Religious Belief, Naturally Selected – with John C. Wathey

January 12, 2016

Throughout history, humans have looked to religion to explain why the world is the way it is. Thanks to the development of science, we now have more concrete ways of understanding the world, ways that do not rely on faith. Despite our progress, however, in 2016 faith and religion are still considered to be prime ways of knowing for billions of people. Our guest this week suggests that these feelings of faith may be harder to shake than those of us who are already secular might think; in fact they may be evolutionarily hardwired into us.

Point of Inquiry returns from its hiatus to welcome neuroscientist and computational biologist John C. Wathey to discuss the ideas in his new book, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing. Wathey asserts that the intuitive feeling of God’s presence is the primary anchor of religious faith. It’s a consistent phenomenon across every religion and culture for people to “feel God” in their lives. Wathey argues that this is likely a result of an evolutionary adaptation that manifests as early as infancy.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, January 12th, 2016. 

On Josh Zepps, host of We the People Love a panel podcast for planet Earth, which you can find by searching for hashtag. 

We the people live on iTunes and SoundCloud. And this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. If you’re not religious, it can often seem a bit perplexing how religious people can believe the things they do believe. But what’s even more perplexing is how many people believe such things when nonbelievers may be on the rise in advanced societies. But across the world as a whole, almost all people everywhere. For all of time have believed in God. Why? That’s the question addressed in the new book, The Illusion of God’s Presence. The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing by the neuroscientists and computational biologist Jack Wasey, who joins me now. Jack, thanks for being here. 

My pleasure. 

Thanks for inviting me. So the first chapter of your book is entitled Is God Beyond the Reach of Science? And I think that’s as good a place to start as any because a lot of religious people would say, who are you to be writing a book about God? These are separate disciplines. These are non overlapping majesty area science and religion. Science deals in hard, cold facts and religion deals in meaning and spirituality and purpose. 

Well, I would say to that, first of all, that it depends on which God we’re talking about. 

If you’re talking about a Deacy God, a God who just set the universe in motion and then had nothing to do with it afterwards, then I’m fine with that. That yes, that’s that kind of God is beyond the reach of science. The problem with that is that that’s not a God that almost anybody wants to believe in. That’s not the God of religion as commonly practiced. That’s not a God you can pray to. 

For example, the God that most people care about, the God that most religious people care about is the God who cares about their lives, who knows about their lives, a personal God who will respond to prayers and do things for them. That kind of God must act in the world. What motivated me actually to take up this subject was that I felt a debate over God and religion was overlooking something fairly important, and also that the debate had become kind of boring, especially for the most thoughtful people in the audience. I don’t think, for example, that people believe in God because they they lay awake nights worrying about what preceded the Big Bang or because they think life had to be intelligently designed. I think people believe in God because they sense his presence, because they feel that this divine savior must be out there just just out of reach. Or maybe they express it in a somewhat different way, that the universe is somehow mindful and loving where God dwells within them. These are the kind of language that people commonly used to describe their emotions about God. And I think this is what’s that’s what’s really the essence of the motivation behind religion, or at least it’s a big part of the story, like I say, that I think has been overlooked. 

Yeah. And yet when you talk about Deism not being a kind of God that anyone wants to believe in, particularly, isn’t that a reasonably modern Western phenomenon? 

I mean, the founding fathers of the United States were, for the large part, deists, and people in PREE historical societies didn’t necessarily believe that they could close their eyes and think some thoughts and that the creator of the universe was literally listening to them and then was going to intervene. So how did that shift come about? Would you dispute that shift? 

Well, I’m not sure that that’s right, at least. 

I think that if you look at the religious beliefs of Hunter-Gatherer tribes, they tend to be partly animist, but also very commonly ancestor veneration that you think of the spirits of their ancestors and somehow lingering in the world. And they are accessible, they’re omniscient, they’re able to intervene. So I think there’s always been this strain in religion historically. But you’re right about the founding fathers and the prevalence of diesem against among the intellectuals of, say, the Enlightenment era. For that, I think, can be most easily explained by the fact that that predated Darwinian evolution for the people of that era. They still had this quandary about the complexity of life. And it really does appear to be designed. And if you’re ignorant of evolution because it hasn’t been discovered yet, you’re kind of stuck with this quandary. How do I explain this extraordinary complexity of life? And the easiest explanation for that as well. OK. It must have been created by some kind of intelligence, because the only complexity we see in the world other than biology is the complexity that has been created by. 

