Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Why We Believe in God? Part 2

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Recent discoveries in cognitive psychology provide some provocative hints that might explain the fact that religions typically invoke superhuman, invisible agents, and may explain why religions that have come to predominate often involve belief in a superhuman god.  We can only scratch the surface of this evidence today, but let’s scratch, anyway.

What have we learned that might helped to explain the pervasiveness of belief in superhuman, invisible agents?

As we saw earlier, our native Agency Detection Device can, in the presence of the right sorts of stimuli, generate beliefs about active agents, even when we cannot see them. Such psychological processes often generate beliefs in invisible agents which are then articulated culturally in terms of pre-existing constructs: ghosts, gods, and ancestors.

In addition, cognitive psychology has identified native tendencies that dispose us to come up with God concepts, and also to sustain and spread those concepts once we do. For example, we appear to have developmental bias toward attributing supernatural properties to agents.

That’s a strange notion, so allow us to illustrate.

Young children, for example, are inclined to attribute super-knowing, super-perceiving, and even immortal properties to other, fully natural beings.  And from childhood, people are sensitive to evidence of purposefulness in the environment and concerning objects in that environment.  In fact, there may be a tendency to attribute design to such things even when evidence is thin—in a way that is similar to the hyperactive agency detection device. This tendency is sometimes called “promiscuous teleology” or, used in the context of inference to supernatural agents, “intuitive theism.” For example, when asked “Why did the first bird ever exist?” psychologist Deborah Kelemen found that young children give answers like “to make nice music” or “because it makes the world look nice.”  “Why did the first monkey exist?” – well, “so we had somebody to climb trees” or “so there can be an animal in the jungle.”

In a recent article in Science, psychologist Paul Bloom argues that such dispositions explain in part why creationism is so attractive and non-purposive evolution so hard to accept.  Our native disposition to see design and purpose even in the inanimate world makes the notion of  intentional creation cognitively attractive.

As mental tools encourage us to find design in the environment, the notion of a Creator or other intentional beings shaping the world receives tremendous intuitive support from various types of innate content and cognitive processing.  In this light, it is not surprising that God concepts are so widespread.?        

However, noting the presence of these dispositions does not explain their origins—how did our minds become disposed in this way? Some think that these dispositions can be explained in terms of evolutionary pressures that were present in the ancestral past (though explanations that posit these dispositions are biological and are the result of genetic shaping in ancient environments are still debated). Of those who posit such explanations, some think that these dispositions are adaptations that conferred fitness advantages on those who had them.  Others think that they serve (or served) no adaptive purpose, but are mere evolutionary byproducts of other cognitive traits that do.

But these theories, along with the empirical work we’ve mentioned and a wide range we haven’t discussed, suggest that religion is a natural product of the mental tools of a properly functioning human mind.  Indeed, many theists would say just the same thing.

But doesn’t a naturalistic, scientific account show that religion is just a trick that our minds play on us?  Some scientific and philosophical colleagues have answered with a resounding “yes!” Michael Persinger, Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience at Laurentian University argues that this work shows us that “God is an artifact of the brain.”  Arch-atheist Richard Dawkins concludes that “The irrationality of religion is a by-product of the built in irrationality mechanism in the brain.”  Dean Hamer, author of The God Gene, argues as follows:

If belief in God is produced by a genetically inherited trait, if the human species is “hardwired” to believe in a spirit world, this could suggest that God doesn’t exist as something “out there,” beyond and independent of us, but rather as the product of an inherited perception, the manifestation of an evolutionary adaptation that exists exclusively within the human brain.  If true, this would imply that there is no actual spiritual reality, no God or gods, no soul, or afterlife. Consequently, humankind can no longer be viewed as a product of God but rather God must be viewed as a product of human cognition.

Even less subtle is Jesse Bering who has provocatively asserted, “We’ve got God by the throat and I’m not going to stop until one of us is dead.” For Bering, the deliverances of the psychology of religion are “not going to remain in the privileged chapels of scientists and other scholars. It is going to dry up even the most verdant suburban landscapes, and leave spiritual leaders with their tongues out, dying for a drop of faith.”

Are these claims right?  Has science shown belief in God to be a delusion? No.  These claims are assertions but not arguments.  If one inferred an argument, it looks as if those drawing this radical conclusion are arguing as follows:

  1. The development of the human mind through natural history has provided those minds with a number of special properties.
  2. When considering the natural and social world, these properties encourage humans to believe in gods.
  3. Therefore, the evolutionary development of human minds has produced belief in gods (i.e., God is a product or an “accident” of evolution.)
  4. Therefore, belief in gods is false.

Of course equating the products of evolution with accidents already assumes the illusory nature of design or purpose that is supposed to be a conclusion.  But even setting this aside,  the argument itself commits a well known logical fallacy called the “genetic fallacy.”  Genetically fallacious reasoning aims to argue for the truth or falsity of a belief simply from considerations of the origin of belief.  But, of course, perfectly true beliefs can emerge even from crazy sources.  One might think there are 449 people in the library because my watch reads 4:49.  Can we conclude that this belief is false as a result of my strange reasoning?  Of course not.  It may be true, despite the strange origin. 

Still, we can modify the above argument in such a way that it gives does not commit the fallacy but still seems to raise trouble for religious belief, as follows:

  1. The development of the human mind through natural history has provided those minds with a number of special properties.
  2. When considering the natural and social world, these properties encourage humans to believe in gods.
  3. Therefore, the evolutionary development of human minds has produced belief in gods (i.e., God is a product or an “accident” of evolution.)
  4. (5) Therefore, belief in gods is unwarranted.

