Whatever its form, religion is powerful and pervasive and, for billions of people, obviously important. Yet, while major religions such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism have endured since ancient times, others, despite having enjoyed great appeal for centuries, have disappeared into the history books. No longer does anyone worship Zeus, the supreme god of the ancient Greeks; Marduk, the Babylonian god of creation; Bast, the Egyptian goddess of protection; Jupiter, the supreme god of the Romans; the Incan Apocatequil; or the Aztec Huehueteotl. Those bygone gods were central figures in highly developed theocracies and were as real to their devotees as are today’s deities to contemporary worshippers.
The continuing power of religious belief in all its many contradictory forms suggests that it serves important functions. Indeed, some researchers consider religion to have become culturally important because fear of the deity promoted social solidarity, cooperation, trust, and self-sacrifice. Important behaviors were either mandated or declared taboo by religion, and believers had little choice but to accept that a powerful supernatural being had deemed them so. This social control in turn increased the likelihood of the survival and reproduction of individuals as well as the long-term survival of the group itself. As religion became deeply established within a group, the religious beliefs and rituals taught to young people contributed an important part of their social identities, and their corresponding roles and duties further contributed to the functioning and cohesiveness of the group.
However, the prevailing view in modern psychology is that religious belief developed not because of those functions but rather as the automatic byproduct of brain systems that evolved for everyday cognition. That is, belief in the supernatural is a natural consequence of the way our brains work, a product of a metaphorical “God Engine” that endows it both with significant power over the lives of people and the groups to which they belong and with strong resistance to change. In other words, a number of automatic processes and cognitive biases combine to make supernatural belief the automatic default.
Components of the God Engine
A number of elements of this “God Engine” are particularly important in the development of religious belief:
We are born magical thinkers. Magical thinking—assuming some magical causation between an assumed cause and its effect—plays such a significant role in religion that some researchers consider it to be the very foundation of religious belief. Suppose that the sky darkens with the approach of a frightening thunderstorm. Someone importunes Zeus to send the storm away, and, by coincidence, the storm abates. Fear is reduced, the action of praying has been reinforced, and Zeus is credited with having quieted the storm.
We are born agency detectors. From a very early age, we look for reasons and intentions, for agency, behind threatening or awe-inspiring events. Failure to identify a cause can lead to the conclusion that the agent is present but invisible, resulting in increased belief in undetectable agencies. And because people everywhere have similar experiences, beliefs in supernatural beings—gods, ghosts, angels, and demons—have developed in every culture and society. Interpreting events as divine interventions, messages, warnings, or punishments serves as further confirmation of the existence of the divine being. Indeed, in every society that anthropologists have examined, uncontrollable tragedies have been viewed by many people as having been deliberately caused by some supernatural agent. An unexpected and violent storm may be interpreted as an expression of God’s wrath in response to some transgression. The epidemic of HIV/AIDS was taken by some fundamentalist Christians in the United States to be God’s punishment for homosexuality.
There are only a limited number of attributes that can be reasonably associated with a hypothetical supernatural agent, and therefore it is not surprising that many similarities are apparent among the supernatural beings envisioned by peoples around the planet. For example, we might attribute to a supernatural being counterintuitive physical properties such as being a ghost, counterintuitive biological properties such as never aging or dying, or counterintuitive psychological properties such as prescience or extraordinary perception. However, not all possible combinations of such abilities are likely to persist in the belief system or be passed on to subsequent generations. The representations of supernatural beings that persist are recognizable, easily remembered, easily communicated, and useful in dealing with problems. Examination of a wide variety of mythologies, anecdotes, cartoons, religious writings, and science fiction bears testament to this.
We develop theory of mind. Infants become able to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects by five months of age. This is followed by the development of theory of mind sometime before the third year as children come to understand that humans and animals have internal mental processes similar to their own. This leads directly to dualism, the notion that mind is separate from matter, which in turn paves the way for belief in disembodied spirits and intelligent deities whose minds function in a similar manner to our own. As a result, it should not be surprising that about half of all four-year-olds have an imaginary friend. Some cleverly designed experiments have shown that children’s concepts of gods are not simply extensions of their concepts of what people are like. Being godlike involves powers that go beyond human capability.
We develop promiscuous teleological intuition. As they reason about the world around them, children appear innately prone to consider objects and events as serving an intentional purpose, and this teleological bias to perceive that things happen for a reason operates promiscuously (in that it is applied to just about everything). Of course, such reasoning eventually leads to contemplation about some sort of extraordinary intelligence that guides the world and belief in supernatural creation (Kelemen 2004).
