SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Why We Are Hardwired for Belief in God

by Michael Shermer, Apr 20 2010

On April 10 the Wall Street Journal published a debate between myself and Gregory Paul on the question of whether or not belief in God is innate. Here are the links to the two articles:

The online version was well edited but shorter than my original draft, which I present here just for the record. Enjoy.

According to Oxford University Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia, 84 percent of the world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion, which at the end of 2009 equals 5.7 billion people who belong to about 10,000 distinct religions, each one of which may be further subdivided and classified. Christians, for example, may be aportioned among 33,820 different denominations.1 Among the many bionomial designations granted our species (Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo economicus), a strong case could be made for Homo religiosus. And Americans are among the most religious members of the species. In a 2007 Pew Forum survey of over 35,000 Americans, the following percentages of belief were found:

  • God or a universal spirit: 92%
  • Heaven: 74%
  • Hell: 59%
  • Scripture is word of God: 63%
  • Pray once a day: 58%
  • Miracles: 79%

So powerful is the belief that there must be something else out there that even 21% of those who identified themselves as atheists and 55% of those who identified themselves as agnostics expressed a belief in God or a universal spirit.2

Why do so many people believe in God? Although there is much cultural variation among different religious faiths, all have in common the belief in supernatural agents in the form of God, gods, or spirits who have intention and interact with us in the world. There are four lines of evidence pointing to the conclusion that such beliefs are hardwired into our brains.

Evolutionary Theory and God

Charles Darwin aged 51

In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin noted that anthropologists conclude that “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.”3 Why would religion and belief in God evolve? Darwin suggested that it might accentuate group cohesiveness in the competition against other groups: “There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection (of the group).”4

book cover

Picking up where Darwin left off, in my book How We Believe I developed an evolutionary model of belief in God as one of a suite of mechanisms used by religion, which I define as a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community. Around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, as bands and tribes began to coalesce into chiefdoms and states, even before the invention of government, religions were the first social institutions to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles, and God evolved as the ultimate enforcer of the rules.5

Human universals are traits shared by all peoples, such as tool use, myths, sex roles, social groups, aggression, gestures, grammar, phonemes, and many related to religion and belief in God, including: anthropomorphizing animals and objects, belief in the supernatural, beliefs and rituals about death, beliefs about fortune and misfortune, divination, folklore, magic, myths, and rituals. Although such universals are not totally controlled by genes alone (almost nothing is), there are good reasons to believe that there is a strong genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures. That is, your culture may dictate which God to believe in, but the belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world is universal to all cultures because it is hard-wired in the brain, a conclusion enhanced by studies on identical twins separated at birth and raised in different environments.

Behavior Genetics and God

In one study of 53 pairs of identical twins reared apart and 31 pairs of fraternal twins reared apart, Niels Waller, Thomas Bouchard, and their colleagues in the Minnesota twins project looked at five different measures of religiosity and found that the correlations between identical twins were typically double those for fraternal twins, a finding suggesting that genetic factors account for approximately half of the observed variance in their measures of religious beliefs.6

This finding was corroborated by two much larger twin studies out of Australia (3,810 pairs of twins) and England (825 pairs of twins), that compared identical and fraternal twins on numerous measures of beliefs and social attitudes, concluding that approximately 55 percent of the variance in religious attitudes appears to be genetic.7 The scientists also concluded that people who grow up in religious families who themselves later become religious do so mostly because they have inherited a disposition, from one or both parents, to resonate positively with religious sentiments. Without such a genetic disposition, the religious teachings of parents appear to have few lasting effects.

Of course, genes do not determine whether one chooses Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, or any other religion. Rather, belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, and demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism). Why did we inherit this tendency?

Cognitive Psychology and God

Long long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency).

Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error (a false positive), but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, you have made a Type II error (a false negative) and there’s a good chance you’ll be lunch and thereby removed from your species’ gene pool. Because we are poor at discriminating between false positives and false negatives, and because the cost of making a Type I error is much lower than making a Type II error, there was a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. This is the basis for the belief not only in God, but in souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

Gods are agents and agents are essences, and agenticity is everywhere. Subjects watching reflective dots move about in a darkened room (especially if the dots take on the shape of two legs and two arms) infer that they represent a person or intentional agent. Children believe that the sun can think and follows them around, and when asked to draw a picture of the sun they often add a smiley face to give agency to sol. Genital-shaped foods such as bananas and oysters are often believed to enhance sexual potency. A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality or essence is transplanted with the organ, and studies show that most people say that they would never wear the sweater of a murderer, showing great disgust (probably an evolved emotion selected to avoid rotting food and disease-carrying substances), but that they would wear the cardigan sweater of the childrens’ television host Mr. Rogers, believing that it would make them better persons.

