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Why Is Belief in God So Universal and Persistent?

Science, philosophy, politics, and religion are frequent topics for writer and public speaker Catherine Giordano.

Belief in God

Why is a belief in gods found everywhere? Why do these beliefs persist?

Why is a belief in gods found everywhere? Why do these beliefs persist?

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

The "Madonna and child iconography confirms lends support to the "innate model of the mother" theory.

The "Madonna and child iconography confirms lends support to the "innate model of the mother" theory.

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.

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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

The above list of traits is based upon a list found in the book "The Illusion of God's Presence" by John C. Wathey

Neonatal RootSocial Root

Feminine

Masculine

Provides comfort

Demands sacrifice

Individual

Collective

Improvised

Formalized

Spiritual

Religious

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

Our genetic heritage may predispose us to a belief in God.

Our genetic heritage may predispose us to a belief in God.

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

© 2017 Catherine Giordano

Comments

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on May 25, 2018:

Thedecadentone:

1) I don't have a crystal ball or a time machine and neither does anyone else. We have to make do with science.

2) The authors of the Bible were not idiots. They were very learned men--for their time. The world's knowledge has changed a lot over the past 2000 years.

3) You can't prove a negative with 100% certainty, because there is always the possibility of new evidence. However, we have to make our judgments based on the evidence we have and the evidence we have grows stronger with each passing year. (Please read the book discussed in the article, "The Illusion of God's presence" to see an example of the latest research in support of the conclusion that God does not exist.) If you look at the evidence, the judgement must be that there is no God.

4) I think it is you who doth protest too much.

5) I am not an old dog and I learn new things almost everyday because I am curious, and because I like to research and study the topics that I am curious about.

Thedecadentone on May 24, 2018:

I'd love to peek into your magical crystal ball or jump into your time machine to prove that physical existence is all there is and that the Bible is full of idiots and liars. How can you say that you cannot prove a negative in your article, but then rebuke someone in comments and say that God and an afterlife doesn't exist.. or to put it better I'll use your own words when talking to Dale seven weeks ago -

"You didn't exist before your conception and you won't exist after your death. It's as simple as that."

I guess it's true that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. The lady doth protest too much, methinks Ms. Giordano.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on April 07, 2018:

Dale W: There is no gene that predisposes people to believe that the Earth is round. Quite the opposite. It is a very counter-intuitive idea.

Now to your main point. I agree that humans being genetically predisposed to believe in an external source of love does not prove that there is no God, but it does provide an alternative explanation for the "feeling of God's presence."

P.S. There has never been any reliable proof of the existence of God, just as there has never been any reliable proof that God does not exist. As the logicians will tell you, "You can not prove a negative." So we must look at the evidence we have and decide based on probability. The weight of the evidence come down overwheminly on the side of "No God."

DaleW on April 06, 2018:

I think that you're the one that's failing to think outside of your beliefs in a way that you are accusing me of. Just because there is a gene that promotes belief in God does not mean that there cannot be a higher order or power, just as a gene that predisposes humans to the idea that the Earth is round does not mean that the Earth is automatically flat. Is it possible that you are the one that is stuck to the idea that your belief is the 'true' one?

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on April 03, 2018:

Dale W: It is very easy for me to believe that there is only physical existence--no afterlife at all. I think you have having a problem believing it because you don't want to believe it. You didn't exist before your conception and you won't exist after your death. It's as simple as that.

DaleW on April 02, 2018:

As a person, I have struggled recently with the ideas of Existentialism, as well as the Christian faith that I was brought up in. I refuse to fully accept either of them, but I do want to ask: is there any way for us to know that there is or is not something that isn't merely physical existence? And would this metaphysical existence allow for genetics, and all the scientific reasoning behind the universe, as well as the existence of a creating force and/or an afterlife? It is very difficult for me to believe that there is merely a physical existence that allows the conscience, emotions, et cetera to exist within humans

Alhazen on March 16, 2018:

Thank you Catherine. I understand and I shall endeavour to read the book; but can you help me by pointing out pages or chapters where I should be looking for the evidence for the hypothesis?

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 16, 2018:

The evidence for the theory I presented about an all-loving mother idea being hard wired into our brains is in the book which is the basis for the article, The Illsuion of God's Presence." It is a 400 page book One article can do no more than summarize. Please read the book.

Alhazen on March 15, 2018:

Thank you for this lucid and concise review; it makes me wonder!

In his great book ‘Principia’, Sir Isaac Newton wrote in Latin; “hypothesis non fingo.” In English; “I hold no hypothesis”, and what he meant was that he would not believe a hypothesis without evidence.

Now the hypothesis that our brains are always tied to seek a mother/father symbol in the universe surrounding us as adults just as we needed it when we were children which led to the creation of the god concept and religions sounds nice and a good explanation of what we see, but where are the evidence?

