Is Religion Biologically Hardwired?

published on July 19, 2020

Is religion biologically hardwired today will consider one theory that says it is but we'll also consider some shortcomings of that theory it's called hyperactive agency detection device or had the fancy name for humans and a tendency to see agency and tension or

Personhood in the world around us even when agency intention or personhood is ambiguous or might not even be there so here are some examples you hear a branch snap in the woods and you immediately think that someone is following you you

Awake in the middle of the night and you see a shadow looming over you it must be a ghost or a demon turns out it was your coat rack a breeze slams a door shut and you were around because you think someone's behind you but no one's there

These are had experiences the uncanny feeling that someone else is there with you it's an instinctual response developed through our evolution as a species as our species evolved in prehistoric times it was to your

Advantage to be overly cautious to avoid predators to be overly sensitive to every sound or every image in your peripheral vision because those who had a hypersensitive or shall we say a hyperactive sense of agency detection

Would avoid being eaten by that saber-tooth Tigers stalking you in the woods so if humans involved a hyperactive sense of agency detection a sense hardwired into the brains of Homo

Sapiens everywhere what are the implications of this if we apply it to religion well some evolutionary psychologists see this theory as the explanation for the origins of religious beliefs and supernatural beings

Hyperactive sense of agency detection plus our ability for abstract thinking equals the building blocks for more complex religious ideas about the existence of invisible agents gods spirits or ancestors that we've owned

After death if so religion is hardwired into the very cognitive structures of our mind but does this theory hold any water let's get into it the psychologist Justin Berra is one of the main

Proponents of this theory here's his thesis part of the reason people believe in gods ghosts and goblins also comes from the way in which our minds particularly our agency detection device functions our agency

Detects device suffers from some hyperactivity making it prone to find agents around us including supernatural agents given fairly modest evidence of their presence this tendency encourages the generation

And spread of God concepts like I said earlier he defends the thesis by pointing to how we evolved to deal with predators if you're possibly being stalked by a predator over detection matters way more than under detection if

You under detect a predator you get eaten if you over detect a predator there's really no downsides besides the occasional jump-scare so our minds must have evolved to over detect so how did our ancestors make the leap from

Invisible predators to invisible supernatural gods proponents of this theory say that the jump from predators to gods is because humans not only hyper actively assume that there is something out there during a hat experience but

Humans also developed a tendency to anthropomorphize everything in the world around us assuming that there is in tension or personhood at work when we experience unexplained motion in the natural world

Justin barrett writes cognitive scientists have demonstrated repeatedly that from infancy movement that looks self-propelled and goal-oriented activates thinking about objects as agents and further can trigger

Attribution of mental states beliefs desires and sometimes even personality and social roles so a door slowly creaking open a branch falling out of a tree Barrett argues that our ancestors blamed invisible human-like agents for

These unexplained motions this is not a new theory ironically Charles Darwin himself theorized about the anthropomorphizing of invisible agents in the descent of man though with a little bit more racism he explains that

Savages believe that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences for the same reason that his pet dog barks at an umbrella blowing in the wind his story goes as it was every time that

The parasol slightly moved the dog growled fiercely embarked he must I think have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner that movement without any a pair cause indicated the presence of some

Strange living agent so in some way modern scientists are reviving a very old theory the anthropologist Stuart Guthrie the pioneer of this field argues that humans over assume the existence of human-like

Intention in the natural world now of course it's impossible to psychoanalyze early humans to confirm this but archaeologists have inferred that our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago would anthropomorphize basically

Everything the archaeologists even myth in an expert on the evolution of the human mind argues that the Late Pleistocene an early Holocene hunter-gatherers ascribed personhood to objects and animals based on

Archaeological evidence such as humans being buried with animals and cave paintings with half-human half-animal creatures which suggests that our ancestors viewed the natural world in social terms

Okay so we've been relying on archeological data and evolutionary anthropology but critical to this theory is that hyperactive agency detection and anthropomorphizing the natural world is hardwired so does neurology corroborate

This well some scientists seem to have located the part of our brain that's responsible for this here I'll be referring to a study by lisanna Harris and Susan Fiske published in the journal social cognition Harrison Fisk set out

To confirm if there's a neurological basis responsible for our propensity to anthropomorphize objects and the natural world in general using an MRI machine they scanned the brains of their Princeton University undergraduates they

Found that two parts of our brain the superior temporal sulcus and the amygdala activate when the test subjects were anthropomorphizing objects while in the machine this is interesting because the superior

Temporal sulcus is responsible for social perception the processing of I gaze where somebody's looking the processing of hand or lip motion as you're talking to somebody the processing of biological motion it's

Responsible for everything our brain needs to interact socially this part of our brain is also responsible for our sense of agency predicting the consequences of actions and as well as our ability to predict and discern in

Tension of other agents so what are the implications of the study our brains on a subconscious level treat nonhumans as social agents and that there must be a neurological basis for hyperactive agency detection now for some counter

Arguments and shortcomings of this theory because there are some dr Marc Anderson a scholar of the cognitive study religion isn't quite convinced while this theory provides a convincing evolutionary explanation of how such a

Bias may have developed it does a poor job at explaining how the perceptual system encompassing this bias actually operates this under specification is not a trivial matter because it makes it difficult to make detailed predictions

About when false positives of agents are supposed to arise in human minds basically it's a plausible origin story but it doesn't provide a mechanism for how it's supposed to work how the jump from predators to gods actually happens

Anderson argues that experiments have actually found the opposite that religiosity predicts agency detection if you are more religious you're more likely to blame supernatural agents for had experiences if you believe in

Paranormal activity you're much more likely to blame a ghost or a demon for that sound behind you then when compared to a skeptic person so here is where I put on my Durkheim hat I'm convinced that religion is primarily a social

Construct something that humans do in groups and create together as an obligation to the community hyper active agency detection does a poor job explaining why some concepts of god or gods and or for millennia from

Generation to generation it can't really explain why humans intentionally anthropomorphize objects instead of subconsciously anthropomorphizing objects such as intentionally carving figurines and statues of their gods

These are cultural practices and I think the social sciences are better equipped to explain these phenomena than neurology Jonathan Landman a cognitive anthropologist at Queen's University Belfast agrees little evidence supports

The claim that the Hat is an important cause of general religious beliefs despite a number of empirical explorations rather the most cogent causal factors in determining whether or not an individual acquires

General religious beliefs appear to involve cultural learning mechanisms so how we are socialized explains our religious beliefs we get our beliefs by the people around us in us politics you're much more likely to be a

Republican or a Democrat if you live in an area surrounded by fellow Republicans and Democrats you're more likely to believe certain supernatural beings if your parents believe them or your community believes them in any case in

The words of my friend and colleague John bulge who is an expert on this pad is clearly important for the story of religion but there is still work to be done to understand the way it interacts with cultural and social dynamics its

Interlaced with culture in a much more complex and interesting way than just being a misfire misfire of false positives when there's a noise behind you hyperactive agency detection might

Provide evidence for a cognitive default for humans belief in supernatural beings but we should be careful to not over commit to this theory because it has some serious shortcomings explaining how this process actually works I've only

Scratched the surface of this topic so if you'd like to read more or check my research I'm putting a ton of articles in the description below as always thanks for watching and subscribing and I'll see you next time


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