Caveman instincts may explain our belief in gods and ghosts

May 21, 2014 by Steve Kelly, The Conversation
Does mankind’s religious instinct date back to prehistoric times? Credit: iurri

Notions of gods arise in all human societies, from all powerful and all-knowing deities to simple forest spirits. A recent method of examining religious thought and behaviour links their ubiquity and the similarity of our beliefs to the ways in which human mental processes were adapted for survival in prehistoric times.

It rests on a couple of observations about human psychology. First, when an event happens, we tend to assume that a living thing caused it. In other words, we assume agency behind that event. If you think of the sorts of events that might have happened in , it's easy to see why a bias towards agency would be useful. A rustling of a bush or the snapping of a twig could be due to wind. But far better to assume it's a lion and run away.

The survivors who had this tendency to more readily ascribe agency to an event passed their genes down the generations, increasingly hard-wiring this way of making snap decisions into the brain. This is not something that people need to learn. It occurs quickly and automatically.

Empathic tendencies

The second trait is about how we view others. While living together in a tribe would have had many advantages for survival in prehistoric times, getting along with everyone would not always have been easy. Comprehending others' behaviour requires you to understand their thoughts and beliefs, especially where these may be incorrect due to someone not knowing the full facts of a situation.

This is known as "theory of mind". This idea says that we automatically assume that there are reasons behind others' behaviour which we try to work out in order to better understand why they behave the way they do. Not having this ability has been proposed to underlie developmental disorders such as autism.

You may be wondering what these two hard-wired processes have to do with belief in gods. Imagine a pebble falling in the back of a cave. Our agency device tells us that someone caused that to happen. With nothing in evidence, could it be an invisible creature or a spirit? If so, why would it be sneaking around? To find out secrets about us or to discover if we are good or bad people?

Another example might be a . In the absence of geological knowledge, our tribal ancestors' agency system would have ascribed this event to a person – but one that surely has superhuman ability. And why would they want to cause such destruction? Perhaps the eruption signified a punishment, perhaps because the tribe had not acted in accordance with the being's wishes.

The prehistoric posse. Credit: Robert Adrian Hillman
Of ghosts and gods

These two very simplistic examples should help illustrate how these hard-wired mechanisms could lead to the beginnings of a belief in gods, as well as ghosts and other supernatural creatures. Our ancestors would have drawn conclusions about supernatural occurrences by fitting together these instincts towards agency and the theory of mind.

This even applies to the Abrahamic, all-knowing, all powerful god. He may seem very inhuman at first glance, but it has been shown that we reason about Him in a very human way. For example we depict Him helping one person before moving to the other side of the world to help someone else. Hard-wired reasoning processes helps explain how religious ideas are so durable, spreading across continents and down through generations.

Both these and other ancient instincts appear to be in evidence from observations of children. Very young children seem to show very accurate understanding of physical laws. For example they know that two solid objects cannot merge into one or that horses do not have metal gears inside them. Developmental psychologists have suggested that children are intuitive biologists, physicists and – using – psychologists.

Sumus rosaceae!

Concepts which violate these intuitive understandings seem to be more memorable than others. A rose that whispers in Latin violates an intuitive understanding that plants do not have minds or mouths and therefore cannot whisper in an ancient language – or any language for that matter.

It may be that violating an intuitive concept draws special attention and interest and therefore helps embed the idea in memory. Many religious stories contain concepts that seem to violate this special kind of intuition, such as a man walking on water or a burning bush that talks. These tales take advantage of this feature of memory to successfully propagate themselves and resist being forgotten.

Putting these ideas together is one way of explaining religious thought and behaviour. You could go further and suggest that, if these ideas are correct, religion is merely a by-product of mental processes operating in error.

But this assumes that religious/supernatural experiences are not true. If the human mind was to truly experience a god, then the theories of agency and mind and our memory for the counterintuitive would help us make sense of it. If that were to happen, the conclusions would not be in error at all.

Explore further: Do brain connections help shape religious beliefs?

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2 / 5 (1) May 22, 2014
This model does not explain non-god religions such as Buddhism as well as atheist and agnostic beliefs (atheist, agnostic and no-religion form the biggest religious group in my state, Tasmania).

There is more than one form of spiritualism. Anthropomorphism, as described above, certainly has a prominent role in some forms. Agency, however, was ascribed to animals in earlier times, humans after that and 'luck' or 'destiny' in Chinese societies ~ non-human agency.

Modern times have included other spatial dimensions, parallel universes, unseen forces and other pseudo scientific models of non-human agency.

Thus the ability to ascribe 'agency' was certainly a contributor, but anthropomorphism and various forms of animism are all sub-types.

Further, worship, ritual, faith, ultimate cause or purpose and after-life beliefs are all other aspects of religion or spiritualism that have a central locus common with agency but not subordinate to it.
4 / 5 (3) May 22, 2014
It also fails to address what are probably (imho) quite important psychological forces in development of supernatural belief system: 1) Infancy and childhood memories of adults (all knowing, all powerful, mysterious, unfathomable, kind, cruel, malicious, loving, providers, teachers,... and 2) realization of aging and inevitable dying and death. Oh, I guess another one is our social nature; the need to NOT be "alone".
4.5 / 5 (6) May 22, 2014
I have always felt that spiritualism and religion were the product of constructed defense mechanisms to combat the grief caused by the loss of a family member or respected persons. i.e. Telling a child their mother has gone to heaven or has become a spirit, or convincing ones self of that very notion. Eventually someone figured out they could control people with these stories thru fear.

Voila, you have modern religion.

The reasons given by the authors and the other commentators seem to be valid also.
May 26, 2014
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5 / 5 (3) May 26, 2014
I think telepathy and clairvoyance are the biggest causes of religious beliefs.
Nobody knows what the process that sustains telepathy is but its real phenomenon and it threats to the survival of an organism are thought to open it to extra sensory perception.
If you are in danger of dying from a threat that all of your senses cannot help you with, evolution directed instinct opens you up to the thoughts of other people that might be taken on for advice. The voices the prophets heard in the wilderness often told them where to find water when they were dying of thirst etc.

The process that supports telepathy is leprechaun's who render unicorn carcasses with thermal cracking and the addition of dilithium crystals.

The whole process is explained well here: http://www.spring...athy.php
1 / 5 (2) May 27, 2014
Good article. A more fundamental element underlying both the components discussed in the piece is the brain's raison d'etre - to process causal relationships. Even atheistic religions are borne of a need to ascribe a causal narrative to otherwise intractable things, in much the same way as the projection of agents or the cause and effects of their intentions.

A prime example might be the Polynesian cargo cults, which reasoned that building runways and control towers and performing marching drills seemed a necessary condition for summoning down the planes full of incredible treasures.

Even pigeons have been shown to possess these rudimentary 'superstitious' tendencies... whatever the class of causal relationships - internal, social, environmental or whatever - processing and modelling them is arguably the whole point of having a brain..

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