Evolving a Belief in God

Originally published by the Guardian 9th June 2008


The idea that humans are in some way special or set above all other species is an old one. Creation mythologies frequently see humans given dominion over the whole world as a result of recognising the god figure. The theory of evolution undermines this concept of superiority by demonstrating that humans are subject to the same evolutionary pressures as all other living things, hence the antipathy between evolutionary science and religious believers. However, as discussed from a religious perspective by Joanna Collicutt in her recent article, research in cognitive neuroscience suggests that religious belief is “hardwired” into our brains, through a desire to attach agency and purpose to inanimate objects and the most impersonal forces.

From an evolutionary perspective, the idea that a belief in God might be hardwired into the brain is as intriguing as it is problematic. Humans are a relatively recent evolutionary phenomenon. Our story goes back a mere 7m years and our own species, Homo sapiens, only appeared 200,000 years ago in Africa. We are not even the only species to which the term “human’ can be applied. Compelling evidence suggests that 2m years ago Homo ergaster, an African ancestor, was caring for the terminally sick, while the Neanderthals wore clothes, made jewellery and buried their dead (possibly with medicinal plants adorning the corpse) – sound familiar? Although there are some anatomical and behavioural differences that mark Homo sapiens as different from preceding human species, the similarities are far greater. The archaeological record points towards the gradual development of ever more complex human behaviours over millions of years, so when, if ever, did this predisposition to religious belief appear in the evolutionary process? Can we really accept the idea that a belief in God was actively selected for by natural selection in Pleistocene Africa?

The simple answer is that it was not belief in God that was being selected for, rather intelligence, imagination and empathy: just because for the past few thousand years we have used our brains to do something does not mean that is why it appeared in the first place. Our massive intelligence, and in turn, capacity for creating gods, was most likely the result of needing to manipulate and control our interactions with each other – then natural selection in turn favouring larger and larger brains. To use a computer analogy, our brain has almost limitless spare processing power, which can be put to millions of different uses. The creation of religions is simply one of these different tasks, just as music and engineering are others. We are not hardwired to have religious thoughts, to imagine otherwise detracts from the simplicity and beauty of the evolutionary process. We simply have limitless imagination – not so much a gift from God as a realisation borne of Darwinian thought.


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