God(s) explained, somehow!

Charles Darwin(Published 20100908 / Last updated 20121019) — As a student, I read  an article by Rappaport (The sacred in human evolution, 1971) which impressed me a lot. While  maintaining a latent interest in the subject, I have never really given it much thought since the seventies, beyond holding the opinion that religion originated because it must have given early human populations an ecological advantage in terms of natural selection, which explains why some form of religious belief is held by most people. This explantion could be called  Darwinian. But there are several others, for instance the psychological and the neurological origin, which are by no means mutually exclusive and which all explain only one facet of the issue.  Culotta, 2009, also lists an archaeological explanation, although this is more concerned with the description of the emergence and manifestations of religious beliefs). Note 1.

In the Darwinian analysis, religion is [thus] an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society (Brook, 2009; New Scientist, 28 January 2006, p 30).

Henig (2007) presents the interesting view that religious beliefs may be a “spandrel” (see Wikipedia), a phenotypic characteristic that is a byproduct of the evolution of some other character, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection.   The concept is borrowed from architecture, where some building structures are an unintended  by-product of other – intentional – structures. Henig describes the following example: Building a staircase, for instance, creates a space underneath that is innocuous, just a blank sort of triangle. But if you put a closet there, the under-stairs space takes on a function, unrelated to the staircase’s but useful nonetheless. Either way, functional or nonfunctional, the space under the stairs is a spandrel, an unintended byproduct. Note 6

The opinion above is very “biological”, but religion/god can only be described as a collection of complex and very diverse opinions and techniques that apparently go beyond the immediate biological/ecological sphere. Boyer’s Religion explained (a daring, humourous and puzzling title!!!), states that most accounts of the origins of religion amount to one of the following suggestions: human minds demand explanations, human hearts seek comfort, human society requires order, human intellect is illusion-prone (Boyer, 2001; Kindle Loc. 133-50).

Boyer lists several variations (2001, Kindle Loc. 248-69):

[1] People created religion to explain puzzling natural phenomena. People are surrounded by all sorts of phenomena that seem to challenge their everyday concepts. That a windowpane breaks if you throw a brick at it poses no problem. But what about the causes of storms, thunder, massive drought, floods? What ‘pushes’ the sun across the sky and moves the stars and planets? Gods and spirits fulfil this explanatory function. In many places the planets are gods; in Roman mythology thunder was the sound of Vulcan’s hammer striking the anvil. More generally, gods and spirits make rains fall and fields yield good crops. They explain what is beyond the ken of ordinary notions.

[2] Religion was created to explain puzzling mental phenomena. Dreams, precognition, as well as the feeling that dead persons are still around in some

form (and frequently ‘appear’ to the living), are all phenomena that receive no satisfactory explanation in our everyday concepts. The notion of a spirit seems to correspond to such phenomena. Spirits are disembodied persons and their characteristics make them very similar to persons seen in dreams or hallucinations. Gods and a unique God are further versions of this projection of mental phenomena.

[3] Religion explains the origins of things. We all know that plants come from seeds, animals and humans reproduce, etc. But where did the whole lot come from? That is, we all have common-sense explanations for the origin of each particular aspect of our environment but all these explanations do is ‘pass the buck’ to some other process or agent, and so on. However, people feel that the buck has to stop somewhere, and uncreated creators, like God or the first ancestors or some cultural heroes, fulfil this function. I would add to this category the trick of “naming” things, which is an operational trick to take control, even if we have no clue what is actually happening. See this post.

[4] Religion explains evil and suffering. It is a common human characteristic that misfortune cries out for explanation. Why is there misfortune or evil in general? This is where the concepts of Fate, God, devils, ancestors are handy. They tell you why and how evil originated in the world (and sometimes provide recipes for a better world).

We could refer to Boyer’s type of explanation of religion/god as psychological. While Boyer’s emphasis on the need to explain our environment in the broadest sense is convincing, it is more difficult to understand why belief in life after death, for instance, plays a part in the increased probability transmitting our genes to our offspring (Brooks, 2009).

