Is Religious Belief Just a Brain Function?

Religion, we are told, has a scientific explanation; so we have no need of the God hypothesis. But is that so? This article reviews the alleged evidence and then responds to it.

By Paul Copan

The “new atheists” tend to be a blustery, cranky lot. Even fellow atheists recognize their arguments as embarrassing. These new atheists are on something of a crusade to show that religion is delusional and even harmful. One is Richard Dawkins. He suggests that humans are predisposed by evolution to belief in God. Natural selection has programmed us to do what our biological hardwiring tells us—just like computers. The downside? Humans, like computers, can also go wrong: a virus can infect computers, and humans are likewise vulnerable to harmful mental viruses.1

Another new atheist — Daniel Dennett, a Tufts University philosopher — focuses on one of the “curious by-products” of evolution — namely, religion.2 The mind (i.e., the brain, according to Dennett) is a bag of tricks shaped by its drive to survive in a dangerous world. The brain forms concepts that lead to religion. These concepts create certain systems: agent-detector, moral-intuition generator, memory-manager, cheater-detector, an inclination for stories and storytelling, various alarm/alerting mechanisms. Putting these into a whole package looks a lot like religion.3

Dennett here follows anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s arguments. Boyer believes the latest “scientific” developments reveal that our “central metaphysical urge” stands at the root of all religion; we are inevitably inclined toward “superstition, myth, and faith, or a special emotion that only religion provides.”4 What looks supernatural is really natural; God is simply a brain-trick. God does not exist after all; belief in God is a widespread brain-inspired illusion.

In the past 20 years or so, evolutionary psychologists have attempted to locate the “God idea” in the human brain.5 Humans are somehow evolutionarily “hard-wired” to believe in God. A number of “cognitive science of religion” (CSR) researchers assert that a biological basis exists for humans acquiring, representing, and transmitting successful (survival-enhancing) religious ideas.6 Religion, we are told, has a scientific explanation; so we have no need of the God hypothesis. But is that so? Let us review the alleged evidence and then respond to it.

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