Why do humans believe in religion?

Humans have an built-in tendency to see “agents” behind phenomena. This is hard-wired evolutionarily into our brains, as a survival mechanism: our cavemen ancestors were able to deal with a predatory beast more effectively by imputing agency to it, assuming it had a “plan”, namely to try and eat them.

It is this same adaptation that then causes man to imagine supernatural agents behind the weather, victories over neighboring tribes, winning the lottery, or human life and death.

Furthermore, the human brain has developed evolutionarily to best remember differences and exceptions and oddities. So oddities such as agent-deities who are humans but can fly, or animals who can talk, are easily retained within our individual and cultural memories.

Such is the theory developed by Scott Atran in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. I don’t recommend the book for a casual read; it’s pretty heavy going. But Atran has an incredibly detailed knowledge of both human religion and evolution, and the book is filled with great insights, if somewhat turgid in places.

I don’t believe Atran discusses my own theory about belief in the afterlife, which although commonly attributed to the human need to be comforted, is actually related to the rudimentary consciousness found even in animals that lets them imagine the existence of something that has gone out of their sight.

I personally would have preferred if Atran spent a bit more time looking at peak experiences and human growth patterns and telling us about their evolutionary bases.

In any case, this book provides a highly convincing explanation of why humans believe in religion. In his next book perhaps Atran can propose ways to wean our race off this illogical, counterproductive addiction.

6 Responses to “Why do humans believe in religion?”

  1. Mike Says:

    To quote Hitchhiker\’s Guide to the Galaxy

    The argument goes like this:
    `I refuse to prove that I exist,\’ says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.\’
    `But,\’ says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn\’t it? It could
    not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by
    your own arguments, you don\’t. QED.\’
    `Oh dear,\’ says God, `I hadn\’t thought of that,\’ and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.

  2. Brian Richmond Says:

    The proof of God is in the believing.

  3. Xiaoding Says:

    How do we wean ourselves away from religion? Well, we can’t. Not possible. Religion arises from the functioning of the mind itself.

    What we need then, is a way for individuals to look at the functioning of their own mind, and apply correctives as needed. In other words, genetic engineering, and implants. It will take awhile.

  4. peace.of.mind55 Says:

    Firstly why should I believe in any religion at all?
    The spirit realm may only be a figment of my imagination.
    What proof is there of the supernatural?
    See http://www.peace-of-mind.net for discussion on secular evidence for supernatural reality.

  5. Numenware, a blog about neurotheology » Blog Archive » Breaking Dennett's spell Says:

    […] is cribbed from people who actually did work on the topic, such as Boyer (earlier post) and Atran (earlier post). He gives a sloppy summary of their […]

  6. Numenware, a blog about neurotheology » Blog Archive » Is God an accident? Says:

    […] Finally, where do meditation or other spiritual practices—which, like Boyer (previous post) and Atran (previous post […]

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