Is Religion Somehow In Our Genetic Makeup?

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by Neil Godfrey


Here is an answer to that question that I found interesting. It is from Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, pp. 3-4:

Does this mean religion is “innate” and “in the genes”?

I—and most people interested in the evolution of the human mind—think that the question is in fact meaningless and that it is important to understand why.

Consider other examples of human capacities. All human beings can catch colds and remember different melodies. We can catch colds because we have respiratory organs and these provide a hospitable site for all sorts of pathogens, including those of the common cold. We can remember tunes because a part of our brain can easily store a series of sounds with their relative pitch and duration. There are no common colds in our genes and no melodies either. What is in the genes is a tremendously complex set of chemical recipes for the building of normal organisms with respiratory organs and a complex set of connections between brain areas. Normal genes in a normal milieu will give you a pair of lungs and an organized auditory cortex, and with these the dispositions to acquire both colds and tunes. Obviously, if we were all brought up in a sterile and nonmusical environment, we would catch neither. We would still have the disposition to catch them but no opportunity to do so.

Having a normal human brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different. 

The reason why psychologists and anthropologists are so concerned with acquisition and transmission is that evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired. Not all possible concepts are equally good. The ones we acquire easily are the ones we find widespread the world over; indeed, that is why we find them widespread the world over. It has been said of poetry that it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This description is even more aptly applied to the supernatural imagination. But, as we will see, not all kinds of “airy nothing” will find a local habitation in the minds of people. (Formatting mine)


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33 thoughts on “Is Religion Somehow In Our Genetic Makeup?”

  1. I think it’s in our genes to ask the big, existential questions, and because they often have no answers it is just natural to fall back on positing God.

    1. For example, in modern times, we question where the universe came from? The answer is “The Big Bang.” We question further where the material that made up the big bang came from? We don’t know. Since we can’t trace the series of causes that led to the creation of the universe back to an infinite regress, and we don’t know where it all came from, we come to rest our ratiocinations on God (the God of the gaps).

  2. Again from Pascal Boyer (pp. 10-18):

    We say that the origin of religious concepts is the urge to provide certain general aspects of human experience with a satisfactory explanation. Now anthropologists have shown that (i) explaining such general facts is not equally pressing in all cultures and that (ii) the explanations provided by religion are not at all like ordinary explanations. . . .

    The origin of things in general is not always the obvious source of puzzlement that we may imagine. As anthropologist Roger Keesing points out in describing myths of the Kwaio people in the Solomon Islands: “Ultimate human origins are not viewed as problematic. . . ” . . . .

    Religious explanations often seem to work the other way around, producing more complication instead of less. As anthropologist Dan Sperber points out, religion creates “relevant mysteries” rather than simple accounts of events. . . .

    Later, the theme of religion-as-an-explanation was developed by a school of anthropology called intellectualism, which was initiated by 19th-century scholars such as Edward Burnett Tylor and James Frazer and remains quite influential to this day. A central assumption of intellectualism is this: if a phenomenon is common in human experience and people do not have the conceptual means to understand it, then they will try and find some speculative explanation. . . . .

    The mistake of intellectualism was to assume that a human mind is driven by a general urge to explain. That assumption is no more plausible than the idea that animals, as opposed to plants, feel a general “urge to move around.” Animals never move about for the sake of changing places. They are in search of food or safety or sex; their movements in these different situations are caused by different processes. The same goes for explanations. From a distance, as it were, you may think that the general point of having a mind is to explain and understand. But if you look closer, you see that what happens in a mind is far more complex; this is crucial to understanding religion.

    1. As Martin Heidegger pointed out, the “existential (“existentia” in the Latin),” as opposed to the “essential (“essentia” in the Latin), characteristics of something answers the “how” interrogative. For instance, I can describe “what” a chair is, its “essential” qualities, and I can ask “how” a chair is (“badly positioned,” for instance), it’s “existential” qualities. Children ask existential questions that are identical in form to philosophical questions about The Cosmological Argument when they want to know who their grandparents’ parents were, and who their parents were, and their parents, and so forth. Existential inquiry is basic in our human approach to life, even if some don’t take it to the point of the “God Question.”

