(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

Jacqueline, I agree that one of the largest problems concerning education (and health care, etc.) has a lot to do with U.S. classism and elitism. I have come to the conclusion that it is a crime to be poor and without influence in the US. It is also a crime to be black or Latino. It is also a crime to be here on an H1 visa or be a family member of someone who is. There is so much prejudice here, either barely under the surface or horrifically blatant.

As is true in any society, the less education a person has, the more prejudice they display. Fortunately, the converse is true.
The problem is he concludes that religion is a beneficial trait we inherit from our genes.

That does seem ridiculously Lamarckian. No one has ever proven that acquired traits become a part of our inheritable DNA; quite the opposite. Rupert Sheldrake's theories of Morphic Resonance make far more sense to me.

And generalizing that irrational devotion to some imaginary "god" figure (OR some despotic political leader) is automatically beneficial is demonstrable nonsense. Hitchens' book: "God is Not Great" is replete with examples of the hideous aftermath of blind allegiance to some "faith". Political history is the same.

I recently heard it said that humans murder their own species en masse far more than any other species on the planet. I can't help but associate this behavior with mob allegiance to some real or imaginary leader... (i.e. religion) ... and is it passed on in our DNA that when some megalomaniacal human being becomes intoxicated with his own power, he usually ends up claiming that he is either actually a "god" or at least partially descended from him/them? Caligula comes to mind. So do the pharaohs of Egypt.

When arguing with theists, one of my favorite sarcasms is to suggest that perhaps religiously motivated warfare is "Gawd's plan for population control". Har har har.

Meanwhile, Hitchens informs us that Catholic missionaries in Africa teach the faithful never to use condoms. Hence, the spread of AIDS. Now theres a benefit (not...).

Are those happy claimants that religion is somehow a social benefit ignorant of all this bloody history? Or do they think that the fact we have STILL managed to overpopulate the Earth in spite of murdering each other on behalf of a plethora of secular and/or divine leaders somehow proves that religion has insured human survival? What an ironic joke. They have no idea how ridiculous they are... at least to the disillusioned and cynical "intelligencia" among us. Har har har.

OMHO, only lust insures human survival.

I know no one who watched their parents doing anything sexual. If we didn't watch farm animals or cats and dogs, we watched movies and read D. H. Laurence and fumbled around until we figured it out.

When I was 9, a boy in the back of the school bus gently invited me to put my hand down his trousers and fondle him. It was fun, and very interesting. It is always intriguing to pleasure someone... and more so when it seems forbidden, and makes one tingle in certain places. THAT is what is passed on in our DNA. And THAT has been all that is really necessary, lol.

No matter how many soldiers have been blown away on the battlefields of the ages, people still manage to fuck enough more of them into existence to fill the ranks of the next army.

Some religions attempt to stifle sexuality, and other religions exhort their ranks to go forth and multiply. But no matter what the god de jour supposedly says, people still figure out how do it, whether they saw their parents doing it or not. Religion, it seems to me, makes no difference at all in the long run.
Exactly. I think other posters missed this.
I can relate to these findings, people then used faith give things a place, it was some kind of soothing for the mind if you will, nowadays I would call that the placebo effect, but in times when knowledge wasn’t accessible for the commoners faith came the nearest for explaining how and why.. Strangely is that children can rid themselves of their believes in Santa clause or the Easter bunny because common sense kicks in, not for believers though, they still keep claiming that their view of things is just because generations of generation upon claimed it was so. We (in 2009) have the luxurious position to enrich ourselves with knowledge and have a great understanding of all things around us, and if we don’t know something for sure we have the means of investigating it and come to an conclusion. Or even easier we can trust on scientists to give us the answers. Anyways my point is in old times religion may have helped people overcome some difficult answers that they might have had then , but nowadays that isn’t necessary because we have learned so much since then and we can do fine without religious explanation for everything. If the bible or the Koran (or any holy scripture) was truly inspired by divine dictations then the authors sure as hell could have put some basic facts in it about the working of our world and the way that we as a species look to it.. Example: they could have mentioned that the Earth was round in stead of flat. The could have given a simple explanation of the theory of relativity to define matter light… Or give mention of the fact that bacteria make you sick and proper hygiene prevent you getting sick.. (that could have prevented the black plague which killed millions of believers) all these thing weren’t mentioned in fact the holy books are more full of stories about men and woman who lived their lives, and you might say the holy books dictate a way of living. That’s why people accepted them easier I think.
then all religious dogma is effectively reduced to purely human attempts to understand the natural world they inhabit.

