God the Father religion

Why do people believe in flying saucers? Or conspiracy theories? Or in gods? These thoughts occupied me recently when the print and broadcast media endlessly analyzed the evangelical vote and its effect on the Republican primaries. Is it ignorance of science? If so, how do you explain the fact that some eminent scientists, like Francis Collins, the previous director of the Human Genome Project and current director of NIH, are quite religious? Could it be that the natural order is a belief in supra-natural beings and that rationality is actually a late addition to our culture, a thin veneer layered over deep-seated impulses?

Is it in our genes?

Is there a God gene? Some claims to this effect have surfaced in the last few years. The evidence for such a gene is flimsy to non-existent, but what about the evidence against this claim? Well, the problem is that it is hard to prove the absence of something.

Well, the problem is that it is hard to prove the absence of something. But consider: there are millions of atheists in the world; do they all suffer from a gene deletion or some other mutation? The anthropological record shows that the rise of religions coincided with the advent of agriculture, namely about 10,000 years ago. This is quite recent in terms of human existence. What did earlier cultures believe in? They were animists, believing that their physical and spiritual beings are one with their environments, (like soil, sky, rocks, rivers, animals, plants) – these elements were also believed to be endowed with a spiritual being. The currently accepted definition of animism was developed in the 19th century by Sir Edward Tylor, who created it as “one of anthropology’s earliest concepts, if not the first.”

 

Is it a brain trick?

Is god-belief a brain trick? Not quite, but we are getting warmer. Michael Shermer is a psychology professor and the author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiratories – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Now, Shermer is not just your run-of-the-mill academic looking at the question of faith from 30,000 feet high. He was once an evangelical Christian but he lost his faith as a result of his college studies of psychology and cognitive science. His main point is that we form our beliefs first and then look for support for them afterward.

Why do we form those beliefs in the first place? Because our brain is wired, but not for the existence of spirits and gods, but for pattern-seeking and for agency (or intent) – attributing propensities, meaning that there is a pattern to everything, including random events, and that there is a reason and a will behind everything.

 

Is it irrational?

Moses on Mt. Sinai
Is the golden glow supposed to be God?

It depends. In the early days of our species, it was adaptive. If you didn’t recognize a silhouette of a leopard moving through the bush as a pattern of a stalking predator that has the intention and power to make you his lunch, then you most certainly would end up being eaten.

But this belief-machinery is neutral; when circumstances changed and people became inextricably dependent on rain, wind, thunder, and sunshine due to agriculture – our brain resorted to its hard-wired mechanisms: pattern and agency-seeking. Given the state of knowledge at that time, the “obvious” answer would have been: there must be a supernatural force that controls those patterns of nature.

So why can’t science change this archaic way of looking at nature? Here is another psychological trait we all share: confirmation bias. It is the phenomenon, amply demonstrated and confirmed, that we tend to accept evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignore that which refutes them. Hence the slow progress science is making in this respect. But progress nevertheless is being made.

But progress nevertheless is being made. Consider – people used to believe in witches in the middle ages. I dare say, most people don’t believe in them today (belief in Satan and exorcism notwithstanding). The notion that the earth circles the sun and not vice versa, qualified for the Inquisition’s ultimatum to Galileo: recant this heresy, or burn at the stake. And who believes today the earth was flat? And how many, outside the Bible Belt, truly believe that the earth is 5400 years old?

The notion that a supernatural deity is a “god of the gaps,” meaning that it occupies only gaps in our knowledge, predicts that as our knowledge of our physical world increases, the need for a metaphysical explanation will diminish. It remains to be seen if that prediction will come true. Stay tuned.


Reviewed and updated 5/5/17.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I agree more work would be needed before making any strong claims about people being wired for religion. Just saying that if there’s a survival value to being religious, the trait will be selected for. As to why our primate cousins are (probably) not religious; they don’t have the language to make religion ‘work’! In this light, it sure would be interesting to research temporal epilepsy in other primates..

  2. I think the question isn’t so much whether or not there is a “God-gene”, but instead whether there is a faith gene–in which case atheists have that same gene, expressed in certainties and absolutes. Atheists are fundamentalist true believers too. Pattern-seeking or agency-seeking faith behavior will exist forever, because there will forever be gaps in understanding of the natural world. As the gaps in our knowledge close or become smaller in certain areas, new ones simultaneously open with new mysteries to explore. This may be why many scientists, in their awe of nature, didn’t consider their work and their faith to be mutually exclusive.

