The Biological Roots of Religion
Is Faith in Our Genes?
by Morton Hunt
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 3.
Why are atheists so different from the overwhelming majority of humankind? Why don't
they need to believe in a god of any traditional sort - and most of them not even in a
primary force who merely lit the fuse of the Big Bang and then let everything take its own
Are they simply more intelligent than almost everybody else? I'm willing to believe
they're smarter and more knowledgeable about reality than club-wielding hunter-gatherers,
or the members of the Christian Coalition. But can I suppose they're more intelligent than
such profoundly religious believers as Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Newton,
William James, or even Einstein? Or, for that matter, the majority of today's American
scientists, who, according to surveys, profess some kind of religious belief? 
But the obverse of my puzzlement is far more mystifying: Why have nearly all human
beings in every known culture believed in God or gods and accepted the customs, dogmas,
and institutional apparatus of an immense array of different religions?
Belief Without Evidence
What makes this so strange is that we human beings have survived, multiplied, and come
to dominate the earth by virtue of our innate tendency to solve problems by taking note of
cause-and-effect relationships and making use of them - by observing and using empirical
data ranging from the superior flight of an arrow when feathered to the extraordinary
expansion of our cognitive powers achieved with computers.
Yet while this indicates that the human mind is basically pragmatic, nearly every human
being during recorded history (and to judge from archeological evidence much of
prehistory) has held religious beliefs based on no empirical evidence whatever. To be
sure, our ancestors of the Homeric and Pentateuchal era often thought they heard the gods
talking to them in their minds and sometimes thought they saw them, and even today some
mentally ill people, and others who are technically sane but exceedingly pietistic, think
they hear God speaking to them or see some fleeting divine apparition. But the great
majority of believers neither hear nor see such things. While many sometimes experience a
surge of feeling in touch with the divine, the world's believers see not their gods but
idols, symbols, and documents representing or telling about their gods.
What other evidence might there be? Many kinds, all highly dubious; real-world events
interpreted as God's handiwork can almost always be explained in commonsense or scientific
terms. Moreover, the occurrences of miraculous events are almost never weighed against the
occurrences of comparable nonevents. We often read in the news of some adorable child
dying of inoperable cancer who was marvelously cured when the whole town prayed - but
never of the cases in which equally fervent praying did not save the lives of equally
adorable children. Nobody remembers them, because human beings have a tendency toward
"confirmation bias," as psychologists call it - we remember events that confirm
our beliefs but forget those that do not, which is probably why 69% of adults in a recent
poll said they believe in miracles. 
Although realistic knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships has been accumulating
over the three centuries of the era of science, it has not eliminated religion. Some
believers modify their beliefs to accommodate that evidence, while others reinterpret it
most extraordinarily (the fundamentalists say that the geological and fossil traces of
earth's history and of evolution were made by God and planted in the ground during the six
days of Creation).
Religion has survived the vast expansion of scientific knowledge by adaptation; except
for fundamentalism, it has minimized explaining in supernatural terms whatever can be
better explained in natural ones and focused instead on phenomena that cannot be tested or
disproved, such as God's mercy, the existence of soul, and the afterlife. Accordingly,
more than 90% of American adults still believe in God or some form of Higher Being, a
large minority have experienced the feeling of being born again,  and only 10% hold a view of evolution in which
God plays no part. 
Why, to repeat my central question, do people need religion?
God and Sociobiology
An answer I find persuasive, congruous with historical and social-scientific evidence,
and parsimonious is given by sociobiology, the new branch of human behavioral science
popularized in 1975 by Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University and now offered in many
universities. (In what follows, I draw primarily on three of Wilson's books and on a
recent sociobiological study of religion by Professor Walter Burkert of the University of
Sociobiology holds that in considerable part human behavior is based on our biology -
specifically, by gene-directed tendencies developed in us by evolution. We eat, sleep,
build shelters, make love, fight, and rear our young in a wide variety of human fashions
because, sociobiologists say, through the process of natural selection interacting with
social influences we developed genetic predispositions to behave in ways that ensured our
survival as a species. Complex interactions among numerous genes give us the capacity
and inclination to develop into people who are either more or less violent, more
or less altruistic, monogamous or polygamous, Muslim or Catholic, or whatever - depending
on how our upbringing, experiences, and the myriad influences on us of the culture we are
immersed in elicit the potentialities within those congeries of genes.
