Why People Believe in God: An Empirical Study on a Deep Question
Author: Michael Shermer
The belief in God has often been advanced as not only the greatest, but the most complete of all the distinctions between man and the lower animals. It is however impossible, as we have seen, to maintain that this belief is innate or instinctive in man. On the other hand a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in the reasoning powers of man, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder.
--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Several years ago I attended a most unusual conference at the Santa Monica Miramar Sheraton Hotel in southern California sponsored by the Extropy Institute. Founded in 1988, what is perhaps most striking about these "extropians" is the quasi-religious nature of their beliefs, including an almost faithlike devotion to science as a higher power. Scientism is their religion, technocracy their politics, progress their god. They hold an unmitigated confidence that, because science has solved problems in the past, it will solve all problems in the future, including the biggest one of all: death. For extropians, the vision of a paradisiacal future of longevity, intelligence, health, and wealth, delivered on the wings of scientific imagination, generates a loyal commitment (a type of faith) to a method, a body of knowledge, and a hope for a better tomorrow. Given their commitment despite their secular world view, perhaps faith is partly hard-wired in us all.
Seeing the Pattern of God
Humans are pattern-seeking animals. Our brains are hard-wired to seek and find patterns, whether or not the pattern is real. Psychologist Stuart Vyse demonstrated this in his research with his colleague Ruth Heltzer in an experiment in which subjects participated in a video game, the goal of which was to navigate a path through a matrix grid using directional keys to move the cursor. One group of subjects was rewarded with points for successfully finding a way through the grid's lower right portion, while a second group of subjects was rewarded points randomly. Both groups were subsequently asked to describe how they thought the points were rewarded. Most of the subjects in the first group found the pattern of point scoring and accurately described it. Interestingly, most of the subjects in the second group also found "patterns" of point scoring, even though no pattern existed and the points were rewarded randomly. We seek and find patterns because we prefer to view the world as orderly instead of chaotic, and it is orderly often enough that this strategy works. In an ironic twist, it would appear that we were designed by nature to see in nature patterns of our design. Those patterns have to be given an identity, and for thousands of years many of those identities were called gods.
In his 1993 book Fuzzy Thinking, Bart Kosko suggests that belief in God may be something similar to what we see when we look at the pattern in the Kanizsa-square illusion. The experience, Kosko suggests, is not unlike "our vague glimpses of God or His Shadow or His Handiwork ... an illusion in the neural wiring of a creature recently and narrowly evolved on a fluke of a planet in a fluke of a galaxy in a fluke of a universe." The neural wiring in our brain creates "neural nets"--or the sequence of neurons and the gaps between neurons called synapses that together operate in the brain to store memory and pattern information. "These God glimpses or the feeling of God recognition," Kosko intimates, "may be just a `filling in' or deja-vu type anomaly of our neural nets."
The Kanizsa square works to create the illusion of a square that is not really there. The four Pac-Man figures are turned at right angles to one another to create four false boundaries and a bright interior. But there is no square in this figure; the square is in our mind. There appears to be something there when in actual fact there is nothing there. As pattern-seeking animals it is virtually impossible for us not to see the pattern. The same may be true for God. For most of us it is very difficult not to see a pattern of God when looking at the false boundaries and bright interiors of the universe.
Do people see the pattern of God in the world and in their lives and therefore believe in God for perfectly rational reasons? And if they do, does that pattern represent something there or nothing there? Or are there other reasons people believe, such as an emotional need, a fear of death, a hope for immortality, an explanation for evil and suffering, a foundation for morality, parental upbringing, cultural influence, historical momentum, and so on?
To find out, I decided to do what I always do when I want to know why people believe something: ask. I began my research by asking a random sample of the U.S. population--defined by a professional polling agency, which provided the database--if they believe in God, why or why not, and why they think other people do. The results were most enlightening. But first we must consider another issue: is the propensity to believe in God hard-wired, either genetically or in the brain?
Is Belief in God Genetically Programmed?
The renowned British psychologist Hans Eysenck, not noted for timidity in commenting on controversial issues, rang in on the God question with this quip: "I think there's a gene for religiosity and I regret that I don't have it." Is there a gene for religiosity? No, any more than there is a gene for intelligence, aggression, or any other complex human expression.
