[Paleopsych] Guardian: (Bouchard) Why do we believe in God?
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Why do we believe in God?
Faith in a higher being is as old as humanity itself. But what sparked
the Divine Idea? Did our earliest ancestors gain some evolutionary
advantage through their shared religious feelings? In these extracts
from his latest book, Robert Winston ponders the biggest question of
Thursday October 13, 2005
The Dolley Pond Church of God With Signs Following was founded in
Tennessee in 1909 by one George Went Hensley. This former bootlegger
took to the pulpit in a rural Pentecostalist community in Grasshopper
Valley. One Sabbath, while he was preaching a fiery sermon, some of
the congregation dumped a large box of rattlesnakes into the pulpit
(history does not record whether they were angry or just bored).
Without missing a beat, in mid-sentence, Hensley bent down, picked up
a 3ft-long specimen of this most venomous of snakes, and held it
wriggling high above his head. Unharmed, he exhorted his congregation
to follow suit, quoting the words of Christ: "And these signs will
follow those who believe ... in my Name ... they will take up
News of Hensley's sermon spread through Grasshopper Valley; others
joined him in handling snakes, and the practice caught on. There have
since been around 120 deaths from snakebite in these churches, but
most of the congregants tend to refuse medical help if they are
bitten, preferring to believe that divine intervention will be more
efficacious. Sadly, Hensley himself perished from a snakebite in 1955,
and shortly afterwards the US government wisely acted to prevent the
practice - although it is still legal in parts of the States.
Today, snake-handling continues mostly in small communities in rural
areas of Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as pockets in other southern
states. Participants feel that "the spirit of God" comes upon them as
they open the boxes containing the snakes. Often lifting three or four
of them up simultaneously in one hand, holding them high and allowing
the creatures to wind around their arms and bodies, they praise God
To many of us, religious or not, this type of activity seems little
short of outright lunacy. And it's certainly the case that religion
and mental ill-health have long been linked. The disturbed individual
who believes himself to be Christ, or to receive messages from God, is
something of a cliche in our society. Ever since Sigmund Freud, many
people have associated religiosity with neurosis and mental illness.
Many years ago, a team of researchers at the department of
anthropology at the University of Minnesota decided to put this
association to the test. They studied certain fringe religious groups,
such as fundamentalist Baptists, Pentecostalists and the
snake-handlers of West Virginia, to see if they showed the particular
type of psychopathology associated with mental illness. Members of
mainstream Protestant churches from a similar social and financial
background provided a good control group for comparison. Some of the
wilder fundamentalists prayed with what can only be described as great
and transcendental ecstasy, but there was no obvious sign of any
particular psychopathology among most of the people studied. After
further analysis, however, there appeared a tendency to what can only
be described as mental instability in one particular group. The study
was blinded, so that most of the research team involved with
questionnaires did not have access to the final data. When they were
asked which group they thought would show the most disturbed
psychopathology, the whole team identified the snake-handlers. But
when the data were revealed, the reverse was true: there was more
mental illness among the conventional Protestant churchgoers - the
"extrinsically" religious - than among the fervently committed.
A Harvard psychologist named Gordon Allport did some key research in
the 1950s on various kinds of human prejudice and came up with a
definition of religiosity that is still in use today. He suggested
that there were two types of religious commitment - extrinsic and
intrinsic. Extrinsic religiosity he defined as religious
self-centredness. Such a person goes to church or synagogue as a means
to an end - for what they can get out of it. They might go to church
to be seen, because it is the social norm in their society, conferring
respectability or social advancement. Going to church (or synagogue)
becomes a social convention.
Allport thought that intrinsic religiosity was different. He
identified a group of people who were intrinsically religious, seeing
their religion as an end in itself. They tended to be more deeply
committed; religion became the organising principle of their lives, a
central and personal experience. In support of his research, Allport
found that prejudice was more common in those individuals who scored
highly for extrinsic religion.
The evidence generally is that intrinsic religiosity seems to be
associated with lower levels of anxiety and stress, freedom from
guilt, better adjustment in society and less depression. On the other
hand, extrinsic religious feelings - where religion is used as a way
to belong to and prosper within a group - seem to be associated with
increased tendencies to guilt, worry and anxiety.
