Wired for God?

Question from Dave:
I’m new to this site so forgive me if I’m asking something that has already been asked. I am of the opinion that religion is genetically programmed into humans from birth. I have a number of reasons for believing this and I’m wondering if this is a topic already covered and if so how do I find it?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think we’ve covered it here yet, so thanks for asking.

Religion per se is not likely “programmed” into humans, but some of our instincts do make it very easy for religion to take root. When we’re young we instinctively keep close to our parents and other adult guardians, follow them, keep them in sight, and importantly trust what they say. This is definitely a good thing because it’s how we learn to look before crossing the road and to keep away from fire, but the content of the message is irrelevant to its impact. If we’re told from a young age by every adult we know that God is watching, we believe it before we have the critical thinking skills to decide whether it’s likely to be true. Once that happens, the belief persists even after the critical thinking starts because God becomes a premise in our thinking rather than a conclusion; it’s simply assumed. It can be very hard for a person in this position to even accept that the assumption can be challenged.

Another way our wiring is very inviting to religious faith is the concept of agency. From the caveman days onward, it’s been important to us to know whether what we see has a deliberate purpose to it. If a patch of long grass isn’t moving like all the rest, there might be a tiger in it. If there are carved rocks and tools on the ground, other humans are nearby and you’re on their turf. Unfortunately this is very easy to mis-apply to phenomena we don’t understand, like the orbit of the moon for cavemen or quantum mechanics for us. We tend to assume that everything with any ordered action to it at all has some agency behind it, and when we know humans can’t be behind it we imagine a sort of uber-human, which is how gods are generally visualised. Learning about science helps to dispel ideas like this, as we discover the natural causes of things that otherwise seem designed.

So while there probably isn’t a God gene or a God lobe, the brain is very well positioned to believe in such things, and religions have taken full advantage to their great benefit.

2 thoughts on “Wired for God?”

  1. Hi Dave, I’ll offer my opinion as well.

    I think we are “hardwired” for a few things that lead to religion, but not hardwired for religion itself.
    1. As children, humans instinctively listen to adults and positions of authority as deliverers of fact. Children often instantly believe what adults say, if they say it with conviction. In other words, we are not born incredibly skeptical.

    2. Humans are very curious, we like to learn, especially about the world around us. Maybe even more than liking to learn, is liking to understand. We love to understand things and how they work. Introducing a god as an explanation to the things that we don’t understand is a comfort that satisfies (or seems to, for many) our innate curiousity and thirst for understanding.

    3. We yearn for self importance and self significance. Humans seem to have a ridiculous desire to be special. Not only special among other animals, but personally special. The world’s popular monotheistic religions deliver this. Men are special, above all animals. Note that in many religious texts, men are special above women as well, as the writer of these texts were usually men. Believers are special among all humans. Humans have a divine purpose, to serve the deity. You are eternally and unconditionally LOVED by this deity because you are of its chosen creation: humanity. (I imagine this is why many religious folk have asked atheists, “so what’s the point of living if you don’t believe?”)

    4. And finally, the number one biggest factor that leads to religious belief. Our fear of our own human mortality. Humans are self aware and intelligent enough to recognize death, and to understand that it is an eventuality. It’s a terrifying concept, and it hurts to think about for many. Mankind has put up a shield to this fear by creating the concept of immortality (for mortals, which is ironic). The immortal soul, reincarnation. There are many different forms of the mask people put over death, to make it not seem permanent. What better way to appeal to our biggest fear than to convince ourselves that there is no reason to fear it?

    So that being said, I think becoming religious is perfectly understandable, and hardly avoidable for many. But religion itself is not hardwired into us. Instead, religion exploits human predispositions. It’s tough to let go of because it takes root deep into people’s psyches and severely affects their perception of reality.

    Well, that’s my take on it. Hope you enjoyed :).

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