Is religious belief innate to our brains?

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Dawnstorm

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But I'm not talking about God. I'm more interested in the general question of if humans' brains are innately predisposed to religious thought, if there there could be an actual physical locus for it like the language center.

Okay, I'm not a brain-expert, but a lot of what we know about language localisation we know from various types of aphasia. So what, then, would the equivalent for "religious thought" be? What's a "stuttering believer"? Get my drift?

The thing is, unlike language, most of the conventional religious practise (praying etc.) can be faked. Heck, I could become a priest and not really belief (which was probably more common in a time when most of the intelluctual pursuits were organised within the clergy). It's obvious that - if we're looking at language - we'll start with speaking, writing, listening, reading. It's not obvious at all where we start with religion, especially since you're ruling out mystic experiences (which, I think, have been reproduced in lab conditions).

I haven't read the first article (as it requires a subscirption), which might address this. But what do we actually mean when we say "religious thought". What's the definition? What are we looking at? Have we established that the phenomenon in question is actually a single phenomenon, and not a social contruct, i.e. lots of people doing different things under the same heading?

Take, for example, this interesting quote from the second article:

Petrovich adds that even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking. Bering has seen this too. When one of his students carried out interviews with atheists, it became clear that they often tacitly attribute purpose to significant or traumatic moments in their lives, as if some agency were intervening to make it happen.

Depending on how you define "supernatural" you get different results. Is any sort of teleological principle, by definition, "supernatural"? For example, I remember, reading in an article about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, about a man, an atheist, who tried in vain to start his car. He reportedly mumbled something like: "Come on, Spaghetti Monster." Now other people, both believers and non-believers, might address the car itself, as if that helped. But we wouldn't conclude from that that we believe the car will listen to us. Both believers and unbelievers will be aware that they're really talking to themselves, substituting the car. They're expressing a wish as a proposition to someone else without really expecting an answer. How significant is the step to address a third, absent party?

"Come on, car, start already." --> "Please, God, make the car start!" --> "Please, Spaghetti Monster, make the car start."

Basically, you're addressing the car, but you don't believe the car will answer. The next step is that you're addressing someone absent (an ancestor, a god, a friend with remote car starting abilities...); because the thing your addressing is absent, you have no immediate relieve for not-being-answered. It's a one-way communication, really. But this also allows you to believe that the absent party actually listens. In a final step, you can parody that: you can address an absent party that you explicitly don't believe will listen. It's unlikely that you take that step without first hearing about people believing in, say, God. Now, I can understand step 1 and step 3; I'm an atheist. But I don't understand how it feels to talk to absent people and actually expect them to listen.

The thing is this: in how far is the absent listener represented in the brain - in a way that an actually present car that won't answer isn't, and also in a way that an actually absent entity that you don't expect to answer isn't. Is there a basic difference, or is it a difference of time? I might for a split second treat the car as if it had a mind; I might for a split second believe that the Spaghetti Monster actually really can help. Are these different brainstates? Or is there some sort of process that makes something temporal linger?

Is this the gist of the problem? I'm not sure.
 

LaceWing

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Yes, Dawnstorm, I think there are linguistic artifacts involved; your examples IMO show how language can lead one to process an abstraction in much the same way as a tangible. It would be interesting to do MRI studies to see how different sentences are processed; it would be interesting to know if some languages make an effort to differentiate abstractions from tangibles explicitly.

~

Anthropologist J. Stephen Lansing (video link) has an interesting observation about the role of ritual: that it synchronizes the emotions of a group. Since religious practice is primarily social, in my experience, the question of being wired for religious thought or activity would be concerned significantly with aspects of our social brain. We're wired to be social, talkative, and curious about cause and effect; I see religion as an emergent side-effect of these capacities.
 
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I deal with global brain blood flow studies all the time and I don't think that figure helps much. It shows the redistribution of predicted venous return flow, which apparently changes with time. It doesn't say anything about arterial flow and substrate (e.g. oxygen and glucose) consumption by the brain. But even assuming that global blood flow increases with brain size (which is logical), the question is where in the brain that blood is flowing. To the developing speech centers? To the primitive limbic regions? To the cortex? Or . . . to the "religion center."?

The Chart just gives and idea of what the major shift points are in brain organization:
1) a flat run from the chimplike protohumans to gracile to H. Erectus (our days of fear)
2) H.erectus
3) Early (ie Archaic) Homo

If millions of years of selection have an impact on hardwiring (and if they don't there's no point in trying to find an evolutionary side to the problem), then we spent a long time trapped in Africa with other protohumans that were much bigger. This 6-8 million years (that ended only 1-2 million years ago) must have had a bigger impact on hardwiring than the stage of being a victorious H. Erectus and a lot more than the impact of becoming wired like archaic H sapiens about 200,000 years ago (which might be where abstract thought met language).
 

Ruv Draba

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I think it would be a mistake to conflate superstition (a belief in the nonmaterial) with religion (a way of organising and making sense of such belief), or religion with spirituality (a way of finding meaning and purpose in our lives, whatever we might believe).

