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.”


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.


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.


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.”


  • Sociality and Togetherness

    Sociality and Togetherness?

    The Irish Catholic/protestant wars? the Arab Israeli Wars? The Crusades? A grisly kind of togetherness and sociality I'd say.

    As bertrand Russell says In "Why I Am NOT a Christian", just because human beings' minds are constructed in such a way that they look for cause and effect relationships, does not mean that the universe behaves in a cause and effect manner. Chaos and randomness are more likely.

  • use your head

    The only relevant thing that theists have in common is the refusal to hold reason as an absolute.

  • YDNY'er

    What is implied, but not stated, is that while religion may give comfort because an adherent believes he or she may live forever, it's ridiculous. As far as I'm concerned it's just magical thinking …. and superstitious nonsense.

  • love

    @ 1,

    The Rwandan genocide, WWI, WWII, the Holocaust (ethnically motivated, not religious), starvation during China's Cultural Revolution, slave trade, sex trafficking - all things caused not by religion.

    The civil rights movement, women's suffrage, the reconciliation commission of South Africa - all based on or led by religious members of society. Don't fail to mention the countless foreign aid workers or the clergy who visit prisoners and give grief counseling - all of whom are motivated by faith.

    Religion clearly plays an important role in our world, society, and individual's lives. Any mode of thought, religious or otherwise, (yes, even reason), can become corrupted to the degree that it detracts from the well-being of others. That doesn't make all of it bad, foolish, or wrong. Dare I say, some of it may even be Truth.

    "I still believe that standing up for the truth of God is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to do the will of God, come what may."
    - Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • L. Ron Mary Witten Baker Barak Eddy Adolf Joe Hubb

    Perhaps the most urgent application of this work is a thorough analysis of cults that ape the formalisms of science while eschewing actual scientific method, which can only be bottomed on hard observational evidence and relentless skepticism. One might call such cults “religoid.”

    The prototypes of religoid cults are, of course, the "cargo cults" of WWII island-hopping fame. Many global warming alarmists seem to follow a similar behavior pattern. It has often been noticed that many (but, of course, not all) of those advancing the most extreme claims of global warming alarmism are filled with a religious-like (religoid) fervor that, somewhat paradoxically, causes them to dismiss all skeptics of the highly incomplete and thinly supported (but perhaps correct) AGW theory as "deniers" and "anti-science," to claim that scientific discussion in this area is "finished" or "over" (where scientific skepticism and discussion are obviously never finished or over, but especially in such a weakly understood area) and to dismiss contrary evidence as "temporary" or "passing" or "irrelevant" or a "distraction" (the unexplained failure of the earth to warm as predicted by global warming models for at least the past nine years, for example).

    The similarity between what is now happening to the global warming movement and the crisis experienced by Christianity two thousand years ago as the Second Coming of Christ failed to occur as soon as the early Christians had expected it would. "O you of little faith! The Savior will come even if we can't explain the delay!" And, similarly, global warming will resume! Don’t let those nine years of contrary cooling shake your precious religoid faith!

    Global warming alarmists are hardly the first religious (or is it "not-religious, but spiritual?") cult to don the robe and appropriate the vocabulary of "science" in service of transcendental beliefs. Christian Science (or "The Church of Christ, Scientist"), Scientology and, of course, the egregious modern cult of String Theory are just three that come immediately to mind. Similarly, the officially atheistic but religoid communist and Nazi cults of the last century also claimed to find expression and support from "science" - even to the point of claiming to have established their "inevitability" from scientific arguments. Indeed, most the worst violence, destruction and intolerance of the past 100 years (including WWII, the many slaughters of Communist China and Russia and much else) can be traced to such atheistic religoid cults.

    It goes without saying that the current Cult of Obama and the intellectual and pseudo-scientific pretentions of many of its adherents also warrant serious study.

    There are plenty of other examples.

