions (Power, 2010). This enabled religion to become more organised and closely tied to the government (Power, 2010). As Karl Marx observed, from this point the state seems to have had a vested interest in promoting religious conformity as a means of social control. Added to this, members of society will have also benefited from religion through participation in rituals that reduce stress and anxiety, as well as enhanced social support. As such, religious practice will have improved physical and emotional well-being, increased life expectancy and produced more opportunities for reproductive success. 

“In an uncertain and unpredictable world, religion can provide relief from psychological stress.”

The general benefits of religion for both physical and mental health are well established, especially for those with high levels of intolerance to uncertainty (Howell et al., 2018). Religion provides answers to questions regarding the origins of life and the universe, and prayer gives people a sense of control. Religion is the product of intuitive thinking, and due to confirmation bias, people only see signs that their prayers are answered. In an uncertain and unpredictable world, religion can provide relief from psychological stress. However, as society provides more security, religion becomes less popular, as illustrated by the negative correlation between religiosity and living standards (Storm, 2017).

This would all seem to support Ricky Gervais’ description of religion as ‘organised superstition’ (Center for Inquiry, 2020) and a theory that gods are the product of man’s intuition. I have always felt that believing in God raises more questions than answers, which eventually lead me to follow one of the few non-theistic religions, Buddhism. The Buddha ascertained that our permanent sense of self is an illusion. It seems plausible that our sense of a divine presence is a similar illusion. Another of the Buddha’s other key teachings was that of Karma, which is the universal law of cause and effect. A universe that is governed by cause and effect leaves no possibility for interference from supernatural beings. However, if the universe is not subject to cause and effect, then supernatural influence remains possible.

“Such an event cannot occur in a deterministic universe and whenever we have seen randomness we have seen gods.”

Like the Buddha, Einstein’s intuition was that we live in a deterministic universe that obeys the law of cause and effect. When he exclaimed that “God does not play dice”, he was referring to God as the [creator of] the laws of physics, and by dice, he was alluding to the probabilistic nature of quantum theory that means it is non-deterministic. Subatomic particles appear to behave randomly, which is a problem because randomness is neither mathematically describable nor possible for us to produce (Bellos, 2010). A random event must have no influence from, and therefore information about, what came before it. Such an event cannot occur in a deterministic universe and whenever we have seen randomness we have seen gods. The appearance of randomness in subatomic physics leaves a somewhat supernatural hole in our understanding of the universe, much to the dismay of Einstein. Whether there is a supernatural being living in this hole is up to you. 

References

– Barry, R. R. (2017, September 20). Charles Darwin letter repudiating the Bible heads to auction. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/15/charles-darwin-letter-auction-religion-bible-creationism 
– Bellos, A. (2010). Alex’s Adventures in Numberland. Zaltbommel, Netherlands: Van Haren Publishing.
– Brenner, S. L., Jones, J. P., Rutanen-Whaley, R. H., Parker, W., Flinn, M. V., & Muehlenbein, M. P. (2015). Evolutionary Mismatch and Chronic Psychological Stress. Journal of Evolutionary Medicine, 3, 1–11. 
– Center for Inquiry. (2020, May 11). Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins in Conversation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0BC3F0kqtw
– Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1189–1206. 
– Good, M., Inzlicht, M., & Larson, M. J. (2014). God will forgive: reflecting on God’s love decreases neurophysiological responses to errors. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(3), 357–363.
– Lewis, G. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). Common genetic influences underpin religiosity, community integration, and existential uncertainty. Journal of Research in Personality, 47(4), 398–405. 
– Mercier, B., Kramer, S. R., & Shariff, A. F. (2018). Belief in God: Why People Believe, and Why They Don’t. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 263–268. 
– Power, M. (2012). Adieu to God. Hoboken, NJ, United States: Wiley.
– Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21(2), 85–96. 
– Speer, S. P. H., Smidts, A., & Boksem, M. A. S. (2020). When honest people cheat, and cheaters are honest: Cognitive control processes override our moral default.
– Storm, I. (2017). Does Economic Insecurity Predict Religiosity? Evidence from the European Social Survey 2002–2014. Sociology of Religion, 78(2), 146–172. 

Fresh from being told how God created the universe in just seven days, my son returned home from school and asked me, ‘but who created God?’ It’s a good point, did God create man in his own image as written in Genesis? Or was it man that created God in his own image, as comedian Ricky Gervais declared recently during an interview to celebrate his receipt of the Richard Dawkins Award for Atheism (Center for Inquiry, 2020). Gervais, who has a degree in philosophy, highlights that as a rational atheist, you must also be an agnostic.

