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Biotech Science

Humans Hardwired to Believe in Supernatural Deity? 1852

Posted by Zonk
from the my-genes-rebel dept.
dohcrx writes "According to a Sunday New York Times article, 6 in 10 Americans believe in the devil and hell, 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and life after death, while 92% believe in a personal God. The article explores the possibility that this belief structure may be ingrained into our genetic makeup. 'When a trait is universal, evolutionary biologists look for a genetic explanation and wonder how that gene or genes might enhance survival or reproductive success ... Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity?'"
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Humans Hardwired to Believe in Supernatural Deity?

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  • Hmm, so... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Xenographic (557057) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:34PM (#18229670) Homepage Journal
    Religion evolved?

    Sounds like a sure way to piss off the religious and atheists alike :]

    "Wait, you mean religion might confer some survival advantage? And it's so widespread that..."

    "First you're telling me I'm a monkey's uncle. Now you're telling me it was a religious monkey!? Okay, great ape or whatever, but still!?"
    • even wierder .... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by taniwha (70410) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:51PM (#18229898) Homepage Journal
      I'd believe it if similar gene pools showed the same breakdown - here in NZ it's more 50-50 - so maybe there are different 'evolutionary pressures' ....

      More likely it's social pressure - the Monty Python/'Every Sperm is Sacred' school of thought - if you've got the pope saying 'fuck like bunnies because god says so' vs. the atheists saying 'smaller families are better for the planet, and we can afford better education for our kids, and ...' stands to reason you're going to get more kids indoctrinated into religion - think of it as a memetic advantage rather than a genetic one ...

    • Re:Hmm, so... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by istartedi (132515) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @05:06PM (#18230080) Journal

      Wait, you mean religion might confer some survival advantage

      No ifs about it. My father told me many stories of his 22 years in the Navy. The relevant one is of a post WWII study based on interviews of POWs. A belief in God, be it Christian or Jewish (the two dominant samples, obviously) conferred survival advantages in the camps. It seems that men who had Someone to pray to, something to hope for, gained a psychological edge that could mean the difference between life and death under extreme conditions. Sorry I can't cite it properly. It was one of those stories that he repeated on more than one occasion.

      • Re:Hmm, so... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by peragrin (659227) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @06:05PM (#18230886)
        >>something to hope for, gained a psychological edge that could mean the difference between life and death under extreme conditions.

        And you answer your own question. It isn't god you need but faith in something greater than yourself. That the World can be a better place, and since it is such a large world and your a small man who needs help from something larger than himself. Faith is needed, If not faith in yourself then Faith in a God.

        soldiers see the very worst of man, they see their best friends ripped to shreds for being 6 inches to the left. To psychologically survive such an ordeal you need to believe in something else. It doesn't matter what you believe in as long as you believe. I have believed this for a long time, since I saw the petty corrupt politics that walked through the halls of churches with my own eyes.
      • by asifyoucare (302582) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @06:56PM (#18231408)
        As an example, my uncle always carried a little bible in his top pocket. His unit came under fire and a bullet hit the bible, surely saving his life.

        If he'd only had another little bible in front of his head, he might still be alive today!

        (OK, I made the whole thing up).
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Cairnarvon (901868)
      Nobody said religion has to confer a survival advantage to have a genetic origin.

      One explanation is that, given the fact that humans are neotenous apes, they retained their propensity for not really questioning or examining the information their parents give them, because in children, that would be disadvantageous (if a parent tells you you can drown in water, it's often a bad idea to go in and experiment just to be sure, since the experiment is likely to kill you).
      From there, it's just a matter of a meme d
      • Gene-linked? (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mad.frog (525085)
        Maybe the "religion" gene is neither helpful nor harmful, but linked to other useful genes (other higher brain function, perhaps)?

        Sort of how blind cave-fish aren't being selected for blindness, so much as being selected for other traits which happen to have blindness as a side-effect?

        http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/develo pment_of_cavefish_eyes/ [pharyngula.org]
      • Re:Hmm, so... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by lawpoop (604919) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @06:34PM (#18231174) Homepage Journal
        Modern state-based religions rely on indoctrination of the kind you describe ( along with all of the other societal institutions, such as the military, taxation, the ruling elite, etc. ), but hunter/gatherers live a much more freer and explorative life than farmers. Evolutionary psychology posits that the human mind developed on the plains of Africa, naturally selected by the evolutionary pressures of dealing with hunting animals, gathering plants, and getting along with everybody else back at camp.

