ATHEISM really may be fighting against nature: humans have been hardwired by evolution to believe in God, scientists have suggested.
We are born to believe in GodJonathan Leake and Andrew Sniderman
The idea has emerged from studies of the way children’s brains develop and of the workings of the brain during religious experiences. They suggest that during evolution groups of humans with religious tendencies began to benefit from their beliefs, perhaps because they tended to work together better and so stood a greater chance of survival.
The findings challenge campaigners against organised religion, such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He has long argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood “indoctrination”.
Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, believes the picture is more complex. “Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works,” he said.
“As they grow up they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches but the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion.”
Hood, who will present his findings at the British Science Association’s annual meeting this week, sees organised religion as just part of a spectrum of supernatural beliefs.
In one study he found even ardent atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer, because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in their organs. “This shows how superstition is hardwired into our brains,” he said.
His work is supported by other researchers who have found evidence linking religious feelings and experience to particular regions of the brain. They suggest people are programmed to get a feeling of spirituality from what is nothing more than electrical activity in these regions.
Andrew Newberg, professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, has used brain-imaging techniques to show that such feelings are invoked by activity in “belief networks” operating across the brain. This supersedes the earlier concept of a “God spot”, activated during meditation or prayer.
“The temporal lobe interacts with many other parts of the brain to provide the full range of religious and spiritual experiences,” he said.
This mechanistic view of religious experience is reinforced by separate research carried out by Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Ontario, who has used powerful magnetic fields to induce visions and spiritual experiences in volunteers.
Barbara Hagerty became one of Persinger’s subjects while researching Fingertips of God, a book on brain processes underlying religion. “I saw images and cartoonish figures. It didn’t convince me there was no God, but it did show me how much the brain is connected to our beliefs and perceptions,” she said.
Some researchers argue that humans’ innate tendency towards supernatural beliefs explains why many people become religious as adults, despite not having been brought up within any faith. Scientists believe that the durability of religion is in part because it helps people to bond.
Professor Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist at Washington University and author of Religion Explained, supports Hood’s view that the origins of religion may lie in common childhood experiences. In a recent article in Nature, the science journal, he said: “From childhood, humans form enduring and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasised mates.
“It is a small step from this to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible.” Boyer holds out little hope for atheism. “Religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems,” he said. “By contrast, disbelief is generally the work of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.”
The Rev Michael Reiss, who is professor of science education at London University’s Institute of Education and also an Anglican priest, said he saw no reason why such research should undermine religious belief.
“I am quite sure there will be a biological basis to religious faith,” Reiss said. “We are evolved creatures and the whole point about humanity is that we are rooted in the natural world.”
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