Having studied psychology for only a year I must admit I am only something of an armchair expert so this article is going to lean heavily on several sources. One is this most excellent and totally non-heinous video by the great Darkmatter2525 – Watch the video here
Another source is from a book gifted to me by one of my fellow writers here Colin Jones. The book is titled “why we believe in god(s) by J. Anderson Thomas Junior., MD
Indoctrination from childhood and propensity to believe
We are born with an innate trust for our parents. We hang on their every word and soak in everything they impart to us in our young, maturing, sponge like brains. We are innocent and naive. I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but am a fallen christian for a couple of decades now, yet when an ambulance whizzes past I still have to fight the urge to make the sign of the cross on myself as I was raised to believe this ritual would in some way help the person inside the vehicle. This really sucks as I now live next to a hospital, but it is evidence of the effect of what I was taught by family members as a child. I know now that it won’t, that their fate is in the hands of the paramedics and other various medical staff that will attend to them, yet the urge is always there.
I was 3 years old when I started primary school. Already primed with bedtime biblical stories I was sent to a catholic primary school where I was subjected to 1 hour a day of bible class for the next 8 years. As an infant we were praised for already knowing the tales we were studying and the new trust relationships forming with those now imparting knowledge was forming. The new trusted educators were relaying bible stories as true fact. Why would I question them at this young and formative age? Well I wouldn’t, it would be very rare for a child to and the church relies on this. They try to get to you before you are 8 years old when the ability to reason is such that you can form clear questions. They want you to already be accepting of their myths by then. This is how indoctrination works and our propensity to believe those we innately trust.
Davidian has written an article which you can read here which goes in too much more detail regarding trust.
Familial, peer and geographical pressures
We can usually determine that which is a ridiculous claim from something that can be shown to be true, however if you have been raised in a house where all your family believe a ridiculous claim, and this house is on a street where all the people believe the ridiculous claim and that street is in a county/region where everyone believes this ridiculous claim and finally that region is in a country where everyone believes that ridiculous claim then your view is skewed(or perhaps screwed). It will appear to you that anyone not believing that ridiculous claim is the one to be ridiculed or pitied perhaps, or just plain wrong. You are less likely to apply the same rigours you would usually apply to discern that which is real. The ridiculous claim is taught from a young age and reinforced by the trusted people and the large community, add to that many years of this being reinforced and the ridiculous claim is well seated in the person’s mind as “the norm”. Thank you Darkmatter2525
Need to assign agency and attachment
We are home alone and we hear a noise or see a movement. Our heart skips a beat as we automatically assign an agent to the event, this is known as Hyperactive Agency Detection and is an evolved protection mechanism. We assume the presence of the otherwise undetected as we have a propensity to humanise most everything. We mistake a shadow for a burglar, but not a burglar for a shadow. The limb of a tree outside our bedroom window was conceived as a bogeyman when we were children. See how it works? Similarily our ancestors assigned agents to occurrences such as a bolt of lightning to Zeus or Thor or a tidal wave to Poseidon, or more recently earthquakes to Jehova because of same-sex marriage. A divine attachment figure. This carries through to creation myths and is a fallacious argument we hear quite often. The earth exists so it must have a creator, divine attachment when it can be explained naturally.
God the father, the catholic priest we call Father, the nun we call sister or the mother superior, the monk that we call brother. This is really tapping into formed neural networks we have already associated with trusted family members. When young and helpless these are the people we would have turned to and organised religion has latched on to this. They have adopted “caretaker” names. We can look back through the fossil record to see remains of our early ancestors. We can see those that were abandoned as they would slow down the tribe, this is prevalent in our earlier ancestors who had not yet evolved the brain capacity to employ empathy, then in later hominids we see fossils of remains that could not have survived as long as they did unless cared for by the tribe. the birth of empathy which also tied in with larger cranium sizes, particularly in the area of the brain where empathy is processed. These attachments are rife throughout life, the family pet the child’s blanket, and the indoctrinated theist to their deity(s). Also plays in to kinship.
This ties in nicely with the associations to authority figures. The father and the mother, add in a uniform and respect from the community and the cleric/pastor is elevated, and is considered an authority when he is telling you a god exists.
One glaring association we have for attachment is the “Upsy” gesture of an infant. The arms outstretched to be held safely by its caretaker. Look familiar??
Ego and vanity
- a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
It doesn’t play well to many people’s ego or naturally occurring vanity that we are less hairy, upright walking apes. Many would prefer to believe(incorrectly) that we are a chosen people and the highest amongst all organisms on this earth. To imagine that we are animals is just too much of a kick to the vanities that it could not be considered, no matter what DNA evidence or phylogeny shows to be fact. Cognitive dissonance of the highest order, and look there is a book which makes us Daddy’s favourite child, insert scripture here to support confirmation bias
And guess what, we are also made in his “most perfect” image and designed to similar perfection, well as the story goes. We need to ignore the triple curved spine, the need for hip and knee replacements, the appendix that is ready to kill us, the air intake hose next to the food entry hose and please don’t forget to wipe front to back!!
