Evolutionary origin of belief in God

Religion is one thing that is common to all races. Not everyone believes in the existence of a god, but a very significant number of people on this rock do.

Barring personal feelings of belief or unbelief, I was wondering how humanity might have evolved to think there was one. Is there some part of our evolutionary history that might have lead us to think there was something out there bigger than we are? Is there a part of the human DNA that makes belief more or less likely?

A tendency for humans to see patterns where there aren’t any, a tendency of humans to anthropomorphize things, and thousands of years of systematically killing anyone who didn’t make a show of being religious. Two humans intellectual flaws, combined with what amounted to a very long term selective breeding program for a specific type of irrationality.

How can evolutionary history lead anybody to think anything? Our genes do not determine what we think.

As Der Trihs mentioned, religion is a result of (at least in part) pattern recognition. I think it’s likely that the ability to recognize patterns is at least in part genetic.

How do you know that?

If you search a bit, you’ll find this topic has been done many times on this MB in the past.

Basically, it’s most likely the result of our brains having evolved to look for cause and effect. When we don’t see a cause (eg, lightning), we invent one (god or spirits or something supernatural).

They recognize the pattern, obviously. :wink:

You might want to read James Michener’s “The Source”. He tells about the origin of a belief in God beginning in the stone age.

Not what we think, but how we think. Experiments have revealed the endowment effect (which makes what you have be worth more to you than what you don’t have) is present in chimps.

In addition to the other things, babies see their parents as godlike, providing food and comfort in ways they can’t imagine. It is not hard to see how this can be projected into sky fathers and sky mothers.

Well, one possible reason so many people believe in an all-powerful figure looking after them is because everyone living on the earth has, in fact, been looked after by a vastly more powerful caretaker.

Why is it a surprise that later, when we can walk and speak, we have strong, if vague, emotional associations that there is some parental figure watching over us? Humans are an altricial species–it seems like the perfectly natural result of our brains and minds developing while we are infants.

Edit: Good God, I didn’t see the post directly above mine. :slight_smile:

A lot of how you view religion in an evolutionary context really depends on whether you view it as a pathological behaviour or a beneficial behaviour. This isn’t necessarily an easy calculation to make as you have to view it in the totality: i.e. on the individual level, on the group level on the cultural level, over short time periods over long time periods, etc. You also have to take into account that sometime beneficial behaviours can lead to negative results if framed to narrowly and equally sometimes pathological behaviours can lead to positive results.

Overall I think it is quite possible that religion is a behaviour that has been selected for evolutionary and it is quite possible that the selection was driven by an overall positive benefit when viewed at an appropriate level. However at the same time it doesn’t seem to me that the evidence is overwhelming for that being the case.

Animism + group bonding = religion. Religion + time + politics = monotheism.

Humans have evolved to see patterns so well that we see them even where they don’t exist. Paranoia is a survival benefit, at least up to a point.

see: God: The Love Born of Terror. - YouTube

As an aficionado of superorganism theory, I agree that what’s good for the superorganism – the religion itself – is not necessarily good for the individuals that compose it, any more than the scab that protects me from bleeding to death is “good for” the individual blood cells that perish to form it. The superorganism is driven to increase itself (recruit individual humans) in a situation very like natural selection – religions that do NOT recruit new believers will inevitably die out.

Given a genetic predilection to religion, the form it takes is driven by market forces. A basically tribal religion like Judaism is not going to expand as fast as a religion which involves recruiting from outside the tribal pool, like Christianity and Islam. It helps if your religion forecasts terrible things happening after death to outsiders. All you have to do is get one generation, then you get the children too. Especially if you start killing any recruiters for other religions.

Whether or not you agree with the book’s premise, The God Gene by Dean Hamer covers this subject pretty well, and is an interesting read.

I suspect that a tendency towards religion might be found in any intelligent species, simply because we want to explain everyhing, yet many things defy the possibility for explanation. Thus, before we have the cultural tools to grapple with these issues logically, we fall back on spiritual inventions. That’s pretty much the story given in The Source (mentioned above) as well as in The God Gene.

The latter goes further to posit that the tendency to spiritual beliefs is at least partly influenced by a particular gene (of which I’m skeptical), and that given that spirituality is to some extent heritable (which has been shown, see wiki link), this increases fitness by increasing optimism and therefore is selected for. I find that speculative but worth considering.

An African friend of mine once said that in the city, it’s easy to be an atheist, but in the bush, it’s not. That wasn’t a statement of logic, but ust an observation. I think it points out that when we’re living in a man-made world, it’s easy to ignore the enormous power that nature has over us in the bush, and that when faced with this awesome power, it’s easier for us to manage if we anthropomorphize it.

Sure they do. You think our brains are blank slates? We come prewired with predispositions to think in certain ways, to respond to events in certain ways. The details get filled in with the specifics of our experiences but the broad brushstrokes are hard to avoid. Just think linguistics if you need a simple example.

A god-concept is indeed a natural form of folk science and sure that is likely part of it. Moreover though a god-concept allowed for a tribe to have set of rules that more would follow even at some apparent short term cost, out of fear of the all-seeing meting out punishment. Cooperation and self-sacrifice (even if perceived as delayed gratification) was fostered. The result was a benefit to the kinship group as a whole: that tribe had a selective advantage and the tribe without such a concept … more likely to be killed off - the heathens.

IIRC yes, he does.

There is an excellent book on this topic.

“The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright

I note that you’re using the first-person plural pronoun ‘we’. Do you include yourself in the group of people that invents fictional causes whenever you don’t see a cause?

Can you, or anyone, actually point to a certain locus on a certain chromosome and tell me that a gene at that locus leads to the endowment effect, or to a belief in God, or to any of the other evolutionary explanations that have been hypothesized in this thread?

If you know anything at all about genetics, you’d know that things like this are not simple enough to be on a single chromosome. It is not hard to understand why it makes sense for us to value things we possess more than things others possess, since it usually takes less energy to keep something than to get it. But what explanation do you have for chimps doing this also? Bad parenting?