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The Evolution of Belief

Holly Stewart's picture

“The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”[1] Galileo’s trope is characteristic of the mutual hands-off policy between science and religion—until very recently. Evolutionary biologists and cognitive neuroscientists have joined anthropologists and psychologists to make the belief in God the study of scientific inquiry. A recent suggestion exists which states there are three attributes in humans which may result in a belief in God: agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind. [2] These three traits may have had an evolutionary advantage and have been selected for via natural selection. The adaptive advantage of these traits is illuminated by examining human conditions where these traits are absent. Despite the strong evidence that points in favor of this contemporary theory, many questions remain about why these three are so determinate toward religious belief and furthermore to what degree consciousness is involved. The correlation between the evolutionary benefits of these traits and a belief in God demands further inquiry in order to understand how these traits have been advantageous and why these three traits in particular have come together to shape belief.

The theory stands that natural selection favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools. Each of these tools needs to be considered individually in order to examine the ways they have been selected for and then can result in belief. The tendency to presume the presence of an agent may have been selected for due to its usefulness in interactions and rationality. There is an obvious link between agent detection and survival: if you are walking in the forest and you see something in your peripheral vision which you cannot distinguish between being a boulder or a bear, it is advantageous for survival to react as if it were a bear rather than a boulder. A more subtle demonstration of the evolutionary necessity comes from examining how individuals with frontal lobe damage behave. A. Damasio et. al., have performed a number of experiments with patients who had focal bilateral damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a brain region necessary for the normal generation of emotions and, in particular, social emotions. They found these patients to make abnormally utilitarian judgments in response to “compelling moral dilemmas,” and to be averse to highly emotional behaviors.[3] This research suggests that being able to receive and respond toward the presence of an agent is advantageous since it allows us to assess our social environment and rationalize whether an agent will do us harm. It also allows us to be able to engage in understanding about others, including those who confound our logic, one of whom could very well be a supernatural being. Having the ability to detect and comprehend the presence of agents allows for the use of rationality in social interactions and lays the foundation for the possibly of an ultimate or supreme agent.

The second module that primes humans for belief is causal reasoning. Humans have an inherent desire to use a cause-and-effect logic and impose a narrative for their experiences. “‘We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us.’”[4] This logic is reflective of the human mind’s tendency to perceive change. We explain changes in our world by examining causes. The properties of physics reflect a type of rigid causality full of normalized conditions, constants and standards. This causality is centered around human existence. The explanations for change which have been created by humans reflect the way they perceive and experience reality. There is a condition called motion blindness, where individuals are unable to see objects moving through space.[5] Effectively, seeing change is crucial for animalistic survival: it is necessary for both predators and prey to detect motion and respond to it rapidly. Creating a narrative of change over time by examining cause and effect is a technique to rationalize all human experiences, regardless of how irrational it may be. A belief in God is helpful to rationalize unexpected events that have ambiguous causes. A woman who survives cancer with minimal odds is likely to believe that she has been saved for some purpose rather than assume it was just a lucky roll of the dice. Causality is inextricably linked to inherent human purpose. Humans rely greatly on having the ability to create a causal narrative for everything in order to understand purpose and for this reason it may be important to draw upon the resources necessary to do so, including a belief in a divine causer.

The third cognitive tool is one of social intuition called theory of mind. The theory of mind hinges on how we communicate with one another and has two parts: the first component has to do with understanding that others have separate minds with unique beliefs, desires and mental states; the second component is being able to form operational hypotheses as to what those beliefs, desires, mental states and intentions are.[6] The theory of mind ties into the first cognitive tool of agent detection, but is unique in its own right since it focuses on social interactions and the inferences that can be drawn from them. Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen has been working with autistic individuals to understand how they have a warped theory of mind: “Many autistic individuals do not understand that other people have their own plans, thoughts and points of view. Furthermore, it appears that they have difficulty understanding other people’s beliefs, attitudes and emotions.”[7] Autistic individuals serve as an example for the importance of a theory of mind. This cognitive ability allows us to interact with individuals in a way that can affect many different facets from social interactions to selecting a mate. By being able to posit and conceive of minds and ideas other than our own and separate from the material body, we are able to construct the possibility that there may be a supreme mind which is discrete from us. Historically, having a theory of mind has allowed humans to pursue relationships with other individuals in order to survive in a harsh environment and this ability may have mutated itself into allowing humans to believe there is a mind outside of what they can experience.