I could also say that man domesticated cows because he was hard wired to yearn for his mother milk, and if we have only the Hindu culture to go by where cows are sacred the hypothesis would also sound plausible and it explains why the domestication of cows happened, but is it true?

It is also possible that there are more than one mechanism working, but how much of which? And again, where is the evidence?

We have a lesson to go by in science’s recent history, namely Freud’s theories in psychology which were credible, rational and explanatory but now largely, if not completely, abandoned because the evidence showed otherwise.

An example of the evidence I am looking for is a thorough survey of all religions, existing and extinct, and finding that almost all of them had the mother/father feature as a fulcrum or pivot around which they expand and flourish; otherwise how can we be sure we are not just cherry picking our evidence and following our pet theories under the influence of our biases?!

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on April 09, 2017:

I agree with your way of handling public prayer. I too silently sit or stand (as the case may be). I do not bow my head. I look around me and see who else is unbowed. There are always some. If it is a long prayer, I tune it out, and use the time to contemplate or honor whoever or whatever is being prayed over. If I am at someone's home and they say grace, I join them. No need to make a scene.

jonnycomelately on April 09, 2017:

Absoludle!

However, there is I feel, another dimension to this that stretches beyond what I now accept or reject.

Each year on April 25 here in Australia, we commemorate "ANZAC DAY." It focuses on a particular unfortunate happening in Turkey during World War I. Many of us attend "Dawn Service," a traditionally quiet and respectful moment at precisely 6.00am, just as the sun is rising (that's if it's not raining or cloudy), and The Last Post is sounded, followed by Reveille. A very moving ceremony for most.

The question comes up for me when a person begins to recite a prayer. How do I conduct myself, when I no longer hold any acceptance of those religious presumptions? Am I being less than honest with myself by even being there? Well, no, not really.

For me, it's much more important to concentrate my mind on the sacrificed lives of all those who have been lost or wounded in the futility (debatable) of conflict, that have allowed me to stand here, voluntarily, cold, shivering, uncomfortable yet in complete safety - and simply respect that others beside me do in fact believe in the value of those prayers. That respect takes precedence over my disbelief. It is not my place, right or ability to change the thought patterns of others, unless they directly threaten my own freedom of thought. Even then my disbelief is strong enough to withstand any attempt at argument. Peaceful co-existence is the appropriate term I think. This approach can only enhance the freedom of which I speak.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on April 09, 2017:

Alan: I'm so happy to learn that religious belief did not persist for you. I never had much, if any belief as a child, so it was easy for me to live a reality-based life. Many people who, like you, had to work to free themselves of belief tell me that same thing you did--they feel so much happier now that they are free.

jonnycomelately on April 08, 2017:

So much of this belief phenomenon is irrational and defies logic. Perhaps this is part of the attractiveness of such beliefs. In a similar way, the popularity of sci-fi movies, with computerised, semi-human characters, doing unbelievable things with mentally-concocted machines. All designed to help us cope with reality by [i]stepping out of reality[/i].

I speak of defying logic from personal experience. In those early years of being "a Christian," I actually accepted the notion that my body could be resurrected after my death, that it could be born again! All because I moved in circles of friends who likewise accepted such notions; that were derived from interpretations of obscure writings by obscure authors for obscure reasons. Yet these very writings served the purpose of helping us to think of and niaively accept the idea we could step out and away from the inconvenience of reality - and all of its problems.

And boy! how I would defend such belief from all and any questions that would seek to deflate my logic at the time. Fortunately, my mind did experience re-birth, regardless! - and live to think another day, full of joy and love of life.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on April 08, 2017:

Wes: You are right that "God did it," provides a simplistic answer to questions. However, the persistence of religion is due to many factors. I have always wondered why people say things like "I feel God in my life." I think it could be, at least partially, because of this genetic predisposition to believe in the existence an all-powerful all-loving entity.

Wes on April 07, 2017:

The mental economy of wielding an omnipotent wildcard like "god did it" to relieve the cumbersome strain of doubt warrants the propensity of the accepting god bargain even without any biological predisposition.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on April 02, 2017:

Steve. In the book "The Illusion of God's Presence," the author cites a lot of research that he relied upon. All scientists build on the work of those who came before them. I have not read M.D. Faber, so I can't comment, but I felt Wathey did a great job explaining the theory of the innate image of the mother. Thanks for commenting.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 31, 2017:

Lasrry Rankin: Thanks for your comment. Some of the reason people continue to believe when it defies logic is that they can "feel" the presence of God. I always thought they were just imagining things until I read John Wathey's book. Our brains are primed to feel this way.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on March 30, 2017:

I think it's because the order of the universe screams Creator! But people glob onto these organized religions because they can't deal with the truth: we just don't know the facts.

Organized religion has literary and historic value, and for that it's worth studying, but beyond that it's this collective nonsense that I don't understand how otherwise intelligent people tolerate.

It's weird to see, for instance, someone with a Doctorate who believes in the adult version of Santa or the Easter Bunny.