Neuroscience and God

Why God? In my analogy above, note that “wind” represents an inanimate force whereas “dangerous predator” indicates an intentional agent. There is a big difference between an inanimate force and an intentional agent. Most animals can make this distinction on the superficial life-or-death level, but we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex we have a Theory of Mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others. We “read minds” by projecting ourselves into someone else’s shoes (as in empathy) or by imagining someone out to get us (as in fear).

Theory of Mind is part of a larger mind-brain dualism, in which we tend to think of the mind as something separate from the brain. We speak of “my body” as if “my” and “body” are dissimilar. We revel in books and films that are dualistic, as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a man falls asleep and wakes up as a cockroach with the man’s personality intact inside it, or in Freaky Friday where mother and daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsey Lohan) trade bodies with their essences unbroken. This belief in mind and essence is a byproduct of the brain’s inability to perceive itself. Thus, we can “decenter” ourselves and imagine, say, being on a beach in Hawaii, which most people tend to see from above looking down on themselves as if out of their bodies. Out-of-body and Near-Death Experiences can both be triggered by electromagnetic fields bombarding the temporal lobes (just above the ears) of the brain, as well as through oxygen deprivation in pilot centrifuge training exercises. As well there is the well-known “third-man factor” in which solo sailors, mountain climbers, ultra-marathon athletes, and arctic explorers report a sensed presence of someone else on the expedition.

We believe in the supernatural because we believe in the natural and we cannot discriminate between the two. We create gods because we are natural-born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. The gods will always be with us because they are hard-wired into our brains.


  1. Barrett, D. B., G. T. Kurian, T. M. Johnson (Eds.). 2001. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World. 2 Vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Darwin, C. 1871. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray, Vol. 2, 395.
  4. Ibid., Vol. 1, 166.
  5. Shermer, Michael. 1999. How We Believe. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books.
  6. Waller, N.G., B. Kojetin, T. Bouchard, D. Lykken, and A. Tellegen. 1990. “Genetic and environmental influences on religious attitudes and values: A study of twins reared apart and together.” Psychological Science 1(2): 138–42.
  7. Martin, N. G., L. J. Eaves, A. C. Heath, R. Jardine, L. M. Feingold, and H. J. Eysenck. 1986. Transmission of social attitudes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 83: 4364–68.
  8. Eaves, L. J., H. J. Eysenck, and N. G. Martin. 1989. Genes, culture and personality: An empirical approach. London and San Diego: Academic Press.

76 Responses to “Why We Are Hardwired for Belief in God”

  1. MadScientist says:

    That’s begging the question. First convince us that we are in fact hardwired to believe in a god – any god will do.

  2. Doesn’t the article provide a fair amount of evidence that this is the case? And if not then I strongly suggest looking into the growing research in the ‘Cognitive Science of Religion’. There appears to be substantial evidence that humans find believing in Gods to be intuitive.

    • MadScientist says:

      None of the claims are convincing to me, nor can I imagine how the claims could be convincing to any scientist. A belief in “something out there” is a failure of logic which can be attributed to ignorance. A belief in any specific god is superstition enforced by a community. Claiming that an effect of ignorance is a heritable invariant behavior is bizarre to say the least.

      • Chris Kavanagh says:

        What research have you looked into? Because from your response it doesn’t sound like your very familiar with the topic.

        The tendency that humans possess to readily attribute agency as the source of unexplained events has obvious evolutionary advantages such as detecting hidden predators. Similarly, our species abilities to imagine other social beings that we can’t see also has clear evolutionary advantages- keeping track of relationships in larger communities for instance. Ritual behaviour also seems to be strongly related to our species preoccupations with purity and contamination. And the list goes on…

        You seem to be implying that because Gods most likely don’t exist therefore humans must not be inclined to believe in them. But this is clearly false, as the article and any research illustrates religion and believing in Gods and spirits are traits that are found universally across completely distinct cultures.

        Clouds don’t really form shapes and faces but people still are predisposed to see such objects in them.

      • MadScientist says:

        The primary problem is that they all seem to make arguments like you – if you think about it, the claims are not by any means demonstrated; it is begging for a correspondence to be taken as a cause. In short, it makes a nice story but there is nothing to suggest that it is anything more than a story.

        “The tendency that humans possess to readily attribute agency as the source of unexplained events has obvious evolutionary advantages such as detecting hidden predators.”

        That statement alone is loaded with unnecessary presuppositions – such as the ‘obvious evolutionary advantages’ and the implicit suggestion that somehow you will be at a disadvantage if you did not associate things with an active agency. I still see no viable link whatsoever to a claim that ‘god is hardwired’. That is nothing but wishful thinking. I never understood why so many people seem so intent on pinning many behavioral observations on evolution; this ‘god as a product of evolution’ is just one of many such questionable things.

