Is religion hardwired?

The many theories for the origin and persistence of religion fall into two classes: those that think that religion piggybacks on some aspect of human nature, usually evolved (credulity, need to attribute agency to natural phenomena, tendency to accept what parents or elders tell you, and so on), and those claiming that religion is “hardwired,” that is, we have genes that directly produce in us a propensity to apprehend and/or worship God. That claim is often the one adduced by religious people, since it feeds into the notion (e.g., Plantinga’s “sensus divinitatus”) that God instilled in us the need and desire to find Him.

I find the first class of theories more credible, but secular studies of religious belief have been bogged down by the fact that none of these theories are obviously testable by science. I have suggested several times on this site, though, that the “hardwired” theory is in principle testable: all you have to do is bring up children in an environment where they’re completely free of religious knowledge or influence, and see if they spontaneously come to conceive of (and maybe worship) a God. Unfortunately, that’s impossible, because we can’t do experiments with humans. And there’s virtually nowhere that one can raise a child without some exposure to religion.

But a new paper in Trends in Cognitive Science by Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom, psychologists at Yale University, claim that the evidence is largely in—and doesn’t support the “hardwired” hypothesis. (The paper is just a two-page review, and is free at the link; reference is at bottom. The “Tarzan” reference in the title refers to the question of whether Tarzan, raised by apes, would come to believe in God.)

Their “evidence,” however, is pretty thin—so thin that I don’t think it shows anything.

Here’s their first assertion:

Consider belief in a divine creator. Young children are prone to generate purpose-based explanations of the origins of natural objects and biological kinds. They believe, for example,that clouds are ‘for raining’ and animals are ‘to go in the zoo’ [9]. However, there is no evidence that children spontaneously come to believe in one or more divine creators. It is one thing, after all, to think about natural entities as intentionally designed artifacts of a sort; it is quite another to generate an enduring belief in invisible agents who have created these artifacts. Indeed, other studies find that young children are not committed creationists; they are equally likely to provide explanations of species origins that involve spontaneous generation [10].

But what I see here is not evidence against hardwiring, but an absence of any evidence. And creationism is not equivalent to belief in a supernatural being that affects the world: one can be religious without being creationist.

Later, however, the kids do become creationists, but that’s imputed to cultural or parental indoctrination:

Older children, by contrast, do exclusively endorse creationist explanations. This shift to a robust creation is preference arises in part because older children are more adept at grasping the existential themes invoked by the question of species origins (e.g., existence and final cause) and also because the notion of a divine creator of nature meshes well with their early-emerging teleological biases [10]. However, these older children do not spontaneously propose novel divine creators. Instead, they adopt the particular creationist account that their culture supplies. This might be a singular God or multiple gods; it might be alien visitors or Mother Earth. If children are not exposed to such cultural beliefs,the explicit notionof an intentional creator might never arise.

Likewise, where’s the evidence that their newfound creationism comes from absorbing it from their culture, rather than appearing spontaneously as a product of their genes at a later age? No reference is cited.

The authors cite two more pieces of “evidence.” The first is this:

Some, such as Barrett [4], take children’s readiness to reason about life after death as evidence that they are ‘born believers’ in an afterlife.

This conclusion is probably too strong, however.There is no evidence that belief in the afterlife arises spontaneously in the absence of cultural support.For instance, research in rural Madagascar, where there is widespread belief in ancestral spirits, finds that the conception of an afterlife emerges in the course of development[12]. Even if children are ‘natural-born dualists’ [5], this initial stance need not directly give rise to the afterlife beliefs that are characteristic of many of the world’s religions.

Again, this isn’t evidence for a lack of “hardwiring” as opposed to cultural inculcation. After all, beliefs or behaviors generated by genes needn’t appear at the outset of development.  Interest in sex, for instance, is surely “hardwired,” but doesn’t appear till near puberty.

The authors’ final claim again appears to rest on an absence of evidence, not positive evidence:

Consider, as a test case,belief in multiple deities.This is the historically foundational religious stance, with monotheism a more recent invention [14]. It would be striking support for the generativity position if children raised in monotheistic societies declared their belief in multiple gods. However, to our knowledge, they never do. They come to believe instead in the same singular omnipotent deity that everyone else believes in.