Such phenomena are the product of a complex interactive feedback loop between genes and environment, where many genes code for a range of reactions to environmental stimuli. The relative role of genes and environment would be impossible to tease apart were it not for the natural experiment of identical twins separated at birth and raised in relatively different environments. Intuitively it seems as if something as culturally variable as religion would be primarily, if not completely, the product of one's environment. Indeed, as late as 1989, Robert Plomin concluded that "religiosity and certain political beliefs . show no genetic influence." So pervasive is this presumption, in fact, that behavioral geneticists have used religiosity as a control variable in their studies of twins, while exploring other variables that could possibly be strongly influenced by genetics.
This assumption is beginning to change. Behavioral geneticist Thomas J. Bouchard Jr. directed the famous "Minnesota twins" study, one of the best known and most extensive studies to date. Bouchard and his colleagues have attempted to cleave the relative influence of nature and nurture on a number of variables long thought to be primarily under the control of the environment--including personality, political attitudes, and even religiosity. Studying fifty-three pairs of identical twins and thirty-one pairs of fraternal twins reared apart, looking at five different measures of religiosity, the researchers found that the correlations between identical twins were typically double those for fraternal twins, "suggesting that genetic factors play a significant role in the expression of this trait." How significant? While admitting that their findings "indicate that individual differences in religious attitudes, interests and values arise from both genetic and environmental influences ... genetic factors account for approximately 50 percent of the observed variance on our measures." That is to say, about one-half of the differences among people in their religious attitudes, interests, and values is accounted for by their genes. After offering a proviso that much more research needs to be done in this area, and that this single study must be replicated, the twin-study experts concluded: "Social scientists will have to discard the a priori assumption that individual differences in religious and other social attitudes are solely influenced by environmental factors."
Nancy Segal, in her 1999 book on twins Entwined Lives, points out that genes, of course, do not determine whether one chooses Judaism or Catholicism, rather, "religious interest and commitment to certain practices, such as regular service attendance or singing in a choir, partly reflect genetically based personality traits such as traditionalism and conformance to authority." Clearly the fact that identical twins reared apart are more similar in their religious interests and commitments than fraternal twins reared together indicates that we cannot ignore heredity in our search to understand why people believe in God.
Taken at face value, a 50 percent heritability of religious tendencies may sound like a lot, but that still leaves the other half accounted for by the environment. Given the range of variables that individuals encounter in their religious experiences, there is much research still to be conducted. Virtually all studies implemented over the past century have found strong environmental factors in religiosity, including everything from family to class to culture. In other words, even with a genetic component to religiosity we still must examine other variables.
Is There a God Module in the Brain?
In October 1997, the media had a field day when University of California at San Diego neuroscientist Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran delivered a paper entitled "The Neural Basis of Religious Experience" at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. One reporter stood outside Ramachandran's office and declared, "Inside this building scientists have discovered the God module." Robert Lee Hotz reported in the Los Angeles Times:
In what researchers called the first serious experiment aimed at the neural basis of religion, scientists at the UC San Diego brain and perception laboratory this week said they found evidence of neural circuits in the human brain that affect how strongly someone responds to a mystical experience. As evidence of how brain cells and synapses might process spiritual stirrings, the experiment suggests a physical basis for a religious state of mind.
Hotz followed up six months later in the Times with a deeper analysis of "the biology of spirituality," in which he explored just how far science might go with this line of research. "The issues are huge," explained Robert John Russell, director of the Center for Theology and Natural Science in Berkeley. University of Southern California neuroscientist Michael Arbib agreed: "We cannot approach theology without some sense of the intricacy of the human brain. A lot of what people hold as articles of faith are eroded by neuroscience." And Nancey Murphy, from the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, rationalized the problem to Hotz this way: "If we recognize the brain does all the things that we [traditionally] attributed to the soul, then God must have some way of interacting with human brains."
