People aren't hard-wired for belief

Instead, religious claims take advantage of some interesting evolutionary quirks in our development.

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When I was Christian, it astounded me to consider how many cultures, past and present, centered around religious belief. Almost every human society has, throughout recorded history, worshiped something. I didn’t know yet that religious beliefs — and the stories that inform and shape and flow from those beliefs — may have been instrumental in shaping humanity. But I did think that the pervasiveness of religious beliefs meant that humans were somehow hardwired for belief. Now, I realize I had it bass-ackwards. In reality, religious claims hijack the evolution of human minds, warping and taking advantage of how our brains develop. Today, let me show you what I mean.

A pervasive belief

Many Christians seem to love the idea of humans being hardwired for belief. By this phrase, they mean that their god placed in each human’s heart a desire, a yearning even, to worship something supernatural.

Unfortunately, their god didn’t finish the job.

People might be hardwired to believe in gods, goes the belief, but not in any specific gods. Thus, Christians must help their god out by persuading everybody that this desire actually should connect to this one particular god, not whatever those people worshiped instead.

Way back in the early 00s, I began to see the phrase “hardwired for belief” bandied about. Even big-name atheists have used it. I found a 2007 blog post from Al Mohler, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) flagship seminary, talking about this belief. Mostly, he expressed outrage over the idea that a purely natural evolutionary process could have resulted in the ability and desire to hold any supernatural belief.

How it worked

Al Mohler fully agreed that people had such a desire and ability, but he insisted that his god was the one responsible for it, not ickie ole evolution. As he said:

Human beings are indeed “hardwired” to believe in God, but this is because we are created in God’s image, not because of the adaptive behaviors and capacities of our ancestors. Here again we face the inevitable clash of worldviews. There is no way to reconcile these two explanations of why so many humans believe in God.

At the same time, it is fascinating to observe naturalistic scientists attempting to explain belief in the supernatural.

Al Mohler

Hm, I’m calling for a quick [citation needed] here. Somehow, I doubt Al Mohler has felt actual fascination since his very earliest childhood. Here, he utilizes the term only as a way to sneer at his culture-war enemies.

If he wanted real fascination, he could contemplate why so many big-name gods existed, flared to dominance, then faded to utter irrelevance. This has happened many times — and it happened well before his god wandered aimlessly onto the supernatural scene. No gods, including his, have ever signed their name to this cycle.

So if the Christian god were responsible, and that’s a honkin’ big “if,” it’s weird that it happened so many times before Judaism and Christianity came along. Oh, and some of those way more popular and powerful gods even existed in Yahweh’s original pantheon!

Still, Mohler expresses succinctly the belief that I, and many other Christians, took and still take for utter granted: People believe so readily in gods, and always have, because something supernatural caused us to ache for that connection.

(Implied: Gee, don’t you wonder what caused it…? Could it be… JESUS?)

Why this belief is wrong

However, when I look at atheists’ handling of this belief and compare it to Christians’ assertions, I see significant differences.

As a start, when atheists talk about humans being hardwired for belief, they’re talking about evolutionary processes. When Christians talk about it, they mean only one thing: that their god plunked this wiring into human beings for the specific purpose of drawing them closer to him.

Moreover, atheists make no assertions about the objective reality of the religious experiences inspired by this belief. Generally, they flat dismiss the idea that hardwiring means that any real gods are doing anything to or for or around people. Christians, of course, are happy to push exactly that assertion.

In discussing this different handling of the phrase, the site U.S. Catholic wrote:

[T]here is something deeply unsettling about hearing our deepest beliefs and sensations dismissed as mere neural blips. . . . After all, if modern science indicates that spiritual sensations are, in James’ words, “ ‘nothing but’ expressions of our organic disposition,” then God is nothing more than a figment of the human imagination.

U.S. Catholic

And yes, I’m sure that it is indeed deeply unsettling. Nobody likes to think that they hold a belief about reality that simply isn’t objectively true. But that is where the data leads us.

Personally, I’d rather discard or modify a false belief than cling to a false one and insist it’s true when all the evidence says otherwise.

The building blocks of religion, commandeered

Rather than say that humans are hardwired for belief, I propose something slightly different.

Not long ago, I wrote about the way that stories made our earliest ancestors fully human. Those ancestors could only create and share stories, however, because our evolutionary development granted us certain specific and utterly key abilities.

Many ingredients go into our storytelling capability:

  • Visualizing that-what-ain’t-real
  • Finding patterns in absolutely everything
  • Wanting explanations for what happens — even if we must draw upon that-what-ain’t-real to get them

And then we get into humans’ amazing ability to assign intentful purpose and design to literally everything. It’s called promiscuous teleology, and all children go through a stage where they apply it to everything they encounter. They decide that everything has a purpose — and that purpose always relates to the needs and desires of humans.

These building blocks have evolved over countless generations. They provide us with the tools we need to construct fanciful, inspiring, downright resonant stories. Those stories drew us together and helped us work cooperatively on projects of all sizes. They may even have helped us adapt to living in huge cities, back at the very dawn of the agricultural revolution.

None of those building blocks, none of those brain parts and functions, specifically exist to create and believe in religion. Religion almost certainly did not even exist for most of the evolution of these bits and bobs.

All that said, religious claims still take ruthless advantage of every last one of these building blocks.

Building belief from reality > shoehorning and mangling reality to fit belief

So by my reckoning, we’re going at it bass-ackwards (as folks used to say in my old neck of the woods) when we talk about humans being supposedly hardwired for religious belief. We might as well say humans are hardwired to play the oboe, or to do Zumba workouts. I mean, we can. Many of us do. However, none of these things are the reason why that wiring exists in the first place.

As expansive as religious beliefs are, as wide-ranging, and as seemingly pervasive, they are not the end-run product of our brains’ evolution. Just as oboe-playing and Zumba workouts take advantage of our evolution, religion does as well, is all.

The different parts of our evolutionary development lend themselves very well to religious belief. But we have no more evolved to be religious than we have to play the oboe or do Zumba.

Some people will take to religion, oboes, or Zumba better than others, and they will like it and pursue it for a lifetime. Others will find little in those specific areas that interest them, and they’ll turn those building blocks to other purposes.

The human situation > false beliefs

As people move away from organized religion, as indeed we are in much of the world, we still have those bits-and-bobs. Those elements still do exactly what they evolved to do. We can turn them to whatever end we wish. We need not fear we’re missing out on anything.

It is wrong to assume that humans must believe in imaginary beings to be fully human. In turn, it is even more wrong to think that societies lacking these beliefs are lacking something intrinsically human. The beautiful thing about that building blocks is their versatility. We can direct those impulses toward that which is real. We can create stories, narratives, and groups that are based, ultimately, in reality rather than magical thinking.

What I wish religious leaders would quit doing is claiming that just because religions have, for many thousands of years, taken such advantage of human minds’ development, that religiosity is part of some god’s divine plan.

I can see why today’s Christians in particular like this assertion. It makes their chances of regaining their lost cultural dominance look a little better than a frozen bat’s chances in Hell. But it’s no more true than their claims of any particular god deliberately setting a desire to worship gods into people’s hearts, yet somehow not making himself clear about exactly which god everyone should be following.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...