        As part of my anthropology degree, I read a lot and also spent some time with modern hunter/gatherers. IF you read the literature, or do some field work, you will find that hunter gatherers are extremely mentally independent and have a world-view based on their own personal experience. "I went hunting, I saw the demon horse, and this is what happened... What!? You think I was imagining things? What the fuck do you know? I've been hunting these woods at night since I was a boy -- you think I can't tell the difference between a real animal and a demon? The shaman in the other village says the demon horse is not real? Who the fuck is he? What does he know? I am a man, a warrior, I make up my own mind, and this is my story." They live in an experiential meritocracy, not an awe-based authoritarian society.

        Personally, I think our cognitive abilities evolved as a response to encountering plant poisons. Vegetarian animals, like deer and cows, have very a sensitive sense of smell and are *extremely* picky eaters. Opportunistic eaters, such as bears, human, and chimpanzees, aren't that picky when it comes to plants. This is a great opportunity to find new food sources, but can also get us into trouble if the plant has evolved poisons as a defense mechanism. And given that plants don't have many other defense mechanisms, the woods are full of poison.

        So, if we are going to live as opportunistic eaters, we have to evolve mechanisms that handle plants attempts to poison our system. A lot of these poisons affect our mind. It would be really handy to tell the difference between an actual lion stalking you, and a paranoid fantasy -- but that opens up a whole Pandora's can of worms. In order to understand the difference between reality and hallucination, you have to become self-aware. If reality is "out there", and hallucination is a product solely of your mind, then you must begin to understand what your mind is, how it works, and what it is capable of creating, if you ever hope to distinguish hallucination from perception. And then once you can perceive hallucination, the products of the mind that are not based on perception of external reality, you begin to understand your mind and how it works. You become self-aware.

        "Are there really snakes all over the ground, or am I seeing this because of these leave I ate this morning? Is this really real or does it just seem real? Hey, what the hell is reality anyway? Where do these thoughts come from? Who am I, what is reality, and how is it that I can percieve it?"
    • Re:Hmm, so... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by IngramJames (205147) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @05:25PM (#18230352)
      Religion evolved?

      Sounds like a sure way to piss off the religious and atheists alike :]


      Well, speaking as an atheist, it doesn't annoy me in the slightest. The reason why humans always seem to create a religion, regardless of where they live or which society they are from is an interesting subject; I fail to see why it should be offensive.

      It's like asking why humans walk upright, or why all humans developed language. A fascinating subject, in short, and well worthy of examination, I'd say. Science is only ever offensive if you know you are likely to disagree with its findings in advance :)
      • Re:Hmm, so... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by anagama (611277) <obamaisaneocon@nothingchanged.org> on Sunday March 04, 2007 @06:00PM (#18230810) Homepage
        As an athiest, I too don't comprehend how this notion would be offensive. If it turns out that religion is genetically coded, so be it. Athiests by nature are probably a group most accepting of fact. So if it is provably true that religious susceptibility is genetic, then that's simply a fact like any other proven fact, albeit a very interesting one.

        What religious people seem to fail to comprehend is that atheism is not a religious belief, it is the lack of religious belief. So there is no reason for an atheist to get all political or freaked out if it turns out that there is a biological basis for religion.
  • Old, old news (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:35PM (#18229678) Homepage
    Something like this was in Newsweek almost three years ago. The matter poses no difficulty to either atheist or theist philosophers of religion, for while one side can argue that this must mean belief in God is some built-in override of reason, the theist can argue that the direction towards worship is part of the Creator's plan.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:36PM (#18229696)
    .... and belief in a rosy afterlife will make you live longer and pass on that trait. I mean, what's the size of an average Catholic family compared to the lonely angry atheist?
  • Genetics? No way (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Stormx2 (1003260) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:37PM (#18229700)
    From what I've seen this is all about nurture, and not nature. America's Christianity feeds itself, with a father instilling his faith in his son. I'm attending secondary school (high school) and the majority of us are atheists, and some of those who were previously christian or other faiths have become agnostic or more.

    You can beleive something your childhood years without questioning it. If you fail to question it before you reach adulthood, the chances are its sunk into the way you reason. Hence, you'll be a little more stubborn.
    • Re:Genetics? No way (Score:5, Interesting)

      by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:40PM (#18229734) Homepage
      For every young person that leaves his faith (not just Christianity, but Judaism, Hindusim, or Islam just the same), there's someone who finds religion in early or mid-adulthood. Many of these "megachurches" exploding with members who come from agnostic Boomer parents who didn't instill any kind of religious observance in their children.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by swillden (191260) *

      I'm attending secondary school (high school) and the majority of us are atheists, and some of those who were previously christian or other faiths have become agnostic or more.

