Most psychologists believe and even some theologians at least consider the possibility that religious belief has been part of the human survival strategy for millennia. Religion, and along with it belief in a deity or deities, has served to codify laws and exhort populations to order and obedience. God sits at the apex of any hierarchy. Humans need rules and laws to prevent anarchy, and religion has been a useful tool to achieve this end. Rules and regulations have helped mankind cooperate with and respect (some of the time) other human life.
Our ability to predict the future, and with it our own eventual and inevitable deaths has served to preserve belief in an afterlife. This belief serves to partially mitigate the awful truth of an absolute, final, no way out, end of our own individual existence. It is extremely difficult to imagine that when we die, every thought and emotion, every memory we have, every opinion, moral and ethic we hold dear, dies with us. Never again will we see our friends or loved ones, no more will we enjoy the fresh air or the sunrise or catch up with the latest gossip – no more will we be a part of this world we love and cling to so much. It is impossible for us self-important, self-centred and self-absorbed humans to understand what it is like to cease to exist, never to wake up and see the light of day ever again… ever… for all eternity. So the promise of an afterlife just has to be a fantastically attractive proposition.
However, in the more developed West, as scientific knowledge has replaced blind belief, the need for a deity is rapidly evaporating.
Religion is often seen as being incompatible with evolutionary science, but I would disagree, for the reasons stated above. Fear of the wrath of God is a powerful incentive to behave, although it’s worth noting that other intelligent animals such as apes and skilled predators like lions also cooperate without the burden of religion.
The sense of being watched by an all powerful, all knowing, all seeing sky pixie may indeed have been partly responsible for making sure humans behaved altruistically, but we must recognize that altruism is also part of the survival strategy and that cooperation has enabled us to become a highly successful and organized species.
All major religions emphasise the importance of morality in order to avoid God’s wrath. The possibility of punishment, especially the eternal fire and brimstone variety, is a powerful deterrent. The possibility that in the finality of death, everyone will be called to account is, like it or not, ever present. In evolutionary terms, this can be a very good thing as it fosters respect and obedience whilst at the same time lowering the risk of loss of reputation and worse, liberty. In addition, no one wants to take the chance of being excluded from the group.
The ancient Romans and Greeks believed their Gods meted out punishment to mortals when it suited them – likewise, Christian God. Even pagan cultures hold that individuals and groups will be held to account by spirits that visit punishment on offenders, and even today, the vast majority of people have a nagging feeling that even when they are misbehaving on their own, without any possibility of being caught, there is still someone watching. Uncanny isn’t it? It’s certainly not logical or rational, but yet it persists, even in people who have no religious or supernatural belief whatsoever.
One of the paradoxes of religious belief is that there is a constant, deeply personal debate we’ve all had from time to time going on in our brains about the existence of God. The actor W C Fields, a lifelong atheist, asked for a Bible on his deathbed. Why? “Insurance” was his answer.
Ignorance of the cause of lightening storms, floods, plagues, famines, invasions, may have been the catalyst for erroneous belief systems. Certainly belief in an all-powerful and moral God might be an attractive and comforting idea during times of hardship in human history – it did in the Great Depression of the 1920’s. People are more prone to seeking supernatural help when times are tough and when hope is in short supply and humans are prone to turn to religion when there are no other avenues open.
The current wisdom is that the appreciation of reward or punishment connected to behaviour is part and parcel of Darwinian Natural Selection. Good behaviour has long-term benefits in terms of collective safety and security as well as economic benefits. Thus, over generations, the ideé fixe of God has become part of our collective conscious – it’s hardwired into our physical brains in the same way the protection of children and fear of the unknown is intuitive.
There is evidence that negative events tend to have a more potent impact on our thinking and behaviour than positive ones – for example 9/11 is a classic example of how the whole world’s thinking changed overnight. On an individual level, loss has proved to have almost twice the effect on the psyche as gain. Humans don’t like loss –they tend to dwell on loss much more than they do when they win.
Overall, women tend to be more religious than men – they are more likely to pray than men. A survey in the UK revealed that 23% of women prayed every day compared to 14% of men. Conversely, the study showed that 56% of men did not believe in God compared with only 46% of women. This difference is of some significance and points to biological, physiological (even hormonal) and psychological differences being linked to religious belief.