This is why a new set of recent proposals are getting increased attention, – not necessarily in contradiction with the Darwinian evolutionary views and Boyer’s psychological explanations. We could call them neurological, i.e. god/religion is a by-product of the way our brain functions.

I recently read a book by Barbara King (2007) and two completely unrelated articles in this year’s Scientific American that all lend a lot of support to the neurological approach. The first article deals with blindsight (de Gelder, 2010) while the other is about social analgesics (Styx, 2010). Note 2.

King’s book title Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion basically suggests that there is a link between primate empathy and the origins of religion: acting toward another based on a reading of how that social partner might feel is an enormous evolutionary leap (Kindle loc. 663-665). King uses the  terminology cognitive empathy, but insists that what is really involved is cognitively channeled emotion, which may be expressed as caring or compassionate acts in the context of belongingness. Belongingness as the root of religion is a central theme of the book. Let me quote King again (kindle loc. 2852-57): for millions of years, human ancestors sought belongingness within their social groups; as they continued to volve physically, behaviorally, culturally, and spiritually, humans began to seek an emotional connection with God, gods, or spirits. What happened was gradual rather than a spiritual big bang. The human religious imagination developed in ever widening circles of engagement from immediate social companions, to members of a larger group, then across groups, and, eventually, to a wholly other dimension, the realm of sacred beings. Australopithecines and early Homo engaged, almost certainly, in complex interactions with their social partners that were based on remembered social histories and emotional nuances, just as is the case with the African apes.

Relations between members of a group, especially siblings, but even more so between mother and child play a central role. Mothers understands the needs of their children, based, among other things, on facial and other expressions. According to King, these complex, non-verbal emotional interactions (from love to hatred etc.) within a family group and beyond are of the same essence as god(s).

A blind person reacts to  (imitates) the expressions of the faces shown on a computer screen. From de Gelder, 2010.

Let me now come to blindsight. De Gelder specifically refers to persons with functional eyes whose blidness is due to the loss of the conscious component of eye sight (due to damaged visual cortex). In other words, the brain does see, but the person does not. Affected individuals can avoid obstacles, although they are not aware of their presence. Interestingly, blindsight also affects emotions of the type referred to by King. A person with blindsight will recognise emotions on other faces, and imitate them inconsciously (see illustration). In other words, empathy is hardwired in our brains, so that – if we decide to agree with King – the germ of the concept of god is too. King’s above-mentioned cognitive empathy, is possibly a purely human feature. See this site for an interesting Darwinian account of why we evolved a liking for honey and sweet things, a sense for beauty, why babies are cute and  some other fuzzy concepts.

Obviously, empathy did not start with man, nor with primates, as it is more and more difficult to deny the concept of the man-animal continuum which has recently received a lot of support (e.g. de Waal, 2009.) I would certainly agree with Picq (2007) when he argues that is very difficult to decide where and when “humanity” befell our ape-like and ealier ancestors. Pick logically suggests that human rights should be extended to apes.

In his short note on social analgesics, Styx described a curious observation about some mental states (such as the pain of rejection) can be cured with … standard painkillers. This, again, clearly indicates that many (most?, all?) of our higher functions are at least partly the result of the wiring in our brains! There is much more to be said about the interaction between body and mind, as vey nicely explained in a November 2011 blog on the website of the Scientific American on the subject of embodied cognition. Here’s a quote from George Lakoff and Rafeal Núñez taken from the blog:

Cognitive science calls this entire philosophical worldview into serious question on empirical grounds… [the mind] arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experiences. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment… Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanism of neural binding.

