Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Caveman instincts may explain our belief in gods and ghosts

Notions of gods arise in all human societies, from all powerful and all-knowing deities to simple forest spirits. A recent method of examining religious thought and behaviour links their ubiquity and the…

Does mankind’s religious instinct date back to prehistoric times? iurri

Notions of gods arise in all human societies, from all powerful and all-knowing deities to simple forest spirits. A recent method of examining religious thought and behaviour links their ubiquity and the similarity of our beliefs to the ways in which human mental processes were adapted for survival in prehistoric times.

It rests on a couple of observations about human psychology. First, when an event happens, we tend to assume that a living thing caused it. In other words, we assume agency behind that event. If you think of the sorts of events that might have happened in prehistoric times, it’s easy to see why a bias towards agency would be useful. A rustling of a bush or the snapping of a twig could be due to wind. But far better to assume it’s a lion and run away.

The survivors who had this tendency to more readily ascribe agency to an event passed their genes down the generations, increasingly hard-wiring this way of making snap decisions into the brain. This is not something that people need to learn. It occurs quickly and automatically.

Empathic tendencies

The second trait is about how we view others. While living together in a tribe would have had many advantages for survival in prehistoric times, getting along with everyone would not always have been easy. Comprehending others’ behaviour requires you to understand their thoughts and beliefs, especially where these may be incorrect due to someone not knowing the full facts of a situation.

The prehistoric posse Robert Adrian Hillman

This is known as “theory of mind”. This idea says that we automatically assume that there are reasons behind others’ behaviour which we try to work out in order to better understand why they behave the way they do. Not having this ability has been proposed to underlie developmental disorders such as autism.

You may be wondering what these two hard-wired processes have to do with belief in gods. Imagine a pebble falling in the back of a cave. Our agency device tells us that someone caused that to happen. With nothing in evidence, could it be an invisible creature or a spirit? If so, why would it be sneaking around? To find out secrets about us or to discover if we are good or bad people?

Another example might be a volcanic eruption. In the absence of geological knowledge, our tribal ancestors' agency system would have ascribed this event to a person – but one that surely has superhuman ability. And why would they want to cause such destruction? Perhaps the eruption signified a punishment, perhaps because the tribe had not acted in accordance with the being’s wishes.

Of ghosts and gods

These two very simplistic examples should help illustrate how these hard-wired mechanisms could lead to the beginnings of a belief in gods, as well as ghosts and other supernatural creatures. Our ancestors would have drawn conclusions about supernatural occurrences by fitting together these instincts towards agency and the theory of mind.

Are ghosts just part of human survival function? Jeff Krause, CC BY-SA

This even applies to the Abrahamic, all-knowing, all powerful god. He may seem very inhuman at first glance, but it has been shown that we reason about Him in a very human way. For example we depict Him helping one person before moving to the other side of the world to help someone else. Hard-wired reasoning processes helps explain how religious ideas are so durable, spreading across continents and down through generations.

Both these and other ancient instincts appear to be in evidence from observations of children. Very young children seem to show very accurate understanding of physical laws. For example they know that two solid objects cannot merge into one or that horses do not have metal gears inside them. Developmental psychologists have suggested that children are intuitive biologists, physicists and – using theory of mind – psychologists.

Sumus rosaceae!

Concepts which violate these intuitive understandings seem to be more memorable than others. A rose that whispers in Latin violates an intuitive understanding that plants do not have minds or mouths and therefore cannot whisper in an ancient language – or any language for that matter.

It may be that violating an intuitive concept draws special attention and interest and therefore helps embed the idea in memory. Many religious stories contain concepts that seem to violate this special kind of intuition, such as a man walking on water or a burning bush that talks. These tales take advantage of this feature of memory to successfully propagate themselves and resist being forgotten.

Got a cup of water? Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Putting these ideas together is one way of explaining religious thought and behaviour. You could go further and suggest that, if these ideas are correct, religion is merely a by-product of mental processes operating in error.

But this assumes that religious/supernatural experiences are not true. If the human mind was to truly experience a god, then the theories of agency and mind and our memory for the counterintuitive would help us make sense of it. If that were to happen, the conclusions would not be in error at all.

