Monthly Archives: June 2013

Evolution of Illusion: How Biology Bamboozles Believers


We’re being lied to. Our entire species is being repeatedly tricked, constantly misled and most of us are falling for it. We’re tricked into superstition, supernaturalism, and mysticism and not just by scientific ignorance, adherence to tradition or testimony of authority figures (well meaning or otherwise). The fact is that our own makeup betrays us. Some of the very evolutionary adaptations which have allowed our species to survive and thrive also leave us open to drawing false premises, accepting deceiving conclusions and following the leads of others in order to be accepted socially.

Research into how the brain works and why it works the way that it does has led to several theories about how religious thinking came to develop in the human mind. The most widely accepted outlook is that religious attitudes are a by-product of existing cognitive developments which serve other purposes. The “By-product outlook” suggests that a great many of the adaptations which our species evolved in order to survive life on the Serengeti actually combine to make us susceptible to ritual, superstition, mysticism, in short… religion.

Decoupled Cognition is a perfect example of a useful adaptation on which the “mind virus” of religion has piggybacked.  This is our ability to think of something that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future, all while paying close attention to what is happening around us. We are uniquely adapted to evaluate the thoughts and feelings of others who are not directly in front of us.  Decoupled Cognition is the key to social interaction. Imagine if you had to have another person in front of you in order to conceive of what might be happening in their mind! Social interaction as we understand it would be impossible. We all rehearse conversations; imagine the likely responses and others and posit possible outcomes. Our ability to implement a complex interaction with an unseen second party inside our own minds and completely independent of our external reality is key to our social abilities, but it is also a prerequisite for religious thought. Without it the whole enterprise collapses from conception.

Another essential mental development for our survival is what psychologists call Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD. This mental development once served to keep us on our toes, to keep us mindful of the possibility of predators and wary of danger. HADD is the mechanism responsible for human tendency to perceive agency or intelligent intent where there is none. It’s why we mistake shadows for burglars or wonder who slammed the door before we consider that it might have been the wind, and in our animal past it was surely a valuable survival mechanism. After all it’s far better to jump at shadows and flee from the wind than risk the pouncing predator.

HADD allows for and even favors the interference of unseen intelligent agents. In other words we’re hardwired to see design where none exists. If you presuppose an unseen agent where there is none is it that far a leap to the idea that that agent is all-powerful, or that it will grant you wishes if asked? When this trait is combined with the mechanisms which provide our sensitivity to the detection of human-like forms and faces we can begin to see human forms almost anywhere from ghosts and apparitions, to Jesus appearing in food products the world over, The Man in the Moon, or a smiley face in punctuation marks.

Perhaps the most obvious cognitive adaptation that results in religious belief is the human need for attachment. As a species we crave community, acceptance, and fellowship. Neuroscientists studying the brain’s workings today believe that whole networks of neurons in our brains are dedicated to our need for attachment.  Helpless children instinctively seek out a caregiver to help ensure their survival and when they grow the need for attachment manifests as romantic love ensuring the passing of genes and the survival of the species. It also takes place in other adult relationships. Attachment is, in fact, the basis of community.

Just as the attachment centers of our brains urge us to seek relationships with corporeal life forms religious people are attached to their deities. The fact is we never lose our urge to seek a caregiver and religions offer us a caregiver who will provide for all of our needs, love us unconditionally and forgive us any transgression. Most religions are designed to appeal strongly to the most primal and frightened parts of our brains. They offer us a community of like-minded individuals, a sense of safety and security and an all-powerful caregiver figure who will keep the predators at bay. The driving need for attachment is what makes the concept of religion so appealing to begin and also what makes it so difficult to leave.

I’ve only touched on a few of the aspects of our minds which allow for religious and supernatural thinking. There are a great many more adaptations which contribute to the human proclivity toward religion. There are a number of excellent sources out there for more information. I recommend starting with Dr. J. Anderson Thomson’s “why we believe in god(s)” it is a concise and very approachable book on the subject and will serve as an excellent primer. Understanding how our minds work, and why we’re susceptible to the faulty logic, fuzzy reasoning and backward tribalism that results in supernaturalism, mysticism and religious thought is key to fighting it. We grow through exploration, both of the world around us and perhaps more importantly – the world inside us.