By examining individuals who lack the ability for agent detection, causal inference and lack the ability to hold a theory of mind, we can understand how these traits may be evolutionarily advantageous. It is also obvious that these traits themselves do not necessitate a belief in divine being, nor do they seem to be able to necessitate this belief individually. For these reasons, belief should be viewed as a possible byproduct of these naturally selected for adaptations and not as a definite end in and of itself. Scott Atran, a famous anthropologist who is a contemporary considering this situation has similar feels about the development of religion: “Religion is a byproduct of many different evolutionary functions that organized our brains for day-to-day activity.”[8] Although many people do believe in God, this belief is not indicative of all humans or a necessary part of all human experience. Ninety-two percent of all Americans do believe in a “personal God”—a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from “distant” to “benevolent.”[9] It is crucial to further notice that holding a belief in God does not define the type of God you believe in. This theory seems to point strongly toward a monotheistic belief system, but a large number of humans believe there are many gods. These three traits must be broad enough to encompass all religions and divergent belief systems, thus we can only conclude that these three characteristics may encourage belief, and the specifics of a belief system are filled in by context. A final significant complication of this theory is the applicability solely to humans. Frogs for example have a similar nervous system to humans yet seem to lack these characteristics we associate with belief. There is a larger issue that encompasses the role which consciousness plays in all of this. This theory allows us to strictly engage in dialogue centered around humans, but it would be interesting to explore if these adaptations caused different behavioral processes in another model organism. It is pertinent to further challenge this theory to understand why it is these three aspects specifically which may cause belief, since it is possible there may be other equally good alternate interpretations of selected for traits that direct toward belief.

Many questions remain about how to understand belief in its many forms. This phenomenon illustrates the fact that belief is only a possible outcome of these three traits being selected for, but in no way is it an inevitable one. Belief itself must be viewed as a byproduct of this selection process and not as the driving force, since not only are there many ways belief can manifest itself, but many people who seem to display these three characteristics may not be inclined to hold any sort of pseudo or organized religious belief. These three factors give rise to the possibility of such belief and we can pursue these ideas as base point for the discussion of belief. This is a discussion where religion, science and philosophy merge together to attempt to understand how humans behave. In conceiving of belief and its connection to human behavior and evolution we must attempt to understand many contextual and historical factors and push ourselves to ‘get it less wrong.’[10]



[1] Galilei Galileo, “The Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, ed. & trans. S. Drake (New York: Doubleday, 1957) 186.

[2] Robin Marantz Henig, “Darwin’s God.” The New York Times Magazine. 4 March 2007: 41.

[3] “Damage to the Prefrontal Cortex Increases Utilitarian Moral Judgments.” <> An article to be published in Nature in 2007

[4] Robin Marantz Henig, “Darwin’s God.” The New York Times Magazine. 4 March 2007: 41.

[5] “The Strange Symptoms of Blindness to Motion.” <> A personal reflection on motion blindness

[6] “Theory of Mind.” <> An introduction to term and associated theories

[7] Stephen M. Edelson “Theory of Mind.” <> A examination of work that has been done to examine autism and its influence on theory of mind

[8] A. Chris Gajilan, “Are Humans Hard-Wired for Faith?” <> An article on the CNN website

[9] “American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depths and Complexity of Religion in the US.” <> “Most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted,” by Baylor University, 2006


[10] Paul Grobstein. </bb/neuro/neuro07/> A quote taken from the Neurobiology and Behavior 202 Homepage on Serendip


Anonymous's picture

A Video Too

Here is a video which goes over some of the same information:

I found this explanation helpful. The New York Times ran an article about this some years back, but the author seemed to confuse Agent Detection with Causal Reasoning. The description here helped greatly.

All the Best,

Anonymous's picture

How about another theory

One may postulate that the creation of a belief in unseen agents is a tool of manipulation and conquest. Those who are led to deeply believe in the agency of the unseen and unverifiable can be controlled and manipulated by rationals. It is simply a psychological technique to exploit your enemies.