Reality testing. Children have to learn to distinguish fantasy from reality. They learn that nightmares are not real, that the tooth fairy and Easter bunny are fictions, and that Santa Claus does not exist. Yet, where religious beliefs are concerned, religious parents not only do not teach their children to reality test, they typically teach them not to reality test. They are taught that religious beliefs are justified by faith alone and are not to be subjected to reason. In the more fundamentalist religions, children are further taught that it is not only inappropriate but sinful to question religious teachings, and the resultant guilt aroused by any doubts about their religion is a powerful deterrent to future intellectual challenges. In consequence, these beliefs may remain forever insulated from reality testing and therefore may be very unlikely to change.
Compare belief in Santa Claus with belief in a deity (see figure below). Both beliefs are communicated to children at a time when their ability to reason is undeveloped. Both beliefs involve physically impossible feats and make no logical sense. Both beliefs are typically shared by the child’s peers, but while all adults look askance at any twelve-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, religious parents look askance at the twelve-year-old who no longer believes in the deity.
As children strive to make distinctions between reality and fantasy, making wishes comes easily to them. Note that praying and making a wish are very similar, for each involves a mental process intended to bring about some desired outcome without any physical effort on one’s own part. While praying is part of a system of institutionalized magical beliefs (religion) taught by adults and shared with family, wish-making is something that one does independently of others; it is non-institutionalized. When family and cultural influences support and encourage religious beliefs while discouraging and disparaging other magical beliefs, children, at some time between ages four and eight years, come to view praying and wish-making quite differently. They typically show both increasing belief in the power of prayer and decreasing confidence in the effectiveness of personal idiosyncratic magical beliefs, including wishing (Woolley 2000).
We are taught religion. Children do not become Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, or Jews on their own. They learn religion, which is intertwined with a group’s history and culture. The development of language ability not only gives the growing child a powerful tool for the symbolic analysis of events, it also makes possible the acquisition of massive amounts of information from others. Children learn much about the world through their own experiences, but when it comes to things they cannot observe directly—for example, their internal organs, the shape of the Earth, or the revolution of the Earth around the Sun—they uncritically accept the teachings of adults. It is therefore not surprising that they uncritically accept religious teaching about invisible entities that they cannot observe directly.
We are more likely to remember “ontological” violations. Children develop an intuitive ontology—an understanding about what exists, about what is real—early in life. An ontological violation is something that it is considered impossible in the normal world, such as waving one’s arms in order to fly. Of course, many religious beliefs involve ontological violations—such as an omniscient deity who can hear people’s prayers wherever they may be in the world.
Violations of ontological expectations are better remembered than beliefs that intuitively make sense. For example, “a man who walked through a wall” is an ontological violation, while “a man with six fingers,” although unusual, does not violate our beliefs about what is possible and what is not. Research has found that reference to a man who walked through a wall is recalled more readily over a period of months than reference to a six-fingered man. This effect has been found not only in the West but also in Tibet and with the Fang people, a Bantu tribe in Gabon (Boyer 2001).
Religious beliefs involving violations of our intuitive (ontological) understanding of the world are both attention-grabbing and memorable. Because they are more memorable, they are also more likely to be communicated to others. The advantage that a memorable idea has in terms of being transmitted from generation to generation may be small, but over many generations its influence is amplified as it becomes an inherent part of the culture. Psychologist Pascal Boyer points out that although individuals and groups can be credulous at times, there are limits to what people will believe in the name of religion, and so only certain religious beliefs, those that provide solace or offer explanations for strange events, are likely to be transmitted over extended periods of time. While something too counterintuitive (e.g., a species of super-intelligent beetles that control television networks) may not take hold, the notion of a god who possesses some human qualities but also has omniscience and prescience may be just counterintuitive enough but not too much. Boyer also points out that it does not take much effort to maintain religious beliefs, and that people do not have to work very hard to persuade themselves that these beliefs are true.
Persistence of Religious Belief
While supernatural belief is a natural byproduct of normal cognitive development, such belief is supported through experiences that seem to offer verification:
To sleep, perhaps to dream. There is considerable evidence, both cross-cultural and historical, that dreams provide people with what seems to be verification of their beliefs in supernatural beings and life after death and contribute to the development of religious rituals, beliefs, and concepts of the divine.
Emotional experience. While each religion has its own set of beliefs and practices, and while the major religions are guided by holy texts supposedly divinely dictated or inspired eons ago, religion is much more than a set of dictates and beliefs, for strong emotional experience is often involved. It is one thing to debate the appeal of various religious beliefs and it is quite another to “experience” the divine. Many religious people have reported having felt the power of a divine presence, often during prayer. Some religions deliberately encourage such experiences, and the resurgence of charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, sometimes involving speaking in tongues and laying on of hands, attests to the appeal of a mixture of emotion and spirituality.
