I am a scientist at heart and by training. Much of my work day is prescribed by the scientific method. And I love it. So when I came across an article in the Los Angeles Times about the scientific inquiry into religious belief as an evolutionary trait, I was intrigued — even though the article was atheist and anti-religion and heavy-handed (Jax was highly irritated by it). If you’ll indulge me, I will give a little information about this scientific field this week. I will respond (or react) to it as a Pagan next week.

Humans share a number of traits, the most basic being the need to satisfy biological requirements: air, food, water, clothing, shelter and sex. While different cultures developed different ways to satisfy many of these needs, they share the commonality of having developed codified ways to satisfy these needs (via attitudes, values, goals, and practices shared by social groups). So, if you ask “Why do we need or have culture?” a scientist, specifically an anthropologist, would say culture emerged as a social means to satisfy these biological needs. Another commonality across cultures is presence of religion.* All recorded human cultures have some sort of system of beliefs that is not reliant on empirical evidence.  But if you ask, “Why do we have religion?” a scientist doesn’t really know the answer. I’m speaking in empirical terms here, in that a scientist relies on observable evidence and can’t really provide an empirical answer to this question. [Of course, if you ask me, “Why do we have religion?” my response as a Pagan will be much different — but I’ll get to that next week!]

The basic idea of the evolutionary psychology of religion is that religious belief can be explained by the evolution of the human brain. This field of study appears to be grounded in attachment theory, the study of long-term relationship between parents and their children. Early studies on attachments focused on human-to-human attachment; evolutionary theory (as it pertains to religion) focuses on human-to-divine attachment.

Why the brain evolved with the capacity and propensity for religious belief is under debate. There are two major schools of thought: adaptation and exaptation.** Say what? I know. It gets confusing. Here’s what I’ve gleaned. The adaptation-ers argue the human brain developed the capacity for religious belief to support cooperation and social cohesion. In other words, the human brain adapted to its social environment. In this model, the capacity for religious belief is subject to the laws of natural selection and so we can presume the brain selected religion over some other trait that was not as useful.

Exaptation-ers argue the capacity for religious belief is a by-product of other brain architecture.*** Which architecture is yet another debate. Some say it pulls on the architecture that supports perception in human interaction. For example, if I am talking to someone about what it’s like to step on a nail, I might assume that person will say something like, “Ouch! Man, that would hurt!” because that’s what I would say. I can take this assumption and predict what this conversation might be like before it happens, or even if it never happens. The argument for this model of exaptation is that the brain’s ability to practice this kind of perception / assumption with other people also allows for this kind of perception / assumption with a deity.

Others say the capacity for religious belief is borne from our ability to detect (and thus avoid) danger, called agent detection. In other words, if we fear a danger is near, we assume a danger is near (in the absence of other information), and take necessary precautions. For example, if we see a lion print in the dirt, we assume a lion is somewhere close and take necessary precautions to avoid being attacked by the lion. According to this model, there are characteristics of ritual, a major component in many religions, that engage this “hazard-precaution system” in our brains. Whatever the perceived threat, ritual becomes the precaution to avoid danger or evil. The brain’s architecture for the “hazard-precaution system” creates the capacity to vest in ritual as a means to avoid danger or evil. [I may not be doing a good job of explaining this; that’s largely because I can’t find a good resource. I will have more to say on this next week.]

The Los Angeles Times article I came across summarizes recent research that supports the theory of evolutionary psychology of religion. This research includes brain-imaging studies, social experiments with infants, altruism in children, and sensory deprivation.

At the end of the day, evolutionary psychology says that religious belief is just part of normal cognitive functioning. Hmm…my faith, which I hold dear, and sometimes sacred, is just part of normal cognitive functioning. Hmm…

Tune in next week to read my thoughts on this from a pagan perspective! In the meantime, what about your faith…how does this science enter into your beliefs (or does it)?

* What do I mean by religion? Good question. I’ll leave it to anthropologists to define, even thought they aren’t doing a good job of it. Historically, anthropologists defined religion as any belief or practice that was related to the supernatural, but now there is debate on whether or not this definition is universal.

** This article provides a good summary of both the adaptation the exaptation arguments.

*** Pascal Boyer is a proponent of the exaptation argument. You can read one of his articles online here, called “Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function.”

+ Featured image is “The Creation of God.” The author appears to be Hendrik Pretorius, but it isn’t clear on Creative Commons.