Why do people believe in Gods? Oxford to launch a $4 million research program on religious belief.

Associate Press (via AZ Central) reports that the University of Oxford is about to embark on a nearly $4 million research program investigating why mankind believes in God(s). The US-based John Templeton Foundation providing the financial resources that will enable the Oxford-based Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion to gather anthropologists, theologians, philosophers and other academics together for three years to study “whether belief in a divine being is a part of mankind’s makeup.”

Roger Trigg, acting director of the center, says that there are lots of issues. “What is it that is innate in human nature to believe in God, whether it is gods or something superhuman or supernatural?”

According to AP, Trigg claimed that research indicates that faith in God is a universal human impulse found in most cultures around the world, though it has been waning in Britain and western Europe. One implication of this, Trigg says, is that “religion is the default position, and atheism is perhaps more in need of explanation”.

Having studied psychology and cognitive science for over five years, and having read a number of books on cognitive architecture and development, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, I feel that I can make a few valuable observations.

Firstly, lets clarify the claim about the near universality of theism. Not all cultures that have supernatural beliefs believe in Gods. There are documented societies of people who believe in other types of supernatural beings. There are tribes in Africa who believe that their well-being (e.g., health and sickness, success or failure of crops, weather patterns, general good and bad luck) are influenced by benevolent and malevolent spirits. In some tribes, these spirits and demons are believed to be the souls of dead ancestors. As is more well known, there are polytheistic societies (e.g., Hindu societies). And, while I cannot think of any off hand, I can only imagine that there have been a number of monotheistic Gods that have been worshipped by some people at some time that have no connection to the God of the three dominant monotheisms. (Readers: Please feel free to cite any such Gods).

Secondly, we are most likely not innately programmed to believe in God. Talk of a God gene or God genes is almost certainly incorrect, and it is definitely baseless. There is no reason to believe that we evolved specifically to believe in God(s). There is no reason to believe that there is a certain subset of genes that emerged perhaps by some mutation and propagated across the species due to evolutionary fitness value. And, as I argue constantly, the existence of any God has yet to be demonstrated or even shown to be a reasonable proposition.

Functional complexity in cognition arises through natural selection, just as it does in other areas of biology. The belief in God is surely a complex phenomenon. It involves the ability to internalize a narrative, have beliefs about agency, universal morality, meaning, the ability to ponder the questions of meaning, morality, and existence, and so on. This is not going to be localized to a few genes. The process of natural selection operates on the traits of existing organisms in their environments. Traits that lend a competitive advantage, increasing the carrier’s odds of reproduction, increase the likelihood that the carrier’s genes will be passed on to subsequent generations. Given that natural selection operates on what it has to work with, we should ask what it had to work with in human evolution. Humans evolved a number of religion-relevant capacities, many or all of which have been found to lesser degrees in other species. Humans have the capacity to infer agency (i.e., to speculate that other people and organisms have minds) and to engage in complex reasoning (e.g., social/moral reasoning, cause-effect story-telling). Developing humans are also known to depend on and trust elders for information about the world. This is usually a good thing, but it can leave children vulnerable to internalize ideas that do not stand up to much rational scrutiny. Advanced reasoning abilities show up much later in developing children. Once ideas are internalized as core beliefs and serve as the basis for interpreting meaning, life, humanity, morality, justice, social relations, and so on for many years, these beliefs can be very difficult to let go. While it is generally good that developing humans look to their elders for guidance, there is no assurance that everything they learn will be true or the most adaptive.

Vulnerability to the internalization of fallacious ideas is not the only relevant cognitive imperfection humans have. We also tend to over-infer agency. We do it all the time. Humans are constantly anthropomorphizing. We attribute human like cognitions to all sorts of non-human species, even ants (e.g., if it’s scurrying away from you, it’s scared). Across human history, humans have been anthropomorphizing mysterious natural processes. A failure to understand the origin of thunder led some ancestors to invent Thor, the god of thunder. Members of some modern day African tribes will ascribe good or bad fortune (e.g., with respect to the crops) to intelligent causes – benevolent spirits or malevolent demons.

And then there is our tendency to misappraise our psychological states. Psychologists have been demonstrating for decades that humans constantly misappraise the causes of their feelings and actions.

Rather than humans being innately geared toward religion, what is far more likely is that we are innately prepared for religious belief by virtue of having a set of separate collectively necessary and sufficient cognitive precursors to religious belief. We have evolved to infer agency, to engage in complex social and cause-effect reasoning, and to trust our elders. All of these cognitive abilities have been found in non-human species, though generally in less-developed forms. We often over-infer agency and misappraise our psychological experiences. Humans are clearly cognitively prepared for religious cultural learning.

To learn more about the cognitive science of religious belief, I recommend Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. This book looks at religious belief from the perspective of requisite cognitive precursors, cultural anthropology, the sorts of things that make certain ideas more likely than others to be believed and successfully propagated, and so forth.