In 1979 Lakoff and Johnson started working on their now classical book  Metaphors We Live By, originally published in 1980 (there’s a new 2003 edition). Based on the analysis of metaphors – which are ubiquitous in our way of thinking – the authors argue that much of our “higher” functions are actually anchoredd deep in our physical experience. I am quoting some examples which I took from here (see Note 3 for the original link to the pdf): The theory of relativity gave birth to an enormous number of ideas in physics; Is that the foundation for your theory? That’s an incisive idea; He fled from her advances and many more. All these examples show that we continue thinking using terms derived from the physical world around us, and that there must be some mapping/overlap between the way we think (our “higher functions”) and  of the physical world, be it the environement or our brains! Note 4. Note 5.

Functional MRI identifies brain areas associated with certain functions. Figure from Culotta, 2009.

Some experiments have indeed associated religious thoughts with specific areas in the brain. A recent paper by Kapogiannis et al. (2009 ) reveals 3 psychological dimensions of religious belief (God’s perceived level of involvement, God’s perceived emotion, and doctrinal/experiential religious knowledge), which functional MRI localizes within networks processing Theory of Mind regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics, and
. Kapogiannis and his colleagues claim that their results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks.

I don’t think we can conclude anything definite about why we invented god(s). It is very clear to me that god(s) – like bipedalism, feathers in birds or the anatomy of our eyes – have very deep roots which did not start with humans. What we consider as our most elevated philosophical thoughts and “human” achievements, are the result of the wiring in our brain. And our brain evolved through natural selection. In the words of Boyer (2008), is religion an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution? Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than ‘religion’ in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times. For the time being, the data support a more modest conclusion: religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.

I’ll conclude this with a short, but significant quote from Tononi (2012). A stroke in yet another place, and you lose consciousness of the left side of the world: you see only the right side of the room, you eat from the right side of the plate, you dress your right side only, and you only shave the right side of your face. And if you have a stroke in some other region of the brain, you may be left without language, or reason, or emotion, without your moral sense, or without your will. You may even lose your belief in God, if the Devil places the stroke in the right spot.”


1 I am referring here to some type of  “natural” stage and not to the stage in our (pre)history where we invented religion as a way to rule over nature… and other humans. This is a stage that must have happened pretty early in human societies, and the tradition has been to associate whatever early artefacts  that are discovered over the years (the Hohle Fels figurines,  music instruments, buildings etc) with some religious activity. It is, therefore, worth mentioned when somoene comes up with a non-religious explanation for large structures like the ones at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. They predate the neolithic revolution (approx. 9000 BP) by at least 2000 years: they are the work of hunter-gatherers. A structure of that complexity – just like the early irrigation systems of Mesopotamia – requires at least some central planning. According to wikipedia, it is generally believed that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work, though nothing proves that they were “priests”. They may as well have been early dictators or kings or, maybe, in those early days priests and kings were the same thing. Indeed, a recent publication questioned the religious use of the Göbekli Tepe complex (Banning, 2011; for a general introduction to Göbekli Tepe, see Simmons, 2007). A couple of months ago (June 2011), the National Geographic Magazine had an article on Göbekli Tepe under the title “Birth of Religion. I have not seen the article which, apparently (see their website) assumes that the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization. This will please creationnists and other “basic” Christians. I mentioned that  I had no chance to read the National Geographic issue where the birth of religion was explained… but I thoroughly enjoyed the Letters section of the October  issue. Here is a first quote. […] Schmidt […] envisions a group of people building a religious center who suddenly develop agriculture to feed themselves. Sorry, but religion and food satisfy different types of hunger. It is not cause and effect. It is like saying football gave rise to beer and hot dogs because so many people consume them while watching  that game (Robert Jeffers). Here is another quote: The article highlights the theory that the urge to worship sparkled civilization. However, there is an alternative theory: Civilization started because people found that by working together, they could make Beer (Robert Schreib).

I mentioned above that one of the most obvious roles of religion is as instrument of power: it is the “justification” that enables a priestly classs to rule over other people. In this respect, I just came across a book review published by Stuart West (2011) under the title Lies we tell ourselves.  West reviews a book by R. Trivers on Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to fool others.  The argument is essentially that by believing (in) what you say or do, you have a greater chance of being believed. West notes that Trivers offers much food for thought on these topics, in chapters that are likely to provoke controversy. He suggests that self-deception has a major role in the initiation and justification of wars, the development of false historical narratives and the existence of religion.