Living things like. 

Yeah. Even Richard Dawkins says that if he’d been born pre Darwin, he would be religious. He would have been religious because he would have been so amazed by the majesty of of biology and of the natural world that there would be no other alternative until you get natural selection. 

I think it’s a fact thing. Yeah. It’s interesting that you just mentioned Animism and the worship of, I suppose, the dead. Well, not the worship. But the belief that the dead are still among us. Because I wonder whether or not that’s pivotal as well in the universality of religion. Certainly pray Darwin in that it’s really difficult to conceive of sorts of human beings, of the force of life as human beings, as coming from purely matter. And therefore, it’s difficult to conceive that death is the actual end. It’s hard to imagine that this vital person who was here yesterday is now just a corpse. So what happened to that lifeforce? Right. And so maybe the rejection of death is it is intrinsic to that. If people exist beyond the physical realm, then there must be someone to coordinate that role. 

Yes. Yes, I think that I think that’s right. That’s something that’s very difficult for people to grasp, that they that the intelligence, their own intelligence that’s imagining what it’s like after death cannot imagine its own nonexistence. 

That’s a very difficult thing for people to grasp. 

It’s also terrifying. Yes. Yeah. 

And so let’s talk about whether or not people can be reasoned out of their belief in God. And we will get to the more detailed questions about why people believe in the first place. 

But I like I like the question of whether or not these conversations even have any kind of an impact, because you said you felt like the debate around the existence of God had gotten boring. I’d like to hear you elaborate on that and whether or not you think there’s an old line that you can’t reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into. And therefore, you’re not really reason people out of their religious beliefs because it’s not fundamentally based on reason. It’s fundamentally based on a feeling that they have some kind of spiritual sense. Do you have any thoughts about that? 

Yes. Well, I do think it’s it’s based on intuition. 

And I think it’s very important to explore intuition and ask the question, what really is intuition? 

And there is a very important distinction in the way humans think and the way humans seek truth or try to discover truth. The natural way, the way that comes easiest to us is intuition. For example, if you’re trying to decide whom you should marry or what foods are, good for you. Those are the answers to those questions. Just sort of come to you out of nowhere from some unconscious source. 

And you get a sudden feeling of knowing that, oh, yes, this particular woman I’ve been dating is definitely the one. I just know she’s the one. And very often those intuitions work out. But that mechanism is an unconscious mechanism that’s selected for. And our evolution shapes human nature in such a way as to promote reproductive success. Intuition is a method that promotes reproductive success. It is not a method for truth finding. But people don’t see it that way because. Along with it. Part of the package is this feeling of knowing this intuitive feeling of knowing or feeling a certainty that the decision you’ve come to or that has come to you must be right. Some people have this feeling of knowing, not appreciating that it’s a very different thing than what a scientist means when he or she says we know such and such to be true, that that’s a completely different thing. 

That’s a much more difficult, unnatural way of thinking that comes to us through a great deal of effort, through cognitive reflection, through testing alternative hypotheses, through deliberately trying to ignore your intuitive feelings about the question. 

So that, I think, is the basic quandary between reasoning and emotion and trying to decide this. And religion definitely appeals to the intuition. 

That’s interesting because I think there are different levels of plausibility in religion. 

Right. And as you say, Elora, as you imply, a lot of science is counterintuitive. There’s no way that your intuition would lead you to believe that the earth is round or that quantum physics is nothing. Israel. Yeah. And it’s obviously true that intuitively it say it seems to make sense that our consciousness would survive bodily death and that there would be some kind of purpose to this cosmos. 

But then when you get down into the specific, I guess, theocratic dogmas of particular religions, there’s a lot of really implausible stuff. 