  • On Point

    For those who contend that belief in God is mere superstition, I urge you to indulge in some scientific logic:
    [borrowed from R.C. Sproul’s lectures and his book The Consequences of Ideas]
    (pay special attention to Thomas' third proof - and the punch line at the end)

    Thomas Aquinas
    "Even in secular Universities that are hostile toward historic Christianity – academic integrity demands that Thomas Aquinas be studied. Nobody can study the history of philosophy without taking Thomas Aquinas seriously and the chief reason for that is because of his formidable arguing for the existence of God. His arguments created the “classical synthesis” and dominated the intellectual scene for 100’s and 100’s of years;

    Five proofs for the existence of God

    Proof from Motion (the first proof)

    •Whatever is moved is moved by another. (Law of Inertia)
    •Motion is defined as the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. An object at rest may have the potential to move, but it does not move until or unless this potential is actualized.
    •Something cannot be at the same time both actual and potential.
    •Nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality except by something that is already in a state of actuality. Whatever is moved must be moved by some prior actuality. But this change cannot regress to infinity, because in that case the motion could never begin.
    •Therefore, there must be a first mover – God.

    Proof of Efficient Cause (the second proof)

    •The Law of Causality asserts that every effect must have an antecedent cause. This is not the same thing as saying that every thing must have a cause (as John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell claim). If every thing must have a cause, then God himself would require a cause.*
    •The Law of Causality refers only to effects and is an extension of the Law of Non-contradiction. The law is formally true, because it is true by definition. An effect is defined as that which is produced by a cause. An effect cannot be an effect unless it has a cause. Likewise, a cause is by definition that which produces an effect. A cause cannot be a cause unless it causes or produces something.
    •The efficient cause is that which produces the effect.
    •No event can be its own cause. Every event requires a prior cause.
    •Any change in anything is an event.
    •Every prior cause must have its own cause (if the prior event is itself an effect). At some point the series must end. It is impossible to regress to infinity, as the idea of an infinite regress involves the notion of a causeless effect, an absurdity infinitely compounded.
    •*An uncaused (self-existent) being violates no rule of reason; an uncaused effect, however, is irrational and absurd.

    Ens necessarium; The Proof from Necessary Being (the third proof)

    Although this is usually thought of as part of the cosmological argument, it is more properly called “ontological,” because it is an argument from being. In nature we find things that are contingent, things that can be or not be (a possibility Hamlet fully understood about himself). Such things or beings do not always exist. They also experience changes involved in generation and decay. There was a time when I was not. To say that it is possible for something not to exist can mean that once in the past it did not exist, or that it can go out of existence in the future (at least as an individuated entity), or both. Possible being then refers to beings that possibly can not be. No merely possible being is self-existent; it does not have the power of being in itself. If all things in reality were only possible, then at one time there would have been nothing in existence.

    Put another way;

    •If there ever was a time when there was nothing, what could there possibly be now – except nothing?

    •So if there is something - there must be something that has the power of being, or nothing would be. There must have always been something in existence. Something must exist that possesses necessary being – its existence is not merely possible but necessary. It cannot not be. There never was a time when it was not.
    •And that which has the power of being, ultimately can’t be dependent or derived contingent being – because if my being is caused by something outside myself, and then it is caused by something other than itself, and then another and then another, and you go on to what is called the infinite regress – that is manifest absurdity – the concept of an infinite regress is irrational and inconceivable. The problem with the infinite regress is that it takes the problem of “self creation” and compounds the error infinitely.

    Put another way;

    •*If anything exists now, something, somehow, must have the power of “being” within it, that is, something must have necessary being. This being, whose being is both logically and ontologically necessary, is God. Because, if nothing has self existent being, nothing could possibly be.

    If anything exists, something must have “necessary” being. The word necessary is used two different ways: Necessary being can mean logical necessity – meaning that if we are rational, if we are logical, logic necessitates that we postulate the idea of a self-existent eternal being. To deny that is to end in illogical absurdity. So one could say that the idea of God is a logically necessary idea. More importantly is the idea that Thomas Aquinas is talking about necessary being – God’s being is ontologically necessary – that is we are talking about being that cannot not be. If God is eternal, and he has the power of being within himself, it means that he exists, not by some kind of external logical necessity, but by the necessity of his own being, because that’s what being is. The pure being, which has no potentiality, is pure form, pure actuality, does not have the power to stop being, because it is eternally self-existent and self-sufficient. That is why we proliferate attributes about God in terms of his immutability, his eternality, his infinity, and all the rest.

