Demystifying the psychology of religion

From from the warring gods of the ancient Greeks to the benevolent God of Judeo-Christianity, the history of religion is long and convoluted. Equally diverse are the practices — lighting the Shabbat candles, taking the sacrament, kneeling in prayer in the direction of Mecca — that have, over time, become the time-honored religion rituals so familiar to us today. But for Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, there is another aspect of religious history worth considering: the origins of religion itself. Contributing reporter Katie Falloon investigates.

“What I’m interested in is the other story — what all religions have in common,” he said. “These universals of religion come from aspects of peoples’ brains that everybody shared and that emerged early in development.”

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From documenting our propensity to believe in teleological (purpose-based) explanations for natural phenomena to the widely held belief that humans possess a soul, a myriad of psychological studies — conducted both here at Yale and at peer universities — now suggest that our brains may be hard-wired to believe in religion.

“The universal themes of religion are not learned,” Bloom said. “They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems.”

THE COGNITIVE FOUNDATIONS

Bloom, who has studied the development of morality in children in the context of religion, believes that there are three foundations for religion: creationism, animism — the belief that all sorts of things are intentional and alive — and common-sense dualism — or the belief that a divide exists between the mind and body.

People are creationists by nature, so they look for design in the natural world, Bloom explained. In fact, Deb Kelemen, associate professor of psychology at Boston University, has recently found evidence that among children aged 6 to 10, many believe things in nature exist for a purpose and were created by an intentional designer.

People are also by nature animists. Animism, Bloom explained, is not a bad trait to have from the perspective of natural selection. If, for instance, an animal were to hear a rustling in the bushes, it would be in the animal’s best interests to assume the noise was caused by a living entity and to act accordingly. Failure to do so could result in death.

And, in that sense, we are not so very different from animals.

“People see clouds moving or a pattern of light or basically any non-random structure as the product or action of a divine creature,” Bloom said, “It’s not hard to see how animism could lead to religious belief.”

Adults have also shown a belief in the body and soul as two separate entities. Bloom calls this “common-sense dualism.”

“We are all common-sense dualists,” he said. “People naturally see themselves as separate from their bodies.”

Bloom explained that people naturally assume they can leave their bodies, through something as ordinary as sleep or as mystical as astral projection. Many also believe that the soul can leave the body after death, that it is a distinct entity capable of eternal existence.

People thus see themselves as two parts of one whole — a view that science has rejected, but many nevertheless still find appealing.

For common-sense dualism is comforting, and so too is religion itself, Bloom said.

“Religion offers meaning. It says you can live forever,” Bloom said.

LOOKING FOR A PURPOSE

A related cognitive explanation for religion comes from Kelemen, whose research supports the idea that humans are naturally inclined to accept teleological explanations for natural phenomena — an explanation that is similar to Bloom’s concept of animism. For example, humans have shown a bias toward intentional explanations of events, such as believing that involuntary acts (sneezing, for example) happen “on purpose.”

“This intentionality bias may make children prone to over-extending their knowledge of an intention-based domain to the natural world, such that they somehow see everything as existing because of intentional design,” Kelemen said.

Nevertheless, Kelemen believes other factors may be playing a role as well. Children may ascribe purpose to phenomena because they are very sensitive to social cues or because they believe the natural objects themselves have a kind of intentionality and vitality. As a result, children are receptive to cultural representations of God, she said.

And it’s not just children who have hunches about purpose in nature. There is evidence that adults, too, rely on teleological explanations in certain circumstances.

Kelemen has shown, for example, that Alzheimer’s patients resort to teleological explanations for phenomena as their memory fades, which suggests that teleology is a part of the way our brains are wired. Even among healthy, educated adults, teleology can still play a role in thought processes. In a recent study, Kelemen had undergraduate students judge a series of statements as “good” (i.e. correct) or “bad” (i.e. incorrect) explanations for why certain phenomena occur.

She found that when pressed for time, participants were much more likely to deem correct teleological explanations that are scientifically untrue, such as “the sun radiates heat because warmth nurtures life.” In fact, at fast speeds, participants endorsed 47 percent of the teleological explanations they were given.

A PERSPECTIVE FROM DARWIN

Still, other pyschologists argue that religion’s origins may also lie in a more scientific process: natural selection.

Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos explained that speculations about the evolutionary origins of religion as a byproduct of other processes are plausible but still remain very uncertain.

“All human cultures have religious belief,” she said. “Religions often involve costly commitments and public displays of one beliefs. It’s clear that these capacities are adaptive, so it makes sense to consider the possibility that religion emerged as a byproduct.”

Some researchers see religion as the byproduct of the evolution of other cognitive processes, such as the ability to reason about the actions of agents.

Others consider religious beliefs to be an exaptation — a trait that may have begun as an accidental byproduct — but became useful in its own right, she said.

Bloom himself falls into this latter camp of theorists.

“My own work suggests that [religion] is a byproduct of how we naturally think about people — and to a large extent, an accidental byproduct,” Bloom said.

Religion is certainly useful from an emotional perspective, and another reason for its prevalence may be that people simply like it. In fact, in addition to his three cognitive foundations, Bloom argues for the emotional appeal of religion.

“Religion offers all sorts of pleasures,” Bloom said, citing sociality — togetherness — ritual and transcendence.

Bloom is interested in the nature of pleasure itself and is currently writing a book that will explore all kinds of pleasures — from religion to shopping — from the perspective of psychology.

And the pleasure, origins and history of religion are sure to remain a topic of further study since the universal themes of religion aren’t going away any time soon. As Bloom wrote in his article, “They are part of human nature.”

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