Why Do We Believe?

Research Blogging / by Dave Munger /

Science is developing new insights into how religious beliefs may have evolved, but often the research brings up more questions than it answers.

In 1901 the great scholar William James was asked to deliver a series of lectures about religion. James had previously written the first American textbook on psychology, an immense, hugely popular work that introduced generations of students to the scientific study of behavior. His lecture series on religion was published in another influential volume, The Varieties of the Religious Experience. Although the work wasn’t truly scientific, many credit James as being the first to systematically apply psychology to religion. James concluded that religion was a near-universal, usually beneficial trait of humans. Seemingly irrational religious belief allowed people to overcome problems and improve both their own lives and the lives of others, James claimed.

Over the course of the next century, there have been many more attempts to apply scientific principles to the study of religion, with mixed results. As David J. Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, says in his book The Accidental Mind, much “scientific” analysis of religion amounts to little more than speculation.

Medical writer Tom Rees devotes his blog Epiphenom to the scientific study of religion. Last week he examined a study on the relationship between intelligence and religious belief. Published in Social Psychology Quarterly, this study by Satoshi Kanazawa replicated the results of several earlier studies in showing that strong religious belief was correlated with lower intelligence. In this case, adolescents who scored higher on intelligence tests were less likely to be religious as adults.

But Rees says Kanazawa’s study goes beyond those earlier studies to arrive at a potential explanation of why less-intelligent people are more religious: Intelligence evolved in order for people to adapt to novel situations. Kanazawa’s analysis of two data sets found that intelligence is also correlated to political beliefs (liberals tend to be more intelligent), and some moral beliefs such as attitudes about promiscuity (smarter males believe promiscuity is bad). It’s not correlated to attitudes about things like children, family, and friends, that don’t change much over generations.

But if religion is associated with low intelligence, and intelligence helps us handle novel situations, why did humans become religious at all? Another study about religious belief and evolution was discussed by both Björn Brembs, a neurobiologist at the Freie Universität Berlin, and PZ Myers, an evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist with a wildly popular blog, Pharyngula.

Myers writes that there are two competing theories explaining how religion evolved. One says that religion itself gave humans some survival-related advantage, so that early religious humans survived while their non-religious competitors did not. The other says that religion is a by-product of some other trait that is useful. Which theory is correct? Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Marc Hauser address this question in a study published this year in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The authors argue that cooperation is the key. Cooperation is clearly beneficial for human social groups in hunting, defense, child-rearing, and many other survival behaviors. Religion, they say, is a way of reinforcing the principles that join members of a group. Brembs points out that observing a religious ritual like a rain dance allows communities to identify loyal members and punish those who don’t seem to be contributing to the group.

This still seems rather speculative to me, though. Why would people bother with a rain dance in the first place? As James pointed out more than a century ago, on the face of it, these religious rituals and beliefs often seem ridiculous (and every religion has its share: We could equally wonder why people worship a “virgin mother” or proclaim that making an image of a particular prophet is blasphemous).

Here again, we are reduced to speculation. James made the argument that the manifest value of spiritual belief was enough reason for people to profess it. I’m a little more convinced by Linden’s explanation of religious behavior. He claims it’s a result of the natural tendency of the human cognitive system to fill in gaps. For instance, patients whose brains have been damaged so that their two hemispheres cannot communicate with one another will consistently fabricate elaborate explanations for why one isolated hemisphere acted in a particular way. Similarly, the human visual system works by preserving the illusion that we process an entire scene at once, when in fact we are only able to focus on a tiny portion of our visual field. We simply and subconsciously fill in the rest with our imagination, believing it to be manifest truth. Such may also be the case with religion.

Linden ultimately argues that these beliefs are not incompatible with science, and that science itself is full of beliefs that, like religious beliefs, cannot be proved. I’m quite sure that atheists like Myers would strongly disagree with Linden on this statement. The debate over religion and science—and whether we can study religion scientifically—is likely to continue on for the foreseeable future. You can follow it as it happens on ResearchBlogging.org.

Front page image courtesy of Jon Rawlinson.

Originally published March 10, 2010

Tags religion research social science

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