(From the Daily Telegraph, London, by Richard Alleyne, 7 September 2009)

Humans may have evolved to believe in god and superstitions because it helps them to co-ordinate group action better, scientists claimed.
Religion became a survival instinct, according to researchers who studied the way brains develop from childhood and behave during spiritual experiences.

Groups of humans with religious tendencies benefitted from their beliefs, perhaps because they co-operated and had a greater chance of survival.
They thrived compared to their atheist relatives and, after many years, the instinct was passed on in their genes.

The findings challenge campaigners against organised religion, such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He has argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood “indoctrination.”

Prof. Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol University, has suggested that religion is similar to children’s belief in imaginary friends. He said: “Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works. As they grow up, they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches but the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion.”

Prof. Hood, who will present his findings at the British Association’s annual meeting this week, sees organised religion as just one of many supernatural beliefs. In one study, he found that even atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer, because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in their genes. “This shows how superstition is hard-wired into our brains”, he said.

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Replies to This Discussion

I think you're entering the realm of false analogies with your human/animal comparisons. Different species evolve different strategies and traits over time. E.g., humans have religions but no mating season (I probably could find a better example of a seemingly erratic or aberrant animal behavior or trait - but that's not really my point. Maybe the pandas' exclusive taste for bamboos they can't digest well could be one).

Personally I think religion is a by-product of the unmatched human mind's ability to reflect upon itself, its environment and other existential concerns. This ability allowed us to develop the arts, philosophy, science and technology. Just like with those, the root of religion is legitimate questioning and the need to find answers. Our problem with religion and superstition is that too many people will stop asking "why?" and "how?" when they've been given answers that suit them: the need to socialize and mere conformism are strong evolutionary traits, and they're in direct competition with skepticism in the evolution of the human species.
If it exists in Nature, it is "natural," i.e., of Nature.
Among references to the Pirahas is this


The Pirahas are not complete atheists because they believe in spirits, but the Irish missionary was glad to abandon the crazy cooked-up chronicles of cockeyed catholicism and live with the natives
I am currently reading " Don't Sleep There are Snakes," and while I have not finished it yet, it seems the spirits they believe in are in no way theological. It is more like a child guessing fairies are making the flowers grow than anything else. They still qualify as atheists. Also, they are not united in these beliefs, as if one spirit or another would help them along. They are still the show me tribe, if you did not see it or someone you know see it then we do not care about it.
What you say is quite compatable with the notion that religion was and is used to cement and enhance group functioning in primitive societies.

There is no doubt that social communities exist among many classes of animals. Ants and bees are both very social. While it is true that functional societies can exist without language or religion the development of language changes the parameters.

Religion is a function of advanced thought and language.

The tribe which you mentioned has a language which does not include the concept of time. They remain a primitive community because of this linguistic deficit. If you have no thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow you cannot learn much from experience or plan for the future.

Happiness is not a feature of intelligence. Downs Syndrome kids can be blissfully happy. So can drug addicts. Highly intelligent people are often cynical, possibly because they are more aware of the reality and its horrors and/or they feel isolated from others of lesser talent in the thinking arena. If happiness is an ultime goal then I would recommend having a lobotomy. It removes all worry about the future as well as the past.

In other words, religion occurs when beings have the capacity to be concerned about the past and the future.
"So misery and suffering is somehow a preferable experience to happiness?"

Not at all. But achieving happiness is often a trade-off with reality, which is not consistently kind.

"People in the ancient world were creative. They did not know what we know today, but they rationalized events and occurrences with myths, legends and superstitions."

No disagreement here. However you miss the point that this cannot happen unless the people inventing the myths have (a) a highly developed language, (b) a sense of existing in time and (c) the concept that something done at one time has consequences for a later time.
... the instinct was passed on in their genes.

I find this very un-scientific. What is an 'instinct', in terms pertaining to the field of genetics, and especially human genetics? Unless I've been fooled by false or misguided scientific reports, I believe it has been demonstrated that young chimps and gorillas learn everything about sex while watching at their elders 'doing it', and fail to reproduce when deprived of that experience. Yet noone would deny that sex is more important than propension to theism when it comes to survival of the species.
My immediate response to this, is look at the source of the article. The Telegraph has an investment in any research which upholds it's agenda. I'm going to take a look at Prof. Hood's credentials before I say more about 'his findings.'
Neat discussion. It’s interesting to consider the survival benefits memes and genes. The strongest of many species congregate in the center of the herd. The most successful wildebeest or buffalo stay in the center while the old and weak are pushed to the periphery where they are most likely to be prey. The schooling “instinct” is also strong in many fish. Herring and sardines, seasonally creating schools of billions, form tighter and tighter balls during attacks from sharks, killer whales and bigger fish.

At the human level memes need to be considered. During the thousands of years at the hunter-gatherer stage, the ability to copy and obey became important for selection. The ability to copy how to make a spear, for instance, could be necessary to survive. Likewise, when elders say, “stay out of that river, there’re crocodiles,” the ability to obey becomes necessary. After thousands of years of evolution, meme driver selection determines which individuals reproduce. The obedient, cooperative types are strongly selected.

I believe this is why Dr. Dawkins is so adamantly against indoctrinating kids with religion. They are wired genetically by over two million years of evolution since the early hominids to obey and cooperate.
Is this a real PHD professor? Since when did ideas/unnatural habits get passed genetically? We have had clothes longer than all known religions, yet we have to be taught how to use them and even then children still dis-robe themselves at every chance they get.

I would guess that this professor is receiving a decent amount of research money from some interested private groups that maybe *cough* religious.
This study further proves that gods and spirits are constructs of the human mind. I don't understand why the thought that belief in such non-existent entities could have provided some benefit to humans in the past should be troubling to atheists.




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