  3. Consider the idea that everybody wants to identify the general cause of evil and misfortune. This is not as straightforward as we may think. The world over, people are concerned with the causes of particular evils and calamities. These are considered in great detail but the existence of evil in general is not the object of much reflection. Let me use an example that is familiar to all anthropologists from their Introductory courses. British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard is famous for his classic account of the religious notions and beliefs of the Zande people of Sudan. His book became a model for all anthropologists because it did not stop at cataloguing strange beliefs. It showed you, with the help of innumerable details, how sensible these beliefs were, once you understood the particular standpoint of the people who expressed them and the particular questions those beliefs were supposed to answer. For instance, one day the roof of a mud house collapses in the village where Evans-Pritchard is working. People promptly explain the incident in terms of witchcraft. The people who were under that roof at the time must have powerful enemies. With typical English good sense, Evans-Pritchard points out to his interlocutors that termites had undermined the mud house and that there was nothing particularly mysterious in its collapse. But people are not interested in this aspect of the situation. As they point out to the anthropologist, they know perfectly well that termites gnaw through the pillars of mud houses and that decrepit structures are bound to cave in at some point. What they want to find out is why the roof collapsed at the precise time when so-and-so was sitting underneath it rather than before or after that. This is where witchcraft provides a good explanation. But what explains the existence of witchcraft? No one seems to find that a pertinent or interesting question. This is in fact a common situation in places where people have beliefs about spirits or witches. These agents’ behavior is an explanation of particular cases, but no one bothers to explain the existence of misfortune in general.

    The origin of things in general is not always the obvious source of puzzlement that we may imagine. As anthropologist Roger Keesing points out in describing myths of the Kwaio people in the Solomon Islands: “Ultimate human origins are not viewed as problematic. [The myths] assume a world where humans gave feasts, raised pigs, grew taro, and fought blood feuds.” What matters to people are particular cases in which these activities are disrupted, often by the ancestors or by witchcraft.

    But how does religion account for these particular occurrences? The explanations one finds in religion are often more puzzling than illuminating. Consider the explanation of thunderstorms as the boom- ing voice of ancestors venting their anger at some human misdemeanor. To explain a limited aspect of the natural world (loud, rolling, thumping sounds during storms), we have to assume a whole imaginary world with superhuman agents (Where did they come from? Where are they?) that cannot be seen (Why not?), in a distant place that cannot be reached (How does the noise come through all the way?), whose voices produce thunder (How is that possible? Do they have a special mouth? Are they gigantic?). Obviously, if you live in a place where this kind of belief is widespread, people may have an answer to all these questions. But each answer requires a specific narrative, which more often than not presents us with yet more superhuman agents or extraordinary occurrences—that is, with more questions to answer.

    As another illustration, here is a short account of shamanistic ritual among the Cuna of Panama by anthropologist Carlo Severi:

    The [shaman’s] song is chanted in front of two rows of statuettes facing each other, beside the hammock where the patient is lying. These auxiliary spirits drink up the smoke whose intoxicating effect opens their minds to the invisible aspect of reality and gives them the power to heal. In this way [the statuettes] are believed to become themselves diviners.

    The patient in this ritual has been identified by the community as mentally disturbed, which is explained in religious terms. The soul of the person was taken away by evil spirits and it is now held hostage. A shaman is a specialist who can enlist auxiliary spirits to help him deliver the imprisoned soul and thereby restore the patient’s health. Note that this goes well beyond a straightforward explanation for aberrant behavior. True, there is direct evidence of the patient’s condition; but the evil spirits, the auxiliary spirits, the shaman’s ability to journey through the spirits’ world, the efficacy of the shaman’s songs in his negotiation with the evil spirits—all this has to be postulated. To add to these baroque complications, the auxiliary spirits are in fact wood statuettes; these objects not only hear and understand the shaman, but they actually become diviners for the time of the ritual, perceiving what ordinary people cannot see.

    An “explanation” like that does not work in the same way as our ordinary accounts of events in our environment. We routinely produce explanations that (i) use the information available and (ii) rearrange it in a way that yields a more satisfactory view of what happened. Explaining something does not consist in producing one thought after another in a freewheeling sort of way. The point of an explanation is to provide a context that makes a phenomenon less surprising than before and more in agreement with the general order of things. Religious explanations often seem to work the other way around, producing more complication instead of less. As anthropologist Dan Sperber points out, religion creates “relevant mysteries” rather than simple accounts of events.

    This leads to a paradox familiar to all anthropologists. If we say that people use religious notions to explain the world, this seems to suggest that they do not know what a proper explanation is. But that is absurd. We have ample evidence that they do know. People use the ordinary “getting most of the relevant facts under a simpler heading” strategy all the time. So what people do with their religious concepts is not so much explain the universe as … well, this is where we need to step back and consider in more general terms what makes mysteries relevant.

    From Boyer’s Religion Explained pp. 12-14. It is available online @ http://bookzz.org/book/1178858/459f54

    1. It was a momentous day in the ancient West when, in a place and time saturated by superstition, the pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras wrote in his lost work ‘On the Gods:’ “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be.”

      That such clearheaded agnosticism could have emerged in the ancient Greece of that time boggles the mind.

  4. A few hundred thousand years ago one ape looked at the sun and told another ape that the sun wanted the second ape to give the first ape 10% of his food. Is there anything else to explain?

  5. Pascal Boyer would say in reply:

    The idea that we are often gullible or superstitious is certainly true . . . but we are not gullible in every possible way. People do not generally manage to believe six impossible things before breakfast . . . .

    Religion is not a domain where anything goes, where any strange belief could appear and get transmitted from generation to generation. On the contrary, there is only a limited catalogue of possible supernatural beliefs. . . .

    Even without knowing the details of religious systems in other cultures, we all know that some notions are far more widespread than others. The idea that there are invisible souls of dead people lurking around is a very common one; the notion that people’s organs change position during the night is very rare. But both are equally irrefutable. . . . So the problem, surely, is not just to explain how people can accept supernatural claims for which there is no strong evidence but also why they tend to represent and accept these supernatural claims rather than other possible ones. We should explain also why they are so selective in the claims they adhere to.

    Indeed, we should go even further and abandon the credulity scenario altogether. Here is why. In this scenario, people relax ordinary standards of evidence for some reason. If you are against religion, you will say that this is because they are naturally credulous, or respectful of received authority, or too lazy to think for themselves, etc. If you are more sympathetic to religious beliefs, you will say that they open up their minds to wondrous truths beyond the reach of reason. But the point is that if you accept this account, you assume that people first open up their minds, as it were, and then let their minds be filled by whatever religious beliefs are held by the people who influence them at that particular time. This is often the way we think of religious adhesion. . . .

    Our present knowledge of mental processes suggests that this scenario is highly misleading. People receive all sorts of information from all sorts of sources. . . . .

    But then some pieces of information produce the effects that we identify as “belief.” That is, the person starts to recall them and use them to explain or interpret particular events; they may trigger specific emotions; they may strongly influence the person’s behavior. Note that I said some pieces of information, not all. This is where the selection occurs. In ways that a good psychology of religion should describe, it so happens that only some pieces of information trigger these effects, and not others; it also happens that the same piece of information will have these effects in some people but not others. So people do not have beliefs because they somehow made their minds receptive to belief and then acquired the material for belief. They have some beliefs because, among all the material they acquired, some of it triggered these particular effects.

    This is important because it changes the whole perspective on explaining religion. As long as you think that people first open up the gates and then let visitors in, as it were, you cannot understand why religion invariably returns to the same recurrent themes. If the process of transmission only consists of acceptance, why do we find only a handful of recurrent themes? But if you see things the other way around, you can start describing the effects of concepts in the mind and understand why some of them may well become persuasive enough that people “believe” them. I do not think that people have religion because they relax their usually strict criteria for evidence and accept extraordinary claims; I think they are led to relax these criteria because some extraordinary claims have become quite plausible to them.

    — pp. 28-31.

    1. IME the body feelings produced by experience through the filter of certain beliefs provide a cycle of reinforcement. I prefer the idea of somatics to emotions, but even emotions will work. That was an interesting section. Thank you.

  6. When one of our horses dies, the other horses don’t seem to worry too much about it. They go on eating grass. When an elephant dies, other elephants stand over the lost one and weep tears. Then we have humans.

    Humans have large brains and imaginations. The imagination posits what is not, so that humans are not content to simply deal with what is. They are storytellers. They make things up. What they make up differs, sometimes greatly, between one culture and another. I think of religion as one form of content within the imaginative construct category, then each separate religion is a more specific content. That last line in your commentary, “some extraordinary claims have become quite plausible to them” leads one to think of how this occurs. Much of it is socially induced (a long history helps; a holy book helps), another met need in the religious content helps, such as the addition of ethical emphasis to the Greco-Roman religions, which was attractive enough to result in supplantation of those religions with Judeo-Christianity.

    I think people are most receptive to religion when they are most psychologically or socially vulnerable, such as during puberty, or during some personal crisis. They can then be attached a an ideology which is socially reinforced. You see a very militant form of social reinforcement among the evangelical Christians. It’s as if they are trying to convert you in order to convince themselves.

    The power of the narrative is reinforced by history. The Christian doctrine is absurd when you analyze it rationally, yet it has employed rational justifications and has been around so long that it is accepted, and someone like the Pope has instant credibility and admiration; it’s built-in, because of historical reinforcement.

    I’m cautious about believing in a religious “gene,” however, if only because people can be programmed to believe in such very different things; I’m thinking here of the Native Americans, who were so sensitive to nature. Their beliefs seem wise and practical compared to some of crazy things you get from those who adhere to the Abrahamic religions.

    1. I’m cautious about believing in a religious “gene,” however, if only because people can be programmed to believe in such very different things;

      There is certainly not only one gene making anybody religious, and if there is some complex of genes doing the job, it need have no tendency to promote any particular belief. Humans enjoy eating fruits because of genes that give us a taste for sugar. My wife is a picky eater and dislikes many (seemingly most) fruits that ordinary people enjoy, but that doesn’t mean she lacks a sweet tooth.

  7. Key word is “agency”. We are inherently susceptible to the idea that something or someone has caused things to happen to us, that someone is ‘behind’ everything. Which is very good instinct to have for survival – we hear a twig snap, and we run in fear of what caused it to snap.

    We are also very social animals, intelligent enough to practice altruism, pecking orders, kinship, delayed gratification, socialization on an instinctual basis. What is very interesting is that there is a specific biological neurochemical pathway for experiencing the numinous – the intense sensation of spiritual awe. There is a drug which can produce this feeling, and only this feeling, for hours at a time – so, yes, we are hard-wired for religious revelation as a pleasure-motivator. Very good for social animals, most of whom are not alpha’s.

    Put that together with a million years of agency reinforcement, and you have religion.

    1. There may be a neurochemical pathway for experiencing the numinous, I wouldn’t know. However, I’m reminded of Freud’s comment in Civilization and its Discontents, where he says he does not find within himself the “oceanic” feeling that religious people describe. I had this feeling when I was going through puberty, but not since. I suspect the numinous aspect is a content that people insert into the neurochemical pathway.

      1. My friend Doctor Harry Hunt has done extensive research on the physiological and psychological foundations of the experience of the numinous (he’s a professor emeritus of psychology). If you’re interested, his two most popular books on the subject are 1. On The Nature Of Consciousness: http://www.amazon.com/Nature-Consciousness-Phenomenological-Transpersonal-Perspectives/dp/0300062303/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1443290414&sr=8-2&keywords=harry+hunt , and 2. Lives In Spirit: http://www.amazon.com/Lives-Spirit-Precursors-Transpersonal-Huamnistic/dp/0791458040/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1443290508&sr=8-1&keywords=harry+hunt+lives+in+spirit.

      2. One theory of Greek gods was they described things in nature, as if human-looking gods did them. So lightning strikes. And it was natural to imagine a Zeus who looks like a powerful old king in the sky, throwing them down. Anthropomorphic, that was called.

        1. “But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
          or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
          horses like horses and cattle like cattle
          also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies
          of such a sort as the form they themselves have.”


      3. Some people have “mystical” or “religious” [William James] mental experiences, and others never do. Since the operation of the brain has genetic and/or prenatal determinants, there may be some biological basis to this phenomenon.

        When quite young, and very occasionally in adult life, I have had an odd involuntary mental experience, similar in duration but nothing else to deja vu. It consisted of what I can only describe as an awareness or feeling that nothing need exist, what theologians call “contingency of being”. There was no positive awareness of a supernatural being. Eventually I came across “arguments” for the “existence of a Self-existent Cause”, and then developed an interest in religion, initially RC apologetics. I have never had any positive spiritual experience, let alone any response to prayer. Presumably I experienced some trick of the brain chemistry, but its strong existential dimension remains an enigma. I have never taken psychoactive drugs and have no wish to do so.

      4. So recreating mystic experiences — activating those pathways — can be done through hypnosis including self-hypnosis. Also mushrooms and similar drugs. So if what humans are looking for are the feelings associated with activating those pathways they need not believe in the supernatural. Only realize that there are ways to get the good feelings they seek. Maybe Sam Harris is on to something recommending meditation for all.

    2. We would expect to find bits of our brains lighting up in various ways whenever we experience anything at all — whether we interpret it numinous or spiritual or a smack on the head. Steven Pinker compares that with the workings of the DVD. We can study the DVD under a microscope to see “how it works” but what really counts is the software that enters it. That’s the question we are asking here — where does that software come from and why does it appeal in the way it does to some of us but not others, etc etc.

      From Better Angels

      My brief tour of the neurobiology of violence barely does justice to our scientific understanding, and our scientific understanding barely does justice to the phenomena themselves. But I hope it has persuaded you that violence does not have a single psychological root but a number of them, working by different principles. To understand them, we need to look not just at the hardware of the brain but also at its software—that is, at the reasons people engage in violence. Those reasons are implemented as intricate patterns in the microcircuitry of brain tissue; we cannot read them directly from the neurons, any more than we can understand a movie by putting a DVD under a microscope.

      He’s talking about violence but the point applies to anything in and around our brains.

      1. The fact that a single molecule – the drug – can cause a highly specific, limited, and repeatable complex of experience and emotion in the people that take it, means that it is itself, or it precisely mimics, a natural neurotransmitter. The brain is prewired for this. The pathway exists naturally – it is not a matter of software vs hardware, or people imposing their own definition of “numinous”.

        It is not about whether or not people have a “reason” for doing this. People who take this drug without prior knowledge of what to expect, without prompting – all have the same experience. But this does not mean that the ‘Numinous pathway’ is necessarily the result of adaptation. It does not mean that the experience of the numinous is beneficial, or uniquely human, or God-given, or special. It may just be an artifact.

        1. When I learned that once someone has had an such an experience (or about any other mind-altering experience), that it could easily be recreated through hypnosis without the initial conditions that seemed to set it off in the first place, it seemed to me to be an artifact, and certainly nothing that would require dualism or a dual-substance explanation. Most animals seek to repeat pleasurable experiences when possible. Elephants know when amarula is fermented.

          “where does that software come from and why does it appeal in the way it does to some of us but not others, etc etc.”. It evolved for some purpose which is no longer of primary value? It’s appeal is dependent on one’s pleasure center biochemistry – just like cocaine, tobacco, pursuit of sex, dominant behavior, submissive behavior, etc.

          To me, the question is not to take away one’s preferred pleasure “drug”, but to make sure that one does not harm society (and children) while waddling in delusional highs.

        2. Is this not consistent with the point made:

          Obviously, if we were all brought up in a sterile and nonmusical environment, we would catch neither [the flu, and memories of musical melodies]. We would still have the disposition to catch them but no opportunity to do so.

          Or am I misunderstanding something?

  8. The experience I have had was not a “good” or bad feeling. It was like a sudden brief awareness of the inexplicability or impermanence of the world around me. I have been told that Coleridge, Heidegger and Colin Wilson had comparable experiences.

    1. Without deep diving too much, if you experienced it, there was a neurological pattern taking place that. Whether or not you associate it with a “feeling” any pattern your body has experienced can be recreated with the right triggers (anchors). (This is also the foundation for the placebo effect). Now I am working from a single substance non dualist model. If you ascribe to some sort of dualism (where mind/soul/spirit exists separate from and can act on body), we don’t have a common foundation for this discussion.

      1. I keep an open mind re mind/brain dualism.

        On the larger cosmological issue of why anything exists, and why this particular universe is in process, I find it notable that our brains, which are presumably the product of an evolving cosmos, should be wondering about the world outside “our own” heads. An “uncreated” universe appears to have “created” brains like Aquinas, Leibniz, Frank Tipler and Robert J. Spitzer SJ, who ask questions about its “origins”. The cosmos itself would then appear to be wondering why it exists. Is there a paradox here, or is my brain malfunctioning, or what?

          1. I don’t know if I am compared to Alan Watts. My experience was quite different from pantheism, virtually opposite to it, but very difficult to explain: it was as if this universe need not exist at all, which is why it eventually led to an interest in the “natural theology” of e.g. G.H. Joyce, E. L. Mascall, A. Plantinga and lately (our old “friend”) W. L. Craig, at first in the vain hope of proving the existence of God and more recently just as an exercise in what Joseph McCabe called “moving around the counters of abstract terms”.

            1. Brains are not fully developed until the late 20s (at which point, unfortunately, they start to undevelop). Initial mystical experiences are generally experienced by the still developing brain.

              1. I find the variety of living things on this planet and the starry sky extraordinarily beautiful, but I have never had Wordsworth’s “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” &c.

  9. “Religious ideas have sprung from the same need as all the other achievements of culture: from the necessity for defending itself against the crushing supremacy of nature. ” – Freud

    Maybe it’s an offshoot of the will to live.

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