Is religion “hard wired” in our brains?


It occurs to me we have a strange interpretation of what the word “natural” means. We tend to think anything natural must inherently be good or desirable. How many consumer products try to play that annoying angle? I also find it fairly telling that behaviors or lifestyles are deemed “unnatural” are also considered undesirable and evil. Of course, just because something is natural certainly doesn’t mean it’s any good. The bubonic plague is entirely a product of nature, but I certainly don’t want to contract the disease.

We should keep this fact in mind when considering the latest study by psychologists at the Bristol University which argues religious and superstitious beliefs are hardwired in our brains. I think if any of you have watched the Derren Brown video exposing how easily human beings acquire strange habits when looking for patterns, I think you may be inclined to believe perhaps there is some truth to the claim.

Of course, the claim that superstition is hardwired in our brain is perhaps the weakest conclusion anyone can draw. The study determined that even completely rational individuals will have superstitious reactions to various stimulus (like refusing to wear the cardigan of a known murderer), but the conclusion that people with superstitious behavior are somehow more fit to function in society is a stretch by any measure.

We know from experimentation on pigeons that superstitious belief derives from the need to find meaningful patterns in nature. Whether or not a pattern exists is of secondary importance; it matters more that we feel the need to explain and conceptualize a world that can often be strange and randomly cruel.

At the end of the day, even if religious or superstitious belief is a natural phenomenon, why would anyone think this is desirable? Does anyone think there is a survival advantage in thinking breaking a mirror will cause bad luck for 7 years, or throwing salt over one’s shoulder wards off evil spirits? Sure it may be completely natural. Cyanide is natural too, but you don’t see me guzzling a gallon of the stuff, do you?

**NOTE** It turns out the Times article was complete bullshit, and totally distorted the findings in order to have a more controversial and “newsworthy” topic. The author of the study wrote a response that I think will help clarify the situation. When are journalists going to stop distorting the truth just so they can get a few more eyeballs reading their shitty stories? It’s embarrassing…

Also, the dude’s book looks kind of interesting. Now if I can only get a few more patrons, maybe I can afford it.

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Comments (2)

  • avatar

    The Big Blue Frog

    Your note reminded me of this cartoon:

    http://bit.ly/JzI6j

    Whenever I read a study like this, I always try to imagine how something like superstition or religion would have helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive. Maybe, in the absence of science, it was beneficial to be able to work out a reason for things being the way they were, simply to reduce the uncertainty of daily life. Some of the earliest superstitions probably had their basis in real dangers, but dangers that early man had no rational explanation for.

    Enter religion. Believing that a god had decreed that pork not be eaten saved people from parasites. Believing that the sun would come up tomorrow, because a god was steering it through the underworld, gave early man the certainty to plan for the next day, month or year.

    In any case, religion and superstition ultimately became ends to their own means, and refused to step aside when science and reason gave us better explanations for how the world works. What was once a hedge against uncertainty became a worship of certainty itself.

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