The term agnosticism was first coined by the prominent evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley in 1889. It describes people who believe there are insufficient scientific grounds for professing to know the ultimate truth regarding creation. Huxley was an advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which provided a very different answer to the mystery of human creation to that offered by the Bible. Darwin was also an agnostic atheist, responding to the question of whether he still believed in the new testament with, “I am sorry to have to inform you that I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, and therefore, not in Jesus Christ as the son of God” (Barry, 2017). As Gervais points out, such overt atheism is still very taboo today, as illustrated by US research that ranked atheists alongside rapists for untrustworthiness (Gervais, Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011). This intense negative stereotyping is a symptom of the overt social pressure that has been exerted by mainstream religions over the last two thousand years. However, research reveals such stereotyping is entirely unfounded, with atheists no more likely to cheat on a maths test than those with religious beliefs (Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011). Interestingly the only group that did cheat more in the maths test were those who believed in a loving, forgiving, God (Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011). An experimental anomaly, perhaps, but it could also point towards an underlying link between accepting intuition-based beliefs and fearing the consequences of your actions.

“Activity in the ACC has been found to correlate with decision making in tasks concerning religiosity and moral decision making.”

If there are underlying neurobiological differences that make it easier for certain people to accept unsubstantiated beliefs then it would make religiosity heritable. Twin studies put the genetic contribution towards religiosity at somewhere between 25 and 45% (Lewis, & Bates, 2013). One brain area where individual differences are associated with religiosity is part of the pain network known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Activity in the ACC has been found to correlate with decision making in tasks concerning religiosity and moral decision making. The ACC’s primary function appears to be error detection. The ACC becomes active whenever your automatic, subconscious, behaviour is about to cause a problem. It is there to raise a red flag about anything from picking up a hot pan to answering that email from the man in Nigeria needing help to claim his inheritance. It is the ACC that activates to warn you of the painful consequences of being caught cheating, or that something you are being told is not logically consistent. As such, the ACC plays a key role in mediating between intuitive, fast thinking and rational deliberate decision making. Studies have shown both that activity in the ACC is inversely correlated to cheating (Speer, Smidts, & Boksem, 2020) and that people who believe in a loving God have less active ACCs (Good et al., 2014). Less activity in the ACC means less concern with being caught cheating and a lower need for logical consistency. Such people are likely to be more inclined to rely on intuitive reasoning, which includes the cognitive biases and heuristics that feed supernatural beliefs. 

Given that supernatural beliefs have permeated virtually every society that has walked the earth, it seems our intuitive biases make religiosity inevitable. We model the world in terms of cause and effect. As well as the physical consequences of a prior event, we also consider how the intentions of others influence events. Historically, it has been far more likely that another animal will kill you than it is a rock falling on your head. For this reason, we seem to have evolved to pay more attention to the intentions of others than to factors in our environment (Mercier, Kramer & Sharrif, 2018). This bias towards the effects of others leads to correspondence bias, where we attribute behaviour to personal rather than situational factors. It also leads to animism, where we give intentions to inanimate objects (the shopping trolley with a mind of its own); as well as anthropomorphism, the projection of human thoughts and emotions onto non-human entities (your guilty dog). Research suggests that the greater the need to understand the cause of an outcome, the more likely we are to attribute it to the intentions of an unknown agent. People find it harder to regulate their irrational thinking when under stress and more accepting of supernatural explanations (Brenner et al., 2015).  Perhaps this is why the appearance of gods in human history coincided with a period when life became significantly more stressful. 

“As Karl Marx observed, from this point the state seems to have had a vested interest in promoting religious conformity as a means of social control.”

Evidence of organised religion began to appear during the agricultural revolution around 10,000 BC (Power, 2010). The Agricultural Revolution is also credited with the introduction of human-made psychological stressors. The dependency on favourable weather for crops to succeed meant that we became reliant on good weather to avoid starvation (Brenner et al., 2015). Early religion probably evolved out of superstitions that gave people a sense of control over unpredictable natural phenomena. Just as people like sitting in a lucky chair when watching their favourite sports team play live, religious rituals such as prayer and meditation have been shown to reduce anxiety (Brenner et al., 2015). Honouring whatever supernatural force you believe is responsible for unpredictable events gives a sense of control and psychological relief. 