Dr Kelly will be elaborating on these ideas at a lecture in Glasgow on the evening of Thursday May 22.

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

31 Comments sorted by

  1. Vern Wall

    Retired engineer

    This train of logic is spherically stupid. That means it is stupid any way you look at it. People have pareidolia, tendency to see familiar characteristics in random data. People are pack animals, so they have an instinct to choose and follow a strong leader. People are aware of intangible concepts, so it is possible to choose to follow a concept as a leader. Put those together and you have gods, no spiritual bull-stuff and no evolution bull-stuff required.

    Religion has a very different meaning, and anybody who does not know what it is has no competence to write such an article.

    report
    1. Jamie Robinson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Vern Wall

      Calling someone stupid and incompetent that you don't even know says more about your prejudices than the authors. Try hard one of these days not to be a troll.

      report
    2. Vern Wall

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Jamie Robinson

      troll ~ one who provokes conversation

      conversation ~ the reason we gather here

      report
  2. Mark D. Roberts

    failure

    no galaxy would look to the naked eye from earth like the one in the opening photo, this sets the scientific tone for the whole article...

    report
    1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Mark D. Roberts

      Do you really think that the author chose the photo?

      If you think there is good reasons for doubting the author then how about tackling what he wrote?

      report
  3. Skillet Rawks

    logged in via Twitter

    I believe in God, and am religious to a large degree. Evolutionarily, this is what I am programmed to do. I will provide evidence of this momentarily.

    Modern day cognitive psychology suggests that belief in the supernatural, particular the idea of God or Gods of some kind, is a natural evolutionary development.

    This is from page 645 of the Handbook of Personality, 3rd edition. This book is a modern, doctoral-level textbook used in psychology courses.

    "Accumulating research further…

    Read more
    1. john byatt

      retired and cranky at RAN Veteran

      In reply to john byatt

      The difference between cave man and modern humans is science, religion no longer arises naturally in children without indoctrination

      report
    2. Skillet Rawks

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to john byatt

      John,

      I'm not sure you read my post correctly. If you did, you would see that the studies are talking about modern-day humans, not cavemen as the article is discussing.

      Perhaps, at best, you could say specific religions do not arise without indoctrination, but as I said before (with evidence), mankind's brain has evolved to believe in God(s). Faith, then religion, would evolve naturally even without "indoctrination". This has already happened once because those beliefs provide an evolutionary…

      Read more
    3. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Skillet Rawks

      The big trend in the west is people become non-religious - not becoming atheists, but religion becoming something irrelevant to their lives.

      As the graph in your paper shows - most religions are losing people big time.

      Atheism is thinking about religions and deciding they are wrong. Those brought up in an atheist house are NOT becoming religious - they are also finding that religion is irrelevant to their lives and rather than thinking about it and becoming atheists they are not bothering to think about it at all.

      report
    4. Vern Wall

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      People assume that one who does not believe in God believes nothing. That is not so. A person who does not believe in God will believe anything.

      report
    5. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Vern Wall

      Why would someone who does not believe in god believe anything?

      Lots of major moral changes over the last 50 or so years have happened because many people have stopped listening to religion.

      Religion said that homosexuality was a sin (and it was illegal). Now not only is it not illegal, but most support gay marriage.

      This isn't believing in 'anything'. It is taking a moral stance free from the dogma of religion and deciding what you think is right.

      report
    6. Vern Wall

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      "This isn't believing in 'anything'. It is taking a moral stance free from the dogma of religion and deciding what you think is right."

      And that is what we call believing. God is the God of rightness. If you don't believe in rightness, you have no standard by which to judge anything. Of course, human nature is such that people always think they have a better idea, just as you do.

      report
    7. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Vern Wall

      Which god is the one who is right? And if you pick a religion, which version of this religion is right?

      Thinking something is right because 'god says so' is nonsense.

      So how can you decide if something is right without religion?

      Look at the changes that have happened over the last 50 years, and as well as gay sex being acceptable, sex before marriage is now normal, living together is normal, a woman has the right to choose with abortion, most support euthanasia, contraception is now so normal that even most Catholics in western countries use it, and I could go on.