I mean, to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and then he rose bodily after three days or that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse. These are all extraordinarily implausible things which hundreds of millions, if not billions of people around the world believe. Why, yes. 

Yes. Well, that’s a great question. 

And it’s even more extraordinary than that when you consider that some highly educated scientists, biologists who like Francis Collins or Ken Miller at Brown University, biologists who know the mechanisms of meiosis and reproduction, who know that consciousness derived from the activity of the brain can still believe. And these religious ideas that you just mentioned, they do it by compartmentalizing their brain, but they’re not even aware that they’re doing the compartmentalizing. They’re the intuitive appeal of these religious ideas is so powerful that they can’t see through it. It’s something that psychologists call cognitive impenetrability. There are many kinds of illusions that are so compelling. They they act on something intrinsic to the brain in such a way that even if you understand the illusion and know that it’s an illusion, you still see the illusion. But that to me, is one of the most fascinating things about it. And I think that the main the main answer I get in the book, the main point that I argue in the book, is that there is this innate model of the mother that a human infant is born with. It’s something that evolution has selected. It’s its circuitry that causes a newborn infant to expect the existence of its mother to expect and to know that she is nurturing, that she provides warmth and nourishment and love, and that she will respond to crying. It’s fairly simple, but it’s it’s just enough. It’s just the skeleton of the infant’s part of the mother infant bond. And I suggest that this for some reason persists into adulthood, sort of lingers in the brain. And in moments of desperation or helplessness, situations that mimic the helplessness of infancy, the circuitry can be activated. And when it’s activated, it creates this illusion of this this kind of vague presence that that there is this loving presence just just out of reach or enfolding the person or some something that you can reach out to through prayer. I say that prayer of desperation is the adult manifestation of infantile crying. And that’s such a basic thing. Such a thing that evolution has burned into our our intuition, into our brains, into our human nature, that we can’t even see it for what it is. We just feel it. We do it. It just comes naturally. And it’s very hard to see through that illusion. 

And another point that you make in the book is that this sort of comes some way to explaining one of the big paradoxes of religion, which is that God is at once unconditionally loving and also judgmental and punishing, depending on which bit of which books you choose to believe. 

Yes. And very often those two things happen in the same God. People simultaneously believe that God is judgmental and punishing and unconditionally loving two completely contradictory concepts. 

What why do you attribute those characteristics both to mother? 

Because if you were talking about some kind of instinctive hard wiring for a purpose sense of parental authority, then it might strike me that one of those is motherly and the other is fatherly. 

Yes. And in fact, I don’t attribute both of those things to this innate model of the mother. 

I attribute mainly the unconditionally loving part of God to what I call the neonatal root of religion, this innate model of the mother. 

There is, I think, a different room with a separate biological read of religion, which I call the social root of religion, which has to do with adult human social behavior and social cooperation. Humans are humans practice reciprocal altruism. The way we see in many other social species are our social primate cousins, for example. But in humans, it’s carried to another level, to a very sophisticated and very elaborate level. So it’s a challenge for us because reciprocal altruism is a mechanism whereby animals will cooperate with one another, with the understanding that their acts of altruism, of sacrifice, of helping will be reciprocated in the future. And that will work as long as the organisms doing it are intelligent enough and perceptive enough and have a good enough memory that they can keep track of who’s doing the cooperating and who’s doing the cheating. 

If you if you if you keep track of that and the system works. 

The problem arises when the social group becomes large and when the behaviors become very elaborate and complex and it becomes overwhelmingly difficult to keep track of all that bookkeeping. 

And then a system like that, you need some other mechanism, some kind of proxy for determining who is cooperating and who is not. And religion turns out to fit that bill very nicely, but only if it includes a God who is aware of who is doing the cooperating and who’s doing the cheating, and a God who punishes and rewards judgmental gods. 

And the wickedness that he’s punishing, of course, is anti-social behavior, cheating or not cooperating with the group. 

So if your religion has such a God and people genuinely believe in it, then you can use belief in the religion as a proxy for whether or not you’re cooperating. 