Mind, body and soul
Studies showed if a child is shown a puppet mouse being eaten by a puppet crocodile and is then asked if the mouse could still eat and would it miss its mother, they are most likely to know it can no longer eat but they believe it can still miss its mother. They automatically split body actions from mind. An assumed duality, a separation of the physical action and mental action or a split of the mind and body. For the proposition of a soul to be conceivable there must be a duality and this experiment shows the duality is hardwired in to us. The children attributed to a dead mouse a mental state that they were unable to conceive no longer existed.
Decoupled cognition and theory of mind mechanisms
Mind reading? Of sorts yes. We have developed skills to read people’s facial expressions and body language. We evaluate likely thoughts and feelings in others. This sets us up for set behavioural patterns for those invisible agents we assume to exist. We already saw we personify them, now we get to attribute certain human traits and behaviours.
Picture being back at school and realising in the morning before class that you have forgotten to do a piece of homework. We can quite accurately imagine the response we will receive from our teacher. This is no different to what early humans did while writing their scripture. If we behave in this manner our god will do this or that!!
We rehearse our apology in advance as we try to figure the best way to butter up the teacher. This is decoupled cognisance.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; Exodus 20:5
Above they assign a human trait they know and understand to the god
Forgive us our sins and those who have sinned against us – The Lord’s Prayer
Here is an example of the rehearsed apology and a buttering up of the deity because they believe that asking for salvation of others in the same breath as their own selfish request may appease their god.
Mind theory is how to appease that god while working in conjunction with him – Building a temple in his honour, this will please him. If he is pleased we will have good fortune.
Thank you Dr Thompson – I did a little more than summarise your words here.
First order “I believe”
Second order “I believe that God wants”
Third order “I believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent”
Fourth order “I want you to believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent”
Fifth order “I want you to know that we both believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent”
A social relationship is formed. A shared intensionality.
In days gone by many religious ceremonies were accompanied by ritual drug taking. Great fun I am sure, but under the right circumstances our brains are more than capable of releasing naturally occurring powerful brain chemicals manufactured within our own bodies that creates an equally powerful natural high. This simple physical chemical reaction is conceived by many believers to be a spirit entering their body and touching their very soul…. Just ask the ancient Kung San tribe from Africa or the Australian Aborigines. Homo sapien religious ritual can be traced back to these 2 ancient people’s. Stemming from very different parts of the world yet their rituals share striking similarities, song and dance and trance like states. Activities which engage some of those previously mentioned powerful brain chemicals. The birth of religious fervour, throw in a crowd and you have group fervour. Serotonin and dopamine are released in these activities. More so if we are engaging in movement, the more strenuous the more will be released. Pleasure responses in the brain firing like crazy. Lets add some epinephrine, norepinephrine, endorphines and finally some oxytocin, the love chemical. The chemical released in great amounts at childbirth which help the bond between mother and child.
By chance our ancestors discovered activities to set all these chemicals free, creating highs and formulating bonds between it’s practitioners. Religion, most likely from the Latin “Religare” which translates to bond or tie.
As tribes split then some added rituals or others omitted some, then associations were formed with those that do the same rituals. This is seen still today in the various sects of various religions.
Our inner voice or the voice of a god
Dr Michael Persinger conducted a series of experiments in the 1980’s using “The God Helmet”. He blocked sight and sound perception and used his helmet to generate magnetic waves that stimulated the temporal lobes. The subjects reported feeling the presence of “another”. The religious subjects described it as their god. Persinger used this to argue that we do not possess the capability to fully distinguish between the self and the feeling of the presence of god if we are primed to believe a deity exists. The god feeling can be induced.
Also the temporal lobe is critical for speech, hearing the voice of god is simply your own internal voice, compounded by persons with frontal lobe epilepsy relaying heavy religious experiences while fitting. Was Paul or Muhammed a sufferer?
Studies from Pennsylvania University show high frontal lobe activity during chanting by monks, speaking in tongues by Pentecostals and monks meditating. Go figure!!
A need for justice
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We are all familiar Exodus 21:24
From a young age it is noticed we crave a fairness. As we get older we see are exposed to more acts of evil occurring globally. We have a justice system which deals with those caught and convicted of their crimes. Some get away with it and we as a species crave them to be punished so it is nice to have a safety net that if they get away with it in this life then they can not sneak it past a god in the next and will receive their punishment there. Our lust for justice abated by our spiritual caretaker father. Job done!!
So there you have it. A brief(2200 words later) glance in to the psychology and neuroscience of belief. There is much that has been left out and research continues. . There is a feel good factor from chemical release, from having a caretaker protector at hand and from social bonds. A norm is set in communities and by those we trust so this shapes belief, anything else is alien, but it all boils down to it all being in the mind of the individual!!
A short paper titled : Brain Networks Shaping Religious Belief
If you got this far then thank you for reading – Alan T. A.
Thanks again to Darkmatter2525 and especially Colin Jones and Dr J. Anderson Thomas Junior., MD
Sources: why we believe in god(s) ISBN 978-098449321