J. Anderson Thomson is a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. In a recent LA Times opinion post he expounds on the biological reasons we humans created the idea of God in the first place, and what role that belief serves psychologically.
I find these reasons for faith fascinating, and I see how they have been present in my own life.
Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past.
For example, we are born with a powerful need for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance.
Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce “out-group” hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits.
In addition to these adaptations, humans have developed the remarkable ability to think about what goes on in other people’s minds and create and rehearse complex interactions with an unseen other. In our minds we can de-couple cognition from time, place and circumstance. We consider what someone else might do in our place; we project future scenarios; we replay past events. It’s an easy jump to say, conversing with the dead or to conjuring gods and praying to them.
I know (quite acutely, in fact) that I have a great need for attachment and a sense of another authority; I also possess a tendency to be intuitive or over-analytical about what someone else is thinking and feeling. I have certainly assigned motives and reasons to events that have no human agent.
All of these factors only encompass what I know consciously about myself and how faith has played a role in my life in the past. The chemistry of my brain and the more subtle evolutionary reasons for belief–well, those cannot be controlled. I can only use my reasoning and understanding to choose a different reaction when confronted with the concepts of a great “Other” or supernatural events.
“God” and faith are crafted to fulfill some of our needs and natural inclinations. They are presented to us as a catch-all solution to these inborn “problems.” Do you need love and someone to care for you? God will do it! Do you have a tendency to cling to a group and fear the “others?” Religion is perfect for you! Do you get that tingly feeling that someone is in the room with you when you meditate? That’s a god!
This, of course, doesn’t mean gods are real, but it does illustrate that we have a desire to answer questions and fulfill needs that come naturally to us. When we supply imaginary beings as the answer to the human condition, we’re doing ourselves and our descendants a disservice. It’s much more difficult to see the world objectively and accept the fact that we’re on our own, but it’s empowering and spurs on positive change in society. Why take personal responsibility when it’s much more comforting to know someone else is in charge of the rules who wants us to succeed? Because we will be a better, more altruistic society if we take charge of our actions and how they affect others.
We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.