Specifically, what Ramachandran said was that an individual's religiosity may depend on how enhanced a part of the brain's electrical circuitry becomes: "If these preliminary results hold up, they may indicate that the neural substrate for religion and belief in God may partially involve circuitry in the temporal lobes, which is enhanced in some patients." Using electrical monitors on subjects' skin (a skin conductance response commonly used to measure emotional arousal), Ramachandran and his colleagues tested three types of "emotional stimuli"--religious, violent, and sexual--in three populations: temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) patients who had religious pre-occupations, normal "very religious" people, and normal non-religious people. In the latter two groups, Ramachandran found skin conductance response to be highest to sexual stimuli; in the first group the response was strongest to religious words and icons, significantly above the religious control group.
Ramachandran considered three possible, but not mutually exclusive, hypotheses to explain his findings: that the mystical reveries led the patient to religious beliefs; that the facilitation of connections between emotion centers of the brain, like the amygdala, caused the patient to see deep cosmic significance in everything around him or her that is similar to religious experiences; that there may be neural wiring in the temporal lobes focused on something akin to religion. Other research tends not to support the first hypothesis, which leaves the latter two the likeliest explanations of the findings. Psychiatric and neurological patients who experience hallucinations, for example, do not necessarily exhibit religious propensities, but TLE patients, when shown religious words--as well as words with sexual or violent connotations--showed much higher emotional response to the religious words.
Related to Ramachandran's research, with implications for both supernatural and paranormal beliefs, is the work of Michael Persinger at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. Persinger uses electromagnets inside modified motorcycle helmets to produce "temporal lobe transients"--increases and instabilities in the neuronal firing patterns--in the brains of subjects. This stimulates "microseizures" in the subject, often producing what can best be described as "spiritual" or "supernatural" experiences: the sense of a presence in the room, an out-of-body experience, bizarre distortion of body parts, and even religious feelings.
How do these transients produce religious states? Our "sense of self," says Persinger, is maintained by the left hemisphere temporal lobe. Under normal brain functioning this is matched by the corresponding systems in the right hemisphere temporal lobe. When these two systems become uncoordinated, the left hemisphere interprets the uncoordinated activity as "another self" or a "sensed presence"--interpreted by some as angels, demons, aliens, ghosts, or even God. When the amygdala is involved in the transient events, emotional factors significantly enhance the experience which, when connected to spiritual themes, can be a powerful force for intense religious feelings.
I, myself, had an alien abduction experience, triggered by eighty-three hours of sleeplessness and riding a bicycle 1,259 miles without stopping (as part of the nonstop transcontinental bike race called Race Across America). I was, therefore, curious to experience Persinger's research firsthand, which a trip to his laboratory allowed me to do. The effects, Persinger explained, are subtle for most subjects, dramatic for a few.
His lab assistants strapped me into the helmet, hooked up the machines to measure brain waves and heart rate, and sealed me in the sound-proof room. I initially felt giddiness, as if the whole process were a silly exercise that I could easily control. Then I slumped into a state of melancholy. Minutes later, still believing the magnetic field patterns were ineffectual, I felt like part of me wanted to have an out-of-body experience but my skeptical/rational mind kept pulling me back in. It was then I realized that it was the magnetic field patterns causing these experiences, but that I was fighting them. I concluded that the more fantasy-prone the personality, the more emotional/spiritual would be the experience. Persinger confirmed my informal hypothesis in a post-experiment debriefing. In a large population there will be a wide range of mental experiences, with the more fantasy-prone people interpreting these as being outside the mind (demons, spirits, angels, ghosts, aliens, God) and the more rationality-prone people interpreting these as being inside the mind (lucid dreams, hallucinations, fantasies).
When one considers that most studies show that over 90 percent of the population believes in God, it would take a big stretch of the temporal lobe imagination to suggest that billions of people of all faiths the world over have experienced or are experiencing temporal lobe seizures or transients. A more reasonable hypothesis is that the handful of fanatic religious leaders throughout history, who have reported hearing, seeing, and even communicating with God, the devil, angels, aliens, and other supernatural entities can perhaps be accounted for by temporal lobe abnormalities and anomalies. Their followers need a different explanation.
God As Meme
In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed a cultural replicator to explain the transmission of ideas through culture and coined the term meme. He didn't develop the concept much further and it lay dormant until mathematician Richard Brodie pushed the meme as a "virus of the mind" in 1996, physicist Aaron Lynch took it in the direction of a "thought contagion" in 1996, and cognitive psychologist Susan Blackmore developed it into a meme machine in 1997 and 1999.