      • Chris Kavanagh says:

        Sorry Mad Scientist but you are wrong. There is plenty of evidence for the arguments I’m making. In fact there is an entire field of research i.e. ‘The Cognitive Science of Religion’ that is dedicated to gathering and testing such evidence. If you look up the work of scholars like Justin Barrett, Emma Cohen, Jesse Bering, Deborah Kelemen, Harvey Whitehouse, Robert McAuley or even just take a look through these two recent research programs:

        You will find plenty of empirical support for the kind of arguments I made above.

        In terms of not seeing an advantage to associating ambiguous signals with agency what exactly is your argument. As you simply stated you don’t see the advantage but the advantage is quite clear. If you hear a strange noise and don’t think about an agent being responsible then you may be eaten but if there is no agent then all you have done is spend a small amount of time paying extra attention. Someone born predisposed to not pay much heed to ambiguous signals would be a gift for predators.

        As for as God being a product of evolution well firstly, I would say the most common position among researchers is that religious belief was a spandrel that at a later date become actively selected for so thats not really making any claims that belief in God is necessarily adaptive. More the point is that the way our cognitive systems develop mean that believing in supernatural beings is a natural byproduct. Secondly, if religious belief isn’t a product of evolution then where did it come from? Is your argument that it is a completely counter intuitive form of belief that most people would not adopt if left to their own devices?

        If so how exactly do you explain how incredibly common religious belief is and how it managed to pop up in practically every civilisation or culture we have any record of?

        In short it seems to me that for some unknown reason you have a philosophical objection to humans being intuitively predisposed to religious belief but I can’t quite understand why. Do you also rail against research showing that humans have a tendency to over identify facial patterns in ranom phenomena because it’s not logical?

      • Chris writes to Mad Scientist: … how exactly do you explain how incredibly common religious belief is and how it managed to pop up in practically every civilisation or culture we have any record of?.

        Simple really. We’re the only species aware of our own death. It’s frightening so we make up and tell stories to deflect the fear. Then, all the effects (that you take as causes) come into play. So, not hard-wired but a ‘reasonable’ response to acute essential fear.

  3. Robo Sapien says:

    That makes a disgusting amount of sense, and I think may shed some new light on Jaynes’ concept of bicameralism. If early homo sapien first developed a stronger creative mind, that could certainly pave the way for mysticism. It is believed by some that the first hominids began walking upright because rapid climate changes forced them to migrate a lot, which is hard to do when you are geared for tree life. Evolutionary mutations could not keep up, so we developed bipedalism to conserve energy while travelling across land masses, which would be vital if sources of nutrition were scarce on the savannahs.

    To compensate for the new lack of mobility in trees, where much of the edible food was to be found, so evolved the creative mind to give us a versatility not shared by predatory beasts, and also aid us in conceiving the idea of tools to gain access to otherwise inacessible food sources. The net effect of being overly creative and inadequately logical led to “voices” of sorts (God), which were obeyed without question because questioning is a logical process.

    Later on, the logical or “left” side of the brain developed to facilitate analysis and further enhance our versatility, a necessary adaptation as we ventured into new territory and encountered new threats. Consequently, the “voices” stopped and man was left wondering why God stopped talking to them, thus we have the very first human introspection. Their newly found but rudimentary logic concluded that God was angry with them, and so began the process of redemption. Viola, mysticism. Logic told us that God was angry, and so in order to survive we must appease him, so we began using our creative faculties to invent rituals that were thought to achieve this.

    And the rest is history…

    • A. Shreck says:

      Your discussion of the creative and logical brains is very intriguing. It unleashes a flood of thoughts. Among them:

      How would this “voices” stage of pre-rational development relate to non-human animals? Does it put religious thinking somewhere between (I know, can of worms) the thought processes of other species and rational humans? Are there other species with human-like rationality? If so, did they develop a tendency to religious thinking first?

      How would one experimentally test this in humans? What can we find in the anthropological record, if anything, to distinguish where these two modes of thinking evolved? What are the implications of humans who currently hear voices (in a literal, pathological sense) or “hear” the call of God in a more vague, religious sense (I’m sure there’s someone out there winding up to crack “There’s a difference?” I beat you to it.) and how do we get them in the lab?

      I’d really like to see this idea carried out in more detail if anyone has any recommendations. Abrupt and reasonable refutations would also be accepted.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Something else just occurred to me that expands on the subject of logic development, involving modern discoveries about the workings of REM sleep. It is observed that humans always dream, even if we don’t remember dreaming, and this is speculated to be a mechanism by which the mind analyzes recently gathered data and runs through a bunch of hypothetical scenarios, preparing intuitive responses that help us “think on our feet.” It could also aid in inducing the correct fight-or-flight response, which would make us more energy efficient when no threat is perceived. Undue stress burns up energy needlessly, which can be just as deadly as any predator.