It is possible that strong levels of belief in God, gods, spirits or
the supernatural might have given our ancestors considerable comforts
and advantages. Many anthropologists and social theorists do indeed
take the view that religion emerged out of a sense of uncertainty and
bewilderment - explaining misfortune or illness, for example, as the
consequences of an angry God, or reassuring us that we live on after
death. Rituals would have given us a comforting, albeit illusory,
sense that we can control what is in fact ultimately beyond our
control - the weather, illness, attacks by predators or other human
However, it is equally plausible that the Divine Idea would have been
of little use in our prehistoric rough-and-tumble existence. Life on
the savannah may have been in the open air, but it was no picnic.
Early humans would have been constantly on the lookout for predators
to be avoided, such as wolves and sabre-tooth tigers; hunting or
scavenging would be a continual necessity to ensure sufficient food;
and the men were probably constantly fighting among each other to
ensure that they could have sex with the best-looking girl (or boy) or
choose the most tender piece of meat from the carcass. Why would it be
necessary, in the daily scramble to stay alive, to make time for such
an indulgent pursuit as religion?
Richard Dawkins, our best-known Darwinist and a ferocious critic of
organised religion, notes that religion seems to be, on the face of
it, a cost rather than a benefit: "Religious behaviour in bipedal apes
occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A
medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building.
Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolised medieval and
Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died,
often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a
scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for
their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping,
undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial
silence for the sake of religion."
It seems at first glance as if Dawkins is arguing that religion is an
evolutionary disaster area. Religious belief, it seems, would be
unlikely, on its own merits, to have slipped through the net of
natural selection. But maybe that interpretation of what Dawkins is
saying neglects some of the further benefits that religion might well
offer in the human quest for survival and security.
In his book Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson, professor of
biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in New York state,
says that religiosity emerged as a "useful" genetic trait because it
had the effect of making social groups more unified. The communal
nature of religion certainly would have given groups of
hunter-gatherers a stronger sense of togetherness. This produced a
leaner, meaner survival machine, a group that was more likely to be
able to defend a waterhole, or kill more antelope, or capture their
opponents' daughters. The better the religion was at producing an
organised and disciplined group, the more effective they would have
been at staying alive, and hence at passing their genes on to the next
generation. This is what we mean by "natural selection": adaptations
which help survival and reproduction get passed down through the
genes. Taking into account the additional suggestion, from various
studies of twins, that we may have an inherited disposition towards
religious belief, is there any evidence that the Divine Idea might be
carried in our genes?
While nobody has identified any gene for religion, there are certainly
some candidate genes that may influence human personality and confer a
tendency to religious feelings. Some of the genes likely to be
involved are those which control levels of different chemicals called
neurotransmitters in the brain. Dopamine is one neurotransmitter which
we know plays a powerful role in our feelings of well-being; it may
also be involved in the sense of peace that humans feel during some
spiritual experiences. One particular gene involved in dopamine action
- incidentally, by no means the only one that has been studied in this
way - is the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4). In some people, because
of slight changes in spelling of the DNA sequences (a so-called
polymorphism) making up this gene, the gene may be more biologically
active, and this could be partly responsible for a religious bent.
And it is easy to suggest a mechanism by which religious beliefs could
help us to pass on our genes. Greater cohesion and stricter moral
codes would tend to produce more cooperation, and more cooperation
means that hunting and gathering are likely to bring in more food. In
turn, full bellies mean greater strength and alertness, greater
immunity against infection, and offspring who develop and become
independent more swiftly. Members of the group would also be more
likely to take care of each other, especially those who are sick or
injured. Therefore - in the long run - a shared religion appears to be
evolutionarily advantageous, and natural selection might favour those
groups with stronger religious beliefs.
But this is not the whole story. Although religion might be useful in
developing a solid moral framework - and enforcing it - we can quite
easily develop moral intuitions without relying on religion.