That's how the individual develops. But how did we come to have a genome that
incorporates such developmental possibilities? That's where Wilson's theory comes in. His
latest version of his theory centers on what he calls "gene-culture
coevolution." He proposes that certain physiologically based preferences channel the
development of culture (an example might be the development in every society of some form
of family life in response to the infant's and mother's need for continuing sustenance and
protection). On the other hand, certain cultural influences reciprocally favor the
selection and evolution of particular genetic tendencies (an example might be society's
inhibition of uncontrolled aggression and its favoring of people with built-in
responsiveness to social control of aggression).
To see how interaction works, consider the case of language. (This is my example, not
Wilson's.) No other animal has anything remotely like our language capacity. That's
because only the human brain has two specialized zones, Broca's Area and Wernicke's Area,
both on the left side, in which the neurons are so connected as to form a mechanism that
recognizes the relationships among the words in sentences. No actual language is prewired
in those areas; no child, raised apart from the sound of language, has ever spontaneously
spoken. But our brains evolved in such a way that every normal toddler can spontaneously
figure out what people around him or her are saying, no matter what words and grammar they
are using. The evidence of prehistoric skull sizes and shapes, ancient artifacts, and the
customs of primitive peoples indicates that the immense advantages of linguistic
communication favored individuals with greater neurological capacity for verbal
communication, and that culture and genetics coevolved to produce the modern human brain
and the resultant thousands of human languages.
This is a paradigm for the development of religion. As Professor Burkert puts it:
"We may view religion, parallel to language ... , as a long-lived hybrid between
cultural and the biological traditions." 
He maintains that we have biological tendencies and capacities that cause us to need,
learn, value, and practice religion - not any specific religion, of course, but any one of
the thousands of religions that, despite the vast differences among them, all tend to
fulfill similar needed functions for individuals and, just as important, for the society
they live in.
The primary needs met by religion, sociobiologists say, were the allaying of fear and
the explanation of the world's many mystifying phenomena. With the development of the
brain's capacity for language, humans beings were able to develop concepts and have
experiences that had been unavailable to prehumans, among them the consciousness of risk
and of death, of time, the past, and the future; of reward and punishment; puzzlement
about natural phenomena; the satisfactions of problem-solving; and aesthetic pleasure,
wonder, and awe.
But verbal and conceptual ability also had rich rewards. Primitive humans developed a
sense of awe at the wonders they could now think about: birth, the return of life in
spring, the rainbow - and with that sense of awe came a need to explain those wonders.
Human beings' new cognitive powers yielded the joys of recognizing health returning after
sickness, hardships survived, crops harvested, problems solved, wrongs righted, and the
aesthetic pleasure yielded by the many beauties of the world around them.
Early humans, and most humans to this day, make sense of all these mystifying negative
and positive experiences by means of religion.
If there is evil in the world, it is, in some religions, the work of an evil deity -
Ahriman, Satan, Asmodeus, Loki - but in other religions, it is the product of evil desires
in human beings. Against the uncertainties and dangers of the future, people pray, asking
the deity to make all turn out well. Against the misery of losing a loved one or the fear
of one's own death, people seek reassurance that they will live after death in some other
realm. Against injustice, inequality, the desperate unfairness of life, what better
consolation than to expect a just and generous reward in heaven by a loving Father? And
conversely, when things go well, when the world is beautiful, when people are surrounded
by those they love and enjoy the rewards of their work, what is more natural than to give
heartfelt thanks to the supposed source of good things?
Religion thus met the newly evolving human need to understand and control life.
Religion serves the same purposes as science and the arts - "the extraction of order
from the mysteries of the material world," as Wilson puts it  - but in the prescientific era there was no other
source of order except for philosophy, which was comprehensible only to a favored few and
in any case was nowhere nearly as emotionally satisfying as religion.
