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Of all the creatures who had yet walked on Earth, the man-apes were the first to look steadfastly at the Moon. And though he could not remember it, when he was very young Moon-Watcher would sometimes reach out and try to touch that ghostly face rising above the hills…

The night wore on, cold and clear, without further alarms, and the Moon rose slowly amid equatorial constellations that no human eye would ever see. In the caves, between spells of fitful dozing and fearful waiting, were being born the nightmares of generations yet to be.

Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey

Have you ever looked up at the sky on a moon-lit night, and tried to do so whilst imagining that you have no knowledge of any science – that you did not know that the moon was some orbiting rock, some 240 thousand miles away? I’ve tried this exercise and find it very difficult to honestly conclude that if I didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t somehow believe that the celestial bodies were gods or similar.

Here we’ll explore some aspects of nature and history which have somewhat loaded our psychological dice, so to speak. In the game of survival, we have been selected to make the possibility of religion probable and perhaps even impossible to avoid. I hope to give some compelling reasons which explain how religious and supernatural beliefs arise in the first place, and stick around in spite of evidence to the contrary. While no reason taken on its own might be sufficient; as a whole, I submit that the case is obvious, and while it does not prove that the religions are necessarily false, it provides a more elegant and parsimonious explanation for their abundance in this world, than that they are true.

It took until the late 17th Century and Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, for our species to learn that, among other things, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force. This fact is not intuitive, and thousands of generations before would have quite reasonably (given the limited knowledge of the time) extrapolated from all they saw to take place; that stones only fly when someone throws them, and no other bodies move unless someone moves them. We learned, and were naturally selected to assign agency, often where none existed.

It’s a puzzle why we binge on the sweetest and greasiest food we can find, until we consider the eating habits of our forager forebears. In the savannahs and forests they inhabited, high-calorie sweets were extremely rare and food in general was in short supply. A typical forager 30,000 years ago had access to only one type of sweet food – ripe fruit. If a Stone Age woman came across a tree groaning with figs, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as many of them as she could on the spot, before the local baboon band picked the tree bare.

Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

It serves us well to remember that we evolved on the African Savannah, and some of evolution’s psychological hangovers are very much still with us. A disposition which is highly relevant to this discussion, is one which Michael Shermer has written about in The Believing Brain. Imagine being a hominid on that Savannah. You’re at the back of your party after a successful hunt, and you and your crew are making your way through waist-high grass, back towards your tribe. You are tired and the sun is setting at your back, casting shadows that creep as the branches of the trees sway nearby. Suddenly you hear a rustle in the grass a few feet behind you. There are two possibilities: either this rustle is the result of something benign like the wind, or it’s caused by something that wants to make you its supper. If the former is the case, an error in assuming a predator will have no grave effect. You’ll wipe your brow with a ‘phew’ and soon forget about it. In the case of the latter however, an error in assuming that the rustle was caused by the wind has cost you your life. It has taken you – and your sceptical disposition – well out of the gene-pool. So we have been naturally selected to make these ‘false-positive’ errors and infer agency where it doesn’t exist.

Manifestations of the above abound in all of us. Such occasions are often more vivid during childhood. I remember sleepless nights as a child looking around my small bedroom in the faintest light and seeing monsters in practically everything. Two tiny spots of light didn’t even have to be close together or horizontally arranged for me to see them as eyes and then extrapolate a face around them. And this inference of monsters or demons in dream-states shared such commonalities that for years it was believed that the dreamers were possessed by specific entities called Succubi, who would target them in the night for sessions of sexual assault, with the targets often reporting a sensation of paralysis and crushing to the chest.

Our brains extrapolate what is seen in our mind’s eye from what our actual eyes see, and what laws have been previously induced. So at its best, what we actually see will be a combination of what is actually there (Cartesian scepticism aside) and that which holds some utility for us in our seeing it there – whether it’s accurate or not. A good example is the Necker Cube (pictured below). You’ll interpret it as a three-dimensional image with you looking at it either from above, or below. But what’s more interesting, is how difficult and impossible it is for most of us, to see the image for what it actually is: two-dimensional. The very fact that we exist and you are reading this essay, means that this psychological disposition must have served us well to some extent in the game of survival.


Another disposition for which we have been naturally selected, is that of credulity. Picture yourself again, as our Savannah-Dwelling protagonist from our first example (we’ll assume that you didn’t end up as a predator’s supper, and that you and your crew made it home in one piece). By the very fact that you have lived long enough to take part in the hunts, we can deduce that it is highly likely that there are some tests where you acquired the corresponding lessons indirectly: that is to say at the expense of others (current and previous generations) and not yourself. There are some lessons in this life (and its modern equivalent), that you simply cannot afford to learn directly for yourself; where the stakes are so high that to fail the test literally means death. Such tests are whether or not to play near the cliff’s edge, whether or not to cross the river at high tide, or whether to approach the mother-mammoth’s infant cubs while she’s dozing nearby.

Your chances of surviving as far as hunting age increase dramatically if you unquestioningly believe the elders in your tribe when they tell you to avoid the wildfire, the lake and the sabre-tooth tiger. But of course there is no evolutionary advantage to add any sort of filter to this – the aim of the game, remember, is survival, and nothing more. So you will also believe those same elders when they tell you that their gods demand human and animal sacrifices in order to bring an end to the disease with which they’ve plagued your land for a whole season. Remember that there is no germ theory of disease. Instead you have the word of the oldest man (and it would almost certainly be a man) in the tribe who must know what he’s talking about as he’s lived longer than anyone else. It begins to become easier to see just how natural a phenomenon religion is.