But this shows either that children are inculcated in one omnipotent deity—OR are genetically predisposed to believe in a single deity. (The thesis, after all, is that children believe in supernatural agents, not whether it’s one or many, and even “genetic” belief in a single deity can be altered by culture, just as a genetic predisposition to have sex can be altered by the availability of pornography.)

I have’t read the 14 papers cited by Banerjee and Bloom, but they don’t give citations for their major empirical conclusion. I am sympathetic to their idea that religion piggybacks on other evolved tendencies, simply because an individual reproductive advantage of believing in a God isn’t obvious to me, but the evidence so far is thin.  Too thin, at least, to support the authors’ conclusion, from the abstract:

Drawing on evidence from developmental psychology, we argue here that the answer is no: children lack spontaneous theistic views and the emergence of religion is crucially dependent on culture.

Well, “crucially dependent on culture” can mean several things, and the “genetic” hypothesis might depend on cultural exposure too—just not cultural exposure to religion. One might simply need exposure to society and the environment.

I’m not sure how to discriminate among the many theories for the origin of religion, since it occurred in the distant past and has been culturally transmitted ever since. But at least one is testable in principle: that belief in a god or gods is hardwired, and will arise spontaneously—and in a similar form—in people who are never exposed to religion.

Yes, that’s testable in principle, but not in practice.  We still remain profoundly ignorant of how religion came to dominate our species.


Banerjee, K., and P. Bloom. 2013. Would Tarzan believe in God?: Conditions for the emergence of religious belief. Trends Cognitive Sci. 17:7-8.

h/t: Mauricio


  1. coozoe
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    Maybe the prevalent inbreeding of early humans is responsible for the propensity to believe hooey.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      Your evidence for (high) prevalence of inbreeding in early humans is … ?
      Sorry, but it’s an obvious question. Define “inbreeding”. What do you mean by a prevalence (more than 10% of breedings ; more than 50% ; more than 90%) ?
      There’s a lot of folk myths about the effects of high degrees of consanguinity, but rather less evidence. And lacking detailed pedigrees for a lot of early human families, there’s not a lot of evidence for the effects of inbreeding on human capabilities.
      There is evidence that, for small, highly inbred populations, even relatively small influxes of distantly-related genes can have a surprisingly large effect on fitness (I’m thinking specifically of a Swedish wolf study, but the same situation almost certainly happened multiple times during the human diaspora.)
      Are you possibly thinking of the evidence for the “Mitochondrial Eve” ? That is a situation that is actually bound to happen in any pedigree, sooner or later. At some point every there will be some allele in every member of the population which was initially present in only one member of the founder population. Similarly, at some point in the future growth of a population there will be some individuals who have genetic representation in all members of the future population while there are other individuals whose genelines will be genetically extinct. But that is a statistical effect that would happen purely through genetic drift, without net selection at all. If there is selection happening (natural, sexual , or artificial), then things happen faster in some directions, but that doesn’t mean that things don’t happen at random in un-selected traits.

  2. Posted March 19, 2013 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    The experiment has been done: the Soviet Union raised kids in an actively secular manner, but religion came swooping right back in again afterwards. I don’t have numbers, but here’s an interesting and disconcerting anecdote on the topic.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:26 am | Permalink

      If we all have this God-shaped hole, where’s mine?


      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:29 am | Permalink

        Which reminds me of this… 

        We all have some emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that some fill with art, some with God, some with learning. I have always filled the emptiness with drugs.

        — Bruce Sterling, Involution Ocean


      • gbjames
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

        Your gravitar has changed!

        • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

          My God, so it has!

          (Or: My God! It’s full of stars!)

          Still the same ant; different bg. (From this.) For spring. (A little early.) All across the interwebz: Twitter, Fb, Tumblr, LibraryThing, Bandcamp, … I’m sure I’ve missed some!