Still another major function of religion was to act as a binding and cementing social
force. I quote Wilson again: "Religion is ... empowered mightily by its principal
ally, tribalism. The shamans and priests implore us in somber cadence, Trust in the
sacred rituals, become part of the immortal force, you are one of us."  Religious propitiation and sacrifice -
near-universals of religious practice - are acts of submission to a dominant being and
Religion thus helped meet the need of human beings to live together. That need is
biologically based: We require social life to thrive emotionally - and, in fact,
physically. Recent evidence shows that people who live alone have less immune resistance
to disease than people who live with spouses or partners. But social living requires some
system of hierarchical leadership in order to avoid endless fighting over food, sex, and
other benefits. You've seen all this on television documentaries of life among troops of
chimpanzees and baboons. The human creation of various systems of social control is a
response to biological urges we inherit from our prehuman ancestors.
But early peoples were aware that certain inexplicable and mighty forces - earthquakes,
drought, epidemics - that affected their lives were beyond the control of their leaders.
It was only natural that they should suppose that these forces were the work of unseen
things analogous to their leaders but far more powerful, and whom they regarded with fear,
awe, and respect. From early times to the present, in nearly every religion, God or the
gods are the "lords" of creation, rulers whom all humans, including emperors and
presidents, must obey and revere. So in addition to whatever form of social governance and
leadership human beings developed, they also sought the leadership and help of shamans,
medicine men, priests, or other special people who could mediate between them and the
spirits or gods, and adopted acts of submission ritual to placate and please those
deities. But of course these religious beliefs and practices relieved the leaders of
society of the blame when things went wrong; religion thus bolstered social governance.
For all these reasons, says Wilson, "Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a
great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving." The human mind
evolved to believe in the gods even as religious institutions became built-ins of society.
Although biologists have been able to pinpoint a few genes responsible for certain
specific disorders, the genetic basis of any specific form of human behavior is almost
certainly due not to a single gene but the intricate interplay of numerous genes. Which
ones, however, is still largely undetermined, although it seems certain that in time the
details will be spelled out.
The evidence sociobiologists offer is inferential - a set of reasonable and persuasive
deductions from what we know about human evolution, human mental abilities, and early
religions, including such preliterate evidence as the ceremonial burial objects and wall
drawings of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. Sociobiologists say that all this evidence
strongly supports their theory of religion, for since no other living species exhibits any
such behavior, religion must have been a product of evolving human biological traits.
But Burkert says that biological roots of religion are even deeper than, and predate,
language, though gaining power and richness when language arrives. One is the device used
by many animals of sacrificing a part of themselves in order to escape from danger. Some
spiders' legs break off easily and continue to twitch for a while to distract a predator
while the spider escapes. Lizards' tails snap off easily, remaining in the grip of the
attacker while the lizard makes a getaway and grows a new tail. Some birds, under attack,
suddenly shed a mass of feathers, leaving the attacker with a mouthful of fluff while the
expected meal disappears.
Human analogs of this behavior exist as religious rituals - sacrifices of desirable
possessions to the gods in order to escape ill fortune, such as pouring wine on the
ground, slaughtering and burning a valuable animal, giving money to help build a temple.
And there are many examples of far more serious sacrifices performed to placate God, such
as the self-castrations performed by certain devout early Christians and by the Skoptsi,
seventeenth-century Russian religious fanatics. And giving up sexual activity altogether,
along with parenthood and family life, as priests and nuns have done for centuries, is
surely as extreme a sacrifice of the part for the whole as physical mutilation.
Thus, biology is the basis of the many ritualistic submission acts in human religions.
The most general such act, relatively innocuous, is to bend or to bow.  Muslims prostrate themselves on the floor;
Catholics and some Protestants kneel in prayer; people of nearly all denominations bow
their heads submissively in prayer or meditation. Some worshipers beat their chests, weep
and cry out, tear their clothes and throw ashes on themselves, crawl for miles on their
hands and knees, lash their naked bodies with chains. Even these observances are small
potatoes compared to the nauseating acts of devotion of many medieval saints.