        The military employs a similar concept called “Situational Awareness”, whereby constant feeds of data keep a soldier aware at all times of enemy and friendly positions, to know when and where to attack so as not to hit the wrong target or waste precious resources.

      • Kurt says:

        How would one experimentally test this in humans?

        Jaynes (whom Robo Sapien is citing) posited that schizophrenia is a partial relapse into the bicameral mind.

        Most such patients hear voices, and some even see visions of the imaginary person speaking to them. What’s particularly interesting is that schizophrenics draw upon their own culture for their own voices (i.e. Catholic schizophrenics are spoken to by angels and demons, secular moderns think the government has put a chip in their head, etc.) — however, they don’t disbelieve the delusions of other schizophrenics. If you have a room full of schizophrenics they will quickly accept that John sees angels and Betty sees aliens and that Mahmoud sees djinn. For a mental disorder, schizophrenia is oddly sociable.

      • A. Shreck says:

        I assume you’re aware of the three Christs of Ypsilanti? If not, you should look it up.

      • MadScientist says:

        I am convinced the orca worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, as it should be, Ramen.

        Those naughty behavioralists have frequently demonstrated “Cargo Cult” behavior in animals. Many animals can be trained to perform rituals in expectation of something. Do those animals therefore believe in a god? As always, the supposition of a god is unnecessary. In the case of the original cargo cult you can speculate: if they didn’t already believe in gods, would they have developed a belief in gods due to the cargo rituals? If I do X, Y might happen, but there is no need for me to develop the idea that Y happens due to a god – it is sufficent to believe that Y happens simply because I have observed it to happen on occasions. If I engage in ritual X and Y never happens (and yet when those strange white folk do it, something happens) then I’m obviously missing something.

    • MadScientist says:

      Voices in the head is a very real phenomenon. I suspect it would be a minority who have not experienced hallucinations while awake (or perhaps they have but have no recollection of it). I’ve known people who have claimed they don’t dream, but observations establish that they do, so they simply must not recall. Some people have such frequent and vivid hallucinations that it cripples their interaction in society.

      As for claims such as “creativity developed first, logic developed later”, I see absolutely no credible evidence for that.

  4. A. Shreck says:

    Nice piece. I agree with Robo Sapien that it makes a lot of sense, disgusting or otherwise.

    Reading the discussion of type I and type II errors, I couldn’t help but think of the argument I’ve heard from multiple religious folks over the years that belief in God does no harm if he doesn’t exist, but disbelief if he does is a disaster. In bumper sticker lingo: If you’re living like there’s no God, you’d better be right.

    There are interesting sociological implications also. If belief in the divine is hard-wired, then it is no more a matter of choice or rationality than any number of conditions that our enlightened society says we should tolerate on pain of being a bigot. Those crusading against belief itself (which I distinguish from any specific behavior for which there may be rational criticism) might do well to bear this in mind. Then again, maybe some of us are just genetically programmed to be jerks. :-)

    • Robo Sapien says:

      I am not genetically predisposed to be a jerk, I evolved that way through natural selection of attitudes towards yokels and know-it-alls.

    • MadScientist says:

      Why would disbelief in a god be a disaster if there really were a god? That seems to presuppose the god of the bible – and that is such a capricious god that if you bet you’d be spared because you believed (especially on his say-so) you must really be delusional.

      • A. Shreck says:

        Yes, the people making the cited statements were believers in the capricious God of The Bible. I thought that was obvious.

    • Monty Phister says:

      Disbelief a disaster? But there are what, thousands of gods in thousandss of religions. So to believe, you have to choose a particular god, or else specify no god and just say you beieve.

      Then you die. But suppose the god that actually exists is not the one you chose, or that he is annoyed that you didn’t specify him in particular? You’re then doomed.

      It’s better to be an agnostic. If god exists he may give you credit for not making a choice.

      Or then again, he may not.

      • A. Shreck says:

        Your reasoning about picking the “right” god makes perfect sense to me in exactly the same sense that I used to lie awake torturing myself about whether the monster under the bed preferred to eat little boys whose toes stuck out or those who didn’t. I laughed out loud at “Or then again, he may not.” I assume that was your intention?

        Bear in mind these views are coming from a tradition involving a vengeful god. From what I know (which is a small sample) many of the gods of other faiths don’t give a diminuative rodent’s derriere whether you believe or not. As I sad to Mad (as in pissed off, not insane, apparently) Scientist above, these statements were definitely from the fundamentalist Judaeo-Christian lot.

  5. Dear Michael
    in “Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle . . .” I imagine there were no planes (just as you cannot get on a plane in Europe at the moment) but “plains”?