For the past two decades, Dawkins has strongly suggested that God is a meme and religion is a virus, and all of these authors have followed his lead. Lynch, for example, suggests that the commandment to "honor thy father and mother" is a meme for children to imitate their parents (including their religious beliefs), and that dietary laws and holy days are memes to encourage commitment to one's religion, to spread other memes within that particular faith, and to protect one faith's memes against another faith's memes. Blackmore argues that religious memes are like computer viruses that contain a "copy me" program not unlike those irritating chain letters and computer virus "warnings" that command you to "copy and distribute" the document or face dire consequences.
This meme's-eye view is intriguing; however, cognitive psychologist James Polichak has outlined a number of logical and scientific problems, including not providing a clear operational definition of a meme, not presenting a testable model for how memes influence culture and why standard selection models are not adequate, ignoring the sophisticated social science models of information transfer already in place, and circularity in the explanation of the power of memes. Blackmore has addressed these and other criticisms in her 1999 book The Meme Machine, but what remains especially troubling is the pejorative and hostile spin put on religious memes by the memeticists: corporations employ memes, musicians and authors compose memes, science is a meme, but religion is a virus, a disease, a scourge on humanity.
There is, unfortunately, much historical evidence to support this perspective. From the Crusades' attempts to cleanse the Holy Land of "infidels," to the Inquisition's efforts to purge society of heretics, to the Counter Reformation's push to extirpate reforming Protestants from Catholic lands, to the holy wars of the late twentieth century--all have been done in the name of God and the "one true religion." However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are 10,000 acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.
One could easily build a case that state-sponsored terrorism, revolutions, and wars make even these horrific religion-sponsored catastrophes appear mild by comparison. If God is a meme, so is a king and a president. And if religion is a virus, politics is a full-blown epidemic replete with copy-me memes such as nationalism, jingoism, and outright racism. Belief in God may partially be explained through the influence of techniques described by memeticists, but memes do not get to the core of what is going on inside the mind of the believer. To reach into that we must ask believers why they believe.
Why People Believe in God
As we have already seen, the question of why people believe in God is partially answered by how our brains and genes are wired. Although estimates of a 50 percent influence by genes on religiosity sounds like a lot, we must remember that genes do not determine behavior so much as code for a range of reactions to the environment in a complex and always interactive feedback loop between the two. Therefore the environment still plays an extremely powerful role in the expression of genetic traits.
In 1998, MIT scientist Frank Sulloway and I conducted a study to determine what that role is and, more generally, why people believe. A random sample of Americans were surveyed about their religious attitudes. We inquired about family background, religious beliefs, and reasons for belief and disbelief. We also added a section on personality to see if there are any characteristics especially related to religiosity. Of the 1,000 people who responded (the average age was forty-two; 63 percent were men, 37 percent were women), 64 percent said they believe in God.
Most surveys, however, show that over 90 percent of Americans believe in God, so this 64 percent figure is remarkably low by comparison. The explanation is most likely to be found in education levels. As it turns out, the people who completed our survey were significantly more educated than the average American, and higher education is associated with lower religiosity. According to the most recent census figures, one-quarter of Americans over twenty-five years old have completed their bachelor's degree, whereas in our sample the corresponding rate was almost two-thirds. (It's hard to say why this was the case, but one possibility is that educated people are more likely to complete a moderately complicated survey.) This confirms what other social scientists have found: of the numerous variables influencing religious attitudes, education is one of the most powerful. Precisely what is that influence and what are some of the other variables that lead people to believe or not believe in God?
To answer these questions, we examined the correlation between a number of variables on which we collected data with several measures of religiosity. In examining our findings, it is important to remember that the results represent tendencies, not absolutes. It turns out that the three strongest predictors of religiosity and belief in God are being raised religiously, gender (women are more religious than men), and parents' religiosity. However, people don't live in a psychological laboratory where variables can be perfectly controlled. All of these variables interact, and the effect of these interactions complicates the picture. For example, being raised religiously makes people more religious unless they have conflict with their parents, in which case the rebellious thing to do is to become less religious. Likewise, a correlation between attending church when growing up and parental conflict shows that this combination led to a significant reduction in current church attendance. That is, if church attendance was high in youth but a person experienced conflict with parents, then lowering church attendance later was an apparent consequence of this conflict.
