Is religious belief innate to our brains?

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ColoradoGuy

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We've talked before in several threads whether of not the human brain is hard-wired for language -- it's an old but still interesting discussion. Another old chestnut is whether the brain is predisposed for religious thought, if that confers some sort of evolutionary advantage -- preservation of the species and such.

Recently some have speculated that religious inklings (or superstitious ones, as Ruv might put it) may be instead a byproduct of how the human mind works. This makes religion more an effect than a cause. From the article:

"That's not to say that the human brain has a 'god module' in the same way that it has a language module that evolved specifically for acquiring language. Rather, some of the unique cognitive capacities that have made us so successful as a species also work together to create a tendency for supernatural thinking."

"So how does the brain conjure up gods? One of the key factors, says Bloom, is the fact that our brains have separate cognitive systems for dealing with living things - things with minds, or at least volition - and inanimate objects."

The evidence for this formulation derives from experiments in children as young as three years of age. The data are intriguing, though soft, in my estimation. Still, it's a fascinating summary and worth a look if you wonder about possible explanations for why we are the way we are.
 

semilargeintestine

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Personal religious beliefs notwithstanding, I'm pretty convinced that humans are inclined to believe in high authority, aka gods, because of our ability to investigate things. We have an ability to understand, probe, and figure out things at a much higher level than any other species on the planet. Absent scientific knowledge and methods, it's pretty natural that a group of people would attribute something they couldn't explain to a god.
 

veinglory

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If it was unversally innate it would be universally exibited. It might be innate in the same way heterosexuality, or the tendency to stereotype, or violence when frustrated, is--without there being any great implications of that fact. It is really just a tautology. People that do something do it partly because of their phenotype. But then in the absence of a phenotype (genes and physical development) it is rather hard to do anything ;)

If a religious person has a religious brain (this behavior must have a physical basis after all) it does not follow that an atheist person has a religious brain, or ought to, or that a religious brain is "normal".
 
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sunandshadow

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I would call it belief in magic and/or the supernatural because that's a lot more general than religious, but yes it's definitely innate to the human brain.
 

veinglory

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It is innate to the brains of humans who believe in the supernatural--this also is not universal. There are, and have always been, materialists throughout recorded human history. Many of them having brains that were clearly highly functional, philosophers, scientists etc. There is not 'the human brain'. There are human brains--and their variability is as essential to their nature as their norms.
 

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I'd like to see how many people were truly atheist before science really started to be able to explain things. I know from Judaism that many orthodox or conservative people find (and found) explanations for lots of life's mysteries right in the religion, so God and science were not exclusive (i.e., evolution, physics, astronomy, etc.).
 

Higgins

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We've talked before in several threads whether of not the human brain is hard-wired for language -- it's an old but still interesting discussion. Another old chestnut is whether the brain is predisposed for religious thought, if that confers some sort of evolutionary advantage -- preservation of the species and such.

Recently some have speculated that religious inklings (or superstitious ones, as Ruv might put it) may be instead a byproduct of how the human mind works. This makes religion more an effect than a cause. From the article:

"That's not to say that the human brain has a 'god module' in the same way that it has a language module that evolved specifically for acquiring language. Rather, some of the unique cognitive capacities that have made us so successful as a species also work together to create a tendency for supernatural thinking."

"So how does the brain conjure up gods? One of the key factors, says Bloom, is the fact that our brains have separate cognitive systems for dealing with living things - things with minds, or at least volition - and inanimate objects."

The evidence for this formulation derives from experiments in children as young as three years of age. The data are intriguing, though soft, in my estimation. Still, it's a fascinating summary and worth a look if you wonder about possible explanations for why we are the way we are.

I think a number of things about the way people imagine the world might be seen as religious. First there is the just plain raw fear of the unknown. One can easily imagine (and here one is imagining an imaginary imagination -- so it ought to be easy to imagine) several "evolutionary" scenarios for that:

1) For much of protohuman history, protohumans were of the smaller more gracile humanoid forms. Ie for 6-8 million years or more there was always a much bigger version of humanity out there. They were no smarter than us, and might have been a bit less quick, agile and sneaky...but buddy, they could bash your head in in a second and cook you and eat you in less time than it takes to make a canoe. Now that may well have put the fear of something big and nasty and humanoid into our frightened heads.
2) This may have had an impact on thinking ahead. You could always plan to be home for dinner, but to be honest you always had to add, "as long as some big guy doesn't club me to death." Perhaps the earliest expression of faith. For obviously it was always possible the the Big Guy was elsewhere beating other people to death, and that left that little opening in the realm of possibility that I think many of us experience as a deep one-ness with all things that are not getting clubbed to death today
3) But some people (gracile, small and sneaky as they may have been) might have had a knack for putting a Quietus on the Big Guy. what Godlike fellows those gracile fellows must have seemed! Tricksters! Beings with unimaginable powers. Imagine strolling home for dinner and saying, "Honey, I was almost Lunch for the Big Guy but I caught him trying to start a fire and speared him to death." Well, this would be cause for massive proto-religious celebrations of a nearly unimaginable intensity. To have bested the thing that caused total fear all the time? What glory could equal that except for glory of the most supernatural kind?
 