    Now to take out the beam from my own eye . . . trying not to be too religious!

    • Robo Sapien says:

      ROFL, complete and utter fail at trying to call out Shermer. “Plane” is the correct word, you are wrong. Thank you for not consulting a dictionary first, I needed the laugh.

      • John Greg says:

        Well, Robo, to get pedantic on ya, according to Oxford….

        Plain n. a level tract of land.

        And the closest that Plane comes is:

        plane 1. a. (of surface etc) perfectly level.

        And on Webster’s online, the closest is:

        plane. n. a flat or level surface.

        So, technically, he is correct.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I find your pedanticism just plane silly. According to my dictiona… wait a sec, this is a chinese take-out menu. WTF?

        Ok, slap me on the wrist for being too hasty, I just have little patience for grammar police. I used, and didn’t take the time to read all the way down to the very very bottom where the proper context was defined.

        This is why I don’t write books. Or read enough of them, apparently.

      • John Greg says:

        Planely, I’m a tree, with a very pedantic branch.

        As it were.

      • MadScientist says:

        @John: Planely that’s a shrub, not a tree. However, it is sure to please the FSM as much as it would please the knioghts who say “Ni!”

    • tmac57 says:

      When I read it I thought Shermer was going for some kind of ‘Snakes On A Plane’ reference. (rustle) ” What the hell was that?” …”Aiiiiiiiih!!!”

  6. Ed Graham says:


    But, I have to add that I have reflected on my childhood many times since rejecting the supernatural, and I find that everything I was taught by my parents, teachers, movies, music, radio and TV, etc.,had God, magic, ghosts, and other ionformation that made me a believer. When I would question Santa, I was led to believe that he was made-up for the childrens amusment, but everything else was real.

    It took a lot of effort to rid myself of demons.

    • oldebabe says:

      If in fact as you say some sort of god is hardwired into all our brains, what about the some of us that it doesn’t happen to? If I run away from danger and make it, why would I not think and expect and see that it was my legs/speed/stamina/smarts that served me, rather than inventing something to replace what seems to be the most certain? Doesn’t seem sensible to give credit where none is due. I haven’t, and don’t, so, how did my `wires’ disappear?

      • A. Shreck says:

        Good question. I had the same thought in the context of the differences between the U.S. and other countries. I don’t think our genes are all that different, so clearly there is a lot more at work than just genetic disposition, like there is with most higher order phenomenon of human behavior and consciousness. Belief seems to be a relatively easy thing to erase with social programming in at least some contexts.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Mysticism is perpetuated by culture. The concept above is one of origin, and does not particularly apply to modern homo sapien in that same context. Shermer summed it up well at his conclusion with this:

        “We create gods because we are natural-born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency”

        Now that we have a theory on the origin of mysticism, the religions that formed as a result tend to fill in a lot of the blanks concerning our need to find meaning in patterns. You don’t see yourself as ‘wired’ because (and I’m speculating here) you weren’t raised religious, or other factors caused you to question the meanings that had been provided to you. There are other, more real-world examples of pattern seeking though, such as studying the timing of traffic lights on your daily commute.

        Lottery tickets are a better example; millions of people, religious and atheists alike, play it every week either looking for patterns in winning numbers or hoping that providence will justify a pattern of numbers that has some significance to them.

        I have a hunch also that at least part of this applies to the popularity of professional sports, but I’ll have to get back to you on that one later.

      • Tom says:

        Oldebabe, nobody likes a braggart. Just read the sports pages and you’ll see that. Even in completely individual contests, the winner usually cites a great manager, his/her parents, or more frequently “God-given talent”. I wonder what percentage of the citations given to God are really just caused by societal pressure to be self-deprecating?

  7. Doubter says:

    Sometimes the view of this blog seems to be that religion is out of scope for skepticism. Sometimes it apparently is. This is confusing.

    • Doubter – first, there is no “view of this blog” – this is a group blog comprised of completely independent skeptics.

      Further, I do not believe anyone here has ever expressed the opinion that “religion” is out of bounds for skepticism, though that straw man appears to be immortal and, better than the Terminator, can come back from any beating, no matter how ferocious.

      Some, like myself, have made the point that science deals with empirical testable claims and systems of logic. Some skeptics choose personally to emphasize promotion of science in their skeptical activities – and to be clear about the epistemological limits of science.

      But all of us routinely deal with “religious” issues – whenever they tread upon science, or whenever science can illuminate religion as a phenomenon (which is the case here).

    • MadScientist says:

      Some people like to pussyfoot around religion, others just call out “bullshit” – so what has you confused?

      • tmac57 says:

        Dammit man! I need black and white! These shades of gray and nuance hurt my brain! Pick a side. Either you divide everything into two categories or you don’t! What’s it gonna be?