Just as my belief that there are 449 people in the library on the basis of reading my watch would be unwarranted, perhaps believing in the existence of God based on the workings of the identified mental tools would be unwarranted.

But would it be?  Let’s look at the argument again, taking out the underlined word “gods” and replacing it with any of the following: human minds, rocks, rainbows, the past, that science can discover the truth, etc.  Surely anyone positing an evolutionary account of shared cognitive dispositions would accept that each of the first three sentences including the replacement words is true.  But it is equally apparent that the conclusion of the argument is, in each case, false.  Human minds naturally form beliefs in those things and in doing so, we think, they tend to get things right – and we are warranted in believing so.  So why not conclude that we get things right and we have warrant to this belief when it comes to belief in God?  What makes this case different?  One could say: “Well, because religious belief is false.”  But that is not much of an argument—it just assumes what the critic was trying to prove. 

Perhaps the problem raised by these accounts is something different altogether.  We might put the worry this way.  In the case of our natural disposition to believe in rocks or human minds, the beliefs we form are caused by rocks and human minds acting directly on our minds (through our senses, for example).  But in the case of religious belief, belief in God arises from our “agency detector” firing off in the presence of the wind and the waves.  That makes these religious beliefs very different.  Rock beliefs are caused by rocks, while God beliefs are caused by . . . the wind.  So, one might say, we would believe in God, even if there were no God there.  And that is a problem.  It does not mean there is no God there.  But if we would believe in God even if there were no God – if our belief-forming dispositions when it comes to religious beliefs are unresponsive to falsity – then even if they are true, we don’t have warrant for taking them to be true.

Unlike the God is false assertion, this can’t be dismissed as a logical fallacy.  If this is the way things are, it’s a genuine a problem.  If our belief in God has no causal connection with the actual existence of God, that would seem to undermine the justification of our belief.  But it is not clear that things are that way, even if these scientific accounts are right.  For these scientific accounts to generate a real problem, (6) would have to be true:

(6) Human minds would exist and believe in God, even if there were no God.

This is the crucial hinge pin of the argument.   But is it true?  Or, at least, does the science we have been discussing provide compelling reason to think it is true?  We don’t think so.  In fact in light of findings in other scientific domains, there are grounds to think there would be no universe if there were no God.  There is good reason to think the universe would not be fine-tuned for the possibility of life or that actual life would not have arisen if there were no God.  And there is reason to think that the evolutionary process would not be endowed so as to have yielded advanced life, or human beings, or beliefs of any kind, or religion either if there were no God.  Thus there are manifold reasons for holding that belief in God would not exist if He did not exist.  Do these reasons demonstrate that #6 is wrong?  Absolutely not!  These questions have been analyzed and debated for centuries. But the important thing is this: nothing about evolutionary or cognitive psychology settles or even informs this question! 

So, contrary to our initial conclusion, these psychological accounts of religious belief do not teach us that we would have religious beliefs whether or not they are true. And so they do not undermine the justification for religious belief. As a result, this argument fails.

Perhaps there are other reasons to think that these psychological accounts raise problems for religious belief, but it is not at all clear what those reasons would be.  For the moment, it seems perfectly acceptable for the Christian to hold that God created the world, human beings, and human minds in such a way that when they are functioning properly, they form beliefs in the existence of rocks, rainbows, human minds and . . . God.

For now, what we should conclude is that contemporary psychology has shown us the (rather unsurprising fact) that, in the words of Oxford psychologist Justin Barrett, “Belief in gods and God particularly arises through the natural, ordinary operation of human minds in natural ordinary environments.” This discovery echoes the claim made four hundred plus years earlier by John Calvin that “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.”

Suggested Reading:

Justin Barrett.  2004.  Why Would Anyone Believe in God?  Alta Mira Press.

Justin Barrett.  2011.  Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds.  Templeton Press.

Robert Bellah.  2011.  Religion in Human Evolution: From Paleolithic to Axial Age.  Harvard University Press.

Jesse Bering.  2011.  The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life.

Jeffrey Schloss & Michael Murray, eds.  2010. The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on the Origin of Religion.  Oxford University Press.

Aku Visala.  2011.  Naturalism, Theism, and the Cognitive Study of Religion:  Religion Explained?  Ashgate. 





Schloss, Jeffrey. "Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Why We Believe in God? Part 2" N.p., 21 May. 2013. Web. 29 May 2017.


Schloss, J. (2013, May 21). Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Why We Believe in God? Part 2
Retrieved May 29, 2017, from

About the Authors

Michael Murray

Michael Murray is Executive Vice President of Programs at the John Templeton Foundation. He is responsible for establishing funding initiatives for the foundation’s research efforts, including the study of issues such as the nature of love, gratitude and forgiveness, and the compatibility of science and faith. Murray previously held the Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professorship in the Humanities and Philosophy at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., and held fellowships from Oriel College, Oxford, the Institute for Research in the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, and the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy and Religion.

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Jeffrey Schloss

As Senior Scholar of BioLogos, Dr. Jeff Schloss provides writing, speaking, and scholarly research on topics that are central to the values and mission of BioLogos and represent BioLogos in dialogues with other Christian organizations. He holds a joint appointment at BioLogos and at Westmont College. Schloss holds the T. B. Walker Chair of Natural and Behavioral Sciences at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and directs Westmont’s Center for Faith, Ethics, and the Life Sciences. Schloss, whose Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology is from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, often speaks to public, church-related, and secular academic audiences on the intersection of evolutionary science and theology. Among his many academic publications are The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion

More posts by Jeffrey Schloss