      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        I can see an explanation for the god shaped hole in your head in the phenomenon of neoteny. Most animals that nurture their young form an emotional bond with them at birth and so the young with the parent.
        As the young mature this bond fades on both sides until it is gone.
        But not for neotenous species like us. The juvenile characteristic bond may persist for a lifetime. When the parent dies or is otherwise lost there will still be that part remaining in the offsprings head. This could be why religions with father gods and mother churches are so appealing.

        • Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          “hole in your head” — ! I thought the God-shaped hole was supposed to be in your heart, though?

          That seems appealing, but… polytheism?


      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        There’s a Homer Simpson “doughnut” joke in there, struggling to get out!

        • Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

          Theonuts… the donuts with the God-shaped hole!


          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

            I’m seeing an emergent field of “doughnut theology” here.
            Surely, to an independent observer without cultural baggage (where are those Martians when we need them?), “God” is more worthy than “Jhwh” because the “o” in “God” is visually alliterative (whatever the word is) for doughnuts, while “Jhwh” looks as appetising as a dried squirrel’s nest.
            Alternatively, the “o” in “God” is as rounded and comforting as a pile-cushion.
            Hey – it’s one of the more rational discriminants between religions! Don’t blame me ; I just made it up while struggling to stay awake after a long safety meeting!

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:26 am | Permalink

      No it hasn’t been done. In the former Soviet Union children were not removed from their parents at birth and placed in secular nurseries removed from all religious influence.

      Jerry explicitly included “tendency to accept what parents or elders tell you” in his list of the evolved traits that could be connected with the emergence and persistence of religion.

      On the one hand children from from religious families would receive indoctrination from their parents and family, while on the other they would face anti religious (often quite primitive) propaganda at school. All the resurgence of religion in Russia shows is the strength of family influence and the influence of complex social factors that can reinforce religion in modern societies.

      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:43 am | Permalink

        You could, of course, say “no not good enough” to any experiment that could actually be done, but it’s not clear that’s useful.

        What test that could reasonably be done would satisfy you that this has been tested?

      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

        If anything, when religion is forcibly censored, the self-sacrifcing/martyr aspects often flare up along with the attraction of something being taboo to make religion flourish, even if it is underground.

        Therefore, it is very important to criticize religion strongly without censoring its practice–that’s the social cocktail that will slowly erode its attraction.

        • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

          “the social cocktail” … Make mine a mojito!

          Astute. Although too much criticism and ridicule might be seen as censorship… in fact, is: Hence all the accusations of “stridency” and “Christians under attack”. The last hurrah of the Godden horde.


      • truthspeaker
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        Plus there were churches and synagogues in the Soviet Union. They were watched by the KGB, but they were there.

        • Kevin
          Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

          Forbidden, therefore exciting.

      • jay
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        “were not removed from their parents at birth and placed in secular nurseries removed from all religious influence.”

        I think you are too quick to dismiss. Research has shown the beliefs of peer groups generally is much stronger than beliefs of parents in shaping identity. Additionally I think your statement fails to explain the extreme success that this bit of allegedly ‘non-removable’ influence had. It is hard to claim that all this pounding by the school system, the government and the society was somehow powerless against a (in most cases) marginal influence by the parents. Large numbers of parents certainly do not have that much influence, nor that much determination.

        But I think a common error is to think of religion only in terms of belief in gods and churches. It’s also a powerful social power structure, similar to, and often overlapping with politics. There is an old joke about a woman in church in communist Poland who noticed the man next to her did not kneel for prayer. She asked him why. “Because I don’t believe in God” he said. “Why are you in church” she asked; “because I am not a communist”

        I think that explains part of its strength.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      “The Soviet Union” does not equal “the dominant influence on the children in the Soviet Union.” That “dominant influence” is, I would posit, the babhshka (damn ; no Cyrillic on this week’s Bokmal keyboard!).
      It’s a brave GRU thug who tries taking on the massed babushki of Russia, particularly considering the terrors of their own youths.
      There is a lot of woo, even in a well-brought up Soviet atheist like my wife. Despite my best efforts, the woo just keeps on running.