      • MadScientist says:

        How about splitting things into 3 categories? I’m always up for bartering. Of course if you feel like playing the devil we can create a thousand different categories then claim that there is no difference between those who evade questions and the curt ones.

      • tmac57 says:

        I’ll see your 3 and raise you 4, cause, you know, like 7 is like a lucky number. But I’m warning you, I already feel a headache coming on.
        What was the question again? I think you lost me.

  8. Russel Moffat says:

    Great article Michael – I did “enjoy” it. If this is true, and you certainly are provided food for thought, does it not have implications for the way atheists deal with religion in our contemporary world. If religion/faith is not going to fade away anytime soon, and the article gives good reasons why we should not expect it too, then the “type” of religion people have seems to be of more importance than whether they should have any form of it in the first place.

    As a Christian myself, I have been alarmed in recent years at some of the attitudes expressed by the “New Atheists” which I believe are not only unfair but counter-productive. The late Stephen Jay Gould once called for an alliance of “natural allies” across the religious/scientific spectrum in order to combat extremism, and Carl Sagan expressed a hope for the emergence of a scientifically informed religion.

    I have done my best over the years as a preacher and teacher to promote an open, rational and questioning faith, which tries to make a positive contribution to the many needs and concerns of our world, including combating fundamentalism in all its forms.

    Given the material in the article maybe we all have to be more realistic and pragmatic in what we expect or hope for in relation to the contemporary scene.

    • MadScientist says:

      So, which is the One True religion? When religions conflict over claimed facts, which one is correct? How do you resolve such conflicts? How do you know that your resolution was appropriate?

      Here’s one: The Lutherans do not believe in a Virgin Mary but the catholics and anglicans do and for the catholics and anglicans this is considered a fundamental component of their beliefs. Who is right?

      • tmac57 says:

        You flip a coin, and see if it comes up wave, or particle.

      • Russel Moffat says:

        Hi MadScientist

        There isn’t one true religion! But you know that already!Claims to the contrary are part of our “tribal” legacy, which of course has roots in our evolutionary development. Religions are all time-conditioned, historically-constrained, artificial constructions. However, within the restrictions of that people like myself have found and, on the basis of Michael’s article, will probably continue to find, things that work for them. However, I agree with Dennett that we need to help religion get rid of its “wilder memes”(mind you that process could apply to most people even the non-religious!) This seems the pragmatic option as eradication doesn’t look likely as, again, some of the material in Michael’s article shows.

      • Doubter says:

        “There isn’t one true religion! But you know that already!Claims to the contrary are part of our “tribal” legacy, which of course has roots in our evolutionary development.”

        But all religions can’t be right. Just consider that Christians believe that Jesus was (or is) God. Muhammed assured his followers that Jesus was only a prophet, that he was not divine in any way, and that one who believes that Jesus actually was divine will spend eternity in Hell.

        Clearly, they both can’t be right. Either Jesus was divine or he wasn’t. Either Jesus was a prophet or he wasn’t- Either belief in Jesus divinity will put you in Hell or it wont. So there are, as I see, three possibilities about who is right about the nature of Jesus:

        1. The Christians are right
        2. The Muslims are right
        3. None of them are right

        If the Christians or Muslims are right, it follows that the others are mistaken.

      • Russel Moffat says:

        Hi Doubter

        You are absolutely right if we only relate to religions as “belief systems”. Granted that is overwhelmingly how we tend to see them in the West because of our particular history and especially the type of religious people we regulary encounter.

        However, from the varied perspectives of the anthropology, sociology and psychology of religion there are other things going on here. Michael links in with this with his evolutionary model highlighting “community”.

        Many religious adherents do not subscribe to a “party” line and are members of their respective religions for a variety of reasons, some of which are sub-conscious and therefore not articulated. My guess is that has always been the case.


  9. Rinanthus says:

    A lot of confusion could be removed if one simply said that a default assumption of “agency” has a genetic component (“if that rock moved then something animate must have moved it”). Even intelligent mammals (dogs, primates) seem to have this default assumption. The next logical step would be: “Since I can’t see this animate something, it must be invisible.” Next add the thought: “and that rock was so large that I can’t move it, so this invisible animate something must also be very powerful.” Finally: “and since this powerful invisible animate something can move huge rocks then I had better make it happy so that it doesn’t crush me with it”. The rest is (as they say) history.

  10. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 4/21/2010, at The Unreligious Right

  11. Max says:

    In the HADD thread, I said that if a river floods every October or your computer slows down at lunchtime, such cycles are predictable like clockwork, but if these things happen unexpectedly, then people see it as the will of an agent who may respond to rituals, prayer, or verbal abuse.
    Then again, sunrise and sunset are periodic, yet people worshipped sun gods. Did they really worry that the sun would stop rising?

