Michael Murray
Jeffrey Schloss
 on May 20, 2013

Does Evolutionary Psychology Explain Why We Believe in God?

Neuroscientists and psychologists have made progress in understanding the human mind, including the religious instinct. But they have not explained away religious belief.


Over the last couple of decades neuroscientists and psychologists have begun to crack open the final frontier of the human organism: the human mind.  What they have found is truly amazing.

Many things we have learned contradicts much of what we previously thought about the mind.  For example, it is quite common and sensible to believe that we come into the world with minds that are essentially “blank slates,” and that what we know is written on those slates by experience alone.  But that view appears to be wrong.

The human mind consists of a variety of distinct and interacting mental tools, each of which comes pre-loaded with some quite specific content and some processing algorithms.  For example, it is now clearly demonstrated that human beings are naturally endowed with what we might reasonably describe as innate beliefs and innate cognitive processors.

On the belief side, developmental psychologists have identified numerous domains of understanding that are native to us, such as folk physics, folk biology, folk psychology, agency detection tendencies, and so on. What these discoveries seem to show is that our minds are pre-disposed to come to think about the world in very specific ways—ways that are determined by the kinds of minds we have.

So it looks like from birth, or rather through a regular and maturationally natural process, we have dispositions for form beliefs in the following domains.

“Folk Physics”:

  • Objects move on inertial paths
  • Objects cannot move through other objects
  • Objects must move through space
  • Objects must be supported

“Folk Psychology”:

  • Agents act to satisfy desires
  • Agents have beliefs

“Folk Biology”:

  • Animals bear young similar to themselves
  • Living things need nutrients

In addition to these innate dispositions toward certain kinds of beliefs, we also seem to have cognitive mechanisms that dispose us to crunch sensory inputs in specific ways. We might call these “innate cognitive processors.” Examples of these would include things like contagion avoidance and agency detection.

Contagion avoidance is a natural aversion human beings share to things like dead bodies, animal waste and vomit, rotting food, etc. These things “gross us out” from a very early age.  Indeed, the aversions we have towards them pre-date any data we might come to possess that would lead us to judge them dangerous.  We are also repelled by them in ways that are independent of other aversive stimuli like smell (that is, you can’t explain this aversion by noting that people are scared off because of an unpleasant odor since studies show that the aversions are independent of that).

A second processor is our Agency Detection Device. Here, psychologists have identified a cognitive processor that seems to pre-dispose us to form beliefs in the reality and presence of (sometimes invisible!) agents under certain conditions. In these cases, when we look for the cause of certain events, motions, sounds, or structures, we are disposed to think that it was caused by a someone rather than by a something. Our ADD appears to be hypersensitive.  It is very good at detecting agency, and in fact is more likely to generate false positives than false negatives.  This is often referred to as our hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD), and may be reflected in manifold attributions of ghosts, fairies, forest spirits, and even personalities of machines!

In sum, psychologists have shown that our initial presumption about the contents of our mind was wrong. Our minds are not blank slates, but processing devices that come endowed with a complex operating system.

Many are quick to point out that this should not be surprising.  When we look across times and cultures and find very similar beliefs concerning the nature of physical, biological, and psychological reality, those similarities cry out for some explanation. Since these diverse individuals have a very wide range of experience, something other than, or in addition to, common experience would seem to account for the similarities of belief. And so it is natural to conclude that there is some fundamental similarity among human minds that explains it. And recent empirical evidence has in fact confirmed this conclusion.

One type of belief that is pervasive across times and cultures is religious belief.  One is thus led to wonder whether those sorts of beliefs are among those that we are naturally disposed to believe.  One New Zealand religion scholar, Joseph Bulbulia, argues that the emerging consensus is yes: “The view of mind expressed by Descartes as composed of innate understandings given in advance of any experience has been thoroughly vindicated after sixty years of cognitive psychology. It may be that Descartes will be shown correct on another score, namely that knowledge of the Divinity is imprinted on every mind [as well]”

Bulbulia’s remark invites us to entertain three key questions:

  • Is there any evidence that we are naturally disposed to religion?
  • How do we explain the origin of these dispositions?
  • What are the implications of such explanations for belief itself?

These will be explored next.

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.”

About the authors

Jeff Schloss

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 (Oxford University Press), which he edited with philosopher Michael Murray. Schloss has also participated in a number of invitational collaborations on topics in evolutionary biology, emphasizing various aspects of what it means to be human, hosted by several universities, including Cambridge, Edinburgh, Emory, Harvard, Heidelberg, Oxford, and Stanford. He has held fellowships at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion, St. Anne’s College Oxford, and Princeton’s Center for Theological Inquiry, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Religion, Brain, and BehaviorScience & Christian Belief; and Theology and Science.

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