Monday, 7 September 2009

Religion On My Mind

The Telegraph has a story today about how the human brain is hard-wired to believe in God.

This isn't news. However, George Pitcher, the Telegraph's religion editor and an Anglican priest at St Bride's Fleet Street, is claiming that research on the subject has 'made religious faith feel normal for once' and that it shows religion 'makes us perform better'.

He is overlooking a few inconvenient facts. He mentions Professor Bruce Hood's research but can't have read it very thoroughly. Hood, and other writers like Pascal Boyer, Marc Hauser, Paul Bloom and Matt Ridley, have made it very clear that religion is a side-effect of the brain's evolution.

You could equally well say that we have evolved the ability to read and write, to find flowers pretty, to believe in horoscopes and ghosts, to be vulnerable to malaria and to be heroin addicts. All of these are side-effects. Not all side-effects are beneficial; picking one that suits your argument is lazy. As is ignoring the bad effects of religion or blaming them on some other cause.

There is no evidence that the brain has evolved to believe in the Christian god in particular, so believers can't use this factlet to justify their own belief as the only right one any more than a belief in Zeus, Ra or Thor. And even if we had evolved to believe in a certain god, that doesn't prove that he or she exists any more than believing that horoscopes are true makes them so. It's wishful thinking.

Hood and others like him are not 'promoting' religion as Pitcher suggests. They are investigating why this particular evolutionary spandrel has proved so tenacious.

As we all have common ancestors, why do some of us not believe in any god or other superstition? This is a question that needs to be answered by scientists and by believers using a mis-reading of evolution to bolster their faith.


  1. I guess that such newspaper articles are, in the end, just more data about how tenacious religious thinking is in the Homo Sapiens. Though, I think that religion is a bit more than a spandrel - rather an interesting combination of cognitive by-product plus cultural group-adaptation (that may well have had its adaptive value compromised in modern societies). That would help to make sense of the great differences in religiosity between cultures.

  2. You're right that there is a cultural element, the same way there is with belief in ghosts, patterns of addiction and so on. Nature and nurture always interact but cultural elements also need the brain to have evolved in a certain way to create the culture in the first place and then to buy into it.

    Any kind of In Group behaviour can have survival benefits, the question is why has religion been such a persistent one. Perhaps because by adding a supernatural element it can outlast individuals, however influential a leader or thinker they are.

    Like most things we do, there are always a combination of factors both within cultures and within individuals.