Every culture has its myths and its superstitions, but it doesn't take everyone in the culture to believe them for them to propagate. Further, we know that a child's mind behaves very differently to an adult mind. Children are predisposed to believe whatever authority figures tell them, for instance -- even when such information is patently untrue.

In the light of what we've learned about the diversity of human minds, I think that it would be a silly and inhumane mistake to confuse a cultural tendency toward superstition with a psychological mandate for it as a definition of normality.
 

Dawnstorm

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LaceWing said:
Since religious practice is primarily social, in my experience, the question of being wired for religious thought or activity would be concerned significantly with aspects of our social brain. We're wired to be social, talkative, and curious about cause and effect; I see religion as an emergent side-effect of these capacities.

I tend to view it much like this; but at this point I'm still trying to figure out what a "religion centre" in the brain would govern. On the one hand there's metaphor (things I can't perceive work like things I can perceive) and there's conviction in the face of adversity.

My point is this, but I'm not yet sure that it's a strike against a "religion centre" in the brain: Compare speaking and praying: When you're speaking, you're really speaking. You're producing words that I can understand and react to. But when you're praying, are you really praying? Let's say I'm in a Catholic Church, and I'm going through the motions of a "Hail Mary" (which I've done before). I know I wasn't really praying; I was kneeling, I was bowing my head, and I was mumbling the words, and that was that. If there is a "religion centre" in the brain, it either didn't fire, or I was mistaken about myself, and I was really praying. But if a "religion centre" fires, it must fire in addition to the things that make me kneel, bow my head and speak formalised text. Religion cannot be reduced to behaviour, as behaviour can be faked. So a religion centre might fire even if I'm not engaged in any overt religious activity, say when I'm eating an orange. But this line of thinking leads to "ecstatic, mystical experiences" which are explicitly not the point of this thread (ColoradoGuy in response to TerzaRima). Or we are approaching "intention" (in the phenomenological sense) rather than "behaviour"; which sounds - in the end - like a consciousness problem, which I doubt we're in a position to talk about in terms of the brain, but I said, I'm not a brain expert.

I think it would be a mistake to conflate superstition (a belief in the nonmaterial) with religion (a way of organising and making sense of such belief), or religion with spirituality (a way of finding meaning and purpose in our lives, whatever we might believe).

Every culture has its myths and its superstitions, but it doesn't take everyone in the culture to believe them for them to propagate. Further, we know that a child's mind behaves very differently to an adult mind. Children are predisposed to believe whatever authority figures tell them, for instance -- even when such information is patently untrue.

In the light of what we've learned about the diversity of human minds, I think that it would be a silly and inhumane mistake to confuse a cultural tendency toward superstition with a psychological mandate for it as a definition of normality.

That there is a language centre in the brain doesn't mean that we're all speaking English. It only says that - whenever we speak - a certain area in brain is "active" (= flooded with blood). This is part of the old debate: Is atheism a belief? If there is a religion centre in the brain, we could have an atheist say "There is no god," and then see if the "religion centre" triggers. That would be neat. But it doesn't work the other way round; we can't check whether something fires with the believer that doesn't fire with the atheist; that would be circular: We know the atheist is not religious because the thing doesn't fire, and we know the thing is a "religion centre" because it did not fire with an atheist.

If we're not defining religiosity, we're stuck with a Wittgensteinian family resemblance and that's kind of hard to correlate to brain states.

Colorado Guy said:
Thus religion becomes an effect of the way we are, part of our brain's pathways. This is a different thing than saying humans turn to religion to explain what they don't understand.

Here's the thing: I'd argue that we'd need to know if "explaining what we can't understand" is a function of religion before we can tackle the question of hardwiring at all. In other words, I see no reason that "We feel the need to explain things we don't understand, because that's the way our brains are wired," and "we are religious, because that's the way our brains are wired," could not overlap. The difference is that the former is more conrete and thus easier to tackle than the latter.
 

steveg144

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How Our Brains Create God

Apparently our brains have "a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times." This does not bode well for advancing the interests of reason and science in the continuing economic crisis -- especially if you believe, as I do, that what we're seeing now is just the beginning.


Born Believers: How Your Brain Creates God
http://www.newscientist.com/article...ers-how-your-brain-creates-god.html?full=true
WHILE many institutions collapsed during the Great Depression that began in 1929, one kind did rather well. During this leanest of times, the strictest, most authoritarian churches saw a surge in attendance.

This anomaly was documented in the early 1970s, but only now is science beginning to tell us why. It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.
See also:
The Credit Crunch Could Be A Boon For Irrational Belief
http://www.newscientist.com/article...ch-could-be-a-boon-for-irrational-belief.html
 

Don

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Sounds about right. Religious fervor isn't reserved for churches, however. Pied Pipers come in all shapes and sizes, and the rats will follow anyone who plays a catchy tune.
 

brokenfingers

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Apparently our brains have "a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times." This does not bode well for advancing the interests of reason and science in the continuing economic crisis -- especially if you believe, as I do, that what we're seeing now is just the beginning.
I think it's a built-in species self-defense mechanism.

By relinquishing "control" to another, higher power, we absolve ourselves of responsibility and all the ensuing hard, demanding tasks that entails. As well as stress, worry and responsibility.