Nate, don't forget the social and political aspects of religion. In the 15- and 1600s, religion was central to government and a means to power. Religion is a lot more than an explanation of life.
Yes, Richard. I understand all of that. I'm not by any means romanticizing or glorifying religion. My point is that I don't believe that Prof. Hood is either. The 16th and 17th century religion you refer to was the product of an attempt to centralize religious thought, making it more useful to government. I enjoyed Jonathan Kirsch's God Against the Gods that explains nicely the shift from pagan polytheism that was in many cases celebratory of life towards the much more controlling state-approved monotheism.
Doesn't the idea that "humans may have evolved to believe in god and superstitions because it helps them to co-ordinate group action better" smack of Lamarckism? How can ideas and behaviors we pick up during our lifetimes (that seem to require heavy-handed indoctrination) get folded back into our DNA? Religion may be a result of cultural evolution, but it's clearly not caused in any meaningful sense by genetic evolution.

I know I'm going out on a limb, here, but I agree with Dawkins. Religion is a by-product of the human capacity for pattern-matching as a survival tool, coupled with the fact that false positives are generally not as dangerous to the individual as failing to notice a pattern at all. Mistakenly ascribing thunder to a supernatural agency is easy to do on one's own. Religion requires culture. Theory of mind completely explains animism, and it seems likely to me that animals with big brains extrapolate from their inner experience to think that similar animals are similarly endowed with thought and agency. I'm pretty sure my dog is an animist, given the suspicion with which he regards objects that appear to move on their own, even after they've stopped.
Doesn't the idea that "humans may have evolved to believe in god and superstitions because it helps them to co-ordinate group action better" smack of Lamarckism?

Lamarck's Revenge
Hmmm. Interesting. I have heard that some other changes may end up in germ cells, also. Intriguing.
I don't think so. I mean, do lions believe in a god? What about dolphins and orcas? If we have naturalistic explanations for group behavior in other social mammals why do we need to resort to a different explanation for humans?

Besides, to say that "superstition" is hardwired into our brains is a pretty heavy statement. Superstition is a concept, a condition that causes a person to believe something is true in the absence of evidence to the contrary (such as believing in rain gods when one doesn't have a scientific explanation for where rain comes from) or sometimes in spite of it (civilized city dwellers believing in crystal magic). It would be more accurate to say that our brains are hardwired to find explanations for phenomena we don't understand. It would also be accurate to say that humans evolved to tell stories. During the transition from ape to man social language (aka "conversation") replaced mutual grooming as the dominant form of social interaction. Put the two together and it's easy to see why so many cultures have religious beliefs.
It would be more accurate to say that our brains are hardwired to find explanations for phenomena we don't understand.

Nicely stated.

This is, in my opinion, what Prof. Hood is saying. Nothing about his comments suggests that we should cling to the delusions of the past. They're simply an explanation of the prevalence of religious belief over the ages. As knowledge increases, incorrect assumptions and superstitions are discarded.
Thanks. I must say that what people on this forum thought Hood was saying did not gel with my, possibly biased, understanding of what a well-educated psychologist would be saying in print.

I would agree with what Hood appears to be saying in the passage you quote.

While I believe that education is the main key I know enough about how the human mind works to know that it is not a cure all. Humans, for very good survival reasons, are emotional beings and emotions interfere with good judgement.

There will always be people like the young earth creationist who somehow managed to get himself a PhD in biological sciences and retain his faith in a young earth creationist viewpoint. He could not be accused of being either poorly educated or stupid. The difference lies in his personality, emotional makeup, early nurturing experience and the strength of his early indoctrination. Frankly, there are times when I would like to have that extreme degree of disconnection between emotionally held beliefs and rationally held ones.


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