To say religion is a contentious issue may qualify as a serious contender for understatement of the millennium. The Western World in particular has experienced a greater number of religious scandals in recent years, along with a growing and more vocal secular movement. But religion is not a recent phenomenon and, from Aristotle to Aquinas, has always been at the forefront of attempts to explain our existence. It is only relatively recently, with the advent of modern scientific discovery, that these traditional modes of faith have been challenged by a new and empirical worldview. And yet, faith and religion continue to hold a prominent place in the hearts and minds of billions of people across the globe. So just what is it that makes them such attractive concepts, and why are they so prevalent throughout human culture?
What’s immediately clear, is that the origins of our obsession with faith are mired deep in evolutionary history. Indeed, it all seems to relate to a preoccupation with divining answers to potentially complex problems. This so-called ‘cognitive imperative’ has been identified by various prominent behavioral biologists and is thought to have been vital in early hominid evolution. Allow me to explain…
Imagine that you are ancestral man. You’re sitting around, frantically rubbing sticks together in a desperate attempt to discover fire, when you hear a rustle in the bushes behind you. Chances are it’s the wind, or some other impersonal force which bears you no inherent malice. But there’s always the possibility, however remote, that it’s a predator sneaking up behind you ready to pounce. Now, if you accept the first assumption, then, most of the time, you’d be right and the noise would be nothing to worry about. But eventually you’d be wrong. Dead wrong. On the other hand, if you assume that a rustle in the bushes indicates the presence of a predator, then although you will often appear unduly paranoid, you will dramatically improve your chances of survival. And, since it’s better to be paranoid than dead, there has been a persistent evolutionary trend to select for a hard-wired predisposition towards over-inference in the human brain.
This insatiable lust to establish causality provided us with ability to identify numerous important patterns in the surrounding world, leading to our rapid expansion and eventual arrival as the most dominant and adaptable species on Earth. However, the downside to all of this heightened sensory sensitivity, is that we have a tendency to establish connections where none actually exist. This is particularly true if we are dealing with a problem in which no other explanation is immediately forthcoming. As such, when we begin to examine exceedingly complicated questions, like the nature of existence and the origins of the universe, there is an inherent inclination to jump at the first and most readily available interpretation And this is where faith comes in.
Of course, whist evolutionary theories are all very well and good, we really need some sound empirical evidence to back them up. Fortunately, it exists and is actually pretty robust. In one rather distressing but pertinent example, scientists asked a group of nine year olds to play a game. They had to choose between two boxes, one of which held a reward. But importantly, they were told that during the process they would be in the presence of an invisible agent ‘Princess Alice’, who would make a sign if they touched the wrong box. During the experiment, if a child was at risk of making the wrong decision, the experimenter would furtively flick the light on and off, or cause a picture of the wall to fall, thereby providing the supposed signal. In response, almost all of the children changed their choice, readily accepting the existence of a higher power in order to justify the established causal link. Indeed, this demonstrates that, even at an extremely young age, humans are willing to accept seemingly implausible explanations to avoid being unable to identify the root cause of an event.
As expected, behavioural responses that confirm the existence of a human pre-disposition towards belief suggest the presence of an underlying genetic influence. Evidence to support this supposition comes from the work of American geneticist Dean Hamer who, in his 2004 book ‘The God Gene’, claimed to have located one of the genes responsible for spirituality. The gene in question, termed VMAT2, is responsible for regulating the levels of monoamines in the brain. Hamer postulates that monoamines, such as dopamine and serotonin, control our exposure to various human emotions, including anxiety, and that variation in VMAT2 activity can thus govern individual susceptibility to spiritual experience.
To see how these putative genetic changes correlate with established behavioural patterns, a number of scientists have been doing some really interesting work with neurological imaging. Noted author Sam Harris and his colleagues have used fMRI scans to study the brains of religious and non-religious adherents. What is fascinating, is that Harris has identified comparable signal maps in both groups when they are presented with statements that they either a) know to be factually true, or b) believe to be true. This means that the same regions of the brain are working, and at comparable levels, when a religious person is asked whether they believe in the existence of eagles or angels. Put simply, when a religious believer says that he or she believes, those beliefs are, to their mind, indistinguishable from established empirical facts.
This latest foray into the biology of belief probably provides a viable explanation for the ongoing difficulties in reconciling religious and non-religious viewpoints. However it’s unlikely to stop anyone from trying, particularly since Harris has recently identified what he has termed ‘the blasphemy reaction’. Essentially, when an atheist and believer disagree the brain’s pleasure centers light up. Yes, as bizarre as it may sound, we actually seem to get off on our religious disagreements. And, with that being the case, I imagine we can all look forward to plenty more late night debates.