Great read as always.

Jack Lee from Yorktown NY on March 29, 2017:

Alan, well said and poetic.

jonnycomelately on March 28, 2017:

Not for one moment would I think that, Catherine. You have always been accommodating and considerate of other opinions. The Tapestry of Life would be very dull without a diversity of opinion.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 28, 2017:

Thanks for your comment. I have presented a theory about something that could be metaphorically referred to as a "god gene." People can accept this theory or not. If anyone feels threatened by what I have written, they don't have to read it. I hope that this does not sound like I am being defensive.

jonnycomelately on March 28, 2017:

Maybe a better understanding can be obtained by each of us being willing to address our fears.

My own fear is to do with being bullied by those with a strong belief system. If their beliefs dictate my life in way that I find wrong, then my very existence might be threatened. So I reject those beliefs.

For the person with strong beliefs, there might be a fear of being proved mistaken in those beliefs. A scientific explanation is too rational, tiresome, obvious in the light of reasoning, yet inconvenient. Our survival instincts kick in to try and protect us from criticism, because we feel threatened.

This, I suggest that the human yet instinctive reactions are common to all of us, believer and non-believer alike. Understanding this might lead to less-defensive discussion.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 28, 2017:

Gwenneth Leane: Your second comment indicates that you believe in a literal Adam and Eve and a literal talking snake. Clearly the gulf between our beliefs is too great to be bridged. My perspective is based on science.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 28, 2017:

Venkatachan: I appreciate hearing from you. I reported on the science. The conclusion was that the feeling that a Higher Power exists is an illusion. I explained what produces that illusion. Science can not explain everything, as I said, but that does not mean that the answer to the unanswered questions is God (however you define God) did it.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on March 28, 2017:

Catherine, I am very pleased with your take of this belief in God. You described it beautiful comparing with interesting facts of science and biology.

It is true that Science can not explain everything. There are so many issues at which science fails and faith persists. It can not deny the existence of some Supreme Power behind all those wonders of the universe.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 27, 2017:

Thank you Paula. I'm glad to know that I am helpful to you. I have never been in your position. I hope Wathey's book can help you clarify some things. Go directly to the lat two chapters where he talks directly to believers and tries to help them deal with their conflict. Then go back to the beginning. The author explains things so clearly.

Gwenneth Leane on March 27, 2017:

In

answer to your question, 'why did God wait thousands of years I can only say in a nutshell.

God did not wait thousands of years, he had a relationship with Adam and Eve but they used their freewill and chose to listen to another voice and broke the relationship. God then made covenants, he used men as prophets, and kings but the freedom to choose meant that these systems failed. Finally, God said, 'I will send my son, surely they will not reject him. But Today, some reject Jesus and some don't, nothing has changed in one sense.

During Old Test. times people had to obey, make animal sacrifices to show the intent of their hearts. In the New Test. the only law is 'love your neighbor' because God's love covers it all.

It is mind boggling that anyone could love to the extent of covering overlooking, wipe out the kind of rejection aimed at God. The book of Hebrews in the New Test. talks about why God brought in the new system under Jesus

Suzie from Carson City on March 27, 2017:

Hi Catherine.....Thank you for the fascinating critique of Wathey's book. ...definitely one I will read, as well as "Sapiens." There is vast knowledge for us to study....beyond our lifetime.

Belief in God is Universal and persistent. In my own personal internal struggle, I have no doubt the constant onslaught of beliefs, high level of brain-washing, repetitious clamor and threats of frightening punishments, placed an enormous toll on me~in all regards. Yet, despite it all for decades, I'm also convinced because of my incredibly high IQ, I doubted, questioned, searched and could not settle for what I'd been told.

It all seemed bigger than myself (if you understand what I'm trying to say) As a result, I have suffered immeasurably, feeling as though I have little control on the push-pull.....my continual plight to rid my self of guilt and doubt and Yes, actual fears.

I'm getting into too much depth here, but somehow, I believe you can truly understand. I, for one, thank you for your work. You and Paladin are 2 of my favorites. Peace, Paula

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 27, 2017:

Thanks Lyn: I think the book I discuss just made everything I know about cognitive science and everything I know about religion to just come together with a loud click..

Lyn from England on March 27, 2017:

That's an unusual perspective, makes an interesting read.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 27, 2017:

Thank you Paladin for the details of Fatima. I knew the whole thing was bogus, but I didn't have the details at hand.

Catherine Giordano (author) from Orlando Florida on March 27, 2017:

Clive Williams: The universe was not create by man--but that doesn't mean that God did it.

Clive Williams from Jamaica on March 27, 2017:

People will always believe in God because they have no knowledge of total existence. The Earth, the Firmament, the soul, the ocean is all a mystery. It was not created by man then.............

Paladin_ on March 27, 2017:

Actually, I'm somewhat familiar with the supposed "miracle" of Fatima, and there's nothing to suggest that anything "miraculous" happened there.