Although many of the findings were expected, there were also some surprises. For example, socioeconomic status had no direct influence on religious beliefs. However, political beliefs certainly did, with conservatives being more religious and liberals less so. Thus, while the majority of both conservatives and liberals believe in God, political liberals are less likely to believe. Why? Probably because most religions represent the status quo, and what conservatives wish most to conserve is the status quo. Thus, the liberal, radical thing to do is to change one's religious attitudes--which usually means either becoming less religious or adopting marginalized religious beliefs, as in the counterculture's embracing of fringe cults in the 1960s and 1970s and the adoption of New Age spiritual movements in the 1980s and 1990s.
This connection between religion and politics is corroborated by other studies. David Wulff summarizes a sizeable body of literature on the subject in his 1991 book Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views. Measuring "piety" as a function of religious affiliation, church attendance, doctrinal orthodoxy, and self-rated importance of religion, Wulff concludes that "researchers have consistently found positive correlations with ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, social distance, rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and specific forms of prejudice, especially against Jews and blacks." That is to say, greater religiosity was associated with higher scores for these personality traits--traits that are the very antithesis of political liberalism.
Since personality plays an important role in many human beliefs, we examined a number of characteristics to see if there was any influence on religiosity. What is personality? It's the unique pattern of relatively permanent traits which shapes an individual's thoughts and actions. We might contrast personality traits with situational states--that is, merely temporal reactions to environmental circumstances. Personality is our core being--the stuff of which we are made. It may be flexible, where we react differently in different situations, but it is only flexible within certain parameters determined by an interactive combination of nature and nurture, genes and environment, biology and psychology.
The most popular theory today is known as the five factor model. The "big five" personality dimensions include openness to experience (imaginative, idealistic, adventurous), extroversion (friendly, warm, sociable), agreeableness (forgiving, tender-minded, sympathetic), conscientiousness (efficient, organized, ambitious), and neuroticism (anxious, moody, defensive). Sulloway and I measured these five dimensions and discovered that the most consistent finding related to religious intensity involved openness. A higher ranking on the openness dimension was associated with lower levels of religiosity and higher levels of doubt. Moreover, openness was significantly correlated with change in religiosity: higher openness scores were associated with lowered piety, as well as lower rates of church attendance.
There was a modest association between birth order and openness, with laterborns scoring higher than firstborns. Sulloway has pointed out that laterborns tend to be more open to experience than firstborns because they must generally be more exploratory in finding a valued family niche and in competing for limited parental attention and resources.
Not surprisingly, we found a strong correlation between openness and political liberalism. But we also discovered a significant correlation on the agreeableness (tough-minded to tender-minded) scale. We found that religious people are more tender-minded. But it should be noted that laterborns, when controlled for sex, socioeconomic status, education, age, and sibship size, are more liberal than firstborns. Related to this is the finding that laterborns are more tender-minded than firstborns. So, overall belief in God was significantly related to being conservative and being tender-minded, but because laterborns are more liberal and also more tender-minded than their elder siblings, these two predisposing factors will tend to cancel themselves out in the expression of religiosity.
In sum, people who score high in openness are less religious, more likely to entertain religious doubts, more likely to change their beliefs, and less likely to attend church. Why? Additional adjectives that correlate highly with openness to experience on the personality inventory we used--such as inventive, versatile, curious, optimistic, original, insightful, and unconventional--offer some insight. Consider what it means to be less religious and skeptical of God in a country in which 90 to 95 percent of the population are believers. To even arrive at this position one would have to be inventive, curious, and insightful. And to maintain this skepticism in the face of the possibility of great scorn being heaped by zealous believers would mean one would need to be optimistic and original.
More than anything else, one would need to be unconventional. Religion and belief in God is, if nothing else, conventional. In fact, I would argue that it is the convention in our culture. With the possible exception of politics (and even this is probably a distant second), you would be hard-pressed to find another convention that generates so much zealousness on the part of followers. To be pious--an adjective almost exclusively used to describe compliance in the observance of religion--means compliance to convention.