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I am not sure how that idea really ties in at all. Science is a way of studying the physical world. On the meta-level it has nothing to do with whether or how one understands the non-physical world. Most scientists I know are believers, but all four combinations are well-represented.

People who think religiously see science as the religion or non-religious people. But hat has never made the slightest sense to me or many others (see Gould's discussion here: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html).

Honestly, I see a clear fallacy. Because it is normal for religious people to be religious in no way implies it is abnormal of atheist people to be athiest. No more than the normality of the male implies the abnormality of the female, or the same argument for race, adulthood, sexuality or any other human subtype.

One is, biologically and philosophically, what one is--but the most common or most powerful type is not "correct" just because it is natural. The minority type is equally natural. What would be unnatural and grist for extinction would be uniformity. Evolution simply cannot occur without innate and persistence variability producing innate and persistent variation in strategies within the community.
 
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WriteKnight

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Imagination is religion.

The human mind, because of the way it is constructed, has evolved to allow, and even reward imagination.

Ergo the human mind is 'religious'.


Of course, it all presupposes MY assertion that the definition of religion is imagination... all else being semantics. ;)
 

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It is innate to the brains of humans who believe in the supernatural--this also is not universal.
Just because something is not universal doesn't negate the possibility that we're talking about an innate hardwired predisposition though. Certainly the vast majority of societies have developed ideas about God or gods, along with supernatural explanations about the world. It really is a cultural constant.

There are many similarities we hold with our primate cousins -- the study of aggression and dominance in baboon troops, and the existence of what can only be described as friendships are well documented.

We can also see in primates the beginnings of language, although it is still debated whether primate communication is different in kind from what we term as language.

But the religious aspect doesn't seem to have any counterpart, even in the most dimly realized of ways, in the animal kingdom. Interesting article.
 

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Saying something is not universal does imply it is not uniformly hard wired into all people.

Is a gay person "predisposed" to be heterosexual?

If I was born "pre-disposed" to be religious I suspect I would have become so as it would infact be easier and is innately encouraged and assumed by the religious majority and was actively taught in school. I think I was born predisposed to develop exactly as I did--a life long atheist with a well developed imagination as expressed in my fiction and artwork. I can imagine God, be has has never, even for a moment, been real to me.

I think a normal religious person has a normal religious brain.

Whereas my normal non-religious outlook is a product of my normal non-relious brain--not some mis-development or perversion of my secretly religious brain.
 
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Higgins

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I think a number of things about the way people imagine the world might be seen as religious. First there is the just plain raw fear of the unknown.

Second, along side fears that are now purely imaginary (unless there really is a divine being with a club waiting to eat you), there are the hopes that work as the shadows of fear...for one cannot help (and here is something innate I guess) but hope that today you will not be clubbed to death and eaten. And suppose one goes for months without being clubbed and eaten? What can you do but conclude that your faith (ie that the Big Guy is clubbing somebody else to death) is sustaining you? You are ever hopeful and you don't get clubbed...obviously things (in an imaginary, supernatural religious way) are working out for you. And every day you report this hope and its fulfullment to everyone. Of course, once you are clubbed and eaten you aren't there to say many many many many more times that you were wrong wrong wrong wrong...no no all anyone remembers is that for a long time you were hopeful and had faith in no being clubbed or at least that the Big Guy was elsewhere clubbing others to death and eating them.
 

ColoradoGuy

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If a religious person has a religious brain (this behavior must have a physical basis after all) it does not follow that an atheist person has a religious brain, or ought to, or that a religious brain is "normal".
Yes. I think there is always a danger in thinking about this sort of thing of question-begging -- implicitly assuming the presence of something you are trying to prove exists.

There is no reason why humans, when faced with something they cannot explain, somehow "need" to attach a supernatual explanation. Simply not explaining it at all would be a perfectly understandable approach. So arguing that religion is somehow a necessary human trait used to explain things we cannot otherwise understand is not convincing to me.
 

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Saying something is not universal does imply it is not uniformly hard wired into all people.
Well, this is a derail less interesting than the OP. I'm just saying that a predisposition, that is, a tendency to go in certain directions, does not need to be present in 100% of individuals for it to be a significant factor.

There's no escaping the fact that religious thinking has arisen at some point in all societies, and has dominated many of them. Whether that is a result of how the brain is wired is of course, the question.

For me, the argument that because not all individuals exhibit religious thinking it therefore cannot be an intrinsic property of the brain, doesn't hold water. We're not talking about absolutes or determinism, but possible explanations for the ubiquity of religious invention.
 

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Second, along side fears that are now purely imaginary (unless there really is a divine being with a club waiting to eat you), there are the hopes that work as the shadows of fear...

