Religion may be a survival mechanism. So are we born to believe?Ian Sample
So why do so many people believe? And why has belief proved so resilient as scientific progress unravels the mysteries of plagues, floods, earthquakes and our understanding of the universe? When the evidence is pieced together, it seems that evolution prepared what society later moulded: a brain to believe.
One factor in the development of religious belief was the rapid expansion of our brains as we emerged as a species, says Todd Murphy, a behavioural neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Canada. As the frontal and temporal lobes grew larger, our ability to extrapolate into the future and form memories developed. "When this happened, we acquired some very new and dramatic cognitive skills. For example, we could see a dead body and see ourselves in that position one day. We could think 'That's going to be me,'" he says. That awareness of impending death prompted questions: why are we here? What happens when we die? Answers were needed.
As well as providing succour for those troubled by the existential dilemma, religion, or at least a primitive spirituality, would have played another important role as human societies developed. By providing contexts for a moral code, religious beliefs encouraged bonding within groups, which in turn bolstered the group's chances of survival, says Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist turned psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Some believe that religion was so successful in improving group survival that a tendency to believe was positively selected for in our evolutionary history. Others maintain that religious belief is too modern to have made any difference.
"What I find more plausible is that rather than religion itself offering any advantage in evolutionary terms, it's a byproduct of other cognitive capacities we evolved, which did have advantages," says Boyer.
Psychological tests Boyer has run on children go some way to proving our natural tendency to believe. "If you look at three- to five-year-olds, when they do something naughty, they have an intuition that everyone knows they've been naughty, regardless of whether they have seen or heard what they've done. It's a false belief, but it's good preparation for belief in an entity that is moral and knows everything," he says. "The idea of invisible agents with a moral dimension who are watching you is highly attention-grabbing to us."
Childish belief is one thing, but religious belief is embraced by people of all ages and is by no means the preserve of the uneducated. According to Boyer, the persistence of belief into adulthood is at least in part down to a presumption. "When you're in a belief system, it's not that you stop asking questions, it's that they become irrelevant. Why don't you ask yourself about the existence of gravity? It's because a lot of the stuff you do every day presupposes it and it seems to work, so where's the motivation to question it?" he says. "In belief systems, you tend to enter this strange state where you start thinking there must be something to it because everybody around you is committed to it. The general question of whether it's true is relegated."