      OTOH, my (anecdotal) experience is that many teens question and even deny God, but find as they become an adult that they do have a need for belief. I think it's a phase that many teens go through, part of the process of rejecting authority and finding themselves. If their authority figures are religious, they have a strong tendency to reject religion, a tendency that is exacerbated by their newfound ability to perform rational analyses and their discomfort with their newly-energized emotions.

      Later, a

  • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:38PM (#18229712)
    It seems to me that if the conjecture of a genetic basis is right, then this probably does little to help agnostics like me decide whether or not God exists. Here's why...

    If God doesn't exist, then a genetic basis gives a potentially adequate explanation for religiosity. So the genetic basis doesn't disprove atheism.

    If God does exist, then this is consistent with the theology (Christian, at least) that God has built us to know Him. (Assuming for the sake of argument that God can and does work through evolution and genetics.) So the genetic basis wouldn't seem to disprove Christianity (and thus theism in general) either.

    I dunno... what do you guys think?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I was raised Christian, so I always had a hunch that this was indeed the case, that God made us genetically likely to look for Him.

      Of course, you're asking about the other direction. I would ask, where would this genetic trait have come from? The article seems to indicate it isn't an "evolutionary adaptation," so it was either put there by a force other than evolution, or its an entirely random accident that didn't have enough of a negative side effect to be weeded out - and managed to dominate over the lac
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by CRCulver (715279)

      Assuming for the sake of argument that God can and does work through evolution and genetics.

      The most relevant monograph for this discussion that I know is Swinburne's Responsibility and Atonement [amazon.com] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). Swinburne sees no problem with humans naturally recognizing God, though through reason (essentially the cosmological and design arguments) instead of a gene, and argues that Christian notions of the Fall can work with the concept of evolution in positing that the first

  • by LinuxGeek (6139) * <djand,nc&gmail,com> on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:41PM (#18229758)
    I am probably much like most of the rest of you slashdotters; smarter than most of the population (at the 98th percentile), technically adept and grew up an atheist in a home where we did not regularly attend church. The people around me that were religious seemed only to be mental midgets that needed psychological crutches to help them hobble through the day.

    That was my view for my first 25 years of life, the next 15 have been quite a bit different. If we have a genetic disposition to need God, why is atheism more common among the young people that I have known and still know?
    • by ChrisMaple (607946) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @06:38PM (#18231226)
      In the U.S. there are many places where atheists are threatened (certainly more than the other way around). One such place is at work, where religious fanatics sometimes campaign to get an atheist fired or denied a promotion. In higher level poitics, atheism is a big negative. Atheists often find it necessary to hide their views in order to make their lives easier. No adult with children wants to lose a job because some jerk doesn't like his nonbelief.
  • Sample Population? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Grail (18233) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:42PM (#18229768) Journal
    What is the sample population for the study? How many people were surveyed? Was it a self-selecting phone survey ("Hi, we'd like to ask you some questions about your religion...")? What questions were asked?

    Is a survey of 1000 Christians (especially from fanatical sects) in the USA really going to be representative of the genetic makeup of humanity as a whole?

    Is it possible that being exposed to religion during the first 5 years of your life -- and constantly being told, "God made it that way" or "God loves you even if you don't believe in him" -- would influence your belief system to the extent that you'd believe in a "magic box" that would destroy the property of non-believers?

    Speculate that deity dependence is ingrained into our genetic makeup all you like, but until you can present a survey from a meaningful sample population it's nothing more than an interesting topic for discussion around the water cooler (or in the modern office, the automatic espresso machine).
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by junglee_iitk (651040)
      I couldn't agree more to you. Here in germany, one third of the population does not believe in God. Where I work (Stuttgart), every one has "no-religion".

      So should we say Americans are different race than Germans? :P
  • by haluness (219661) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:42PM (#18229772)
    This was one of the possibilities that Dawkins talked about in the God Delusion - according to the evolutionary approach, the belief in gods and the supernatural is really a 'spin-off' of a ingrained tendency to believe authority. Now, the reason this might be useful in an evolutionary perspective is that a child whose genetic makeup predisposes him to be a little more gullible, will probably heed his parents warnings about dangerous things. So if a child were to be told that he should not go down to a certain part of the riverside because of snakes - the more readily the child accepts this, the longer his genes will survive.

    The side of effect of this whole process, is that the species may have a tendency to believe authority - some more so than others. Obviously, one has to be a little more specific as to what exactly is 'authority' - but thats a whole other thread.

