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.