      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Not to mention that people turn to working social systems (however crazy or unsupported) if the dominent one is completely dysfunctional – this explains religiousity in the US and in the former USSR quite well, IMO.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          There is a considerable amount of deliberate targeting of the poor in Russia by evangelists of many stripes, including, unsurprisingly, fundamentalist American Xtians. They’re viewed with utter contempt by the parents, but when needs must, they (the parents) will sup with these foreign devils. Even if the only spoons are very short.
          The parents fear what the invading God-squaddies are doing ot their children’s minds. But it’s what they have to do.

    • joao
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      But the same experiment was done in East Germany and the opposite happened. Religiosity continued falling even after the reunification.

      • Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        See above – Germany is a much less dysfunctional society than the states of the former Soviet Union.

  3. gbjames
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    An important but frustrating topic. I personally don’t like the “in the genes” proposition because it poorly handles the ability humans have to give up this notion. But of course that doesn’t rule it out. It is pretty clear we have biologically (genetic) predispositions to certain kinds of dietary habits and these can be overcome by social pressures. The old nature/nurture dichotomy nearly always confuses things since both so often contribute to behavior.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

      Remember that evolution requires variation, so that “in the genes” does not need to be “in everyone’s genes.” Thus allowing for those who can give up the notion.

      Not that I buy the “in the genes” hypothesis.

  4. Sarah
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    I wonder if there is a tendency toward superstition, which would cover religion. (I used to have a rabbit’s foot (yes, “ick!”, but I did) and sports people have their lucky socks or special rituals. Is a concern for “good luck” or “bad luck” an origin of religion?

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      (I used to have a rabbit’s foot (yes, “ick!”, but I did)

      So did I. It originally belonged to “Point”, a chocolate-pointed part of the “Trampling Hoard” whose excesses I failed to contain after being dumped with the problem. It wasn’t a very lucky rabbit’s foot. “Point” was, in a very literal sense, a very nice rabbit. Young, well muscled and juicy.
      The person responsible for the furry plague didn’t like me wearing that rabbit’s foot. She seemed to think that I was getting at her, or something. Which I was.

  5. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    The Piraha (an Amazonian tribe) are different in that their language and world view are based on immediacy, a sort of direct naturalism, but they still observe spirits. The spirits are usually Piraha ‘acting’ in Western terms although both the ‘actor’ and the audience state that what was observed was a spirit.

    This is probably an extreme example of culture affecting the meaning of what they see and how they can speak about it – for what biological mechanism exists to ‘apprehend god(s)’?

    • gbjames
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      I once talked with my old Linguistics professor about the Piraha language work done by Daniel Everett. He (my prof) expressed some skepticism based partly on the fact that Everett was was trained by the Moody Bible Institute and his work was sponsored by Summer Institute of Linguistics which is in the missionary business despite the absence of Jesus in their name. So some interpretive caution may be warranted.

      • James Walker
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

        Have you read anything Everett has written? He may have started out as a missionary linguist, but he lost his religious belief as a result of working with the Piraha.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

          Only a bit, back when the “Priaha don’t have recursion in their language” reports were in the semi-popular press. The caution expressed by my old prof was not that Everett was a Christian and therefore unreliable (the prof is a Catholic himself), but that he was suspicious of the quality of Everett’s training.

          • James Walker
            Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

            Whether or not one agrees with Everett’s interpretations of his findings, you can’t fault his training in linguistics. He did his Ph.D. at the University of Campinas in Brazil under a well-known Brazilian syntactician, working within the Chomskyan paradigm (the paradigm his more recent work argues against).

  6. Posted March 19, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    In the absence of controlled experiments of raising children without religious influence, just take a look at the Scandinavian countries that are mentioned so often on this blog:

    If religion was somehow ‘hardwired’ into the human brain, wouldn’t we expect children that had been raised without religious influence to gravitate towards religion as they mature? That is, if religion was hardwired, wouldn’t we expect levels of belief to be relatively constant across both religious and secular societies? They are not.

    Additionally, it should be hard to raise a child as an atheist if religion was innate.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      Then again, I guess the Scandinavian countries may be examples of genetic drift with the effect of increased relative levels of atheism (or at least non-secularism). 😉

      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        …and that was supposed to say ‘secularism’… Oh dear.