In Muslim countries, more men attend religious services than women but it’s thought that the reasons for this disparity are cultural. In Christian countries, women could be more drawn to Christianity because its doctrine is one of protection of the powerless (“…blessed are the meek…”) and women are more used to asking for assistance, particularly from other women. Women prefer company, which religion can offer – they don’t need the cave time!
Mankind has a depressing history of religious wars – there’s one going on at the moment! Religious wars promote religious leaders, who in many cases started them! Sometimes, religious unrest results in the establishment of a religious state. IS (Daesh) is the latest example. It’s surprisingly easy for those with the gift of oratory and leadership to start the ball rolling.
Religion even exercises influence over states that at face value claim to be secular (Russia, France.) Religion is most powerful where it has been longest established (Italy, Ireland.) This influence often flies in the face of common sense – Latin America being a prime example due to the willful refusal of its inhabitants to use contraceptives – uncontrolled population explosion and its resultant poverty, thanks to a man in a pointy hat who lives in a palace, denies the right to birth control to those that desperately need it. This is rule is not up for debate and is backed up by centuries old doctrine. Religion has in the past prevented the development of economically and technologically viable states.
Yet… there is no getting away from the fact that belief in a god helps us to value other human beings – even those who hold different religious beliefs. But here’s the irony… It cannot be denied that religion continues to cause and add to conflict! If everyone were able to see the world from God’s point of view, including non-believers, the world might just be a better place – because God is supposed to value all people equally. (He doesn’t. Obviously.)
Take the hypothetical question of the choice between saving your own child or the lives of five strangers. You can (hypothetically) do this by the simple act of flipping a switch that will send a runaway train down one track or another. It’s a dilemma none of us really expects to be faced with, but it’s one that requires considerable thought and soul searching.
A explanation though, is within our grasp and owes more to scientific understanding than to moral choice. The answer lies deep within the brain. As we evolved into thinking beings, able to consider the meaning of our own existence, the temporal lobes stretched and expanded and with this expansion, our ability to visualize and imagine became sharper.
From praying to gods to meditating with gurus to being at one with the universe, entering into spirituality may be down to our brain’s ability to just daydream.
Throughout human history, many people have claimed to have mystical experiences – from Moses’ vision of the burning bush to Saint Paul’s epiphany on the road to Tarsus to Saint Bernadette’s vision of the Virgin Mary in a damp grotto at Lourdes – all are results of activity, albeit unusual activity, in the complex structure of the electro-chemical organ that contains our consciousness. Individuals who have experienced deeply spiritual connections often find their lives permanently changed.
Now researchers have found that the doors that prevent the rest of us from sharing these profound experiences may be temporarily or permanently closed by inhibitory mechanisms in the brain. This makes sense, but to fully understand the mechanisms of spirituality we must also try to understand how to access them.
I have written at length in previous articles on Group Behaviour and Religion about the techniques of mass hypnosis and group control that unlock these doors, but I am still no nearer to understanding the mechanisms in the brain that cause them to open.
According to scientists in the US and New Zealand, our ability to enter into spirituality lies in a specific region of the brain which is associated with religious experiences.
In my opinion, the existence of such an area and its function is not enough to prove God exists. It is however a pointer to an evolutionary ‘god spot.’ In any case, a single area of the brain is unlikely to be responsible for these experiences. More likely, other areas must also come into play, including those responsible for memory, imagination, and emotion. This is backed up by other researchers who also realise these experiences are by their very nature, complex.
Working in tandem, researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand, believe that instead of a specific area of the brain being activated, it is rather the suppression of the brain’s regulatory and inhibitory functions which enables it to open up to mystical and hitherto unexplained spiritual or mystical experience.
The researchers in Chicago looked at over a hundred brain-damaged veterans of the Vietnam War, all of whom had undergone a battery of cognitive tests both before and after the war. Comparing brain scans with the veterans experiences of unity with their comrades, instances of profound joy or feelings of being able to transcend time and space, the researchers found that those with damage to the ‘god spot’ region of the brain (in the frontal and temporal lobes) were more likely to report mystical experiences compared with those without damage to these regions. [This report is published in the journal Live Science.]