      Religion is dying in the west because it has become irrelevant to most people's lives.

      report
    8. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Vern Wall

      Vern, There is no shortage of atrocities committed in the name of religion in the current world news.

      All of the people doing these acts are certain that they are doing God's work.

      Do you approve of all these 'harsh but necessary actions'? (Obviously if you approve then you won't think them atrocities).

      If you don't approve of all or most or all of them, how do you know they are wrong?

      report
    9. Skillet Rawks

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      I'm not sure that you are interpreting the graph correctly. People often switch from on religion to another, especially in Christian denominations. On the graph, that would show up as a denomination "losing" members. The graph doesn't account for overall church growth or size - it just looks who stays with the religion of their youth. So, unless you expect everyone to 100% stay with their childhood religious training, each of the bars on the graph should so some sort of "loss". The graph doesn't…

      Read more
    10. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Vern Wall

      Which is another way of saying that since I disagree with you and have asked a question too hard to answer you want discuss the matter any more.

      report
    11. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Skillet Rawks

      The recent New Scientist article "Losing our religion: Your guide to a godless future" looked at the broader picture - where religious is defined at "Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person?"

      Reading the graph in that article in 2005 about 73% in the US called themselves religious, whilst in 2012 it was only 50%.

      The article also says "Even in the US – a deeply Christian country – the number of people expressing "no religious affiliation" has risen from 5 per cent in 1972 to 20 per cent today; among people under 30, that number is closer to a third.

      report
    12. Skillet Rawks

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Michael,

      I agree with the broader picture assessment - that the number of people identifying as religious is declining. However, I'm not sure that identifying with a denomination or religious system is declining. Those are two separate ideas. For example, I have many Catholic friends who consider being Catholic core to their personality, development, and moral values, but they would definitely not describe themselves as "religious". Perhaps this is why those that identify as "religious" is…

      Read more
    13. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Skillet Rawks

      I'm in Australia and I'm sure that religion is very different here from over in the US.

      I know only one person who attends church regularly. And for all my other friends and family, religion / church / listening to religious leaders, etc is irrelevant.

      So for many people religion/church isn't something normal that they either do or don't do, but it is now seen as something rather strange and unusual. In my world someone who says that they are "a follower of Christ" is saying something weird!

      Perhaps you might feel the same about Scientology - or maybe I need to think of an even stranger 'religion' or belief system for you to be able to feel what I'm talking about.

      I think most of Europe is now pretty much the same as Australia. It's really on the US that still has church/religion as 'normal'.

      report
    14. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Just another example of how things have changed - the last funeral I attended a year or so ago, and a different funeral attended by a friend a few weeks ago, were both non-religious.

      Things really have changed.

      report
  4. Ken Snyder

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Excellent example of a well written electronic piece...could serve as a great standard for short online blogs. Occam's Razor comes to mind. Thanks for writing it.

    report
  5. Jamie Robinson

    logged in via Facebook

    Nice read, I've heard the theory before. Quite interesting. Thanks.

    report
  6. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

    I think it is hard for us today to grasp just how much of what is now general scientific knowledge was not known in the past.

    Think of all the 'scientific' questions a young child asks - not so long ago the only answer was because god, the gods, etc made it that way or did it.

    So though we now think mainly of the spiritual and moral aspects of 'god', throughout most of homosapiens history the main justification for 'god' was that this was the answer to all the scientific questions.

    report
    1. Vern Wall

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      I don't think you know anything at all about most of homosapiens history. For most of history people worshiped planets that modern men can't even point to. They did not worship invisible gods named after planets, they specifically said that they worshiped the planets. You assume that our forebears were ignorant savages, making up lies to soothe their fears. How do you account for the lies being identical all over the earth? The Egyptians recorded that the Earth had two suns, same as the bible says…

      Read more
    2. Skillet Rawks

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      I'm one of those who don't see any conflict between God and science. Just because I can explain something doesn't make it any less miraculous. Often, I feel that the explanation makes it even more miraculous. But, of course, this is just my personal point of view.

      However, I think there is a little to add about the idea of God being necessary because we lacked scientific answers. I mean, obviously, early man looked to God to explain the things that he couldn't, but religious books tend…

      Read more