Marc left the Church on his motorbike on a rainy day. Chased off the road by Church security, he said, he crashed, picked himself off the floor and was rescued by a cop. He got back on the damaged bike and drove into the town of Hemet at its new maximum speed: five mph. Claire got out a short while afterwards. But since that day, both sets of parents, still in the Church, have shunned them. The couple have two sons, both seriously into Thomas The Tank Engine. The little boys have never seen their grandmothers.

John Sweeney

The Church of Fear: Inside The Weird World of Scientology

It’s also worth considering religion’s memetic features or attributes. For modern examples of these attributes which would have been common-place and ubiquitous in the pre-historic world, we have to look to some of the more cultish and extreme religions which exist now. A good example is Scientology, Dispense with all negative and malevolent connotations of the word ‘virus’ for a short time. The virus is a very impressive feat of blind, evolutionary engineering. As it spreads it brings about actions in its host – such as a cough or sneeze – which increase the chances that it will be spread further. It is no coincidence that the software equivalent is called a computer virus, and that the most effective of these are those which spread by using applications which increase the probability of a host (or host’s operator) taking some action that will spread the virus further. A wonderful example is the famous case of the ‘ILOVEYOU’ virus in 2000. Only recently have we (for the most part) learned the lesson that on the internet too; if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Demonising outsiders is one such phenotype which would insulate the religious meme’s carrier (the scientologist in this case). Believing that all the uninitiated are unclean and plagued by the spirits of ancient demons once vanquished by your lord, Xenu makes it less likely that the carrier will seek out conversation with them. The practice of shunning apostates is another insulating method. The extreme nature of this practice is directly proportionate to the extreme risk that the apostate poses to the meme in the carrier. To remain in contact and friendly with an apostate may lead to questions about the predictions that the apostate would show outward signs of having been possessed. And what’s more is that the apostate is armed with all the inside knowledge and the defeated version of the same religious meme. Of course a simpler course of action is to just execute the apostate, and to do so particularly bloodily so as to ensure that the one action also acts as a deterrent to other would-be freethinkers (how tragic that we only need to look as far as Bangladesh to know that this last example is as evident now as ever).

A common fallacy to which we are prone – and one about which I have written in Criminal Investigation: How ‘Unconditional Belief’ Undermines Integrity – is the post hoc or correlation/causation error; whereby we erroneously infer that as a particular event followed an earlier one, that it was somehow caused by it. The example I gave in the other essay was BF Skinner’s reinforcement experiments, and in particular, that where he reinforces a pigeon’s turning movement by treating it with food, so that it eventually performed a superstitious 360 degree turn (a short video of this experiment is here, and it’s definitely worth watching).

Let us picture ourselves again as that hunter on the Savannah. The survival of an entire tribe can turn on the weather’s caprice. Having to wait too long without rainfall sends that message home as clear as anything, and when the rain finally comes, it does so with a bang, as a storm. You know that nothing moves unless someone moves it, and then you see that bolts of lightning are being thrown down from the clouds. Given what you know, what other explanation would make sense, other than that there is some agent – let’s call him God – up there, in or above the clouds; and he’s in charge of whether you and your tribe live or perish?

The other important factor is that during that day, before the storm came, you happened to sacrifice a child. Neighbouring tribes on that day performed dances, brought offerings of fruit, and sacrificed animals. And whatever they were doing on that day will be what they will do again, and again, when they wish to summon this god’s merciful rainfall once more. Your tribe had already tried those other things, and it was also the twelfth day of child-sacrificing which had come to pass before you got the answer you were looking for. The last method by which you slaughtered the child before the rains came happened to be particularly ghastly and any detail here would be gratuitous. But your attention to detail, and that of the whole tribe will not have failed, and future efforts will be made to repeat this sacrifice and exaggerate it, as the pigeon did, in order to bring about the same reward. And even if someone was available to try, nobody would be able to persuade you otherwise. After all, you saw the results with your own eyes, and so did the rest of the tribe. Furthermore any future famine or plague, or period of prosperity; will be rationalised by you and your band, and interpreted as perceived wrath or mercy at the hands of the overlord. If future sacrifices fail to yield the desired effect, you will blame yourselves for not having conducted them in the manner or number desired by it.

[T]hose who practice a folk religion don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion at all. Their “religious” practices are a seamless part of their practical lives, alongside their hunting and gathering or tilling and harvesting. And one way to tell that they really believe in the deities to which they make their sacrifices is that they aren’t forever talking about how much they believe in their deities – any more than you and I go around assuring each other that we believe in germs and atoms. Where there is no ambient doubt to speak of, there is no need to speak of faith.

Daniel Dennett

Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

These days we have meteorology, a germ theory of disease, plate tectonics, psychology and neurology, and cosmology in order to explain the phenomena which our ancient ancestors would have found so troubling that (as was reasonable in the circumstances) they invoked a deity, or a number thereof, in order to best explain those goings-on. Back then there would have been no notion of faith. It was simply the best explanation, and it really was. In his introduction to The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins concedes that if he had lived before 1859 and the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, he too would have concluded with William Paley that the best explanation for the variety of life on this planet would have been some kind of deist creation. But we move with the times, and we proportion our beliefs to the evidence (or at least we should). It’s only with the realisation that better explanations for these phenomena exist that faith becomes a principle apparently deserving of attention. I think it’s something that it would have been nice to have grown out of by now. What do you think?