Thomas Swan has a PhD in experimental psychology. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.
The Evolutionary Psychology of Religious Belief
In each civilization spanning the human epoch, a propensity for ascribing the unknown to the work of gods can be observed. The inevitable contradictions that arise between cultures show the overwhelming majority of these claims are partly or completely manufactured. One must conclude that people often seek to explain the unknown with specious assumptions of a supernatural quality. In other words, it appears that having an answer is more important than whether or not the answer is correct.
A desire to possess knowledge is clearly advantageous, as learning equips people for their environment. It may even be useful to falsely claim that one possesses knowledge, as this could intimidate and dissuade one’s competitors from belligerence. Furthermore, as theistic knowledge is typically impossible to disprove, the deception can go unchallenged.
Nevertheless, the credulity of society doesn't extend to each whimsical creation of the imagination. Gods are believed in ways that fairies and monsters are not. Fear might explain this discrepancy, as disobeying the gods could have eternal consequences. However, if fear of God is a reason to believe, why invent a God in the first place?
Perhaps the answer is that people fear the falsity of belief more than the consequences of unbelief. Our minds have evolved in such a way that religious claims are parasitic upon our natural desires and motivations. We want religion to be true because the chance of eternity in hell is more appealing than the notion of existential oblivion, and less farcical than the wish for unconditional paradise. There is a great deal of experimental evidence to suggest that religion is a desirable and comforting belief system to adopt. This work will explain the theoretical basis for that evidence.
Reason 1: Fear of Death
The fundamental precept of evolutionary psychology is that all life on Earth is driven by the desire to survive and reproduce. With increased psychological complexity comes more sophisticated ways of ensuring success. With this in mind, one may identify the first reason why belief in god appeals to our evolutionary psychology: the afterlife.
The idea that some form of afterlife follows death is prevalent in many religions around the world. All life is disposed to search for ways to evade death, and there is no greater temptation than to replace our fear of death with the belief that one’s existence will eternally endure. Convincing oneself of this reality may protect believers from crippling levels of existential anxiety, grief, guilt, and depression.
Nevertheless, we fear death for obvious protective reasons. Individual differences in proneness to anxiety, or methods of coping with anxiety, may explain why some people are willing and able to mitigate their fear of death. For example, it would make sense that strong, domineering, and happy people have more to lose in death than weak, vulnerable, and depressed individuals. As a result, vulnerable individuals may be more likely to replace their fear of death with a comforting afterlife belief.
Reason 2: Self-Righteousness
A second reason to believe in God is the moral code that comes along for the ride. Essentially, it's beneficial to be perceived as a good person because of the increased opportunity for interpersonal alliance and trade. Religion comes embedded with a moral code that allows these benefits to be enjoyed simply by identifying with the religion. This makes religion a shortcut to increased trust and cooperation. Of course, individual advantages are lost if everyone conforms to the same moral code, although collective benefits remain regardless of popularity.
Much like the first reason for believing in god, strong and domineering individuals have less need for these benefits because their authority and prestige already ensures the co-operation and adulation of their inferior peers.
Reason 3: Answers to the Big Questions
A third reason is the philosophical and practical knowledge that religion purports to offer. It's rather satisfying to know why we're here, who created the universe, what happens when we die, and so on. Furthermore, religious claims about how to prevent bad things from happening, such as natural disasters and crop failures, are extremely likely to harness our interest and tempt our belief. Uncertainty about these questions feels unpleasant, and having answers alleviates those feelings. As alluded to earlier, such answers also promise power, prestige, and dominance to those in the know, and even those who simply claim to know.
Nevertheless, as with the other reasons, individuals possessing a significant intellect or position of power may not need or value the importance of these assumed answers.
Reason 4: Ultimate Justice and Safety
The fourth reason why people believe in God is the notion of ultimate justice. For most people, concerns and worries are alleviated by friends and family. However, all Earthly alliances have their limits. Through theistic belief, people acquire a watchful, caring eye over all their doings, giving an unparalleled feeling of safety and security. Communication with gods, or prayer, is the reminder and emphasis of this fatherly relationship.
