Is God a byproduct of the brain?

An impulse to create religion exists in every human society. Why should this be true? Some believers say that we have an inborn sense of the God who created us. Some non-believers list survival advantages, making God a winner in the Darwinian sweepstakes. The adaptationists are closer to the mark, but they’re not right, either.

The convincing argument is that God is really a byproduct of the human psychology we’ve all inherited from our primitive ancestors.

That an actual God gave us the ability to sense his existence might be a more defensible claim if it weren’t for the fact that there have been thousands of religions.

The fact that we humans have not one God but many gods supports the notion that it isn’t “God” that exists, or why wouldn’t we all have a common perception of just One, everywhere in the world? It makes much more sense to suggest that, while the impulse to posit a god-figure is universal, the form of that god-figure differs from culture to culture. This makes more sense than it does to suggest that there is one actual God who plays favourites with a select fraction of his human creation.

But the implausibility of the existence of a universal God in no way explains the persistence of the god impulse. We need another reason, or other reasons, for that.

Some evolutionists argue that belief in God has certain desirable benefits for the believers, making us feel safer from natural harms or human enemies, or enhancing our commitments to our communities, or giving us comforting illusions of purpose or meaning. All of these benefits certainly exist for many believers, but that doesn’t explain how the belief in God the protector, the designer, or the redeemer arose in the first place.

Why create gods? Nothing in the nature of the emotional group hug that is the reported super-natural high of the religious experience requires positing a non-material, eternal entity which created the universe and all that’s in it. The god impulse can’t be explained backwards by looking at the god effects. Neither time nor evolution works in that direction.

Others claim that God is the creation of the religious caste, that priests and shamans — not to mention Popes and TV evangelists — have always recognized the benefit to themselves of religious hierarchies in which they are at the top. This, too, is treating the effects as the cause. Once religions existed, of course some people exploited the creation of faith to personal advantage. But it’s just not credible to suggest that one day, in every human society, someone sat down and thought, “I need a way to control the suckers, so I’ll invent a magical world inhabited by a super-being.” Religions may have strengthened and persisted because of their appeal to a ruling class, but they weren’t created for that purpose.

Religion is a meme, others say, a social gene-equivalent, surviving by being passed down as an idea from one mind to another. This may well be true once religion exists, but again, the meme theory doesn’t satisfactorily address how religions originated.

So we still have the unanswered question: Why do religions exist?

Without the gratuitous and circular argument that religions exist because God created them so we could experience him/her, without the backwards causation of gene and meme theories, what’s left that makes sense is that we’re asking the wrong question, or at least asking the question wrong.

According to Steven Pinker, the question is really not why is there religion but what are the activities of the human brain, of the way it processes the world it senses, that lead to the god impulse? In other words, of what natural processes is belief in a divine world a secondary consequence — not an adaptation, but a “spandrel,” a byproduct of adaptation?

Why is our blood red? Is there some adaptive advantage to having red blood, maybe as camouflage against autumn leaves? Well, that’s unlikely, and we don’t need any other adaptive explanation, either. The explanation for why our blood is red is that it is adaptive to have a molecule that can carry oxygen, mainly hemoglobin. Hemoglobin happens to be red when it’s oxygenated, so the redness of our blood is a byproduct of the chemistry of carrying oxygen. The color per se was not selected for.

Pinker has more sympathy for the “feels good” and “good for the elite” ideas than I’ve given above. Still, I’m not confident that social benefits are truly adaptive in the same way that processing oxygen is adaptive. The adaptation and selection metaphors may be getting stretched a little thin when one thinks of them in this way.

There is another explanation, offered by Pinker and others, that satisfies the adaptation vs. spandrel distinction without undue speculation or cause-effect manipulation, and that is the idea that we have brains which are hard-wired to perceive minds in others and, as a result, to seek analogous agencies behind the physical forces in the world.

Pinker puts the first point this way:

I impute minds to those people. I can’t literally know what someone else is thinking or feeling, but I assume that they’re thinking or feeling something, that they have a mind, and I explain their behavior in terms of their beliefs and their desires. That’s intuitive psychology. There is evidence that intuitive psychology is a distinct part of our psychological make-up.

Once we have given “an invisible entity called the mind” to other people, the creation of a non-material identity is not far away:

… it’s a short step to imagining minds that exist independently of bodies. After all, it’s not as if you could reach out and touch someone else’s mind; you are always making an inferential leap. It’s just one extra inferential step to say that a mind is not invariably housed in a body.

Once we’ve attributed minds to others, and we’ve next conceived of minds without bodies, it’s psychologically inevitable that we will project immaterial minds as the agencies behind material phenomena, from lightning, to disease, to a successful hunting trip on the early savannah.

And once this process has given psychological credibility to the god impulse, all the other secondary social forces — community solidarity, political discipline, the sustenance of an elite, and the rest — come into play and create what we know today as formal religions.

Seen this way, it may not have taken God to create us, but it certainly took us to create gods.


2 thoughts on “Is God a byproduct of the brain?

  1. Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God is more concerned with the question of how primitive religious impulses led to monotheism and provides a thorough historical answer to “Why is there ‘a God’ ?” Where he does discuss the religious impulse he very much follows the theories of evolutionary psychology which relate the natural operation of the brain to cultural evolution as in Dawkins meme idea.

  2. While Wright’s book sounds like a good read, I’m most interested in how “the natural operation of the brain” generates our basic psychology in the first place — which is why I’m so attracted to Pinker’s discussions of “agency,” and why I’m slogging through Dennett’s Consciousness Explained this weekend.

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