A more tasteful genre of biologically based religious behaviors concern cleanliness.
Keeping the body clean is a basic necessity for all higher animals, some of whom bathe,
others preen, still others groom each other, for the benefit of their bodily functions.  We human beings, too, have always taken care of
our persons, bathing, cutting out hair, shaving, and so on.
But being human, we conceive of another and far worse kind of dirt that pollutes us:
the impurity of wrongdoing. Our ancient ancestors cleansed themselves of wrongdoing
through rituals such as burnt offerings, prayer, and self-imposed hardships and
humiliations. The Christians improved greatly on all this: They transformed simple guilt
for wrongdoing into sin inherited, willy-nilly, from Adam and Eve. This created a whole
new religious industry made up of confession, penance, absolution, communion, and the
striving for a cleansed and perfect state, all of which was self-sustaining, since the
cleansed person, if normal, was bound to become morally dirty again in a little while.
And so, to sum up the sociobiological theory of the roots of religion: genetically
built into early human beings was a set of mental, emotional, and social needs that caused
culture to develop in certain ways - including the development of various religions - and
caused culture, reciprocally, to favor and select for evolution those human traits that
provided sociocultural advantages to the individuals possessing them.
"Religion," says Burkert, "follows in the tracks of biology ... [and] the
aboriginal invention of language ... yield[ing] coherence, stability, and control within
this world. This is what the individual is groping for, gladly accepting the existence of
nonobvious entities or even principles." 
The Unbeliever Puzzle
I return to the first of my puzzlements - Why are unbelievers different from the great
majority of their fellow human beings? They are not, however, unique, for throughout
civilized history a small minority have not needed supernatural religious explanations of
their own thoughts or of the mysteries, tragedies, and glories of everyday life. I refer
not just to out-and-out atheists but to that larger minority who have held or hold a
deistic concept of God or who regard the inherently consistent laws of nature, governing
the behavior of galaxies, genes, and quarks, with the awe and respect that others accord
to a more traditional God.
The best example of such a person actually predates modern science. It is Spinoza, for
whom God was coterminous with the actual universe, neither outside it nor above it but
identical with it and with all natural laws. For him, God was nothing more nor less than
the total corpus of those laws.
Perhaps current unbelievers are all contemporary Spinozists, sensitive to and in tune
with the god who pervades the universe - who is the universe - who is identical
with reality. Perhaps unbelievers do not so much reject the religious needs and impulses
of the human race as adapt to them in realistic and humanistic terms, replacing the fairy
tales of conventional religions with the more intellectually demanding tales, provided by
modern science, of natural laws and of the demonstrable, replicable evidence of
Perhaps unbelievers meet the basic human need for order and social integration within
the subsociety of science itself and its hierarchical structure. Perhaps for unbelievers
scientific humanism offers deeply satisfying answers to all those profound and troubling
mysteries that religion purports to answer, and unbelievers are comfortable with those
answers although they are incomplete and, no matter how our knowledge increases, will
remain so, with new discoveries always raising new and more complex questions about
Finally, perhaps unbelievers differ from the great majority of human beings in one
other way: possibly unbelievers are psychologically adult, needing no invisible parent
figure, able to face the reality of human life and death without fear (or at least live
with that fear), and too sensible to believe in anything that has no proof, any
explanation of the world that is either impossibile or absurdum.
But that's only a guess; perhaps I flatter unbelievers unreasonably; perhaps they're
not that special and wonderful. But I hope they are.
- A 1996 survey quoted in E. O. Wilson, Consilience (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1998), ca. p. 245.
- Time, April 10, 1995, p. 65.
- Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (New York: Bantam, 1979), pp. 176-77.
- Freethought Events and Planning Guide, November 29, 1998.
- Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
- Burkert, Creation of the Sacred, p. 20.
- Wilson, Consilience, p. 257.
- Ibid., p. 262.
- Burkert, p. 84-87.
- Burkert, p. 123.
- Burkert, p. 177.
Morton Hunt is the author of The Story of Psychology (1994) and The
New Know-Nothings: The Political Foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature
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