[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
    them all
    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
    and forgiveness.

    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?

    Shared beliefs

    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
    environmental influences.

    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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