  7. Paul S
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    The problem with the Soviet Union’s story is although they declared themselves a secular society; the people were still religious, not unlike prohibition in the US. On the other hand, I see myself as an example that belief in a god is not evolutionary, inherent or genetic because if it was, I would need to believe, and I never have. I didn’t need to shake off the shackles of religion like some people, I wasn’t indoctrinated with a religious belief in the first place and I’ve not been inclined to pursue any religious dogma. This may be partially due to my mother being an Egyptology major so any insights or discussions about religion would have been from an anthropological point of view. As the study states, I too made up stories of phenomena that I didn’t understand. As a four year old I used my powers of observation and reasoning as any child would do and I came to the conclusion that factories with smoke stakes made clouds, because that’s what I observed. As far as claiming god did something, you’d first have to have the concept of god and you cannot get that by observation, you have to be told.
    I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s never been indoctrinated so it should be possible to study the effects of a nonreligious upbringing.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      me too, raised without doG, even read the BuyBull to see what all the hullabaloo was aboot and could not believe adults take it seriously

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but. Say there were some genetic trait for god-belief. That does not mean it would necessarily be universal, any more than brown hair or athletic prowess or the ability to carry a tune is universal.

      Say that under some conditions a god-belief tendency is adaptive, in others the opposite is true. Then we would expect such tendencies to be maintained in a population in proportion to the frequencies of the conditions favoring each one.

      That some kids are raised a-religious and never end up with a god-belief does not disprove the hypothesis. It’s just as likely that they just don’t have the genes to begin with.

    • Kevin Meredith
      Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Some of the arguments on this string remind of the argument of the origins of deity. If belief in god is not inherent but must be instilled by someone else, then where did the first belief come from? Pascal Boyer does an excellent job answering the question in “Religion Explained,” and it has to do with how the human mind works, not with the necessity for some kind of original, non-human inspiration. People at a certain level of societal advancement invent ancestor worship, which then evolves to poly- and then monotheism.

  8. Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I’ve only experienced “sensus divinitatus” in relation to the Tennessee Powerball Lottery.

  9. jesse
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Hardwired? I remember reading a book, from the early 1980s, where the author suggested that belief in gods might have come from the two halves of our mammalian brain “talking” to each other (via the corpus callosum)–and not exactly realizing that.

    The book was, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. Amazon has info on it. He taught at Princeton.

    I also found this video of Ramachandran talking about a split brain patient whose right brain was atheist and left brain was religious.

  10. Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I think there IS a built-in propensity for humans to be susceptible to religious thinking.

    First of all, there is at least one experimental drug that produces only an intense feeling of religious ecstatic revelation.

    I’ve conducted a modestly extensive research protocol myself, on myself, during the ’70’s on various hallucinogens and can report that – like everyone else who took these drugs – feelings of transcendence, pantheism, brotherly connectedness, animism etc are pretty darned reproducible.

    Secondly, there is a documented propensity of the human brain to incorrectly ascribe agency. Such a propensity to see invisible hands at work is only one step away from giving those hands an owner, an owner who has a name.

    Third, despite the fact that that I am about as hard an atheist as can be, I still find myself – in moments of even small crisis – asking for divine help. I daresay we ALL do this somewhat unconsciously. When a family member is late returning home, and driving conditions are rotten, don’t we all say “Please let them come home safe”? Just who the hell are we asking?

    We, of all people, KNOW there is no one there to listen and respond to our plea. And I sure was not brought up to pray reflexively for help from above – this doesn’t feel like a learned behavior, it feels instinctual.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      this doesn’t feel like a learned behavior, it feels instinctual”

      I’m not sure this is a useful way to interpret things. An experienced bicycle rider may feel that riding is instinctual, but we probably can agree that it isn’t. Automatic responses will always feel instinctual even though they may the result of result of a lot of practice.

      • Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        Riding a bicycle may be learned – but the underlying physical talents required are borrowed from simple locomotion – balance, visual field, orientation etc. Imagine trying to learn how to ride a bicycle blindfolded and with an inner ear infection.