Psychologist Eliot Turiel observed that even three- and four-year-olds
could distinguish between moral rules (for example, not hitting
someone) and conventional rules (such as not talking when the teacher
is talking). Furthermore, they could understand that a moral breach,
such as hitting someone, was wrong whether you had been told not to do
it or not, whereas a conventional breach, such as talking in class,
was wrong only if it had been expressly forbidden. They were also
clearly able to distinguish between prudential rules (such as not
leaving your notebook next to the fireplace) and moral rules.
This would suggest that there is a sort of "morality module" in the
brain that is activated at an early age. Evidence from neuroscience
would back this up, to a degree. In my last book, The Human Mind, I
noted that certain brain areas become activated when we engage in
cooperation with others, and that these areas are associated with
feelings of pleasure and reward. It also seems that certain areas of
the brain are brought into action in situations where we feel empathy
So religion does not seem to be produced by a specific part of our
psychological make-up. Is it more likely, then, that religious ideas
are something of an accidental by-product created by other parts of
our basic blueprint, by processes deep in the unconscious mind that
evolved to help us survive?
What identical twins teach us about religion
In the United States during the 50s and 60s,it was considered best to
separate at birth twins who were to be adopted. This led to a number
of these children being brought up by families who did not even know
that their adopted baby had a twin; and sadly, the children themselves
were brought up intotal ignorance of their "lost" twin.
Identical twins, of course, are formed in the uterus by the embryo
splitting; so identical twins have exactly the same DNA.
Non-identical twins -growing from two separate eggs fertilised by
different sperm - do not have identical genes, but will just share
many general aspects of their genetic inheritance, as do any other
brothers or sisters in one family unit.
Thomas Bouchard, professor of psychology at the University of
Minnesota, recognized that these twins, if compared with each other as
they grew up, would provide an important way of measuring genetic and
His groundbreaking work in the 1980s and 90s gave rise to some
extraordinary insights into which aspects of the human condition are
more likely to be due to nature, and which to nurture.
In one study, Bouchard concentrated on72 sets of twins who had reached
adulthood. He first established which of the twins (35 sets in all)
were genuinely identical by genetic testing.
These were then invited to complete personality tests.
Such questionnaires, which are widely used by psychologists, pose
questions in the form of statements, to which the respondents have to
rate their level of agreement on a scale of one to eight. The
following is a small sample of the many statements relating to
· I enjoy reading about my religion.
· My religion is important to me because it answers many questions
about the meaning of life.
· It is important to me to spend time in prayer and thought.
· It doesn't matter to me what I believe as long as I am good.
· I pray mainly to gain relief and protection.
· I go to my (church, synagogue, temple) to spend time with my
· Although I am religious, I don't let it affect my daily life.
When Bouchard and his team compared the answers to these and other
personality questions, they found strong statistical evidence that
identical and non-identical twins tended to answer differently. If one
identical twin showed evidence of religious thinking or behaviour, it
was much more likely that his or her twin would answer similarly.
Non-identical twins, as might be expected (they are, after all,
related), showed some similarities of thinking, but not nearly to the
same degree. Crucially, the degree of religiosity was not strongly
related to the environment in which the twin was brought up. Even if
one identical twin had been brought up in an atheist family and the
other in a religious Catholic household, they would still tend to show
the same kind of religious feelings, or lack of them.
Work by several other scientists has inclined to confirm Bouchard's
findings. One study, conducted by an international team at the
Institute of Psychiatry in London under Dr Hans Eysenck, looked at
information from twins living in the UK and Australia.
The researchers found that attitudes to Sabbath observance, divine
law, church authority and the truth of the Bible showed greater
congruity in identical rather than non-identical twins - again
supporting the idea of a genetic influence.
Bouchard has consistently found in many of his studies that intrinsic
religiosity -which seems to incorporate a notion of spirituality - is
much more likely to be inherited. Extrinsic religiosity tends to be a
product of a person's environment and direct parental influence.
Bouchard also found that tendencies towards fundamentalism were also
rather more likely to be inherited.
It is of some interest, too, that, in the populations that Bouchard
and his colleagues have studied, women tend to have inherited rather
more religious attitudes than men.
· The Story of God by Robert Winston is published by Transworld at
£18.99. Winston's new series of the same name will be broadcast on BBC
TV, starting in December.
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