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The Biological Roots of Religion

Is Faith in Our Genes?

by Morton Hunt


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 3.


Why are atheists so different from the overwhelming majority of humankind? Why don't they need to believe in a god of any traditional sort - and most of them not even in a primary force who merely lit the fuse of the Big Bang and then let everything take its own course?

Are they simply more intelligent than almost everybody else? I'm willing to believe they're smarter and more knowledgeable about reality than club-wielding hunter-gatherers, or the members of the Christian Coalition. But can I suppose they're more intelligent than such profoundly religious believers as Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Newton, William James, or even Einstein? Or, for that matter, the majority of today's American scientists, who, according to surveys, profess some kind of religious belief? [1]

But the obverse of my puzzlement is far more mystifying: Why have nearly all human beings in every known culture believed in God or gods and accepted the customs, dogmas, and institutional apparatus of an immense array of different religions?

Belief Without Evidence

What makes this so strange is that we human beings have survived, multiplied, and come to dominate the earth by virtue of our innate tendency to solve problems by taking note of cause-and-effect relationships and making use of them - by observing and using empirical data ranging from the superior flight of an arrow when feathered to the extraordinary expansion of our cognitive powers achieved with computers.

Yet while this indicates that the human mind is basically pragmatic, nearly every human being during recorded history (and to judge from archeological evidence much of prehistory) has held religious beliefs based on no empirical evidence whatever. To be sure, our ancestors of the Homeric and Pentateuchal era often thought they heard the gods talking to them in their minds and sometimes thought they saw them, and even today some mentally ill people, and others who are technically sane but exceedingly pietistic, think they hear God speaking to them or see some fleeting divine apparition. But the great majority of believers neither hear nor see such things. While many sometimes experience a surge of feeling in touch with the divine, the world's believers see not their gods but idols, symbols, and documents representing or telling about their gods.

What other evidence might there be? Many kinds, all highly dubious; real-world events interpreted as God's handiwork can almost always be explained in commonsense or scientific terms. Moreover, the occurrences of miraculous events are almost never weighed against the occurrences of comparable nonevents. We often read in the news of some adorable child dying of inoperable cancer who was marvelously cured when the whole town prayed - but never of the cases in which equally fervent praying did not save the lives of equally adorable children. Nobody remembers them, because human beings have a tendency toward "confirmation bias," as psychologists call it - we remember events that confirm our beliefs but forget those that do not, which is probably why 69% of adults in a recent poll said they believe in miracles. [2]

Although realistic knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships has been accumulating over the three centuries of the era of science, it has not eliminated religion. Some believers modify their beliefs to accommodate that evidence, while others reinterpret it most extraordinarily (the fundamentalists say that the geological and fossil traces of earth's history and of evolution were made by God and planted in the ground during the six days of Creation).

Religion has survived the vast expansion of scientific knowledge by adaptation; except for fundamentalism, it has minimized explaining in supernatural terms whatever can be better explained in natural ones and focused instead on phenomena that cannot be tested or disproved, such as God's mercy, the existence of soul, and the afterlife. Accordingly, more than 90% of American adults still believe in God or some form of Higher Being, a large minority have experienced the feeling of being born again, [3] and only 10% hold a view of evolution in which God plays no part. [4]

Why, to repeat my central question, do people need religion?

God and Sociobiology

An answer I find persuasive, congruous with historical and social-scientific evidence, and parsimonious is given by sociobiology, the new branch of human behavioral science popularized in 1975 by Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University and now offered in many universities. (In what follows, I draw primarily on three of Wilson's books and on a recent sociobiological study of religion by Professor Walter Burkert of the University of Zurich. [5])

Sociobiology holds that in considerable part human behavior is based on our biology - specifically, by gene-directed tendencies developed in us by evolution. We eat, sleep, build shelters, make love, fight, and rear our young in a wide variety of human fashions because, sociobiologists say, through the process of natural selection interacting with social influences we developed genetic predispositions to behave in ways that ensured our survival as a species. Complex interactions among numerous genes give us the capacity and inclination to develop into people who are either more or less violent, more or less altruistic, monogamous or polygamous, Muslim or Catholic, or whatever - depending on how our upbringing, experiences, and the myriad influences on us of the culture we are immersed in elicit the potentialities within those congeries of genes.