9 Responses to “Why do people believe in Gods? Oxford to launch a $4 million research program on religious belief.”
  1. aporia24 says:

    As a related comment, http://xenlogic.wordpress.com offers some good arguments about the psychology of beliefs in religion/Christianity.

  2. Venkata Raman Syamalam says:

    Objective rational and Cognitive Reasoning Capabilities alone does not make any subject an object of REAL LIFE. Emotions are Part and Parcel of any Real Life Object and Faith, Fear, Respect and their antonyms are this side of the evolution. How much of it is from DNA and how much is from the evolution is found to be extremely subjective – very few real experiments ( for want of the sample size to be meaningful) can be cited. Neither theTheory of Natural Selection nor the Impact of Elders on the Growing siblings or othewise can explain most of the observations all over the world leave alone India which is a land of diversity with many gods. Strangely the roots of all the relegion orginating from this part of the world namely VEDA’s describes the abstract “Consciousness” as “THE GOD” and the realisation of the abstracat SELF within oneself certainly has nothing to do with FAITH or FEAR it is a state of emotion which is an evolution from being to becoming.
    It is experience which is being questioned and it is worth while being critical of such experiments but being open is crucial for understanding the underlying truth. It will be extremely good if we could come with simple objective list of metrics to look for in the proposed experiment in realising the TRUTH.

  3. Mike says:

    Readers: Please feel free to cite any such Gods

    Aten, during the time of Akhenaten.

  4. Juanito Epstein says:

    Take a look at “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral mind” by Julian Jaynes.


    While the theory proposed in this book is not accepted by any well known scientists today and his ideas are a dated, the ideas are interesting and get one to think. The basic idea is that before we had present day consciousness (he uses a very specific definition for this, one that isn’t the commonly used definition) we heard voices in our head telling us how to act and what to do. His support for this comes from noticing that on one side of the brain we have Wernike’s area, which is the language center or the brain, in the other hemisphere there is nothing that corresponds to it. This is odd because many brain areas, such as V1 are present in both hemispheres, or have some corresponding area in the other hemisphere. Schizophrenic patients who hear voices often have an underdeveloped Wernike area, and an over active area in the other hemisphere, which it most humans does nothing. He suggests that in the past, before language was as developed as today the corresponding area to Wernike’s was more active, as in the scizophrenics. We could not have internal monologues, instead we hear voices, and we called those voices gods. he cites evidence from old texts, such as the bible and the odessy. In the parts of those books that are oldest it is always the gods telling people how to act and never the person thinking about how to act. After language was further developed these voices went away, and the beliefs were past down. This is also why people today don’t speak to the gods as the people of old did. I could go on, but then you wouldn’t have to read the book.

    It is very thought provoking even though many of the ideas are old. A must read for everyone.

  5. ronbrown says:

    Mike: Many thanks!

    Juanito: Thanks for the reference. I remember you speaking of that book way back.

  6. Rachel says:

    We might actually learn something from this research (although I am a bit concerned about the a prior assumptions that the director Trigg is making…): Why do people believe could be useful knowledge for counteracting those beliefs. Although, I think what you’re implying is that we already know fairly well where religious beliefs are coming from. We don’t need to pay $4 MM to show that there’s an innate something for a belief in a God (because we won’t find such a thing; belief is more likely a by-product). But that’s $4 MM less for other things, like lambasting atheists…

    I put Boyer’s and Jaynes’ books on my reading list – they sound fascinating, especially Jaynes.

  7. ronbrown says:

    Juanito may want to agree or disagree with me on this, but I would put Boyer ahead of Jaynes on the priority list. Boyer’s views seem to be getting a lot more traction in the international scientific community than Jaynes’ ever got.

    I’m not against the Oxford research project, I was just commenting on the comments of Triggs.

  8. Ken says:

    Haven’t read Jaynes but did recently read Boyer’s book and found it very informative. The ideas discussed by Boyer actually explain a lot more than just the fact that religion and superstition are common but also can be applied to a lot more of human behaviour. Origins of morality are also covered.

  9. I could believe in this God;

    “Spinozism is the pantheistic philosophical system of Baruch Spinoza which defines “God” as a singular self-subsistent substance, and both matter and thought as attributes of such. Spinoza claimed that the third kind of knowledge, intuition, is the highest kind attainable.

    In Spinozism, the concept of a personal relationship with God comes from the position that one is a part of an infinite interdependent “organism”. Spinoza taught that everything is but a wave in an endless ocean, and that what happens to one wave will affect other waves. Thus Spinozism teaches a form of karma and supports this as a basis for morality.[citation needed]

    Additionally, a core doctrine of Spinozism is that the universe is essentially deterministic. Everything that happens or will happen could not have unfolded in any other way.

    Spinoza’s doctrine was considered radical at the time he published and he was widely seen as the bogeyman of Europe.[citation needed] His philosophy was part of the philosophic debate in Europe during the Enlightenment, along with Cartesianism.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: