Caveman instincts may explain our belief in gods and ghosts

Notions of gods arise in all human societies, from all powerful and all-knowing deities to simple forest spirits. A recent method of examining religious thought and behaviour links their ubiquity and the similarity of our beliefs to the ways in which human mental processes were adapted for survival in prehistoric times.

It rests on a couple of observations about human psychology. First, when an event happens, we tend to assume that a living thing caused it. In other words, we assume agency behind that event. If you think of the sorts of events that might have happened in prehistoric times, it’s easy to see why a bias towards agency would be useful. A rustling of a bush or the snapping of a twig could be due to wind. But far better to assume it’s a lion and run away.

The survivors who had this tendency to more readily ascribe agency to an event passed their genes down the generations, increasingly hard-wiring this way of making snap decisions into the brain. This is not something that people need to learn. It occurs quickly and automatically.

The second trait is about how we view others. While living together in a tribe would have had many advantages for survival in prehistoric times, getting along with everyone would not always have been easy. Comprehending others’ behaviour requires you to understand their thoughts and beliefs, especially where these may be incorrect due to someone not knowing the full facts of a situation.

This is known as “theory of mind”. This idea says that we automatically assume that there are reasons behind others’ behaviour which we try to work out in order to better understand why they behave the way they do. Not having this ability has been proposed to underlie developmental disorders such as autism.

You may be wondering what these two hard-wired processes have to do with belief in gods. Imagine a pebble falling in the back of a cave. Our agency device tells us that someone caused that to happen. With nothing in evidence, could it be an invisible creature or a spirit? If so, why would it be sneaking around? To find out secrets about us or to discover if we are good or bad people..?

This even applies to the Abrahamic, all-knowing, all powerful god. He may seem very inhuman at first glance, but it has been shown that we reason about Him in a very human way. For example we depict Him helping one person before moving to the other side of the world to help someone else. Hard-wired reasoning processes helps explain how religious ideas are so durable, spreading across continents and down through generations.

Both these and other ancient instincts appear to be in evidence from observations of children. Very young children seem to show very accurate understanding of physical laws. For example they know that two solid objects cannot merge into one or that horses do not have metal gears inside them. Developmental psychologists have suggested that children are intuitive biologists, physicists and – using theory of mind – psychologists…

If these ideas are correct, religion is merely a by-product of mental processes operating in error…This assumes that religious/supernatural experiences are not true.

Mail me a penny postcard when someone scientifically verifies miracles or an invisible white guy in the clouds pulling strings on obedient meat-puppets.

3 thoughts on “Caveman instincts may explain our belief in gods and ghosts

    • Martyn Wilson says:

      “The question has always been – did God create man or, did man create God?”

      The answer is becoming clearer with every passing year, which explains why religious nut-jobs of every persuasion are getting more and more aggressive in promoting their worldviews.

  1. Apostate says:

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
    Epicurus (341~270 BC) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicurus

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