It follows that all those who transgress against God's law will not escape his surveillance and judgment. Ultimate justice of this kind is an extremely comforting idea, akin to karma. How many times have you wished a wrongdoer would receive his or her comeuppance? Religions typically guarantee it, but those who've been wronged less in their life will be less likely to see the appeal.
Reason 5: Easily Achieved Growth
The final reason is our desire to perfect ourselves. Nature gives us the capacity to grow mentally, physically, and socially through education, exercise, and friendship. However, religion offers a much more accessible journey to perfection via the adoption of its principles. For example, acceptance of religious morality and knowledge convinces believers that they've progressed significantly towards the perfection embodied in the gods. However, most religions go much further, describing those who convert as `chosen' by the gods to be in their company after death.
Christianity and a few other religions take the idea of growth to a new level. They embody a perfectly perceived God into man (e.g. Jesus), thus providing a sign-posted route to perfection through the imitation of God’s actions as a man. In other religions, the icon for imitation might be a prophet or demigod. For example, in Islam it's Muhammad and in Buddhism it's Buddha. Religions that have withstood the rigors of cultural selection often provide such blueprints for perfection, and their popularity is a telling manifestation of their psychological appeal. Nevertheless, those who achieve growth easily through natural means will be less likely to follow the path outlined by religion.
Who is Most Susceptible to Belief in God?
These five reasons explain how and why religions appeal to many facets of our naturally evolved minds. They provide a sense of superiority, ultimate justice, a way to reach moral and spiritual perfection, a provision of security and immortality, a wealth of strategic knowledge about mankind and the universe, and a special alliance with the most powerful and knowledgeable entity in the universe. Religions take our naturally evolved desires and tempt us with a perfect, comforting, easily achievable solution; requiring only that we sacrifice our natural ambitions and skepticism to make way for it. The irony is that many religions, and especially Christianity, tell us to avoid giving in to temptation; an instruction that should see them removed from existence.
The attentive reader may have noticed that each reason to believe in God came with a caveat; an example of the type of person who wouldn't be swayed. A pattern emerged, supporting a conclusion that's been touched on by Nietzsche and Freud: that religion is a sanctuary for the weak. Strong, capable, and happy individuals have less need for the comforts of religion, and so are less motivated to believe in them. Rather, religious belief is for those who have all but given up on achieving strength in their natural life. Faith provides them with an illusion of strength, and their minds perform the mental gymnastics required for that illusion to become reality.
Friedrich Nietzsche Held Similar Views
For example, Christianity has always been prevalent in the subjugated working classes. It's taught in schools and prisons where weaker minds are encountered. It's offered in hospitals and help groups where desperate and traumatized people reside. It's exported to Africa and Asia where starving and vulnerable people are receptive to its claims. It's in these places where the greatest level of conversion occurs. Contrary to Biblical doctrine, it's the abandonment of hope, at least in Earthly pursuits, that brings one closer to God.
Religion is a Darwinian test; those who accept it confirm their weakness. Through the conversion of others, a believer weakens society to their level; dissolving the inequality that existed in their natural life. Conversion also strengthens the believer by validating their illusion, and by providing a greater alliance of opinion. However, what the believer fabricates in his mind is the exact opposite. He sees conversion as a charitable act to help the weak achieve his position of strength. This reversal of evolutionary law; this audacious belief that crippling fellow minds is a charitable act; is what riled Nietzsche.
If a supposed truth gave no rational explanation for its truthfulness, but was extremely tempting for a number of psychological reasons, I would doubt my sanity for believing it to be true. However, religion is a temptation of such ambrosial intoxication that it precipitates the suspension of rational thought. Those who, through distress and affliction, are disposed to apply less scrutiny to comforting propositions will find religion too appealing to ignore.
Religious belief is nothing more than the substitution of our natural ambitions with an unlikely truth that fulfills our needs in a much easier manner. Once one has resigned to failure for natural methods, religion presents an easier means to achieve the objectives ingrained in us by evolution.