That's how the individual develops. But how did we come to have a genome that incorporates such developmental possibilities? That's where Wilson's theory comes in. His latest version of his theory centers on what he calls "gene-culture coevolution." He proposes that certain physiologically based preferences channel the development of culture (an example might be the development in every society of some form of family life in response to the infant's and mother's need for continuing sustenance and protection). On the other hand, certain cultural influences reciprocally favor the selection and evolution of particular genetic tendencies (an example might be society's inhibition of uncontrolled aggression and its favoring of people with built-in responsiveness to social control of aggression).

To see how interaction works, consider the case of language. (This is my example, not Wilson's.) No other animal has anything remotely like our language capacity. That's because only the human brain has two specialized zones, Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area, both on the left side, in which the neurons are so connected as to form a mechanism that recognizes the relationships among the words in sentences. No actual language is prewired in those areas; no child, raised apart from the sound of language, has ever spontaneously spoken. But our brains evolved in such a way that every normal toddler can spontaneously figure out what people around him or her are saying, no matter what words and grammar they are using. The evidence of prehistoric skull sizes and shapes, ancient artifacts, and the customs of primitive peoples indicates that the immense advantages of linguistic communication favored individuals with greater neurological capacity for verbal communication, and that culture and genetics coevolved to produce the modern human brain and the resultant thousands of human languages.

This is a paradigm for the development of religion. As Professor Burkert puts it: "We may view religion, parallel to language ... , as a long-lived hybrid between cultural and the biological traditions." [6] He maintains that we have biological tendencies and capacities that cause us to need, learn, value, and practice religion - not any specific religion, of course, but any one of the thousands of religions that, despite the vast differences among them, all tend to fulfill similar needed functions for individuals and, just as important, for the society they live in.

The primary needs met by religion, sociobiologists say, were the allaying of fear and the explanation of the world's many mystifying phenomena. With the development of the brain's capacity for language, humans beings were able to develop concepts and have experiences that had been unavailable to prehumans, among them the consciousness of risk and of death, of time, the past, and the future; of reward and punishment; puzzlement about natural phenomena; the satisfactions of problem-solving; and aesthetic pleasure, wonder, and awe.

But verbal and conceptual ability also had rich rewards. Primitive humans developed a sense of awe at the wonders they could now think about: birth, the return of life in spring, the rainbow - and with that sense of awe came a need to explain those wonders. Human beings' new cognitive powers yielded the joys of recognizing health returning after sickness, hardships survived, crops harvested, problems solved, wrongs righted, and the aesthetic pleasure yielded by the many beauties of the world around them.

Early humans, and most humans to this day, make sense of all these mystifying negative and positive experiences by means of religion.

If there is evil in the world, it is, in some religions, the work of an evil deity - Ahriman, Satan, Asmodeus, Loki - but in other religions, it is the product of evil desires in human beings. Against the uncertainties and dangers of the future, people pray, asking the deity to make all turn out well. Against the misery of losing a loved one or the fear of one's own death, people seek reassurance that they will live after death in some other realm. Against injustice, inequality, the desperate unfairness of life, what better consolation than to expect a just and generous reward in heaven by a loving Father? And conversely, when things go well, when the world is beautiful, when people are surrounded by those they love and enjoy the rewards of their work, what is more natural than to give heartfelt thanks to the supposed source of good things?

Religion thus met the newly evolving human need to understand and control life. Religion serves the same purposes as science and the arts - "the extraction of order from the mysteries of the material world," as Wilson puts it [7] - but in the prescientific era there was no other source of order except for philosophy, which was comprehensible only to a favored few and in any case was nowhere nearly as emotionally satisfying as religion.