    The other thing that St. Thomas talked about is the importance he put on what he calls the “analogia entis” or the analogy of being. We are human beings. God is the Supreme Being. The difference between the Supreme Being and the human being is “being”. We don’t have the power of being in and of ourselves. There is no logical necessity for anybody to believe that I exist or that I would exist 100 years ago and that my birth was not a necessary concept. People could conceive of my never being born. I don’t have necessary being if I am a creature. Only the Supreme Being has that. Human beings are dependent, derived, contingent, depending on something that does have external being. Even so, there is some analogy of being that exists between us and God. The Bible talks about our being created in the “image of God”. There is some point of similarity and this becomes absolutely vital to the whole question of whether any meaningful statement can be made about God by creatures such as we are, because if there is no point of similarity between God and us, we would have no grounds for any meaningful discussion about him.

    The proof from degrees of perfection (the fourth proof)

    This is an argument from the comparative.

    •We are aware of degrees of the good, the true, and the noble.
    •But something can be deemed good or true only against some maximum norm or standard.
    •Modern relativists posit truths with no truth, goods with no good, virtues with no virtue, and purposes with no purpose.
    •But we cannot have a relative of anything unless the relative is measured against an absolute.
    •The maximum in any genus is the cause of everything in that genus. Ex., fire, which is the maximum of heat, is the cause of all hot things.
    •There must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection, and this we call God.

    Proof from evidence of order in the universe; the teleological argument (Thomas’ fifth and final proof)

    •In nature we observe things that lack intelligence but function in an orderly and purposive way. They act in predictable ways to achieve certain ends or functions. Ex., The seeds of a dandelion cast in the wind are designed for the plant’s reproduction.
    •One cannot have a purpose accidentally, nor can one have unintentional intentionality. There is evidence of design in the universe. Design demands a designer.
    •Things lacking intelligence cannot act in a designed fashion unless they are first directed by something that does have intelligence. There must be an intelligent being who directs all natural things to their end. This is God.
    •It is important to note that things cannot be directed to their ends by chance. Chance can direct nothing because chance can do nothing. Chance can do nothing because chance is nothing or no thing.
    •Chance is a perfectly meaningful term to describe mathematical possibilities, but it is absurd to use the term to describe something that has the power to influence anything. Chance has no being, and that which has no being has no power to do anything."

    And that brings us full circle to the Word where we find the punch line - the reason for unbelief;

    Romans 1:16 – 25 (KJV)

    1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of
    God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
    1:17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith:
    as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
    1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
    1:19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
    1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are
    clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
    1:21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
    1:22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
    1:23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image
    made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
    1:24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves:
    1:25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.

  • Mike

    Without God, the difference between right and wrong is the same as the diference between right and left. It's all just naming conventions. Without God, Charles Manson isn't evil -- he just chose an alternative lifestyle. Without God, the end of Earth in a nuclear holocaust is as meaningful as the end of a distant star at the other end of the universe.

  • mmfiore

    There is a new Theory of Everything Breakthrough. It exposes the flaws in both Quantum Theory and String Theory. Please see: Theory of Super Relativity at http:\
    Einstein was right!

  • Terry Hughes

    It's amazing how AGW proponents so often lapse into religious labguage when asserting the absolute scientific certainty of their beliefs. Here's Al Gore recently refusing to debate Bjorn Lomborg (reported in the Wall Street Journal):

    "The scientific community has gone through this chapter and verse. We have long since passed the time when we should pretend this is a ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ issue. It’s not a matter of theory or conjecture, for goodness sake.”

    Chapter and verse? From which bible does Mr. Gore think the "scientific community" (whatever that is) read its chapter and verse?

  • Brandon

    To On Point,
    There's nothing "scientific" about your post's "logic." Stephen Hawking thinks the Universe could come from "nothing," and he knows a lot more about it than Thomas Aquinas.

  • Recent Alum

    Brandon: Link to Hawking saying the universe could come from nothing?

  • to Brandon

    Maybe Hawking does, maybe he doesn't.