The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith
Created | Updated Jan 20, 2012
Defining Terms of Belief
A Critique of Belief | Neurotheology - is God in our Heads?
The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith | The Biological Basis of Belief | Why do we have Beliefs? | Why are Beliefs held so Dearly? | The Stages of Belief
The Contradictions of Atheistic Assumption in the Social Sciences | Science as Religion
Joining and Leaving a Minority Religion
Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion | On Medieval Heresy | The Perceived Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion as a Tool for Social Control
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.
At some point in mankind's distant past, religious faith arose from where there was none. The concepts of spirituality and religion are a biologically-based product of evolution; adaptations that gave the possessors of this trait a distinct survival advantage: Faith.
Neurobiologists think they have found regions of the brain that are responsible for all spiritual and religious experiences, naming the new field that studies these areas 'neurotheology'. Since the only way that something as bizarre and universal as the human propensity to have faith could have arisen is if it conferred a survival advantage, this entry looks at what these advantages are, and whether indeed they exist.
Faith in the Brain
It is no coincidence that every culture and all types of people of the world have some concept of a higher power. They all have their own form of the supernatural, spirituality or religion all of which are experienced through the structure of the brains of human beings.
Spiritual experiences are so consistent across cultures, across time, and across faiths that it suggests a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain.
– David Wulff, Wheaton College
It is clear from all the fascinating research that neurobiologists have undertaken that religiosity can be defined in terms of, and observed in, the hard wiring of the human brain. The structures of the brain, such as the temporal and parietal lobes, are a product of evolution. A complex and precise network of genes strictly defines the development and layout of the brain, including the structures that are responsible for the spiritual experiences described above. In biology, structure is always directly related to function. All genes are, or were, under the direct influence of evolution; therefore the ability to have powerful religious experiences has evolved. The pertinent questions are not 'if' we evolved these remarkable capabilities, but 'why?' and 'how?'
The Survival Advantages of Faith
The possessors of religious faith have a distinct survival advantage. Somewhere along mankind's evolutionary history the brain developed the ability to dissociate certain areas of itself from the rest, depriving them of sensory input, altering an individual's perception of themselves and the world around them. Electrical crackling in the temporal lobes produces vivid, ultra-real visions and voices, apparently from God. It is no surprise that humans, as social animals, organised and gathered to experience these visions together. From these deep, powerful visions and otherworldly experiences, the religions and supernatural beliefs of the world arose.
It is significant that so many people have powerful spiritual experiences sometime in their lives1 (people in their 40s and 50s are most likely to have them), and it is not detrimental to their lives. It is, in fact, beneficial. Instead of these traits being something that was excised out of the population, or kept at bay by natural selection, it became a survival advantage.
In the 1950s Viktor Frankl used to give talks to American audiences about his experiences in the concentration camps2. He would open his talks by thanking his audience for coming to hear him. They took this to be a speaker's standard courteous introduction. He then said 'I want to thank you for saving my life...'
One of the things which had sustained Frankl for two and-a-half years in the concentration camps was his belief that he could and would testify to what had happened in them. He imagined talking to the audiences who came to hear him speak a decade later. They - or rather his belief in them - had saved his life.
Frankl's experience is eloquent, but there are countless records of individuals going through extreme experiences where survival was marginal, who say that it was their faith or their vision of the future that sustained them. One Indian Army officer who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese attributed his survival to having his fortune told in the 1930s by an Indian in a bazaar. The fortune-teller said that he would die when he was 80. He did in fact die 6 weeks before his 80th birthday, some 50 years after the surrender of the Japanese.
From these two examples we might conclude that it is not the believer's deity that saves them, but their faith. Jesus Christ ascribed his miracles to the belief of those healed: 'He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."'3
This anecdotal evidence is substantiated by the numerous studies which have observed and correlated a link between religiosity and spirituality with:
- Longer life spans4
- Evolution of a pool of wisdom and experience in the form of grandparents
- Rates of survival during the holocaust of faithful against non-faithful
- Faster recovery from surgery5; faith-healing is an advantage
- Reduced risk of disease
The Survival Advantages of a Shared Faith
We have already seen that while faith can denote religious faith, there are many other kinds of faith. There is belief in a cause, faith in an individual leader and belief in one's country. All of these have similar mechanisms and similar outcomes, so the following examples have been drawn from political and other arenas.
Shared faith in a cause creates powerful and cohesive groups. The armed forces call this Esprit de Corps. George W Bush is, at the time of writing, using the patriotism of the American people to push through his military policies. It is a powerful force.
The group of scientists, pilots and engineers who put man on the moon were inspired by Kennedy's vision. Their imaginations were grabbed, and their dedication was far greater as a result. Gandhi inspired half a billion people in British India and ended British colonialism. Hitler generated the Third Reich by creating a national belief in a national destiny while Chamberlain was faffing around with an umbrella.
The shared faith that people had in these leaders and their visions inspired them to go above and beyond the call of duty, and to achieve far more in a focused direction than they would or could have achieved otherwise.
A shared faith confers a clear performance and survival advantage on a group, making it more than sum of its parts.
Spirituality and Natural Selection
Early man had no modern medicine and daily life was a struggle for survival. To have a way to manage and deal with a crisis and to boost your chances of survival after injury or illness was a massively useful trait. The only purpose of genes is to replicate themselves - they are entirely selfish entities. Natural selection preserved the quirk in brain structure, by preserving the genes responsible for the trait that promoted spirituality; those with this trait more effectively survived and flourished than those who lacked it. This trait was so successful that it spread throughout the population of early man (or perhaps even mankind’s predecessors) even before the great diaspora, when Homo Sapiens spread out and populated the globe.
Religious faith is a phenomenon derived from biological processes that occur in the brain. Developmental networks of genes control every aspect of the brain's anatomy, including the areas of the brain that are responsible for deep and powerful religious and spiritual experiences. All genes are, or were, under the influence of evolution; therefore, the ability to have such experiences is an evolved trait. This trait, which spawned the religions, spirituality and supernatural beliefs of all human cultures all over the world, confers a definite survival advantage. Study after study confirms that people who consider themselves religious have, amongst other things, a far greater recovery rate from major surgery, and longer life spans. This would have been especially beneficial to early (perhaps pre-civilisation) man, whose struggle for survival and lack of medicine would mean that any possessor of such abilities would be at an advantage. Natural selection preserved this trait and it spread throughout the population.
So, let us take a closer look at the brain and delve deep into the aforementioned science of Neurotheology.