Why Do Humans Believe in God? It’s Evolution.Oct 1, 2019
At first glance, the premise of this piece seems counter-intuitive. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has been the biggest blow to the idea of creationism by supplanting the concept of a creator with a confluence of selective forces that created the human species — and all life as we know it — over billions of years.
Yet, it is this process that also explains why humans developed the concept of supernatural deities and rituals to worship them within social groups.
Although there are many different faiths across the world, religion is a common thread among nearly all of humanity.
According to Pew Research, 84% of the world population has religious faith. The three largest groups are Christians (31.5%), Muslims (23.5%), and Hindus (15%). According to the study, 16% are religiously unaffiliated.
Given the fact that religiosity is such a common trait among humanity, researchers have found that belief in God and religious rituals have an evolutionary advantage.
Researchers have divided this study into two topics. One is the belief in a god or gods and the other is the accompanying social rituals that guide how the faith is practiced.
Why Do People Believe in God?
There are three major ideas in evolutionary psychology that help explain why humans believe in deities: we seek patterns, infer intentions, and learn by imitation.
Pattern-seeking has multiple survival benefits. By finding patterns in nature we can see cause-and-effect relationships. This helped ancient societies with agricultural development and predicting behaviors of animals and people.
When ancient humans were unsure about the causes of some natural phenomena, they often attributed them to a deity.
Theory of mind (ToM) is also an important human characteristic that has led to the creation of deities. ToM allows us to get into the heads of other people and animals to infer their intentions and understand their thinking. Taken to its extreme, humans use ToM to ascribe thinking to inanimate objects, such as when a child believing its teddy bear is alive or when we think our car has a personality.
It’s also a reason why we anthropomorphize or attribute human characteristics to animals.
Finally, humans learn how to interact with the world by imitating one another. There is so much to learn throughout or development that it’d be impossible to figure it all out for ourselves. Therefore, we openly accept ideas and traditions from older generations, sometimes with little to no forethought.
The Evolution of Rituals
According to primatologist Frans de Waal, religion is “the shared reverence for the supernatural, sacred, or spiritual as well as the symbols, rituals, and worship that are associated with it.”
So how are religious social rituals explained by the theory of evolution? Humans evolved to engage in group activities that enhance the survival capabilities of the entire tribe. One of the most important was hunting. Solid cooperation among tribe members allows the group to catch larger prey and provide a greater amount of sustenance for the group.
Tribes that cooperated with one another to provide food and protection for the group at-large had a distinct survival advantage. These groups also created solidarity and connection among individuals by developing moral standards and rituals that enhanced its cohesion.
“Human solidarities are only possible by emotional arousal revolving around positive emotions – love, happiness, satisfaction, caring, loyalty — and the mitigation of the power of negative emotions, or at least some negative emotions,” Jonathan Turner, author of The Emergence and Evolution of Religion, told BBC.
“And once these new valences of positive emotions are neurologically possible, they can become entwined with rituals and other emotion-arousing behaviors to enhance solidarities and, eventually, produce notions of power gods and supernatural forces,” Turner continued.
Religious rituals such as holding hands, singing in unison, chanting, and dancing work to synchronize people’s minds and bodies which, in turn, increases empathy and cohesion among tribe members.
It began, writes de Waal, “with the synchronization of bodies, running when others run, laughing when others laugh, crying when others cry, or yawning when others yawn.”
Regardless if one believes that there is a god or a supernatural force that controls the universe, religion is a vehicle for transferring and building group cohesion amongst members of a tribe.
Although we no longer live in a hunter-gatherer society, religion still serves a similar role in modern society. The question is will science’s slow erosion of the credibility of religious doctrine via concepts such as Darwin’s theory allow its ideas and traditions to be passed to future generations? Or will we find new and better ways to build group cohesion and transfer traditions through the generations?
Photo credit: M Soli / Flickr, mm767cap / Flickr, Alex Motrekno / Flickr, Wikimedia Commons.