Why Belief Persists
Question from a reader: “Surely people have doubted their religions for centuries, yet all of the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Perhaps it is our more recent understanding of science that has helped fuel the growth of religious dissent. How is it that we can still have so many people DEEPLY devoted to religion in the face of all we know?
Well, the short answer to the last question is that old habits die hard. And religion is a very old habit–a habit which evolved tens of thousands of years ago while the human brain was still developing. The human brain tends to naturally believe in gods because in our prehistoric past belief in the tribal myths conferred various survival advantages.
On one level, humans have a natural tendency to over-infer agency; we are predisposed to see threats to our existence everywhere. We tend to assume the worst–that the stick shaped like a snake is, in fact, a snake. A noise in the underbrush could be a predator. Natural selection of course would favor individuals who successfully avoided predators. And that’s a big reason why humans today still see agency everywhere, even where it’s not. The old Christian hymn “This is My Father’s World” expresses this primitive impulse: “In the rustling grass I hear Him pass; He speaks to me everywhere.”
Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes also discovered that devotion to the gods was an effective tool for tribal cohesion. The threats and rewards of religion motivated people to sacrifice and even die for the tribe. In the prehistoric world of almost constant inter-tribal conflict, the tribe with the strongest religion would survive and the genetic algorithm for religiosity would proliferate. It’s a little bit of an over-simplification, but not much.
So why do people still believe? Because belief is in our DNA. Science, however, having emerged long after the human brain evolved does not come naturally to us.
In your question you said that all the major religions have continued to grow and thrive. Actually that seems to be changing fairly quickly. In the parts of the world with access to better education, religion is stagnating or declining. There are very few believing Christians left in Western Europe. Religious Buddhism (as opposed to the non-theistic philosophy) hit a wall in Japan a long time ago. And this week the Southern Baptist Convention reported a loss of members for the fifth year in a row, which is astonishing for this powerhouse evangelical denomination. I think it’s a pretty clear indication of where the culture is going.