        How can brain pathways that respond to synthetic drugs which cause feelings of religious ecstasy be learned behavior? Seems by definition to be innate.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

          I think things like this can be learned. At least that is the sense I get from people who make claims for these experiences being the product of mediation training. Sam Harris talks about this sort of thing.

          The fact that dosing yourself with LSD produces profound sensations (remember Jerry’s example of the profoundly BROWN! walls?) doesn’t mean that religious ecstasy is “instinctive” any more than saying red boiling flesh is the “instinctive” response to having acid poured you your arm.

    • Paul S
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      But you were taught that phrase and it’s not a plea for divine intervention, it’s an empathetic response. You are expressing your concern, nothing more. Do you think people have an underlying desire to cause harm when telling someone to “break a leg”, of course not, it’s a learned response.

    • Notagod
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      I daresay we ALL do this somewhat unconsciously. When a family member is late returning home, and driving conditions are rotten, don’t we all say “Please let them come home safe”? Just who the hell are we asking?

      Yeah – no. I do find myself hoping they’ll come home safe, and trying to figure out if there is any action that I could take. Running different possibilities through my mind checking for evidence that might support one possibility over the others but, yeah, no god calling. Now, there was a time when I did do the calling of gods followed by wondering why. After thinking about it I concluded that it was a learned behavioral habit. It wasn’t at all difficult for me to break that habit. Some other habits have been much harder to deal with.

      • Notagod
        Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        The first paragraph was quoted from Roger Lambert above.

  11. Lee
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    “a split brain patient whose right brain was atheist and left brain was religious.”

    Could it be that we are all that way considering the amount of time we spend stewing about the subject.

    • jesse
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Yeah, funny.
      I gave up trying to change people’s minds about religion. They are going to believe what they believe, in most cases. Maybe I’m just lazy : )

      You, or anyone reading this, might be interested in the whole of Ramachandran’s talk, which was here
      It starts at about 39:00.
      Dawkins was there, if that lends any value to its importance.

    • Notagod
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      No, I’m just not going to be quiet while the stupidity of christianity is given preferential treatment. Christianity should be an activity that is practiced behind closed doors and limited to consenting adults only, XXXXXX rated!

      • jesse
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        You are right, of course, on a governmental level. What I was thinking of when I made that statement above was of my individual friends and relatives. I am not going to try to change their personal minds about religion. They are in their 60s and 80s and it would only do damage to both of us.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

          Hey! I’m in my 60s and don’t object to people arguing with me. You might be surprised.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 20, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

            You beat me to it.

            Funny how we all become doddering conservatives, isn’t it?

            Oh, wait…

            And I’m not gonna even mention our host, here…

  12. Kevin Meredith
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    The argument that religion is “parasitic,” an accident spawned by unrelated aspects of human nature, can be countered if we can demonstrate that religion tends to cause us to do things that will propagate our genes. And I believe that we can. Religion often prescribes sexual behaviors that are most likely to lead to procreation (and forbids those that don’t). Religion is a source of hope and confidence, which can be shown to increase survival and effectiveness. Religion justifies theft, rape and genocide (see: Old Testament), which are beneficial to the genes. The insistence among many modern atheists that religion belongs to the “accidental” category of human behavior is borne, I suspect, of their desire to establish that religion never served any purpose. I would argue that it has served many purposes — tragic purposes, of course, but genetically beneficial purposes nonetheless.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

      I think you have put the cart before the horse. Religion did not instill those traits in humans, and the behaviors you identify in no way depend on religion. Humans imprinted their nature on religion. Your point amounts to saying that religion doesn’t prevent us from successfully reproducing. Their is nothing in this argument that demonstrates religion is a necessary adaptation that improves human fitness.

      • Kevin Meredith
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        I am proposing that religion complements and encourages certain genetically useful behaviors. I don’t see anything in my post that suggests religion was necessary before these useful behaviors could occur. People procreate, they kill and they strive for the future. They will do so with or without religion, but if superstition/religion provides a sufficiently powerful additional impetus, it will be selected — or so goes the theory.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

          “I don’t see anything in my post that suggests religion was necessary before these useful behaviors could occur.”

          No, not temporaly before, but you say this, which is what I was reacting to:

          “religion tends to cause us to do things that will propagate our genes.”

          I think this is questionable. It seems to imply that religious people could have some kind of evolutionary advantage over non-religious people. In this sense you are attributing successful traits to religion, when I think it’s the other way around: religion doesn’t confer any successful traits that humans didn’t already have. In order to argue that, you need to be able to argue that the behaviors you are talking about are happening because of religion and not despite religion.

          I think we can say that religion does not remove people’s chances of successfully reproducing (except in those cases of young martyrs or renunciants), but I can’t see how it adds something to human fitness that non-religious people don’t or can’t have.

          • Kevin Meredith
            Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

            On the edge of belaboring the point here, but this is important and I’m not sure you’re understanding my original point. Even today, some 80-90 percent of people believe things that are clearly made up or demonstrably false, and that’s down from earlier times. So, I’m not merely implying “that religious people could have some kind of evolutionary advantage over non-religious people,” I’m stating it outright. People have lust, hunger and hatred because it makes them do evolutionarily advantageous things. So, I propose, does religion. It props up, encourages, supports and complements selected traits.

  13. Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    It would be striking support for the generativity position if children raised in monotheistic societies declared their belief in multiple gods. However, to our knowledge, they never do.

    That may neglect the Neopagan “Goddess and Consort” developing as an offshoot in the monotheist West.

    Rare, yes. Since most variations between parental upbringing and actual outcome in religion averages small, with more dramatic variations occurring more rarely, that’s unsurprising.

  14. Thanny
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Religion, to borrow a concept from biological nomenclature, is a paraphyletic term. The world’s myriad “religions” are not conceptually the same thing. Many “religions” don’t have any gods at all.

    The only thing these drastically disparate views of the world have in common is that they’re not based on reason. How can anything beyond a propensity to confabulate possibly be hardwired?

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      I think the use of “hardwired” is what is misleading here.

      “Innate” is a very tricky notion. If there was a way to measure “internal development”, I’d replace the notion with that. (This is related to Chomsky’s idea that children literally grow language use, the way they grow limbs.)

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      “Many ‘religions’ don’t have any gods at all.”

      The scare quotes are a giveaway. Such life stances are probably best not thought of as religions. Anthony Grayling and Alan Watts, for example, independently argue that traditional and Zen Buddhisms are atheistic philosophies. (Tibetan Buddhism on the other hand…)


      • Posted March 20, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        What about the thousands of “folk religions” of variou stripes? Take that of the Inuit – it is (was) integrated into their entire life, but aspects (the role of “spirits” and of the shamen, etc.) are clearly religious by most understandings. But there are no gods per se. However, be careful of bad translations: a lot of stuff about the Inuit has been slightly misrepresented, including (relevant to other things on this site) the traditional views of emotions, sexuality, etc.

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Thanny about “religion” being a paraphyletic term (and I wrote those quotation marks to clarify the discussion with the use-mention distinction, not as scare quotes).

      As an American, I know the New Mexico state flag is the Zia sun symbol, and the Zia people (like the other Pueblo people) believed in spirits called kachinas.

      I would not call kachinas gods, nor would I call that belief system an atheist philosophy. I see kachinas supporting Thanny, and I wish these Internet threads could involve anthropologists, to remind us of the scope of how humans have lived.

      Ironically, almost all the Internet rants I’ve read against “religion” (which I just wrote in quotes to mention how the rants use the term) are against the Abrahamic religions, which involve writing, which is a relative new development, post-dating human evolutionary development, and the Abrahamic writing (scripture) facilitates a larger scale of organization, which overran the native religions that might have been relevant to the evolutionary success of humans.

      TL;DR: Banerjee and Bloom wrote about “God” with a capital “G” in their title and abstract, which is totally missing what Thanny and I are saying about the anthropology of what humans believed in the human migration from where humans evolved (in southeastern Africa) to where humans have populated the world.