    As with all evolutionary explanations, one shouldn't push it too far - but it does sound quite plausible.
  • The Big Flaw.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Jeremy_Bee (1064620) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:46PM (#18229816)

    "According to a Sunday New York Times article, 6 in 10 Americans believe in the devil and hell, 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and life after death, while 92% believe in a personal God.
    The big (obvious) flaw here is that this is a survey of Americans only. It's well known that the US is one of the most religious countries on the face of the earth. The number of "true believers" in the US has always been astronomical, the number of people who self-identify as "born again" Christians or fundamentalists is off the charts relative to almost any other western country you want to name. The level of education in the US is also corespondingly low relative to other western countries.

    If a significant portion (in this case in the high 90 percent range due to the claim made), of the entire world's population bleived in these things the author might have a point. I doubt the figures will bear such an argument however.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Lawrence_Bird (67278)

      The number of "true believers" in the US has always been astronomical, the number of people who self-identify as "born again" Christians or fundamentalists is off the charts relative to almost any other western country you want to name. The level of education in the US is also corespondingly low relative to other western countries.

      BS on all fronts. What exactly is a "true believer" in your book? Anyone who is not an atheist? As to the born again/evangelicals, please come back with a % of total US popul

  • by JDevers (83155) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:46PM (#18229822)
    This makes the huge assumption that American's are representative of humanity as a whole. I think the fact that religion pervades the average American life from birth might be an important consideration. Also the fact that people who aren't at least passively religious are more or less condemned in many circles might have something to do with how one answers these questions regardless of their actual beliefs...
  • by TechyImmigrant (175943) * on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:48PM (#18229860) Journal
    9% of USA Americans are non believers in God. They are no more representive than Swedes (85%) http://www.adherents.com/largecom/com_atheist.html [adherents.com].

    Belief in god simply is not universal. The numbers above make that clear. If it is a hard wired function of our brains, then explain the variation in brain wiring between Swedes and Americans. On the nature vs. nurture line, this one is at the nuture end.

    I know my brain isn't wired for belief in god. My parents ran the Sunday school and brought me up a methodist. My grandparents were religious. My genetic inheritance should make me religious if its a preset brain wiring. Yet as a young child I saw the teachings as a system of inconsistent threats (be nice or go to hell, believe and be saved etc). As an older child I suspected the stories and teaching of being untrue. By the time I was in comprehensive school (age 11, UK) I knew I didn't believe a word of it and knew I was an atheist.

    My personal experience leads to the opposite conclusion. We may be wired to follow the logic we understand or are taught. If we are taught how to think rationally and scientifically, then belief in God is vulnerable to rational analysis.

    Moving to the USA (from the UK) had transformed atheism for me. It used to just be a fact. Relgious people went to Church and wasted their Sundays. There was no issue. In the USA I find people scared to be frank about their atheism. They find themselves in the minority, and a mistrusted minority at that. The outward effects of religion on society is caustic to education (e.g. evolution in schools), civil rights (e.g. bigotry in law and elsewhere towards homosexuals), personal freedoms (e.g. illogical drug use laws) and public policy (e.g. supporting abstinence education over contraceptive education).

    I see the 'war' described in TFA as being an outcropping of this politicized environment and the research around it skewed by the politics.

    I wonder if I can find work and a visa in Sweden?
  • Uhm, duh? (Score:5, Funny)

    by pi_rules (123171) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:53PM (#18229910)
    When you're a little kid you look up to your parents -- they are your creators.

    You learn that your grandparents were the creators of your parents, and you think they're pretty cool too.

    If you go back far enough you must accept one of two conclusions:

    Human kind was started by a great all-knowing being, or, by two monkeys fucking and producing some genetically mutated offspring.

    The former is a little less of a blow to your ego.
  • by SpaghettiPattern (609814) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @04:57PM (#18229976)

    ... 6 in 10 Americans believe ...
    ... 92% believe in a personal God ...
    This is quite clearly a study on USA population -assuming the term "Americans" refers to the people in the USA. The Americans are not representative in matters of belief. Americans tend to believe more in God then say Europeans. Unless by miracle genes mutated in the Americans, the study is limited in that it does not seem to rule out cultural inclinations.
  • by Trespass (225077) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @05:03PM (#18230064) Homepage
    It's a natural part of human cognition to take a limited amount of information and try and arrange this into a coherent system, making guesses at what lies beyond. The less information there is available, the more guesswork is required. The results get silly very quickly.
  • Nothing special here (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ReallyEvilCanine (991886) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @05:07PM (#18230088) Homepage
    The hardwired belief is well-explained by Dawkins in The God Delusion:

    Theoretically, children might learn from personal experience not to go too near a cliff edge, not to eat untried red berries, not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents; obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. Trust your elders without question. This is a generally valuable rule for a child. But, as with the moths [which fly into flames for reasons also explained in the book], it can go wrong.
    This is the clearest, simplest, Occam-obeying explanation for the basic acceptance of religion in most people regardless of culture.
  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @05:12PM (#18230152) Homepage Journal
    Virtually everyone we talk to in the West is from one of the Abrahamic religions, but look at the world as a whole.

