Born believers: How your brain creates God | New Scientist
The origin of religious belief is something of a mystery, but in recent years scientists have started to make suggestions. One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation.
An alternative being put forward by Atran and others is that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works.
That's not to say that the human brain has a "god module" in the same way that it has a language module that evolved specifically for acquiring language. Rather, some of the unique cognitive capacities that have made us so successful as a species also work together to create a tendency for supernatural thinking. "There's now a lot of evidence that some of the foundations for our religious beliefs are hard-wired," says Bloom.
So how does the brain conjure up gods? One of the key factors, says Bloom, is the fact that our brains have separate cognitive systems for dealing with living things - things with minds, or at least volition - and inanimate objects.
These findings also challenge the idea that religion is an adaptation. "Yes, religion helps create large societies - and once you have large societies you can outcompete groups that don't," Atran says. "But it arises as an artefact of the ability to build fictive worlds. I don't think there's an adaptation for religion any more than there's an adaptation to make airplanes."
Ultimately, discovering the true origins of something as complex as religion will be difficult. There is one experiment, however, that could go a long way to proving whether Boyer, Bloom and the rest are onto something profound. Ethical issues mean it won't be done any time soon, but that hasn't stopped people speculating about the outcome.
It goes something like this. Left to their own devices, children create their own "creole" languages using hard-wired linguistic brain circuits. A similar experiment would provide our best test of the innate religious inclinations of humans. Would a group of children raised in isolation spontaneously create their own religious beliefs? "I think the answer is yes," says Bloom.
It simply seems very creditable to me that there is something wired in since it is so pervasive and stubborn.