(From the Daily Telegraph, London, by Richard Alleyne, 7 September 2009)

Humans may have evolved to believe in god and superstitions because it helps them to co-ordinate group action better, scientists claimed.
Religion became a survival instinct, according to researchers who studied the way brains develop from childhood and behave during spiritual experiences.

Groups of humans with religious tendencies benefitted from their beliefs, perhaps because they co-operated and had a greater chance of survival.
They thrived compared to their atheist relatives and, after many years, the instinct was passed on in their genes.

The findings challenge campaigners against organised religion, such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. He has argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood “indoctrination.”

Prof. Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol University, has suggested that religion is similar to children’s belief in imaginary friends. He said: “Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works. As they grow up, they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches but the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion.”

Prof. Hood, who will present his findings at the British Association’s annual meeting this week, sees organised religion as just one of many supernatural beliefs. In one study, he found that even atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer, because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in their genes. “This shows how superstition is hard-wired into our brains”, he said.

Tags: imaginary friend, religion, supernatural, superstition, survival instinct

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Replies to This Discussion

This study further proves that gods and spirits are constructs of the human mind. I don't understand why the thought that belief in such non-existent entities could have provided some benefit to humans in the past should be troubling to atheists.
That propensity to irrationally and passionately follow the dictates of some revered figure applies to politics as well as religion... and I think the boundaries are at the very least blurred.

Let's see - a regional group of humans believes that their dictatorial leader is divinely inspired. First, they are taught to love him (usually a male, with or without a mate) and are soon reinforced in their belief with reasons to also fear him. Obedience supposedly results in protection and belonging, and disobedience results in everything from ostracism to torture, to incarceration to genocide.

I could be speaking of the God of Abraham... or Kim Jung Il.
Prof. Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol University, has suggested that religion is similar to children’s belief in imaginary friends. He said: “Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works. As they grow up, they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches but the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion.”

How can this be seen as anything but insulting to those that cling to religion?

I am missing how such research would be funded by those attempting to legitimize religious belief. The conclusion is that believers are 'children with imaginary friends'. If I were paying for a compliment, I'd want something a little more flattering.
I am missing how such research would be funded by those attempting to legitimize religious belief.

True, but that's not really the point. The problem is he concludes that religion is a beneficial trait we inherit from our genes.
The problem is he concludes that religion is a beneficial trait we inherit from our genes.

Was beneficial, perhaps? I don't read that he's calling a specific religion a beneficial trait- not saying that you read that either, Jaume- rather the instinct to fill in the gaps in knowledge with something- albeit fantastical. If religion is simply a trait inherited genetically, and that remains to be proven conclusively, then all religious dogma is effectively reduced to purely human attempts to understand the natural world they inhabit. This indicates that there is nothing at all divine or supernatural at the heart of religiosity. It was just a phase in our cultural evolution.
Yep, I should have written 'religious instinct'. I strongly doubt it has anything to do with genes, at least not directly (genes > brain > mind > religion), but of course I have no firm evidence to support my view, besides comparisons like the one I used above (about primate sex education).

It was just a phase in our cultural evolution.

Yep, cultural evolution. That's how I see it too.
I think religion is just one of many examples of the human brain's innate drive to make sense of its environment. Religion is socially cohesive if the whole community agrees on the explanation. It is socially divisive if the shared explanations are not held by others.

The fact that such explanations are not universal is a strong indicator that the explanations are the product of creative minds. They have be actively taught to others. Even the assumptions behind them have to be taught.

This works best before the age of reason because that is when the brain is best primed to accept what it is told without question. Children who do not do what they are told without question will not survive as well as those who do. OTOH adults who do not think for themselves with regard to new situations will also not survive as well as those who do.

The problem is that indoctrinated beliefs are not seen by the adult as "new situations". Education in critical thinking, science and the scientific method is the most potent force for change here.

The reason why belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Rabbit, fairies, goblins and trolls is relinquised once children reach the age of reason is that these beliefs are not socially reinforced by the adult community beyond this age. In fact, they are strongly discouraged beyond a certain age.

The reason why religious beliefs continue is that there are strong community supports for their continuation including a large group of people who earn their living from ensuring that people continue to believe in these things.

Children are encouraged to investigate and examine their beliefs about Santa but are not only discouraged but often brutally punished or even killed for doing the same thing with socially supported beliefs. Questioning these undermines part of the cohesive social structure of primitive uneducated groups and threatens the self-esteem of the believing, practising and economically faith-dependent adults.
Education changes that.

Amen!
Education is a two-edged (s)word: just think about religious education. The frontier with indoctrination is a thin one (actually I think there's a lot of overlapping here).
Jaume,

I think you missed the specifics of what kind of education is helpful here. Education based on the fact regurgitation model will not do.

Fact regurgitation methods are necessary tools in the elementary stages of education, especially when acquiring the basic skills of speaking, reading, writing and survival knowledge of the world. Secondary education should begin to teach children to check facts. Senior Secondary (Austro/European) and College (USA) education should concentrate on honing these skills. Professional academic level education should insist on the demonstration of these skills.

Unfortunately USA-style education thrives on the fact regurgitation model until very late in the educational process. It is easier to grade this kind of material.

Assessment of a student's ability to critically examine a concept, idea or hypothesis does not lend itself to multiple choice type examination. Papers of this nature are time-consuming to read and grade.

Likewise students who do independent research require a lot more input and effort on the part of the student's research adviser then projects chosen by the academic supervisor in line with their own current research. Using students as research fodder and unpaid assistants does more to further the academic's career than it does to teach the students how to construct testable projects and conduct high level research of their own.

The basic problem with US-style education is that it is viewed as a commodity rather than a basic right for all. It exists in a world where academics must compete against each other to survive economically. Survival is dependent on the quantity, not the quality, of papers published which promotes the abuse of students who are also caught in the trap. Survival is also dependent on the ability to persuade funding bodies of the importance of one's research. Where funding is provided by bodies with vested interests in the things studied and the economic or political outcomes the range of things studied and the way in which they are studied are necessarily curtailed. Unfortunately for the US, almost all funding comes from sources with such vested interests.
I think you missed the specifics ...

Unfortunately, when I replied to Nate, his post was still on top of page 3, and I think I checked the bottom of the wrong page to identify whom he replied to. Sorry for the confusion, and for the time you spent writing this elaborate reply.

I agree with you 200% btw.
:-) Sounds like the sort of thing I do, too. It can be annoying being so un-godlike, can't it?

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