Dr Jordan Grafman of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago says that the frontal lobes’ (the most evolved areas of the human brain that help control and make sense of the perceptual input we get from the world) inhibitory functions are suppressed so that our perception of mystical experience can be increased.
Further, Dr. Grafman says that other brain states associated with stress or distress, extreme circumstances, prior strong beliefs, and heightened emotions (in addition to mind altering medications) could all lead to a higher probability of having a mystical experience, since all these states may affect the key frontal lobe regions involved in modulating interpretations of perceptual experience. These findings are published in full in the journal Neuropsychologia.
However, this research points only to mystical experiences associated with damaged areas of the brain and takes little account of those people with no brain damage. But in 2009 a study of a multi-faith group showed the same areas of the brain used to interpret the feelings and intentions of other people lit up when volunteers were asked to ponder some religious and moral problems. When asked to concentrate on statements like ‘God’s will guides me’ or the idea that the world is guided by God’s will alone, the lateral frontal lobes of the brain (those used by humans when they empathise with each other) were indisputably activated. When they were asked to think about God’s emotional state or God’s wrath and vengeance, the medial temporal and frontal gyrii also lit up. These are the same areas that help us to judge the emotions of others. These findings have been replicated by researchers at the University of Missouri.
So… it begs the question, is this why we believe in God? Is belief in a deity simply a matter of evolution and the way our brains have developed?
Religion may just be a way of satisfying some basic human needs and desires. These desires may even go some way to explaining why religion and religious doctrine is so often contradictory. Religion may have developed as a philosophical approach to meeting human contradictions rather than an exploration of the divine.
Certainly religion serves to bring families closer (it does) or make people feel part of a group (also true) and this theory is backed up by Psychologist Professor Steven Reiss.
Reiss goes one step further and claims that religion is often contradictory because its greater meaning has to appeal to so many different facets of human nature. People who have nothing might take comfort from the promise of eternal salvation in Paradise, whereas those already blessed with wealth and power may draw comfort from the fact that they are already being rewarded for their [dubious] righteousness. Likewise, those who seek forgiveness or even vengeance.
Professor Reiss says “It doesn’t matter whether God exists or not as religious belief is aimed at fulfilling our basic human desires. If you want to build a religion that will have a lot of followers, you have to address all of the human desires in strong form and weak form. If you insist the only way to reach God is through meditation and study then extroverts will stay away while if you teach the opposite then introverts will stay away. You have to have a religion that will support the values of all these people.”
“Previous attempts to explain religion in terms of psychology have been too narrow by focusing on its provision of a moral framework or a way of coping with death.”
Researchers at North Carolina State University have also found that belief in all-powerful and moralising gods tended to appear at times of hardship in human history.
The North Carolina researchers studied the origins of 583 religious societies around the world. Comparing these to climate, rainfall and plant growth data for each area to build up a historical picture of the conditions each society was living in, the findings may help to shed light on how religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam first emerged and why stories of hardship play such a central role.
For penitent people, the wrath of the Biblical God will have some meaning, but if you are a pacifist, it is more likely you will be turned off by the idea of a wrathful god. A god that turns the other cheek would probably be more to their taste. Differences in individual desires can influence certain people and their choice of one religion over another. The teaching of the Catholic Church, specifically the idea that we are all part of a ‘flock’ for example, is a big draw card for those who have a strong desire for family and community.
A strong desire for independence on the other hand pushes individuals towards self-reliance and often atheism, as in my case. I have always been independent and self-reliant and although having received a superb private education at a Catholic School, I was eventually able to work it all out in a logical, rational and scientific way. Conversely, people who require low levels of independence may well be attracted by the community spirit of religion.
So why, and how, in this modern era of scientific discovery and increased knowledge of the vastness and emptiness of the Cosmos, do people rationalize their religious belief? Some people really believe that God is not only watching them, 24 hours a day, every day, but is also looking after them and even working on their behalf.
This is akin to playing your own game of ‘Sliding Doors.’ We can’t examine what is going to happen in the future because we don’t yet know what’s going to happen in the future – but we can examine the past because the past is already known to us. Our heads are full of ideas about what could have happened or how things could have turned out differently. As an atheist, even I sometimes wonder if fate has played a hand in my own insignificant life. What was a disappointment at the time later turned out to be a boon – one door closes, another opens. But then, fate is not God.