Still another major function of religion was to act as a binding and cementing social force. I quote Wilson again: "Religion is ... empowered mightily by its principal ally, tribalism. The shamans and priests implore us in somber cadence, Trust in the sacred rituals, become part of the immortal force, you are one of us." [8] Religious propitiation and sacrifice - near-universals of religious practice - are acts of submission to a dominant being and dominance hierarchy.

Religion thus helped meet the need of human beings to live together. That need is biologically based: We require social life to thrive emotionally - and, in fact, physically. Recent evidence shows that people who live alone have less immune resistance to disease than people who live with spouses or partners. But social living requires some system of hierarchical leadership in order to avoid endless fighting over food, sex, and other benefits. You've seen all this on television documentaries of life among troops of chimpanzees and baboons. The human creation of various systems of social control is a response to biological urges we inherit from our prehuman ancestors.

But early peoples were aware that certain inexplicable and mighty forces - earthquakes, drought, epidemics - that affected their lives were beyond the control of their leaders. It was only natural that they should suppose that these forces were the work of unseen things analogous to their leaders but far more powerful, and whom they regarded with fear, awe, and respect. From early times to the present, in nearly every religion, God or the gods are the "lords" of creation, rulers whom all humans, including emperors and presidents, must obey and revere. So in addition to whatever form of social governance and leadership human beings developed, they also sought the leadership and help of shamans, medicine men, priests, or other special people who could mediate between them and the spirits or gods, and adopted acts of submission ritual to placate and please those deities. But of course these religious beliefs and practices relieved the leaders of society of the blame when things went wrong; religion thus bolstered social governance.

For all these reasons, says Wilson, "Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving." The human mind evolved to believe in the gods even as religious institutions became built-ins of society. [9]

Inferential Evidence

Although biologists have been able to pinpoint a few genes responsible for certain specific disorders, the genetic basis of any specific form of human behavior is almost certainly due not to a single gene but the intricate interplay of numerous genes. Which ones, however, is still largely undetermined, although it seems certain that in time the details will be spelled out.

The evidence sociobiologists offer is inferential - a set of reasonable and persuasive deductions from what we know about human evolution, human mental abilities, and early religions, including such preliterate evidence as the ceremonial burial objects and wall drawings of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. Sociobiologists say that all this evidence strongly supports their theory of religion, for since no other living species exhibits any such behavior, religion must have been a product of evolving human biological traits.

But Burkert says that biological roots of religion are even deeper than, and predate, language, though gaining power and richness when language arrives. One is the device used by many animals of sacrificing a part of themselves in order to escape from danger. Some spiders' legs break off easily and continue to twitch for a while to distract a predator while the spider escapes. Lizards' tails snap off easily, remaining in the grip of the attacker while the lizard makes a getaway and grows a new tail. Some birds, under attack, suddenly shed a mass of feathers, leaving the attacker with a mouthful of fluff while the expected meal disappears.

Human analogs of this behavior exist as religious rituals - sacrifices of desirable possessions to the gods in order to escape ill fortune, such as pouring wine on the ground, slaughtering and burning a valuable animal, giving money to help build a temple. And there are many examples of far more serious sacrifices performed to placate God, such as the self-castrations performed by certain devout early Christians and by the Skoptsi, seventeenth-century Russian religious fanatics. And giving up sexual activity altogether, along with parenthood and family life, as priests and nuns have done for centuries, is surely as extreme a sacrifice of the part for the whole as physical mutilation.

Thus, biology is the basis of the many ritualistic submission acts in human religions. The most general such act, relatively innocuous, is to bend or to bow. [10] Muslims prostrate themselves on the floor; Catholics and some Protestants kneel in prayer; people of nearly all denominations bow their heads submissively in prayer or meditation. Some worshipers beat their chests, weep and cry out, tear their clothes and throw ashes on themselves, crawl for miles on their hands and knees, lash their naked bodies with chains. Even these observances are small potatoes compared to the nauseating acts of devotion of many medieval saints.