  15. Gordon Hill
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    If a creator deity is a prerequisite for religion, I doubt that there is a hard wiring; however, if a wonderment as to the mystery of being–leading to the creation of stories rituals and rites–is considered the creation of religion, then the question becomes, “Are we hardwired to speculate as to the unknown?” “Are we a myth creating species?” I think we are–I know I am–but we all differ so there may be a distribution of the propensity to be religious.

  16. Steve Lorimer
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    I was born into a non-religious household in the UK and my schooling was remarkably free of religious influence, considering I am nearly 50 years old and the Church of England still had somewhat of a grip on society during my childhood. In all my years I have never felt a “hard-wired” predisposition to spontaneously conceive of a god, or subsequently engage in religious worship. I have never once felt the need for the crutch offered by religion, in fact, the older I get the more preposterous I find the whole premise of religious worship of an all powerful supernatural entity

    There may be many sociological and pyschological reasons why religion thrives, even in the 21st century, but for me, ignorance is the major driver. Religion fills the gaps created by a lack of real understanding of the world around us, hence the growth areas for religion in the world today are in those places where poverty restricts access to proper education, or in those strongholds of religious orthodoxy that reject a modern scientific view of the world

    So, my personal experience strongly suggests that relgion is a cultural meme and not a genetic predisposition

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

      Not necessarily. It may only suggest that you in particular do not have the genes for such a tendency, not that they therefore do not exist in anyone.

      Man, there sure is a lot of arguing from personal experience in this thread! Whatever happened to “anecdote =/= data?”

      Not aimed at you in particular, Steve; it’s just the umpteenth time I’ve read the sentiment here. And FWIW, I was raised with a very mild religious background, which was easy to deep-six once I discovered science, so my experience tells me exactly what yours does you. Plus, I far prefer the not hardwired explanation myself. That just does not make it so.

      • Posted March 20, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        That’s a fair point. But I don’t think that the religious people who adduce the “hardwired” “theory” think anything but that we all have those genes. Hence, it’s only necessary to find a single (anecdotal!) counterexample.


        • Diane G.
          Posted March 20, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that’s certainly true given your premise.

          But there was at least a minor theme in Jerry’s post about doin’ the science…


  17. Notagod
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Maybe the god thingies are caused by a parasite. Maybe different species of parasite cause different god ideas to emerge.

    Whatever, I’m happy I don’t have it.

    Maybe there is a mittens gene, that causes people to vote for mittens, how else would anyone get themselves into such a state.

    I’m certain that the god thing isn’t universal so it seems odd to claim it is hardwired. Too bad christians don’t have compassion hardwired into them to counter their abusive nature.

  18. gr8hands
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I discussed this topic with someone who did studies with feral children, and none of the feral children had any religious beliefs until they were polluted by religious society.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 19, 2013 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

      How does one come up with a significant number of feral children?

  19. Sameer
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I find the hard-wiring hypothesis highly improbable. If it is true and additionally there actually is a god and it really did implanted in us a genetic propensity towards seeking the god, how do you explain the myriad different religions with their respective god(s)? Either this “sensus divinitatus” is horribly flawed and leads to belief in a variety of different kinds of god(s). If that is the case then the god that implanted this sense in us is a very unintelligent designer. If on the other hand if the hard-wiring is not flawed and works as designed then the god is certainly a malevolent god, because surely it could have easily foreseen the result of implanting a sense that results in religions that are bound to clash with each other. I don’t know how the hard-wiring hypothesis appeals to the religious because it leads to either a clueless god or a malevolent god.

  20. muuh-gnu
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Communist East Germany stamped out religion, and it never came back.


  21. marksolock
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  22. DV
    Posted March 20, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Monotheism has to be culturally learned. A hyperactive agency detector in our brains would naturally detect more gods the more hyperactive it becomes. Why should evolution make it hyperactive and yet constrained to one. And if you look at Christianity, it’s not in practice a monotheism – there are already 3 dudes in one god supposedly, but then you add Mary (all the different ones – Lady of Guadalupe, Lady of Medjugorje, etc..), plus all the saints, archangels, angels.

  23. Posted March 23, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya.

  24. Posted April 9, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Here is an argument that religion is not innate.
    For one thing, theology has to be passed on by socialization, rather than occurring to a young mind naturally.

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