    • The assertion that there is a “faith gene” is just that, an assertion. I personally doubt that such a gene will ever be found. Why? because we share genes with animals lower on the phylogenetic tree, and it would require blind faith to believe that chimps (or even Drosophila) have a gene coding for a faith protein. As far as the statement that atheists are akin to fundamentalist fanatics, where is the evidence for it? In fact, sociological studies show that atheists tend to be liberal in their views and open-minded
      in their attitude, whereas religious people tend to be more conservative, more deferrential to authority, and less open to opposing views. Of course, these are averages; not all atheists are open-minded and not all religious people are intolerant. But the fact that there are many atheists is an indication that thre is no such thing a “god gene” of a “faith center” in the brain, unless we assume that they carry a “faithless” mutation.

      • Perhaps it’s a question of language. To be an atheist is to assert an absence of God with the same absolute certainty as someone asserting the existence of God; it’s an assertion equally based on faith. Agnostics, on the other hand, are liberal and open-minded in their views, recognizing what they don’t know.

      • Oops part of my comment got cut off: your argument is that closing gaps in knowledge makes process-seeking or agency-seeking (faith in a deity, for example) increasingly unnecessary. My point is that knowledge gaps will never close, they’ll just become different gaps because each new discovery raises new questions. If we’re on some kind of developmental trajectory where all the questions ultimately get answered, that would mean not only the end of process-seeking or agency-seeking faith behavior but also the end of scientific inquiry.

  3. There’s the link between temporal epilepsy and hyper-religiosity, suggesting the human brain is wired for religion:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporal_lobe_epilepsy#Social_and_artistic_influence
    Think of the survival value of being religious: Strong group cohesion through shared beliefs, and a convenient way of dealing with authority (I’m not telling you to do X, [S]He is telling you to!). In this view, sharing a religion matters, but the specifics of a religious belief are inconsequential.

    • Interesting comment regarding temporal lobe seizures as evidence for the existence of a “god circuit” in the brain. I think this is quite a logical jump, Remeber the information bias we are all prone to. What happens in epilepsy is a chaotic activation of various circuits that normally are not connected. This is a pathological situation which tells us little or nothing about circuits dedicated to religion per se. I think the situation in the brain during epilepsy is more akin to what happens during oxygen deprivation. Neuronal activity is a voracious consumer of energy, and the frenzied and uncontrolled activity of epilepsy is bound to create this condition. People who experience oxygen deprivation report all kinds of visual experiences, such as halo, a long tunnel with light at the end, out-of-body sensation, etc. Some people call it ” a religious experience”. I don’t see much religiosity here, only a physiological derangement.
      As to the evolutionary advantage of religion, you may have a point. Groups that are cooperating have an unquestioned selective advantage. Just look at social insects vs. solitary insects. Or the elaborate behaviors whose purpose is to enhance social cohesion in troops of primates, Indeed, they (and we) have centers that control sociability, cooperation, and empathy. But from that to ascribing brain circuits dedicated to religion is just as implausible in us as it is in our cousins the primates. At best, religion is a relatively late cultural addition to our repertoire which is possibly consistent with advantages of group cohesion, but not required. To wit, the Israeli Kibbuz is an economic and cultural cohesive group, but also thoroughly secular.

      On , thedoct3@box446.bluehost.com wrote:
      > A new comment on the post “In God we Trust: Why?” is waiting for your approval
      >
      >
      > http://thedoctorweighsin.com/in-god-we-trust-why/
      >
      >
      >
      >
      >
      > Author : Jan-Maarten (IP: 131.174.244.23 , nat-023.azn.nl)
      >
      >
      > E-mail : j.luursema@chir.umcn.nl
      >
      >
      > URL :
      >
      >
      > Whois : http://whois.arin.net/rest/ip/131.174.244.23
      >
      >
      > Comment:
      >
      >
      > There’s the link between temporal epilepsy and hyper-religiosity, suggesting the human brain is wired for religion:
      >
      >
      > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporal_lobe_epilepsy#Social_and_artistic_influence
      >
      >
      > Think of the survival value of being religious: Strong group cohesion through shared beliefs, and a convenient way of dealing with authority (I’m not telling you to do X, [S]He is telling you to!). In this view, sharing a religion matters, but the specifics of a religious belief are inconsequential.
      >
      >
      >
      >
      >
      > Approve it: http://thedoctorweighsin.com/wp-admin/comment.php?action=approve&c=7186
      >
      >
      > Trash it: http://thedoctorweighsin.com/wp-admin/comment.php?action=trash&c=7186
      >
      >
      > Spam it: http://thedoctorweighsin.com/wp-admin/comment.php?>
      >
      >>>
      >
      >
      >
      >

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.