But, here's the kicker - I also believe that there's more to it than that. I'm not saying it doesn't work. (And I haven't read the articles yet so I have no idea if this is said or not.)

I truly think that the mind is a powerful and largely unknown thing. There are many instances we've all experienced where, when you stop trying too hard, when you let yourself go and relax, when you change your focus to something else - you actually accomplish a "hard" task with ease.

I think this ties into it somehow. Some call it faith, some call it other things (like the "laws of attraction" etc.), but I think that sometimes, by "believing" in something, we can actually set about on the course to a solution, whether we know it or not.
 

James81

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I don't think the mind creates God in hard times.

I think that the people you see massively flocking to church during hard times are people who actually believe in God anyway, but they only want to seek him DURING hard times.

I don't think their belief in God actually hinges on hard times...I think the belief is already there. I just think that most people don't think to be religious until times are hard.
 

Plot Device

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This does not bode well for advancing the interests of reason and science in the continuing economic crisis --

Thinking like this does not bode well for mending the divide between reasonable people of science and reasonable people of faith.

BTW: Scully rocks.
 

steveg144

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Sounds about right. Religious fervor isn't reserved for churches, however. Pied Pipers come in all shapes and sizes, and the rats will follow anyone who plays a catchy tune.

That's my concern as well. If the 1930s taught us anything, it's that the Father Coughlins and the Aimee Semple McPhersons were the least dangerous of the various Pied Pipers that were running around loose.

What do you suppose would happen if a Man On A White Horse were to show up on the scene and tell Americans: I can bring back your 401Ks to their old value, and much much more. I can bring back all the jobs, and make the USA Number 1 again in every way. I can give you back your pride and self-respect. All you need to do in return is ... follow me.

In the current circumstances, I fear he'd have no shortage of followers.
 

Plot Device

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Sounds about right. Religious fervor isn't reserved for churches, however. Pied Pipers come in all shapes and sizes, and the rats will follow anyone who plays a catchy tune.


big25.gif
 

Plot Device

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That's my concern as well. If the 1930s taught us anything, it's that the Father Coughlins and the Aimee Semple McPhersons were the least dangerous of the various Pied Pipers that were running around loose.

What do you suppose would happen if a Man On A White Horse were to show up on the scene and tell Americans: I can bring back your 401Ks to their old value, and much much more. I can bring back all the jobs, and make the USA Number 1 again in every way. I can give you back your pride and self-respect. All you need to do in return is ... follow me.

In the current circumstances, I fear he'd have no shortage of followers.

Except for those who might fear there'd be three more horses to follow.
 

Plot Device

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I don't think the mind creates God in hard times.

I think that the people you see massively flocking to church during hard times are people who actually believe in God anyway, but they only want to seek him DURING hard times.

I don't think their belief in God actually hinges on hard times...I think the belief is already there. I just think that most people don't think to be religious until times are hard.

icon14.gif
 

donroc

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Years ago, I read a book by a psychiatrist who was in the Nazi concentration camps. He concluded that those most likely to survive had either a strong belief in God or were well-organized, specifically the communists, to help their fellow members survive.
 

GeorgeK

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I'm confused Steve. Are you trying to assert that there is no God? Or are you saying that there are a lot of confused people who during times of crisis are easily swayed by false prophets? Or are you saying something else?
 

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Except for those who might fear there'd be three more horses to follow.

And those others -- otherwise sensible people, people you'd see at work or in the neighborhood or in the checkout line at the supermarket -- who would rejoice at those three other horses following on behind, those would would rejoice that their precious, prophesied End Times had finally arrived to relieve them of the awful burdens of freedom and having to deal with the million and one ambiguities of the real world.
 

steveg144

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I'm confused Steve. Are you trying to assert that there is no God? Or are you saying that there are a lot of confused people who during times of crisis are easily swayed by false prophets? Or are you saying something else?

I am repeating what the article says at much greater length:

1. human brains seem to have an innate capacity and need to manufacture gods in order to deal with the world.

2. this need seems to increase dramatically during hard times.

If you're asking my own personal thoughts on the topic, then I'd say you summed them up nicely: I believe there is no God, and further that a lot of confused people will be easily swayed by false prophets during times of crisis.
 

Plot Device

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I was referring to Rats as in the original story. YMMV. :roll:


I know the story. But the point is that if you're going to draw an analogy with multiple symbolic references, each symbol has a referent.

In this instance the referent to the rats would be people who believe in God.

Nice. REAL nice. About as nice as saying "you people" or "these people" or "those people."
 

Plot Device

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I believe there is no God, and further that a lot of confused people will be easily swayed by false prophets during times of crisis.

That's fine. That's an unoffensive position to take.

What I find offensive is:

belief in a deity = unreasonable thinking

And I also take offense at:

people who believe in a deity = people who block the advances of science and reason

And I suspect Isaac Newton would be equally offended.
 

GeorgeK

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Scientifically, the article is utter tripe and rife with non-sequitors. It is blatant religious opinion disguised as science and is another false prophet in an of itself.

With regard to your own opinion, we have free will. You are free to not believe.
 
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