But it only works if the God demands costly, painful, hard to fake sacrifices. That’s a really essential part of it. 

If religion demands costly, painful sacrifices as proof of devotion. And people are willing to make those sacrifices, then they really demonstrate that they really do believe in it. And that’s one of the reasons we see how painful initiation rites, for example, in Hunter-Gatherer tribes and why we see genital mutilation as an essential thing in religion. Why we see suicide bombing, for example, is partly an enormous sacrifices, proof of devotion. And there are many examples of it in religious mythology, of course, that God demanding that Abraham succored sacrifice. Isaac is one of the best examples. 

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So I can understand why the earthly inventors of religions would find it expedient to tell their followers that sacrifice is necessary in order to get in God’s good books. But I’m not quite clear on the theological rationale here. Why would the believer find it more plausible that God exists if this data is requiring him to sacrifice things? 

I’m not even sure there is a good rationale for it, except that it seems to be something that evolution has shaped into our human nature. There is a very powerful need to belong to a group that humans feel. 

Most of us feel this to some degree. We want to feel accepted in some kind of a social group or coworkers class. If we’re students or in a religious group, people people seek out membership in a group. 

They seek companionship. They want to cooperate. And when they can make sacrifices for the group, usually not drastic sacrifices necessarily, but when they when they go out of their way to do something extraordinarily self sacrificing for the good of the group, they feel virtuous for doing it. And people hold them in high regard for doing it. A good example are the firefighters whom we hold in such high regard for walking into a burning building and trying to save others. This is this is something that I think is is in our human nature. 

And indeed, even when the sacrifice doesn’t benefit anybody else, when it’s just a sort of self humbling, I wonder whether there isn’t some kind of release that is pleasurable, given that humans are hardwired to be such sort of egoistic, meaning making machines all the time. 

I mean, if you think of the best forms of religion, which is that there’s sort of least dogmatic and might be things like mindful meditation and sort of secular Buddhist practices and so on, that this is a good end of the spectrum with jihadi suicide bombings at the other end of the spectrum. 

One can imagine, one can understand that living a life driven purely by your own ego can be a stressful place to be, and that there’s a kind of release in giving oneself up to a higher to a higher plane of existence in some way. 

And that that form of sacrifice, even in the absence of doing good, is coming. 

Yes, I think there’s there’s something to that. And even in the eastern religions that you mentioned, like Buddhism, even their sacrifices, there’s a pretty significant part of the religion. 

The Buddhist monks give up a lot of worldly pleasures to be monks. They are supposed to live humbly and with, you know, very Spartan existence. They forgo the material pleasures of life to end and make sacrifices in those ways to demonstrate that they are part of the religion. They’re part of the faithful. 

Does this imply that religion on the whole is a force for greater generosity and goodness than if it didn’t exist? 

That’s a good question. It’s it’s kind of a double edged sword. What what this mechanism does this this method, this this social what I call the social root of religion. What it does is to foster cooperation and goodness and mutual assistance within the ingroup. But unfortunately, the other side of that coin is competition with the outgroup and diminishing or demonizing of members of the outgroup. They are seen as as not only not cooperative, they’re seen as evil. They’re seen as less than human somehow. And that killing them is a good thing. 

And I think this, too, is just part of our human nature. The two are, like I said, two sides of the same coin. 

They tend to go together. Tribalism is a good single word to express it. The social root of religion seems to be part of the force behind human tribalism. 

If if the other reason why we believe is, is this mother child bond that you were alluding to then. 

Where does the religious obsession with sex come from? I see. Is that the mother’s side of the of the impetus or is that the social construct side that I think is more the neo natal route of religion? 

I talk about that kind of far into the book. And I have to work up to it gradually because it’s kind of a complicated idea. 