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Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on May 01, 2017:
This is an extremely thought-provoking article which I enjoyed reading. I feel that the primary reason for the belief in God is because a man knows he will die and is afraid of the unknown. Many people like me also believe in a God because he is someone who will take care of and comfort people in times of need. Yes, religion is for the weak. I was brought up as a Catholic and have learned that the easiest times in one life to be a good Catholic is when one is young or very old.
Joel Lantz from Cincinnati, Ohio suburb on April 30, 2017:
Thanks for the clarification, Thomas, and for approving my comments.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on April 30, 2017:
Relax Joel, I just hadn't seen and approved your comment yet. I've gotten a few nasty personal comments in the past about things like my "character", so I set things to only appear once I get around to approving them.
Joel Lantz from Cincinnati, Ohio suburb on April 29, 2017:
Your summary deletion of my EVIDENCE-for-God comment yesterday — which exposes the falsity of your condescension — reveals something about your character. Though you’ll delete this comment as well, I suggest considering whether suppression of truth is ultimately in your best interest. Is that REALLY how you want to live?
Joel Lantz from Cincinnati, Ohio suburb on April 28, 2017:
This condescending article neglects the reason that most convinces me, a PhD physical scientist: EVIDENCE. Evidence including but not limited to:
..... Medically attested, non-medically achieved healings of irreversibly-damaged body parts that simply cannot have a natural explanation (e.g. orders of magnitude faster than natural tissue growth).
..... Account after account of dramatic and positive life transformations in response to humble submission to the gospel message (including that of an ISIS guy who admitted to having enjoyed murdering Christians).
..... Scientific correlates that substantially support the existence of God. Though such correlates do not prove the existence of God, even science only variably *supports*, not proves, its positions — varying from ‘laws’ (nearly proven) to little more than educated conjecture.
It’s impossible to adequately illustrate this point within the 8192-character limit of a comment. However, readers willing to entertain the existence of evidence for God can read my HubPages article on evidence and/or ‘Bridges for honest skeptics’ — my freely-downloadable (and quickly locatable) e-book.
Kylyssa Shay from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA on April 02, 2016:
I think the differences between people more susceptible to belief and those less susceptible have less to do with how well beliefs soothe their hopes and fears and more to do with how their minds process evidence and index memories.
I've noticed that believers can do something I can't; they can genuinely hold two or more beliefs that should be mutually exclusive. For instance, they could believe that a fertilized zygote is a thinking and feeling being and that the brain is where our thinking and feeling happens without seeing any conflict between those beliefs. I've often wondered if it's not some kind of indexing issue that causes them to be unable to see how the two beliefs are related.
People who are only capable of believing in things they think are real are also unlikely to be susceptible to belief in God unless they were indoctrinated early enough that they think God is real.
I've never seen any positive correlation between the desirability of a belief and the possibility of it being based on reality. I don't have any idea what mental or emotional gymnastics allow people to believe in things they find desirable rather than in things that reflect reality.
I'm not confident, assertive, or any of the other things you mention might be characteristics of non-believers.
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on April 03, 2013:
Cheers Spongy! I hope I can compare to your book! Some day I hope to write in more depth on this subject. I appreciate the share too!
Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on April 03, 2013:
Thank you Paul, I agree that existential anxiety is the main motivator for religious belief. Most academics fail to realize that ancient religions were almost solely concerned with death rituals and preparing for the afterlife. They concentrate on modern rituals, which is fine, but then make sweeping generalizations about religion in general. Thanks again for the kind comment and share!
Jake Brannen from Canada on April 02, 2013:
Very interesting. I was actually just about to crack a book on this subject. Thanks for getting me warmed up for it. Sharing!!
Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on April 02, 2013:
This is an awesome hub and you make some very good arguments. I think people believe in God because they know they are going to die and are afraid of the unknown. By being comforted believing that there is a God who will take care of their souls, people can accept death more easily. Voted up as awesome and sharing with followers.