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Why We Are Hardwired for Belief in God

April 20, 2010

On April 10 the Wall Street Journal published a debate between myself and Gregory Paul on the question of whether or not belief in God is innate. Here are the links to the two articles:

The online version was well edited but shorter than my original draft, which I present here just for the record. Enjoy.

According to Oxford University Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia, 84 percent of the world’s population belongs to some form of organized religion, which at the end of 2009 equals 5.7 billion people who belong to about 10,000 distinct religions, each one of which may be further subdivided and classified. Christians, for example, may be aportioned among 33,820 different denominations.1 Among the many bionomial designations granted our species (Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, Homo economicus), a strong case could be made for Homo religiosus. And Americans are among the most religious members of the species. In a 2007 Pew Forum survey of over 35,000 Americans, the following percentages of belief were found:

  • God or a universal spirit: 92%
  • Heaven: 74%
  • Hell: 59%
  • Scripture is word of God: 63%
  • Pray once a day: 58%
  • Miracles: 79%

So powerful is the belief that there must be something else out there that even 21% of those who identified themselves as atheists and 55% of those who identified themselves as agnostics expressed a belief in God or a universal spirit.2

Why do so many people believe in God? Although there is much cultural variation among different religious faiths, all have in common the belief in supernatural agents in the form of God, gods, or spirits who have intention and interact with us in the world. There are four lines of evidence pointing to the conclusion that such beliefs are hardwired into our brains.

Evolutionary Theory and God

Charles Darwin aged 51

In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin noted that anthropologists conclude that “a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in the reasoning powers of man, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder.”3 Why would religion and belief in God evolve? Darwin suggested that it might accentuate group cohesiveness in the competition against other groups: “There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection (of the group).”4

book cover

Picking up where Darwin left off, in my book How We Believe I developed an evolutionary model of belief in God as one of a suite of mechanisms used by religion, which I define as a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community. Around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, as bands and tribes began to coalesce into chiefdoms and states, even before the invention of government, religions were the first social institutions to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles, and God evolved as the ultimate enforcer of the rules.5

Human universals are traits shared by all peoples, such as tool use, myths, sex roles, social groups, aggression, gestures, grammar, phonemes, and many related to religion and belief in God, including: anthropomorphizing animals and objects, belief in the supernatural, beliefs and rituals about death, beliefs about fortune and misfortune, divination, folklore, magic, myths, and rituals. Although such universals are not totally controlled by genes alone (almost nothing is), there are good reasons to believe that there is a strong genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures. That is, your culture may dictate which God to believe in, but the belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world is universal to all cultures because it is hard-wired in the brain, a conclusion enhanced by studies on identical twins separated at birth and raised in different environments.

Behavior Genetics and God

In one study of 53 pairs of identical twins reared apart and 31 pairs of fraternal twins reared apart, Niels Waller, Thomas Bouchard, and their colleagues in the Minnesota twins project looked at five different measures of religiosity and found that the correlations between identical twins were typically double those for fraternal twins, a finding suggesting that genetic factors account for approximately half of the observed variance in their measures of religious beliefs.6

This finding was corroborated by two much larger twin studies out of Australia (3,810 pairs of twins) and England (825 pairs of twins), that compared identical and fraternal twins on numerous measures of beliefs and social attitudes, concluding that approximately 55 percent of the variance in religious attitudes appears to be genetic.7 The scientists also concluded that people who grow up in religious families who themselves later become religious do so mostly because they have inherited a disposition, from one or both parents, to resonate positively with religious sentiments. Without such a genetic disposition, the religious teachings of parents appear to have few lasting effects.

Of course, genes do not determine whether one chooses Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, or any other religion. Rather, belief in supernatural agents (God, angels, and demons) and commitment to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals) appears to reflect genetically based cognitive processes (inferring the existence of invisible agents) and personality traits (respect for authority, traditionalism). Why did we inherit this tendency?

Cognitive Psychology and God

Long long ago, in a Paleolithic environment far far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. I call these two processes patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data) and agenticity (the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency).

Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error (a false positive), but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, you have made a Type II error (a false negative) and there’s a good chance you’ll be lunch and thereby removed from your species’ gene pool. Because we are poor at discriminating between false positives and false negatives, and because the cost of making a Type I error is much lower than making a Type II error, there was a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. This is the basis for the belief not only in God, but in souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

Gods are agents and agents are essences, and agenticity is everywhere. Subjects watching reflective dots move about in a darkened room (especially if the dots take on the shape of two legs and two arms) infer that they represent a person or intentional agent. Children believe that the sun can think and follows them around, and when asked to draw a picture of the sun they often add a smiley face to give agency to sol. Genital-shaped foods such as bananas and oysters are often believed to enhance sexual potency. A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality or essence is transplanted with the organ, and studies show that most people say that they would never wear the sweater of a murderer, showing great disgust (probably an evolved emotion selected to avoid rotting food and disease-carrying substances), but that they would wear the cardigan sweater of the childrens’ television host Mr. Rogers, believing that it would make them better persons.

Neuroscience and God

Why God? In my analogy above, note that “wind” represents an inanimate force whereas “dangerous predator” indicates an intentional agent. There is a big difference between an inanimate force and an intentional agent. Most animals can make this distinction on the superficial life-or-death level, but we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex we have a Theory of Mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others. We “read minds” by projecting ourselves into someone else’s shoes (as in empathy) or by imagining someone out to get us (as in fear).

Theory of Mind is part of a larger mind-brain dualism, in which we tend to think of the mind as something separate from the brain. We speak of “my body” as if “my” and “body” are dissimilar. We revel in books and films that are dualistic, as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a man falls asleep and wakes up as a cockroach with the man’s personality intact inside it, or in Freaky Friday where mother and daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsey Lohan) trade bodies with their essences unbroken. This belief in mind and essence is a byproduct of the brain’s inability to perceive itself. Thus, we can “decenter” ourselves and imagine, say, being on a beach in Hawaii, which most people tend to see from above looking down on themselves as if out of their bodies. Out-of-body and Near-Death Experiences can both be triggered by electromagnetic fields bombarding the temporal lobes (just above the ears) of the brain, as well as through oxygen deprivation in pilot centrifuge training exercises. As well there is the well-known “third-man factor” in which solo sailors, mountain climbers, ultra-marathon athletes, and arctic explorers report a sensed presence of someone else on the expedition.

We believe in the supernatural because we believe in the natural and we cannot discriminate between the two. We create gods because we are natural-born supernaturalists, driven by our tendency to find meaningful patterns and impart to them intentional agency. The gods will always be with us because they are hard-wired into our brains.


  1. Barrett, D. B., G. T. Kurian, T. M. Johnson (Eds.). 2001. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World. 2 Vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Darwin, C. 1871. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray, Vol. 2, 395.
  4. Ibid., Vol. 1, 166.
  5. Shermer, Michael. 1999. How We Believe. New York: Henry Holt/Times Books.
  6. Waller, N.G., B. Kojetin, T. Bouchard, D. Lykken, and A. Tellegen. 1990. “Genetic and environmental influences on religious attitudes and values: A study of twins reared apart and together.” Psychological Science 1(2): 138–42.
  7. Martin, N. G., L. J. Eaves, A. C. Heath, R. Jardine, L. M. Feingold, and H. J. Eysenck. 1986. Transmission of social attitudes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 83: 4364–68.
  8. Eaves, L. J., H. J. Eysenck, and N. G. Martin. 1989. Genes, culture and personality: An empirical approach. London and San Diego: Academic Press.

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