I’ll trying to express the essence of it for you. The essence of it has to do with in part with the way evolution works without having any grand plan or design. Evolution makes very small changes on what already exists. It mainly works by reusing things that already exist for some new purpose. A good example are the flight feathers of birds, which appear to have evolved from something that was originally just there for insulation. So that’s repurposing something that originally of all for a different purpose. The religious obsession, obsession with sex has to do with the fact that three very important emotional mechanisms in humans appear to have evolved in this way, that they’re all kind of built on some kind of share some common pieces of neural hardware. Those three systems are the infant’s attraction to or affection for its mother, a mother’s caregiving behavior for the infant and adult sexual pair bonding. All three of those seem to have in common some neural mechanism. And because of that, they’re kind of mixed up. We see a lot of behavioral crosstalk among those three systems. 

I can give you. I have a bunch of examples in the book. I’ll give you just one show. And that is the sort of infantile attraction of human adult males for female breasts. 

Why are breasts so exciting to adult human males? It seems a little silly if you can distance yourself from it. But we all know it’s it’s true. You need only look at pornographic magazines or advertisings. Breasts are pretty prominent in the male psyche. So. So why is this and why is it that female breasts in humans are perennially enlarged? Their enlargement has nothing to do with milk production. It’s just a signal for fertility. Basically, the breast enlargement happens at puberty and in old age past menopause, breasts kind of shrivel and sag. So large firm breasts are an honest signal of fertility. But protuberance sack of fat anywhere on the body could have served the same purpose. So why breasts? And the reason apparently is that breasts were already associated with powerful feelings of emotional attraction and love in humans. And the attraction of infants for their mothers. So evolution just took this and built upon it when evolving human monogamous sexual pair bonding. So in the case of religion, which I’m arguing has this very powerful, infantile basis, we’re humans. We’re religious adults see themselves as infants to a parental super parent. God, those infantile feelings are happening in adults where the same mechanism that in an instant attracts an infant to the mother’s breasts for nourishment purposes. And for bonding purposes in an adult, this system is supposed to be for sexual, pure bonding. So in the most pious religious people, these infantile feelings for God can get mixed up with sexual feelings for God. And we can see examples of that, for example, in Catholic nuns who are told they are marrying Christ, for example. And if a religious person feels starts feeling sexual coloring to their emotional love and attraction to God, that also is going to trigger yet another in a mechanism made biological mechanism in us. And that is the mechanism for incest avoidance, because sexual feelings for a close relative like a parent is, is dangerous, that that evokes intuitive feelings of revulsion and disgust, which is the mechanism for incest avoidance. So what I argue in the book is that the most intensely pious are flooded with love, lust and revulsion and sexual feelings are all mixed up in this. And this manifests itself in very strange ways in religion, which most of our listeners will know, things like the celibacy in the Catholic Church or polygamy in the Mormon Church or celibacy. And in Shaker ism and the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the televangelists who rail against the evils of homosexuality while in their private lives being homosexual. So these are these are these are the kinds of things that that happen because of the strange mixing of sexuality and maternal feelings and infantile feelings. 

So if the if the drive to believe in God is sort of hardwired into the very fabric of our evolutionary hardware, is it then an uphill battle to to vanquish religion? 

If we’re sort of hoping that the 21st century might be an era where much more of the world becomes like Denmark, say, or my home country of Australia, where 60 plus percent of the population don’t go to church and don’t particularly believe in anything? How does how does one account for some societies being that way and others not being that way? What can we do to nudge the dial? 

Well, I would say the short answer is yes. It is an uphill battle. It is a difficult thing, but it’s not an impossible thing. And one one place where I where I take both both hope and discouragement is in the results of twin studies. Twin studies show that the tendency to become religious is roughly 50 percent attributable to genetic factors. So that’s the bad news. 

But the good news is the other 50 percent is not. The other 50 percent is environmental in origin. So the twin studies confirm that something about religion is biological in origin, but they also show that not all of it is. And we humans are very plastic and flexible animals. We can learn to behave in different ways. We can shape our cultures in different ways. And that is done on most essentially, most importantly, in the way we raise our children. That is really essential and critical. And if we if we if we make it a court cultural norm to teach our children religious tolerance and the importance of kindness and compassion and human rights, if we place these things above any kind of religious belief in the values we instill in our children, then we can shape a culture like you see in Australia or in Scandinavia where religion still exists. But it’s kind of at the margins. People don’t take it that seriously. And the Enlightenment values of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and tolerance will prevail. So I do think there’s hope, but it does take time. And it is very critical how we train our children in terms of the adult population. 