    Shinto isn't really theistic, Buddishm and Confucianism are about right living and not about the supernatural, and animism is found all over.

    What seems to be universal is the ability to have mystical experiences that feel transcendent and change people's lives.
  • by CrazyJim1 (809850) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @05:12PM (#18230162) Journal
    I know God exists, Jesus is Lord. I wouldn't be telling you if I didn't know. I'm also not still a liar or God would be mad with me. I could go on, but I figured if you're talking about God, I might as well tell you he exists.
  • by seebs (15766) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @05:31PM (#18230424) Homepage
    Nearly every human I know believes in something he refers to as "laws of physics", some sort of hypothesized way in which objects behave consistently according to rules.

    Do we need a genetic predisposition to explain this?

    Is there a specific genetic predisposition to think that people who laugh at their own jokes a lot are usually not funny?

    How do we distinguish between "predisposition to believe X" and "observing X"?
  • by EjectButton (618561) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @05:41PM (#18230568)
    The article mentions the anthropologist Pascal Boyer, who has a fairly simple (and imo fairly convincing) argument, that in the article is referred to as the "byproduct theory".

    Basically it says that the ability to connect cause and effect, that is to connect things that happen to the actors in the environment that cause them, was so powerful that is became overused in humans. Giving them a natural tendency to attribute everything, including chance events or natural phenomena to these actors, or as Boyer calls them "unseen agents".

    The reason for this is fairly straightforward, if you were living in the prehistoric wilderness it paid to be paranoid, consider the simple example of someone sleeping in a cave who hears a noise outside, for the paranoid early human the thought process might be:
    "oh no, what was that, it had to be something, something made that noise, it must have been a tiger, I know it was a tiger, there must be a huge tiger outside"
    pros: if there really is a tiger, or some other threat, you may have just saved your life, increasing the probability your genetic code will be passed on creating future paranoid generations
    cons: if you are wrong and there is nothing out there, you wasted a small amount of energy and made yourself look stupid

    if on the other hand you don't attribute every event to some unseen agent, you might be tempted to assume it was just the wind, or some other harmless event
    pros: if you are right you save a little bit of energy
    cons: if you are wrong you may be dead

    To hear it explained much more elegantly by Boyer himself there is a short video interview on youtube where he discusses the subject
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etiZv_rOOgc [youtube.com]

    Which is part of a larger BBC series called "Atheism: A Brief History of Disbelief" and "The Atheism Tapes", in which Jonathan Miller interviews famous scientists and philosophers on the subject of atheism. Much of which can be found on youtube/google video http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/feature s/atheism.shtml [bbc.co.uk]
  • Pans narratans (Score:4, Interesting)

    by shelliob (1065582) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @06:20PM (#18231022)
    The existance of religion in general seems to be a by product of our storytelling nature, the nature which played a large part in our ability to out-compete neanderthals. We are after all not really wise men (homo sapiens) but rather storytelling apes (pans narratans) and our drive to make sense out of an incredibly complex universe is what makes us human. If anyone doubts the impact of following a certain religion on the evolutionary path of a tribe then they should really consider why the god of the jews and the muslims forbade them to eat pig flesh - the most parasite ridden meat you can find. This commandment prevented the investation of the followers by tapeworms and other nasty bastards, drastically lowering the amount of morbidity and mortality in the population. The religion (and the people) proliferated. Plus there's always the fact that devout followers are more likely to survive and procreate in a society that has a tendency to stone non-believers to death ;)
  • by barakn (641218) on Sunday March 04, 2007 @11:26PM (#18233712)
    I find the "Magic Box" demonstration uncompelling. Scott Atran, the perpetrator of the demonstration seems unwilling to think outside of the box, so to speak. Perhaps the individuals harboring "negative sentiments toward religion" are reluctant to place personal possessions or body parts into the box not because they secretly believe the superstitious claptrap they've just been told, but because they now suspect the crazy person who just told them that nonsense to have boobytrapped the box. The answer to the article's question "If they don't believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?" is that they are afraid of Scott Atran.

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