the god gene, redux

February 10, 2009

The overwhelming majority of humans believe in a higher power. Whether it’s a single god or a pantheon of deities and ancestral spirits, religion plays a key role in the lives of people across the world. The big question is whether their faith is something that’s hardwired into the human brain or something that was created artificially by a class of priests and rulers who wanted people to follow their lead. New Scientist’s cover story about the nature of faith argues that humans are born with belief and that religion in effect, evolved.


Yes, the idea does make sense, but the evidence that’s provided for it is not very convincing. When asking children about abstract matters which try to tease out whether there’s a belief in some higher power, the quoted researchers really don’t acknowledge that by the time they’re asking kids in their study groups about the purpose of birds or trees or water, these children were probably exposed to some sort of religious ideology. Being born to parents who are almost certain to be theists and ascribe to an organized religion, it’s almost a certainty that religious ideas were an answer to some esoteric questions and they’re simply repeating their understanding of it when asked about why something exists. Take this cited survey for example:

When Deborah Kelemen of the University of Arizona in Tucson asked 7 and 8-year-old children questions about inanimate objects and animals, she found that most believed they were created for a specific purpose. Pointy rocks are there for animals to scratch themselves on. Birds exist “to make nice music”, while rivers exist so boats have something to float on.

By the time kids are 7 and 8, they’ve already had conversations with their parents about why a bird sings or why there’s so much water on Earth and their parents would’ve likely quoted their personal beliefs which were handed down from their parents, saying that everything exists or happens for a purpose. Armed with this logical tool, the children will then readily attribute any possible reason for the existence of something when prompted. For Kelemen to say that this is an innate ability is to step around a very real consideration of bias in the study’s results. If she would run a control experiment with children of ardent atheists who didn’t interact with many or any children of theists, her results would be much more compelling.

So if kids are such poor models and adults have already been exposed to an organized religion with all its cannons, how can we tell if human brains are really wired for religious belief? We can look at prehistory and consider the evolution of our ancestors’ beliefs from animism to pagan pantheons we know from the classical world. Historical evidence tells us that there’s some sort of component in our minds searching for design and purpose in everything as a byproduct of our logic. This fact is also upheld by the New Scientist article. We can say that faith began as an extension of people trying to figure out the world around them and the elaborate trappings of organized religion came much later, connecting primeval beliefs to the promotion of the class structures and legal considerations of the day while using deities as a bludgeon.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that New Scientist tried to be provocative with covers and cover articles. While in a previous case, its editors tried to raise a storm in a teacup over a long and very well known revision to the evolutionary theory (tree of live vs. a network of life), their venture into the origins of religion is rather superficial and the arguments behind it aren’t scientifically convincing, raising more questions about how the studies were done and whether the experimenters considered an important catch or not.

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  • I think New Scientist is trying to reach out to the more “esoteric” crowd with some of their cover articles in order to draw in a broader audience.

    Hey, it can’t hurt. Especially in this economy.

    But if you’re in the “truth in advertising” bunch, New Scientist has been stretching credulity to the limit lately, yes.

    BTW, I happen to think that certain people are”hardwired” for religion. I seen it myself, watching my two daughters grow up. Neither my wife or I espouse any religion, but my oldest daughter sees things very black and white and is very religious. My youngest daughter is religious to a point, not as much as her sister. But she does believe in God.

    Could they have been influenced by outside sources? Sure.

    But in the environment of school and home, it wasn’t advocated very much. If they were influenced, it was by sources outside of both.

  • Greg Fish

    Like I wrote in the original post, it really does seem that we have some sort of predisposition to believe in a higher power because our brain is trying to make sense of everything we see around us and deities offer a possible solution when we don’t know for sure. But when it comes to organized religion, it becomes a question of indoctrination and exposure. What the researchers in the article were really testing is spirituality rather than religion.

  • amocz

    I don’t think it is necessary to posit a “hardwired” (i.e., genetic) predisposition to religion, in order to explain why “the overwhelming majority of humans believe in a higher power”, when garden-variety anthropology provides a sufficient explanation, in the concept of neoteny of human infancy. In order to allow for the passage of the big-headed human infant down the birth canal, all homo sapiens births are “premature” births, in that the newborn infant is unequipped to survive, and must rely on a mother and father for nurturance and protection, for a very extended period (up to, say, 10 years) after birth. The maturing human child finds it easy to project and displace this ineulctable reliance on his/her own mother and father to a faith in and reliance on an All-Mother or a Heavenly Father (depending on what the norm is in its culture) as it reaches adulthood and faces the universe, in all of its calamitous contingency, unprotected. Religion is thus an attempt to escape from scary Reality by hiding behind Mother Mary’s skirts, so to speak. The universality of this impulse is derived, not from some mystical or genetic hard-wiring, but from the simple universality of babyhood in the life-experience of each and every person.

    Religion thus represents the apotheosis of infancy in man’s relationship to the Universe. Why this should be regarded as something good, or something that needs to be preserved at all costs, and fostered unto the next generation(s), is a much more relevant question than “Where does it come from?”

  • Greg Fish

    Actually, an infant being totally dependent on his or her mother for survival is not just a human trait but a mammalian one. Mammals have fewer spawn and take care of them for a long period of time to increase their chances of survival. Human births aren’t intentionally premature and human infants don’t have that big of a head, relatively speaking of course.

  • This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/11/2009, at The Unreligious Right