Religion answers existential questions. Why are we here, and what happens when we die? Where did the world come from, and when did it begin? Religion provides answers to many questions that otherwise would go unanswered. Consider these creation stories:
Creation story #1 (King James Bible, Book of Genesis):
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Creation story #2: (Native North American, Achomawi):
In the beginning, all was water. Then a cloud formed in the clear sky, became lumpy and turned into Coyote. Then a fog developed and became lumpy and Silver Fox was formed, and then Coyote and Silver Fox both became people. And they began to think. And they thought a canoe, and it became real and they floated in it for many years. One time while Coyote was sleeping, Silver Fox combed his hair and then took the combings, flattened them and spread them out on the water until they covered the surface of the water. Then he thought, “There should be a tree,” and now there was a tree. And then he did the same with shrubs and rocks and people and birds and fish.
Creation story #3: (The big bang, modern science)
About 13.8 billion years ago, a singularity, an infinitesimally small point of infinite density, suddenly exploded and began to expand rapidly to form the universe as we now know it, with a diameter at present of some 93 billion light-years and still expanding. (That is, light emanating from one edge of the universe would take 93 billion years to reach the other edge.) The universe is estimated to contain between 100 and 200 billion galaxies, with each galaxy comprising hundreds of billions of stars.
All three stories may seem fantastical in their own way, and all three are held on trust by those who believe them. While the first involves trust in the validity of the Book of Genesis and the second in the oral traditions of North American First Nations peoples, the third requires trust in the conclusions of modern science. While scientists understand the logic and the data that support the big bang explanation, it is beyond the layperson’s ability to do so.
Such explanations provide a feeling of understanding to people puzzled about how the world began, even though they leave other mysteries in their wake. Those who attribute the origins of the universe to their god or gods conveniently ignore the question about where their god or gods came from. On the other hand, the big bang explanation also leads to another mystery: the origin of that singularity.
Reinforcement of religious belief. Religious beliefs are reinforced in a number of ways. As mentioned above, many religious people believe that they have experienced a divine presence, often during prayer. In addition, no matter to which god one prays, subsequent events that would have occurred whether one prayed or not can often be interpreted as the desired answers to one’s prayers. After all, even without divine intervention, people sometimes unexpectedly recover from severe illness; rains do come to end droughts; lost loved ones are found safe; and people do get promotions at work. However, when preceded by prayer, these events may appear to be miraculous. And the gods cannot lose, for any apparent failure of prayer is generally explained away: “Sometimes, God says no.”
Second, religion provides a bulwark against existential anxiety and fear of annihilation. It offers comfort in times of threat and can help one to deal with the loss of loved ones, especially if one believes that our personalities survive death. Religious belief and prayer also offer an important shift in focus when faced with anxiety and uncertainty. When under stress, people with strong religious conviction show less reactivity in the part of the brain associated with anxiety. The framework that religion provides can help an individual to remain calm and to deal with difficult circumstances. Of course, an emotionally balanced atheist with a good sense of purpose might react similarly.
Third, religion can provide an increased sense of control. Religion not only serves to reduce anxiety, for belief in a benevolent god who watches over the world and answers prayers provides a sense of control when all around us is chaos and calamity. “God is in His heaven—All’s right with the world.” As a result, belief in God typically increases when people are under extreme levels of stress. Reflecting this, researchers have found that both in Western and non-Western contexts, pronounced government instability is associated with increased religious belief.
Fourth, religion can provide companionship that goes beyond being a member of a congregation. Many religious people form strong emotional attachments to their deity. Such attachment may either mirror strong feelings of childhood closeness to parents or compensate for unsatisfactory relationships with parents. Further, if one believes in a god who listens and watches over us, this belief provides a sense of never being alone. This is very important in a world where loneliness is a significant problem for many.
Fifth, religion is often a source of significant self-enhancement. “God sees the little sparrow fall … I know he loves me too.” Perhaps you feel unimportant or ignored or rejected, but if you know that your God loves you, this gives you a reason to feel good about yourself.
Sixth, religion contributes to group identity. Religion does not occur in a social vacuum. Religious beliefs and practices are shared and reinforced by family, friends, and neighbors and provide an important basis for social identification. Adherents feel themselves to be part of a moral community with its sacred values, norms, and ethical expectations. Religious identity provides something that no other social identity can offer: a sense of eternal belonging and a set of sacred beliefs that provide certainty about the world and one’s place in it. These unique characteristics, combined with powerful emotional experiences and strong bonds with other members, imbue it with more importance to many people than any other form of social identity.
In conclusion, belief in the supernatural is a natural consequence of normal cognitive development, and so it should be no surprise that religion is both pervasive and enduring. While for some, childhood religious belief ultimately succumbs to critical thinking, for many others it is excluded from critical analysis and is instead accepted on faith as being uncorrupted truth. And then no matter which presumed deity is worshipped—a god with the head of an elephant, a god who throws thunderbolts from the sky, or a god who comes to Earth in human form—many events and personal experiences will serve up apparent confirmation that the deity is real.
Detailed citations are provided in the original book chapter.
Boyer, P. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.