In order to probe deeper into the question of why people believe, we asked another series of questions that we lumped into two groupings: rational influences on belief (the apparent intelligent design of the world; without God there is no basis for morality; the existence of evil, pain, and suffering; and scientific explanations of the world) and emotional influences on belief (emotional comfort, faith, and desire for meaning and purpose in life). The single strongest correlation we found was for gender: men tended to justify their belief with rational reasons, while women tended to justify their belief with emotional reasons. There was also a significant relationship between openness and a tendency to prefer rational reasons for belief over emotional reasons. In other words, educated, open people--particularly men--feel the need to justify their faith with rational arguments, whereas less-educated people--especially less-educated women--are comfortable with their faith being based on emotional reasons.
One explanation for this outcome is that, in general, education causes a decrease in faith, so for those who are educated and still believe, there is a need to justify belief with rational arguments. Since most people come to their faith by being raised religiously or through personal experiences, rational arguments are not typically a part of this process. We should not be surprised, then, that there were significant negative correlations between rational arguments and being raised religiously, as well as parents' religiosity. That is, if your faith is a deep one, going back to childhood, there is less need to justify it with rational arguments. But these correlations, while significant, were weaker than for most we found in this study, indicating that education's even stronger role can override early-life experiences.
To give people an opportunity to say in their own words why they believe in God and why they think other people believe in God, we asked them exactly that. The graph below presents the most common reasons people give for their belief and why they think other people believe.
One of the most interesting results to come out of this study was that the intellectually based reasons for belief in "good design" and "experienced God" dropped to sixth and third place, respectively, when understanding why people think others believe in God. Taking their place as the two most common reasons why people believe others believe in God were the emotionally based categories of "comfort" and "raised to believe."
One possible reason for this is what psychologists call biases in attributions. As pattern-seeking animals, we seek causes to which we can attribute our actions and the actions of others. When we make a situational attribution, we identify the cause in the environment ("My depression is caused by a death in the family"); when we make a dispositional attribution, we identify the cause in the person as an enduring trait ("Her depression is caused by a melancholy personality"). But I suspect this is only part of the explanation. Social psychologists Carol Tavris and Carole Wade explain that there is, not surprisingly, a tendency for people "to take credit for their good actions (a dispositional attribution) and let the situation account for their bad ones." In dealing with others, for example, we might attribute our own good fortune to hard work and intelligence, whereas the other person's good fortune is attributed to luck and circumstance.
I would argue that there is an intellectual attribution bias, whereas we consider our own actions to be rationally motivated and the actions of others more emotionally driven ("I'm against gun control because statistics show that crime decreases when gun ownership increases; however, he's for gun control because he's a bleeding-heart liberal who needs to identify with the victim"). As pattern-seeking animals, this intellectual attribution bias applies to religion as a belief system and to God as the subject of belief.
Interestingly, the primary reasons people gave for not believing in God were also the intellectually based categories: "there is no proof for God's existence," followed by "God is a product of the mind and culture," "the problem of evil," and "science provides all the answers we need." For example, an eighteen-year-old Jewish male who considers himself an atheist, writes: "I don't believe in God because it is impossible for a being to be what God must be in order to be a god without being obvious and undeniable. In short, God is philosophically impossible and scientifically and cosmologically unnecessary." By contrast, and following the tendency to attribute to others emotional reasons for belief, he says other people believe in God because: "It's comforting. Additionally, some people find it easier to deal with problems if they believe it is `God's will.'"
As we have seen, belief in God in the modern world is a function of a complex array of reasons that, while true for some people and false for others, certainly are equally useful. Consistently we find a fascinating distinction in belief attribution between why people think they believe in God and why they think other people believe in God.
This distinction was not lost on the psalmists of the Old Testament. To the choirmaster of Psalms 19:1, the author proclaims: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork." Yet in the psalm for the sons of Korah, Psalms 46:1-3 declares:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.
Are these not, in a way, two sides of the same coin? For most believers, the heavens declare God's glory; for other believers, he provides strength in their time of need.
Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and director of the Skeptics Society. He is the author of the bestselling Why People Believe Weird Things and teaches the history of science, technology, and evolutionary thought in the cultural studies program at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
SOCIOBIOLOGY of RELIGION slightly adapted from a posting from JAMES C. RUSSELL (Saint Peter's College) on the Human Behavior and Evolution Listserv, 11/08/97 09:40
HBE-L members who wish to pursue research in religion may be interested in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion. The lead article in the current Sept. 97 (36/3) issue is entitled "Shamanic Healing, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion," by James McClenon.
I have recently written a book on "The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation" (Oxford, 1994; paperback, 1996) which includes a discussion of religion from a sociobiological perspective, especially in Ch. 5, "Sociopsychological Aspects of Religious Transformation." http://www.oup-usa.org/docs/0195104668.html
Also of interest is Walter Burkert's "Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions" (Harvard, 1996). In an earlier book, Burkert wrote "Religious ritual is advantageous in the process of selection, if not for the individual, then at least for the continuance of group identity." ("Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth" (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983))
Burkert's view is echoed in the following paragraph from the Seattle Times summary of the paper, "The Neural Basis of Religious Experience" (V. S. Ramachandran, et al, University of California, San Diego) which initiated this thread of discussion:
"It is not clear why such dedicated neural machinery . . . for religion may have evolved," the team reported yesterday at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. One possibility, the scientists said, was to encourage tribe loyalty or reinforce kinship ties or the stability of a closely knit clan.
This description of the possible survival advantages derived from religion evidently refer to that form of religion often referred to as "folk religion." Although most taxonomies have their exceptions, religions can be, and often are divided into two ideal types: folk or natural religions and universal or revealed religions. The usual characteristics of folk religions include: organic development instead of a founding personality such as Jesus or Mohammed; a membership that is usually determined by genetic identity; the celebration of the ethnocultural group to which one belongs through myths, rituals and symbols; a tendency to reinforce the existing social hierarchy by legitimating the authority of those in power; and a focus on the necessities of this world (food, fertility, and military success). A folk religion is usually fully integrated into the social, political and cultural life of a society and is hence often difficult to isolate.
These predominantly "world-accepting" characteristics of folk religions may be generally contrasted with the predominantly "world-rejecting" characteristics of universal religions which usually include: a founder who provides ethical and/or spiritual guidance; a membership that is open to all who express acceptance of intellectual concepts such as doctrines and who accept the authority of religious leaders; a focus upon the transcendence of one's current sociobiological existence -- whether through meditation, posthumous existence, or sociopolitical reform; a tendency to challenge the dominant social hierarchy by asserting the preeminence of universal egalitarian religious ideals over embedded sociocultural traditions.
Universalist religious principles may be appealed to by rulers who wish to impose cohesion upon socially diverse subjects. After his Eastern conquests, Alexander the Great may have been the first to officially proclaim a non-biological, fictive, "universal brotherhood of mankind" in 324 B.C. when he is reputed to have "declared that all men were alike sons of one Father, and . . . he prayed that Macedonians and Persians might be partners in the commonwealth and that peoples of his world might live in harmony and unity of heart and mind." (W. W. Tarn, "Alexander the Great," Beacon, 1948, p. 147)
Since ideal types do not often exist in the real world, most historical and contemporary examples of religion possess both folk and universal elements. This is particularly true of universal religions which often adapt themselves to local cultural norms. Although some may regard folk religious attitudes as "primitive" and univeralist religious attitudes as "enlightened," such need not be the case. Contemporary Japan provides an example of a folk religion (Shinto) in a "developed" nation which, through its practice of ancestor veneration, strengthens genetic bonds and reinforces the social order. Contemporary Western Christianity, on the contrary, deliberately dissociating itself from its Eurocentric ethnocultural heritage, and now focusing on "universal social justice," may be having the opposite effect.
Thought-provoking discussions of past, present, and future religious and ethnocultural encounters may be found in Samuel Huntington's timely "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" (Simon & Schuster, 1996), and Mathew Connelly and Paul Kennedy's "Must it be the Rest against the West?" (Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1994, 61-84)
Finally, no discussion of religion and science would be complete without acknowledging Raymond Cattell's "Beyondism: Religion from Science" (Praeger, 1987), and his earlier book, "A New Morality from Science: Beyondism" (Pergamon, 1972).