The psychological wisdom is that people who do look back on what might have been, especially if they are thinking about an event that could have turned out badly changed their lives, often consider that stroke of good fortune to be ‘divine’ intervention.
This process is called Counterfactual Thinking and it’s what we do when we consider the possibility of alternative outcomes. Those believers who imagined the outcome could have been worse found that their belief in God (or a guardian angel) was strengthened. Humans know how to be grateful, but if there’s no one to be grateful to, the temptation is to invent someone… Step forward a ready made benefactor! There but for the grace of God…
I have always found religious belief ludicrous yet fascinating. I understand that amazing strokes of good luck can reinforce belief in the divine. In spite of rational thought and scientific evidence to the contrary, there is always the nagging thought that events are somehow preordained by a higher power. Good fortune serves to prove one’s suspicion that God is not only loving, kind and trustworthy, but He also exercises influence in our everyday lives. All seven billion of us.
Counterfactual thinking can give meaning to otherwise random events. We know that humans tend to fill in the gaps when knowledge of fact is incomplete, and this is what happens when we are unable to fully explain outcomes.
But what happens to belief when things turn out badly? For believers, it’s all part of God’s plan, and like Job, we are expected to keep the faith, pray harder, and eventually everything will turn out alright in the end.
But there’s a problem with this philosophy. When we pray, we are asking for something – not necessarily for ourselves, sometimes for others – but nonetheless, we are engaged in begging. Sometimes our prayer is answered – in which case God has listened and granted our request. If our prayer isn’t answered, not to worry, because we must understand that God has a plan for us anyway, in which case, if God has a plan why bother praying in the first place? In any event, most people pray at the same time, on Sunday, which is supposed to be his day off.
All religions foster and encourage belief in a soul or spirit that lives on for eternity after the body has been reduced to it’s constituent atoms and molecules. Just as divine intervention is a comforting concept, belief in the reward an afterlife is equally compelling. It is certainly a powerful incentive to stick with the faith. It’s the perfect emollient if you are at all worried about the approaching apocalypse.
Religious types are less worried about the ‘end of days’ because they have been persuaded to the belief that what comes after is going to be better. Life on earth is full of little disappointments and setbacks, but after the ‘Rapture’ we’re all going to be ‘saved’ and live in ‘paradise’ for all eternity. So why worry?
A group of researchers in the United States (where else?) gathered a flock of believers and had them read scientific articles about the end of the world; nuclear war, global warming, meteor strike, plague, pestilence, scourge, etc. Those that believed in Salvation were more prone to accept ‘the end’ more calmly. The question is, is this belief system also part of the survival strategy?
At the University of Arizona, psychologist Uri Lifshin and his team devised a survey to test belief in immortality and how people viewed their own inevitable demise caused by end-of-the-world scenarios.
But there are two kinds of immortality. The first is symbolic immortality – That’s when someone lives on through other people’s memory, or works of art, literature or historical or military achievement. The second is a literal belief in immortality, an afterlife.
People who believed in a literal immortality – a soul – showed less resistance to the articles outlining the impending end of humanity than those who didn’t share their belief. Those who didn’t believe in a soul were more threatened by the article.
However, Professor Lifshin also found that believers in a soul would also likely want to have an impact on the world, showing they incorporated elements of symbolic immortality as well.
But when the researchers asked believers in literal immortality to think about the impact they would like to have on the world and the memories of others, they found they became less accepting of the end of the world article.
When they extended the timeline of the end of the world to up to 200 years in the future, when most of the respondent’s immediate family would not be affected, the results showed that belief in a soul still had a significant effect.
The results of the research were published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The results suggest that belief in an immortal soul provides psychological protection against the threat of humanity’s demise that does not hold for symbolic immortality belief.
Worryingly, 40% of Americans believe that the Rapture – the biblical end of times prophecy in which mankind will be judged – will happen before 2050. This fantasy must also have an effect on the results, especially taking into account that all the respondents were already of a religious bent. It’s also worth noting that throughout history, religious end of the world prophecies have been and gone a thousand times and we’re still waiting, among with the second coming of Christ, the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the promised Spice Girls reunion.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.