Elizabeth Culotta writes the 11th essay in Science's series in honor of the Year of Darwin, which explores the human propensity to believe in unseen deities. She describes a new field:'the cognitive science of religion', which draws on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to understand the mental building blocks of religious thought. Here are a few slightly edited clips from the essay:
...there remains a yawning gap between the material evidence of the archaeological record and the theoretical models of psychologists. Archaeological objects fall short of revealing our ancestors' minds while on the psychological side more evidence is needed.
...Many researchers take the use of symbols as a clue to budding spirituality. As far back as 100,000 years ago, people at the South African site of Blombos Cave incised pieces of ochre with geometric designs, creating the first widely recognized signs of symbolic behavior.
...While archaeologists trace the outward expressions of religious and symbolic behavior, another group of researchers is trying to trace more subtle building blocks of religious belief, seeking religion's roots in our minds.
...According to the emerging cognitive model of religion, we are so keenly attuned to the designs and desires of other people that we are hypersensitive to signs of "agents": thinking minds like our own... a "hypertrophy of social cognition" leads us to attribute random events or natural phenomena to the agency of another being.
...young children prefer "teleological," or purpose-driven, explanations rather than mechanical ones for natural phenomena...in several studies British and American children in first, second, and fourth grades were asked whether rocks are pointy because they are composed of small bits of material or in order to keep animals from sitting on them. The children preferred the teleological explanation. They give an animistic quality to the rock; it's protecting itself...we all from childhood have a bias to see the natural world as purposefully designed. It's a small step to suppose that the design has a designer.
...a hair-trigger agency detector could work with another sophisticated element of the human mind to make us prone to believe in gods: what's called theory of mind, or the understanding that another being has a mind with intentions, desires, and beliefs of its own.
...If you suspect that an agent was responsible for some mysterious event, it's a short step to thinking that the agent has a mind like your own. Higher order theory of mind enables you to represent mental states of beings not immediately or visibly present, and who could have a very different perspective than your own. That's what you need to have a rich representation of what it might be like to be a god. (It's also what is needed to have a functional religion, because people need to know that others share their beliefs.) As Darwin put it, humans developing religion "would naturally attribute to spirits the same passions, the same love of vengeance, or simplest form of justice, and the same affections which they themselves feel."
...Some fMRI studies lend support to this idea. When subjects in an fMRI scanner are asked to evaluate statements about God's emotions and relationships to humans, such as, "God is removed from the world" and "God is forgiving," the areas that light up, such as the inferior frontal gyrus on both sides of the brain, are also involved in theory of mind. This and other results argue against any special "god region" of the brain as some have suggested; rather, religious belief might co-opt widely distributed brain sectors, including many concerned with so-called theory of mind.
Many favor an additional class of explanations for why religion is so prominent in every culture: It promotes cooperative behavior among strangers and so creates stable groups. The hypothesis is that religion is actually adaptive: By encouraging helpful behavior, religious groups boost the biological survival and reproduction of their members. Adhering to strict behavioral rules may signal that a religion's members are strongly committed to the group and so will not seek a free ride, a perennial problem in cooperative groups