I wonder whether there isn’t an opportunity. You were talking earlier about this kind of cognitive dissonance that people can have when they’re very, very well-trained science scientists on the one hand. And yet, on the other hand, they believe all of these crazy things about. About what went on in the Middle East thousands of years ago on the basis of no evidence. And then how the cosmos might be much younger than it is. 

All sorts of other religious ideas. And I suspect that part of why so many people are religious and part of why they’re able to do that is because we’ve all felt a sense of the divine. We’ve all been we’ve all had those moments of transcendence that we’re sitting on top of a mountain of. Sunrise or something, and you have this sense of extraordinary awe, and if the only context into which to put that or is a prepackaged set of dogmatic religious beliefs, then that sense of awe, that sense of profundity, of something far faster than yourself is going to filter into that prepackage set of beliefs. If you can encourage people to decouple that and to see that that sense of awe is actually a human psychological, you can call it spiritual experience, it’s certainly transcendent, but it doesn’t actually tell us anything about history or about cosmology that a Muslim who has that experience will take it as evidence that Mohammed was divine. 

Christian, who has that experience, will take it as evidence that Jesus was divine and so on and so on and so on. 

Then maybe religious people won’t feel so threatened by attacks on their dogma if they can still retain their sense of the divine. I don’t know how one does that, but I just sort of saw that glimpse of an opening when you were talking about the cognitive dissonance thing. 

Yeah. I think I think that that’s definitely a hopeful approach. I, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m a nature lover myself. I do a lot of hiking. And I have definitely felt like what you’ve described. That’s that feeling of awe and and that almost mystical or spiritual connection to nature. 

When I’m on top of a mountain, for example, I think another another possible way out and other possible helpful approach is pluralism. The the idea that we should try to think of religions as if you’re if you’re going to be religious at all, you should try to think of religions as the imperfect attempt of imperfect humans to try to comprehend something divine, something spiritual, something mystical, something God like that is beyond human understanding. If you can have that belief, not approach to it, then you start to see all religions, first of all, as a product of human minds, not as the perfect word of God. And you see all religions as having maybe some element of truth to them. But none of them is absolute truth. And then then you start to get away from this exclusivist ingroup, outgroup kind of thinking, then you can start to see your you’re a Muslim and you’re a Christian and you’re a Buddhist neighbors as doing sort of the same thing you’re doing. 

They’re just trying to do it in their own way. But they’re they’re we’re we’re all sort of seeking the same kind of thing. So with this pluralistic approach to religion, I think it’s a very nice, helpful approach that makes religion a safer thing. 

It’s pragmatically useful. But a lot of atheists don’t have a lot of time for it. The people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins will will say that all sounds very nice, is nice. But I’d certainly rather a moderate religious person believe that they are praying to the same God as as Muslims and Christians and Jews will be. That’s better than them blowing themselves up and down a war with each other. But to tolerate that is to tolerate this sort of background level of irrationality. That’s not particularly helpful. And we’d be better off if everyone jettisoned their irrational beliefs and were fully secular. Even if that’s a pie in the sky ideal, it’s one worth shooting for. 

Yeah, I know where they’re coming from. And I can I can I can see I can see that point of view. I’m not sure it’s entirely realistic, though, for that, for the reasons we’ve been discussing that that religion does have these very powerful forces behind it, these these powerful forces that human nature, these powerful intuitions. 

I think, like I said, if we if we teach our children well, we can we can make religion a much more much less dangerous thing, something much less serious, something sort of at the margins of society. And we can foster rational thinking, scientific thinking above nature, emphasizing the importance of using empirical evidence to discover truth. We can teach these things the skills. Well, I don’t think we’ll ever fully purge religious thinking from human beings. I think, you know, we’d probably be better off if we could. 

But I just don’t think it’s likely to happen. Jack Watney, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Great to talk to you. My pleasure. Thank you very much. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.