  12. Gary Sloan says:

    I am confused by a portion of the 2007 Pew Forum on belief. We are told that 21% of atheists and 55% of agnostics believe in God or a universal spirit. I thought atheists and agnostics are people who do not believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit. Are we to infer from the seemingly contradictory finding that some atheists and agnostics don’t know what atheism and agnosticism entail? Clarification, please.

    • Max says:

      Some of the atheists/agnostics may have been New Agers who believe in a universal spirit. I don’t even know how Scientologists were counted.

      Or the interviewer forgot to ask “Do you believe in God?” and went straight to the follow-up question about the conception of God. You don’t have to believe in Santa Claus in order to have a conception of him.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      Those people should not be classified as atheists, but instead irreligious.

    • tmac57 says:

      That’s a case of a poll raising more questions than answers.

  13. epicurus says:

    “If God did not exist, man would be obliged to invent him.” – Voltaire

    “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” – Dr. Pangloss

    In Voltaire’s masterpiece novel “Candide” Dr. Pangloss is confronted with all sorts of unimaginable misfortunes and evils with no redeeming value. Perhaps our Paleolithic ancestors had to be insanely optimistic to survive an overwhelmingly hostile and absurd world, trying to escape death but in the end it is inescapable. There must be great survival value in being religious and insanely optimistic.

  14. Hicus Dicus says:

    Why all this blather about something that can’t be proven and no one has any real clue about. Just live your short life and when it all comes to an end you will know for sure. Then what and so what?

    • tmac57 says:

      “…and when it all comes to an end you will know for sure. ”
      If there is no god, when you die, “you” will not “know” anything, most likely.

  15. billgeorge says:

    Perhaps it’s debatable that we are “hardwired for belief in god”. However, perhaps it could simply be that all (sane) homo sapians have some degree of hope – for some, hope morphs into faith, religion, worship, etc.

    • tmac57 says:

      So I guess you just called most skeptics insane then. I would lean more toward the idea that most non-believers (myself included) are more in the denial camp. That is, we rationally accept that life is finite, but we act as though it isn’t, on a day to day basis.

      • A. Shreck says:

        No, I don’t think he called most skeptics insane. He said that “for some, hope morphs into faith…” This does not imply that those for whom it doesn’t are insane.

  16. August says:

    This computer was made 100 BC. 2100 years ago

    this computer excists physically its real.If this computer would not excist and somebody just tells that they used it 2100 years ago Shermer would laugh at you and tell you that you are a dreamer.Shermer has the sceptic view of this world thats all what he is

    • tmac57 says:

      Well, I think a good skeptic would question such an assertion based JUST on the fact that someone told them such a device existed sans evidence (though I doubt that Shermer would laugh at the notion, or tell you that “you are a dreamer”).That, is just a straw-man argument).
      What he would do,however,like any good skeptic,is to accept the discovery,and accompanying scientific findings (, when they are presented.

    • Max says:

      If somebody just tells you that the Greeks also made telescopes 2100 years ago, how would you react?

    • Max says:

      Listen to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe some time.
      At the end of the episode, they play “Science or Fiction” where they guess which of three science news items or facts was made up. The true items are sometimes stranger than fiction, yet the players still manage to guess right.

  17. Kenneth Polit says:

    I was a friend of Fred Rogers, and I once mowed his lawn. In lieu of payment, I asked for one of his cardigans, I still have it. He was a christian, and I was and still am an atheist. He was a good and decent man, deserving of our respect.

  18. sproutlore says:

    What is hardwired about being told from the moment of birth that there is a God? If you took these same twins and ground into them from birth that there is no god, no spirits, no essence, no hell or santa then I am willing to bet that there would be claims that disbelief is hardwired into our brains. Once our brains became hardwired to be able to ask questions then we found we needed an answer. The “Tower of Babylon” was a great explaination for different languages a couple of thousand years ago. It was sure easier than explaining the affects of time, evolution and isolation. So God becomes the answer for everything. We are only now breaking down that wall and understanding that “God” is the answer for nothing. God, faith, belief is not hardwired in our brains, it is a social habit.

    • Chris Kavanagh says:

      It’s frustrating to see people completely dismiss evidence because of what they emotionally want to be true. Aren’t we supposed to be skeptics here?

      The fact that you can raise someone to be a non-believer is completely irrelevant to the point that belief in supernatural beings appears to be intuitive to us because of the way our brains work. There are multiple lines of evidence pointing to this conclusion some of which are discussed in the post above so simply stating that you don’t like the findings and therefore they aren’t true doesn’t cut it.

      I also don’t quite get why people seem so challenged by this idea. We know that it is intuitive for people to recognise faces in random patterns and we don’t just pretend that it’s not true… why is religious belief so different? Something being intuitive does not mean it is necessarily true!