Third, there are mysteries and the ego-centric illusion that one is some how more special than anyone else.
For example (and this must have happened a few hundred thousand times in the 6-8 million years we spent as relatively small humanoids), suppose somebody comes in from the valley next door and he says: "The Big Guy ate everyone but me." Well, why is that, your protohuman brain would ask itself. What is it about this one person who wasn't eaten? Could you be the one special person who doesn't get eaten? Would could you do? It's a mystery. You could spend your whole life telling everybody you are just like that skinny guy that didn't get eaten. You would be a mystery too. everyone else would wonder: why does he think he is like somebody who isn't going to get eaten? The mystery would grow. And as long as the mysterious didn't get eaten, the mysteries would get ever more mysterious. People would start asking, "Why? Why don't skinny people get eaten?" And science would be born...sort of...out of the mysteries of survival.
 

semilargeintestine

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Saying something is not universal does imply it is not uniformly hard wired into all people.

Is a gay person "predisposed" to be heterosexual?

If I was born "pre-disposed" to be religious I suspect I would have become so as it would infact be easier and is innately encouraged and assumed by the religious majority and was actively taught in school. I think I was born predisposed to develop exactly as I did--a life long atheist with a well developed imagination as expressed in my fiction and artwork. I can imagine God, be has has never, even for a moment, been real to me.

I think a normal religious person has a normal religious brain.

Whereas my normal non-religious outlook is a product of my normal non-relious brain--not some mis-development or perversion of my secretly religious brain.

I don't think it's a pre-disposition to religion. Rather, I think it's a pre-disposition to want to explain what we observe. Lacking any method of scientific observation or theory, we resorted to imagination and a higher authority we could not see. If we had then the same opportunity to study things that we have now, religion might be very different if even around.
 

kuwisdelu

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I don't think it's a pre-disposition to religion. Rather, I think it's a pre-disposition to want to explain what we observe. Lacking any method of scientific observation or theory, we resorted to imagination and a higher authority we could not see. If we had then the same opportunity to study things that we have now, religion might be very different if even around.

There is no reason why humans, when faced with something they cannot explain, somehow "need" to attach a supernatual explanation. Simply not explaining it at all would be a perfectly understandable approach. So arguing that religion is somehow a necessary human trait used to explain things we cannot otherwise understand is not convincing to me.

Combine these two, and I'd say that's what I believe.

I'd say humans have a predisposition toward understanding the world around them. Some people accept the lack of an explanation when something is beyond our comprehension. Others, the religious, attribute the explanation to some divine being.
 

AMCrenshaw

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I'm not so sure supernatural elements (angels, titans, god) are really much of an explanation, either, and it's interesting to think that they were or could have been at some point in time. I wonder if one could call that evolution.



AMC
 

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Third, there are mysteries and the ego-centric illusion that one is some how more special than anyone else.
Fourth: mysterious powers:
Being skinny and not getting eaten isn't a power, but the power to make skinny juice would be. Sure, you naturally wonder what skinny juice is, but that's your primoridal predisposition...skinny juice is that special stuff made by special people that allows either an extra bit of skinny non-edibility to the skinny or just the good side of skinny (not being as likely to be clubbed and eaten by the robust, extinct humanoids) to the not-so skinny.
But where does skinny juice come from...I mean really? Well there really is no such thing as skinny juice there fore it must be supernatural in origin. After all, one thing you have to recognize about human "predispositions" is that a lot of it is a matter of categories we don't have any direct experience of...We don't "believe in skinny juice" (or Lamarkian Evolution) so we don't have any idea how that fits into a "predisposition"...which would have to cover all the methods of moving categories around and only Levi-Strauss and other structuralists have ever even tried to look at what the predispositions of human thought are. So any idea of predisposition would have to actually start with how people actually think, which only structuralists have bothered looking at...
 

KikiteNeko

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Oh God, I slept through every philosophy class I ever took...

I think it was Heidegger or Descartes (correct me if I have this wrong) who said a "higher power" must exist because if a higher power didn't exist, how would we humans have the idea of one? In other words, here we are on this tiny little planet. How did it occur to us that there was something bigger than the earth, beyond the sky? And it turns out there was a whole universe up there.

And while we are here, we are born, we live, we die. If that's all there is, where did we get the idea that something happens after death? How did we get the idea that there is a power greater than us? Our brains are wired to believe in things we haven't yet seen. I don't know if it's a GENE or just our way. Maybe there's a gene for everything, from our favorite color to our taste in food. But then we get into eugenics, which is not a place we should go.

I'm not saying there is or isn't a higher power based on the above philosophy. But I liked that idea.
 
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Higgins

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...something happens after death? How did we get the idea that there is a power greater than us?

It seems possible that the hardwiring to believe in a greater power was necessary when we were the smaller of the humanoid forms, ie the gracile form. There was also always a more robust form out there. Since the robust form probably spent some 6-8 million years clubbing and eating us, the gracile form, eventually we became hardwired to suspect there was something greater than us out there. Oh and after your death the robust from eats you...according to my hardwiring.
 
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