 Once the existence of gods became a socially acceptable construct, the will of gods became an explanation for pretty much everything we cannot comprehend, including the origins of life and the universe itself. Polytheism gave rise to gods for everything from lightning (Thor) to stupidity (Koalemos), although ironically there was no God for certainty itself.  The consolidation of polytheism into monotheism occurred in ancient Egypt. The origins of the God of Abrahamic religions appears to be derived from a God of gods, named Amun.  When Tutankhamun changed his name to mean ‘the living embodiment of Amun’, he set about integrating many practices from the existing polytheistic and pagan traditions to produce a religion of religions (Power, 2010). This enabled religion to become more organised and closely tied to the government (Power, 2010). As Karl Marx observed, from this point the state seems to have had a vested interest in promoting religious conformity as a means of social control. Added to this, members of society will have also benefited from religion through participation in rituals that reduce stress and anxiety, as well as enhanced social support. As such, religious practice will have improved physical and emotional well-being, increased life expectancy and produced more opportunities for reproductive success. 

“In an uncertain and unpredictable world, religion can provide relief from psychological stress.”

The general benefits of religion for both physical and mental health are well established, especially for those with high levels of intolerance to uncertainty (Howell et al., 2018). Religion provides answers to questions regarding the origins of life and the universe, and prayer gives people a sense of control. Religion is the product of intuitive thinking, and due to confirmation bias, people only see signs that their prayers are answered. In an uncertain and unpredictable world, religion can provide relief from psychological stress. However, as society provides more security, religion becomes less popular, as illustrated by the negative correlation between religiosity and living standards (Storm, 2017).

This would all seem to support Ricky Gervais’ description of religion as ‘organised superstition’ (Center for Inquiry, 2020) and a theory that gods are the product of man’s intuition. I have always felt that believing in God raises more questions than answers, which eventually lead me to follow one of the few non-theistic religions, Buddhism. The Buddha ascertained that our permanent sense of self is an illusion. It seems plausible that our sense of a divine presence is a similar illusion. Another of the Buddha’s other key teachings was that of Karma, which is the universal law of cause and effect. A universe that is governed by cause and effect leaves no possibility for interference from supernatural beings. However, if the universe is not subject to cause and effect, then supernatural influence remains possible.

“Such an event cannot occur in a deterministic universe and whenever we have seen randomness we have seen gods.”

Like the Buddha, Einstein’s intuition was that we live in a deterministic universe that obeys the law of cause and effect. When he exclaimed that “God does not play dice”, he was referring to God as the [creator of] the laws of physics, and by dice, he was alluding to the probabilistic nature of quantum theory that means it is non-deterministic. Subatomic particles appear to behave randomly, which is a problem because randomness is neither mathematically describable nor possible for us to produce (Bellos, 2010). A random event must have no influence from, and therefore information about, what came before it. Such an event cannot occur in a deterministic universe and whenever we have seen randomness we have seen gods. The appearance of randomness in subatomic physics leaves a somewhat supernatural hole in our understanding of the universe, much to the dismay of Einstein. Whether there is a supernatural being living in this hole is up to you. 

References

– Barry, R. R. (2017, September 20). Charles Darwin letter repudiating the Bible heads to auction. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/15/charles-darwin-letter-auction-religion-bible-creationism 
– Bellos, A. (2010). Alex’s Adventures in Numberland. Zaltbommel, Netherlands: Van Haren Publishing.
– Brenner, S. L., Jones, J. P., Rutanen-Whaley, R. H., Parker, W., Flinn, M. V., & Muehlenbein, M. P. (2015). Evolutionary Mismatch and Chronic Psychological Stress. Journal of Evolutionary Medicine, 3, 1–11. 
– Center for Inquiry. (2020, May 11). Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins in Conversation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0BC3F0kqtw
– Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1189–1206. 
– Good, M., Inzlicht, M., & Larson, M. J. (2014). God will forgive: reflecting on God’s love decreases neurophysiological responses to errors. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(3), 357–363.
– Lewis, G. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). Common genetic influences underpin religiosity, community integration, and existential uncertainty. Journal of Research in Personality, 47(4), 398–405. 
– Mercier, B., Kramer, S. R., & Shariff, A. F. (2018). Belief in God: Why People Believe, and Why They Don’t. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 263–268. 
– Power, M. (2012). Adieu to God. Hoboken, NJ, United States: Wiley.
– Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21(2), 85–96. 
– Speer, S. P. H., Smidts, A., & Boksem, M. A. S. (2020). When honest people cheat, and cheaters are honest: Cognitive control processes override our moral default.
– Storm, I. (2017). Does Economic Insecurity Predict Religiosity? Evidence from the European Social Survey 2002–2014. Sociology of Religion, 78(2), 146–172. 
Paul Cook

Author Paul Cook

More posts by Paul Cook