2. The book by King has some good and interesting ideas, in particular her central thesis that “empathy” is the root of god/religion. Her last chapters, however, are rather pathetic: she invests much time is explaining that her god-from-empathy and the god of the bible are unrelated ideas/concepts.

3. http://www.pineforge.com/upm-data/6031_Chapter_10_O%27Brien_I_Proof_5.pdf

4. It would be particularly interesting to see to what extent religious jargon is metaphoric as well.

5. This is not too far away from what Scholastics, after Thomas Aquinas, called […] “connaturality,” a resonance, an aptitude between the mind and the world, as if the knowing mind and the existing universe were made for each other. The human mind is apt to the world, and the world is apt to the mind. (Connor, 2005)

6. In fact, the concept of spandrel was apparently introduced by S.J. Gould: [S.J. Gould] also proposed, along with Richard Lewontin, that not all features of organisms are the result of adaptations. Using the architectural analogy of a kind of leftover space created in the construction of domed arches in medieval cathedrals, Gould argued that certain evolutionary features are “spandrels” (an architectural term), or accidental by-products of some other combination of adaptations (Harman & Dietrich, 2008)


Banning, E.B. 2011. So Fair a House: Göbekli Tepe and the Identification of Temples in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East. Current Anthropology 52(5):619-660.

Barbara J. King, 2007. Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. (Read in the KIndle edition)

Boyer, P. 2001. Religion Explained: the human instincts that fashion gods, spirits and ancestors. Random House eBooks, Vintage, 2002. (Read in the KIndle edition)

Boyer, P. 2008. Religion: Bound to believe? Nature, 455:1038-9

Brooks, M., 2009. Born believers: how your brain creates god. Also available here.

Connor, J.2005. Kepler’s Witch: An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother. HarperOne, 416 pages. Read in the Kindle version. The kindle location of the quote is 1523-27.

Culotta, E. 2009. On the Origin of Religion. Science, 326:784-787

de Gelder, B. 2010. Uncanny sight of the blind. Sci. Am., 302(5):61-65.

de Waal, F.B.M. 2009. Darwin’s last laugh. Nature, 460:175.

Harman O., & M. Dietrich, 2008. Rebels, Mavericks, and Heretics in Biology. Chapter 18 by David Sepkoski “Stephen J. Gould, a Darwinian iconoclast”, p. 321-336. The quote about  spandrels is on page 330.

Henig, R.M., 2007. Darwin’s God. NY Times Magazine, March 4, 2007. Thanks to David C. for giving me a copy of Henig’s article, which reminded me of Rappaport’s paper and revived my interest in the subject.

Kapogiannis, D., A.K. Barbeya,M. Sua, G. Zambonia, F. Kruegera & J. Grafmana. 2009. Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief. PNAS on-line publication.  6 pp.

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980 (2003 (2nd Edition). Metaphors we live by. Univ. Chicago Press.

Styx, G. 2010. Social Analgesics: Feeling the pain of rejection? Try taking a Tylenol. Sci.Am., 302(9):22-23.

Picq, P. 2007. Nouvelle histoire de l’homme. Collection tempus, Librairie Académique Perrin Ed.

Rappaport, R.A. 1971. The Sacred in Human Evolution. Ann. Rev. Ecology and Systematics, 2: 23-44.

Shermer, M. 2009. Agenticity. Why people believe that invisible agents control the world. Sci. Am. June 2009, p. 36.

Tononi, G. 2012. Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. Pantheon books, 360 pp. The quote is from page 110.

Simmons, A.H. 2007. The neolithic revolution in the Near East. Univ. Arizona Press. 338 pp.

West, S. 2011. Lies we tell ourselves. Nature 478:314-315.


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