Why Is Belief in God So Universal and Persistent?
Belief in God
Why Is Belief in God(s) So Prevalent?
Every culture in every part of the Earth and at every time in the history of humankind has had a belief in a god or gods. There are 4,200 different religions current in our present age plus untold religions that are no longer practiced.
Evidence of religious belief is evident in the artifacts of prehistoric man, and recorded history shows belief in a supernatural entity is the norm. The specific beliefs are shaped by the culture and can change as one culture comes to dominate another (e.g. conversion to Christianity by an entire country), but the underlying belief remains.
Modern day science has offered alternative explanations for existence and has quite thoroughly debunked supernatural beliefs. Consequently, we have seen some reduction in the incidence of belief, but still in most places of the world, religious belief persists. Why?
Is Belief in God Part of Our DNA?
If the human genome predisposed us to belief in God, what is the mechanism by which it does so? John C. Wathey is a computational biologist who has studied evolutionary algorithms and the biology of nervous systems.
Wathey suggests that belief in God persists because people experience the illusion of God’s presence. The basis for his theory is that human babies are born with an innate longing for their mothers and the belief that the mother exists. He refers to this as “the innate model of the mother.”
Human newborns, like any other animal, are hard-wired with instincts that help them survive from the moment of birth.
- Sea turtles are born knowing they must flee the sands of the beach where they are born and get into the sea.
- Ducklings know that a mother exists—they will automatically follow the mother (a process called imprinting).
- Human babies are born knowing how to suck so they can obtain milk
Through various experiments, Wathey shows that newborns are born knowing that a mother exists, that this mother loves them, and that she will respond to their cries by feeding and caring for them. This knowledge is part of the neonate's neuronal circuitry.
Babies are born with the ability to recognize faces and they can distinguish the face of their mother from other faces. They can recognize the voice of their mother.
The infant is so sure of the presence of the mother that he will cry incessantly, using vast amounts of energy in the process. The instinct of the infant is to persist because he “knows” on some deep neurological level that his effort will eventually be rewarded.
This innate feeling of the existence of an all-loving presence that will provide for him is so deeply buried in the neonatal brain that it persists throughout life. This presence is particularly likely to be felt in times of stress. The infant knows this presence as “mother;” the adult knows this presence as "The God of Unconditional Love.”
Mother of God
How Do Religious Behaviors Support the Theory?
It is quite obvious that many religious practices and behaviors idealize and mimic the mother-child relationship.
Christianity places a lot of emphasis on the “Madonna and Child.” Religious iconography shows the infant Jesus at the breast of his mother, Mary. Catholics venerate “The Blessed Virgin, Holy Mother of God” and pray for her to intercede in their lives.
Prayers infantilize the adult. Prayers are often said while kneeling or prostrate on the ground--postures that make the adult as small as a child. At other times, prayer is accompanied by hands held above the head which resembles a small child lifting his arms to an adult when he begs to be picked up and carried.
Prayers often emphasize the helplessness of the supplicant. This mimics the helplessness of the infant who is incapable of doing anything to help himself. He cannot even lift his head or turn himself over.
Prayers are often accompanied by rhythmic movements (davening among Jews) that mimic the rocking that is often used to soothe infants.
In some Christian sects, the believer must be “born again.” In other words, he must return to the state of infancy to know the presence of God in his life.
Why is God Both Loving and Cruel?
If the innate model of the mother accounts for the “God of Unconditional Love,” what accounts for the frequent portrayal of the vengeful, angry, punishing God?
God has a dualistic nature--both loving and punishing--because there are two roots of religion. The neonatal root, as discussed above, is the loving mother; the social root is the stern and controlling father. The social root expresses the need of civilization to impose conformity to the laws of society.
Civilization cannot exist without social cooperation, but it is human nature to want to cheat and maximize the benefit to oneself as the expense. (Christianity recognizes this when it says all people are “sinners.” The enforcement of the social contract is done in part by governmental authorities who punish those who break the law, but human agents of the law can be deceived. An all-knowing God will not be fooled—the sinner will be punished.
In order to be effective in controlling behavior, the god of the social root is necessarily fearsome and cruel. To maintain the social contract, people must demonstrate that they believe in this god, so religion often compels major sacrifice, often sacrifices so costly that belief cannot be faked. One example of this is the God of the Holy Bible that demands that Abraham kill his son to demonstrate his loyalty to Jehovah.
This cruel god is in such contrast with the loving god that the story must be turned inside out. In Christianity, it is God who sacrifices “his only begotten son” for the benefit of humanity. Perhaps this story exists merely to serve as an example of the kind of sacrifice humans must give to God.
The Dichotomy of Religion
What Other Factors Account for Religion?
There are many other factors that explain the universality and persistence of religion. I’ll briefly mention just a few.
Religion fosters social cohesion.
Religion helps to bind a group together. We are the “people of the Book;" they are the barbarous others.
Religion binds not only the larger culture, it binds families together. Often someone who leaves his family’s religion will be disowned.
Religion is intuitive.
Our brains are wired to see causation--If something occurs, someone or something must have caused it. We will see causation even if we have to ascribe it some invisible agent.
Our brains make us prone to looking for patterns to better understand our world, and to seek meaning for seemingly random events.
It is hard for humans to accept that they did not exist before their birth and that they will not exist after their death. Every individual has never known anything but his own existence, so how can he imagine his non-existence?
Religion gives us a feeling that someone is in control.
Humans are pretty helpless. We fall victim to disease, natural disaster, accidents, and eventually death.
When things happen that we can’t explain, whether they are good or bad, we can just say “God did it.”
Religion comforts us.
God, whether personified by the loving mother or the stern father (or both), is looking out for us. Everything that happens is part of his plan.
Science vs. DNA
Will Science Ever Supersede Religion?
Religion is the path of least resistance. As I have demonstrated, we are not only hard-wired for religion, but our civilization demands that we believe.
Science is difficult. It is counter-intuitive to believe that the world is round and not flat. It is scary to believe that the universe is utterly indifferent to our existence. And it is very hard to walk away from what our parents taught us as children and what our society expects us to believe.
However, because science allows us to understand the world we live in, it does give us some control. For instance, when we know what causes disease, we can prevent and cure it.
The question is: Can humans give up the certainty of religion for the uncertainty of science. Science is always in a state of flux as new empirical data changes old assumptions. New data often raises new questions. Science cannot explain everything, so no matter how much science advances, there will always be uncertainty.
Religion has proven that it is very successfully in perpetuating itself—it can adapt to myriad cultures and times and has done so for eons. Can science, a very recent development in human history, ever prove more successful than religion?
The Illusion of God's Presence
Most of my research for this essay came from John C. Watley's groundbreaking book, "The Illusion of God's Presence." He writes in clear easy-to-understand language as he methodically builds his case for a genetic predisposition for belief in God based on an innate model of the mother in our brains. Towards the end of the book, the going gets a little tough as the author gets into a lot of detail about the science of bioneurology, but it is worth the effort. This book made everything I know about religion and brain science just click.
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© 2017 Catherine Giordano