A more tasteful genre of biologically based religious behaviors concern cleanliness. Keeping the body clean is a basic necessity for all higher animals, some of whom bathe, others preen, still others groom each other, for the benefit of their bodily functions. [11] We human beings, too, have always taken care of our persons, bathing, cutting out hair, shaving, and so on.

But being human, we conceive of another and far worse kind of dirt that pollutes us: the impurity of wrongdoing. Our ancient ancestors cleansed themselves of wrongdoing through rituals such as burnt offerings, prayer, and self-imposed hardships and humiliations. The Christians improved greatly on all this: They transformed simple guilt for wrongdoing into sin inherited, willy-nilly, from Adam and Eve. This created a whole new religious industry made up of confession, penance, absolution, communion, and the striving for a cleansed and perfect state, all of which was self-sustaining, since the cleansed person, if normal, was bound to become morally dirty again in a little while.

And so, to sum up the sociobiological theory of the roots of religion: genetically built into early human beings was a set of mental, emotional, and social needs that caused culture to develop in certain ways - including the development of various religions - and caused culture, reciprocally, to favor and select for evolution those human traits that provided sociocultural advantages to the individuals possessing them. "Religion," says Burkert, "follows in the tracks of biology ... [and] the aboriginal invention of language ... yield[ing] coherence, stability, and control within this world. This is what the individual is groping for, gladly accepting the existence of nonobvious entities or even principles." [12]

The Unbeliever Puzzle

I return to the first of my puzzlements - Why are unbelievers different from the great majority of their fellow human beings? They are not, however, unique, for throughout civilized history a small minority have not needed supernatural religious explanations of their own thoughts or of the mysteries, tragedies, and glories of everyday life. I refer not just to out-and-out atheists but to that larger minority who have held or hold a deistic concept of God or who regard the inherently consistent laws of nature, governing the behavior of galaxies, genes, and quarks, with the awe and respect that others accord to a more traditional God.

The best example of such a person actually predates modern science. It is Spinoza, for whom God was coterminous with the actual universe, neither outside it nor above it but identical with it and with all natural laws. For him, God was nothing more nor less than the total corpus of those laws.

Perhaps current unbelievers are all contemporary Spinozists, sensitive to and in tune with the god who pervades the universe - who is the universe - who is identical with reality. Perhaps unbelievers do not so much reject the religious needs and impulses of the human race as adapt to them in realistic and humanistic terms, replacing the fairy tales of conventional religions with the more intellectually demanding tales, provided by modern science, of natural laws and of the demonstrable, replicable evidence of cause-and-effect relationships.

Perhaps unbelievers meet the basic human need for order and social integration within the subsociety of science itself and its hierarchical structure. Perhaps for unbelievers scientific humanism offers deeply satisfying answers to all those profound and troubling mysteries that religion purports to answer, and unbelievers are comfortable with those answers although they are incomplete and, no matter how our knowledge increases, will remain so, with new discoveries always raising new and more complex questions about reality.

Finally, perhaps unbelievers differ from the great majority of human beings in one other way: possibly unbelievers are psychologically adult, needing no invisible parent figure, able to face the reality of human life and death without fear (or at least live with that fear), and too sensible to believe in anything that has no proof, any explanation of the world that is either impossibile or absurdum.

But that's only a guess; perhaps I flatter unbelievers unreasonably; perhaps they're not that special and wonderful. But I hope they are.


Notes

  1. A 1996 survey quoted in E. O. Wilson, Consilience (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), ca. p. 245.
  2. Time, April 10, 1995, p. 65.
  3. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (New York: Bantam, 1979), pp. 176-77.
  4. Freethought Events and Planning Guide, November 29, 1998.
  5. Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  6. Burkert, Creation of the Sacred, p. 20.
  7. Wilson, Consilience, p. 257.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., p. 262.
  10. Burkert, p. 84-87.
  11. Burkert, p. 123.
  12. Burkert, p. 177.

Morton Hunt is the author of The Story of Psychology (1994) and The New Know-Nothings: The Political Foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature (1998).


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