Q&A: How Our Brains Predispose Us to Believe in God

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Are you claiming that your ideas prove that religion is wrong?

I am by no means saying that religion is a bad thing nor that religious people are less intelligent. That’s been the primary problem with the new atheists. They take an elitist stance that religion is for fools and the gullible.

I say that we all have the same evolved brain; we’re all susceptible to the same type of what I call illusions. It’s more complicated than the view that religious people are silly. There are definitely significant and empirically verifiable health advantages of being faithful.

You write about how as a child you felt intensely guilty about having broken a neighbor’s fake Fabergé egg and then “swearing to God,” you hadn’t done it.

One of the things you do find cross-culturally is that children are particularly affected by and easily influenced by the threat of punishment from supernatural agents. This is a behavior regulation device, a control mechanism to prevent children from doing things we don’t want them to do when they think we’re not watching.

It’s an additional mechanism on top of self-control that would prevent them from doing things that would ultimately cause them problems or their parents problems.

Why would it help an individual in a species to survive if he or she had a belief in the supernatural?

In the sense of evolution, [belief in gods] inhibits behavior that would [potentially cause social problems].

[It] affects your ability to control negative behavior, [which] is almost always better to inhibit, even if there’s only a remote chance that someone will see you and find out — that could translate into reproductive [failure] by tarnishing your reputation.

The illusion of a watcher, whether it’s a god [or someone else] stops you doing something that you want to do for selfish reasons. It doesn’t have to be real, it just has to work in some sort of mechanistic way. It’s especially important when people underestimate the presence of actual human observers.

But so many religious strictures involve abstaining from sex, and yet inhibiting sex doesn’t seem like it would help reproductive success?

The context matters — all else being equal [there are advantages to inhibiting] antisocial or selfish or “cheating” sex.

When people are basically convinced that God is on their side and God understands why they’re doing what they’re doing, there are lots of loopholes psychologically that also work alongside reproductive interests.

More on TIME.com:

Explaining the Healing Power of Prayer

Religion’s Secret to Happiness: It’s Friends, Not Faith

Jail Time for Parents Who Choose Prayer Over Medicine

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