  19. becke says:

    I don’t believe our brains are hardwired to believe in God, rather, they are hardwired to wonder snd seek answers. Early man did not have the experience or knowledgeable advantage of science, so he invented gods to answer his questions, and passed itdown through the generations. We wonder and seek answers. Science can answer many of them and in the age we live in, God’s cannot.

  20. JoyMars says:

    1. So many assumptions about the evolution of the human brain! No one knows how it evolved. As for projecting “agency” to avoid predators, why hasn’t every other sentient creature become worshipers? It seems that being successful at avoiding becoming some other creature’s lunch does not involve belief systems in the rest of the natural world. Some additional cause is at play with our species.

    2. Aren’t you missing the obvious? Why imagine episodes in human evolution you have no evidence for, oh Skeptic? Why not just write off our worship/God-belief to an highly imaginative mammalian brain that needs an on-going mommy/daddy projection to soothe itself?

    3. A note: A very ancient archeological find in Turkey has recently revealed that worship/temples came BEFORE cities and agriculture. In fact, temples created the need for agriculture — since temples (and attendants) couldn’t roam.

    This is my first visit to this site and I must say I’m surprised at the level of fuzzy logic I’ve encountered on this thread alone.

  21. Page Stephens says:

    Can anyone explain to me the reason so many people use pseudonyms on this blog?

    Are you afraid to identify yourselves or are you ashamed of your ideas and if so why?

    What is wrong with engaging in honest discussion and debate under your own name?

    • Daft says:

      What is wrong with pseudonyms? This is the internet, where people are free to voice their opinions openly and even anonymously, I see no reason that people should be required to provide their true identity and open themselves to possible harassment .

      • Page Stephens says:


        As far as I am concerned anyone who uses a pseudonym is a coward who is not willing to stand up for their ideas.

        I opened myself up to criticism many years ago when I stood up against the Viet Nam War and even earlier when I worked in the civil rights movement.

        I have absolutely no respect for anyone is so afraid that someone might criticize them that they afraid to give the rest of us their real name.

        Back in the old days I got beat up in the streets because I opposed the Viet Nam War and you are so cowardly that you are afraid to give the rest of us your name.

        Please tell me any reason that I should have any respect for you.

        Page Stephens

      • tmac57 says:

        So Page, you don’t respect people’s “civil rights” to be able to speak their minds without having someone else demand to know their identity? Should everyone that participates in free speech be required to show proof of who they are? How about what their address is? Maybe we should require phone numbers as well.How far do you want to go with this demand to know who says what? Even if someone does provide a name,how would you know that it is real? What difference does it make to you? It looks like that you want to find a way to discredit a person’s ideas not on their content,but for some arbitrary standard that is meaningless. But then, that is your right to do so,just as it is other’s right to express themselves in a manner that they see fit.

  22. JoyMars says:

    Primates evolving larger more complex brain functions were not and have never been the only animal to develop face recognition.
    Insects have it. Large faux eye spots are found on the tail ends of caterpillars, and on the wings of moths — great defense against predators who have guess what? — face recognition. Birds have facial/eye patterns in their plumage. Fish have extravagant false face markings that brilliantly scare away predators.

    In fact I would go as far as to say that all animals have a highly developed face/entity recognition capability, or they wouldn’t survive. And if they all had reflexive mentality like humans, they’d get into projecting all kinds of properties and powers onto other life forms just like we do.

    So where in the heck did you get the idea that face recognition was unique to hominids or that it could be a satisfactory explanation for our penchant for worship?

    You should read up on the anthropology of religion. It started with animal worship for hunters in the northern climes, and plant worship for clans in the topical climes. We began by worshiping and imitating what kept us alive: our food. Then we got into worshiping the Sun and Moon. We worshiped unusual trees and rock outcroppings. That’s when we felt everything was alive — when we were directly connected to our environment. Abstract concepts of unseen deities is a very, very recent phenomena — and is probably a symptom of disconnection from our environment, a symptom of neurosis.

    The above article is sloppy, Skeptic. Sloppy.

  23. derrik says:

    Personally I in part believe it to be society to blame for mans need of religion. I ask myself what is the fundamentals of widely believed religion. The most important is that there is two sides. The good and bad. Where else is this concept? Well day and night. Even microbes seem to follow this pattern of good and bad. The fact that religion puts eveything against itself doesn’t seem to bother anyone. In fact that for most seems to give it merit. I’ll conclude with saying that the infinitely small and large exist along with us in this Universe it is only us that believe it is capable of good and bad.

  24. Herlin says:

    I don’t know what a God would be. I thought the term came from mythology. There is a supreme existence that can be proven, but can’t be explained in a neat little packet. There are some things we don’t know and many things we don’t understand.