Are we wired to believe in a higher power?

Open navigator

1. It's everywhere

Religion – the belief in supernatural beings, including gods and ghosts, angels and demons, souls and spirits – can be found throughout history and in every culture. Evidence for beliefs in an afterlife goes back at least 50,000 to 100,000 years. Every known human culture has creation myths, with the possible exception of the Amazonian Pirahã people, who also lack number words, colour words and social hierarchy.

It's hard to get exact data about the number of believers today, but some polls suggest that up to 84% of the world’s population are members of religious groups or claim that religion is important in their lives. We live in a time of unprecedented access to scientific knowledge, which some see as being at odds with religious belief. So why is religion so pervasive and persistent?

Psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists and even neuroscientists have suggested explanations for our natural predisposition to believe, and for the powerful role religion seems to play in our emotional and social lives.

2. Death, culture and power

Before delving into modern theories and research, we need to ask how religion came about, what role it fulfilled for our ancestors and what part it may have played in the birth of large, modern societies.

Prof Francesca Stavrakopoulou discusses the origin of religion and its relationship with power and hierarchy at an ancient stone circle, where legend says nine women were turned into stone for dancing on the Sabbath.

Today, religion and power are still connected. Recent research claims that reminders of God can increase obedience. Even in societies that tried to suppress faith, things were set up in its place - like the cult of a leader or of the state. The less stable politically and economically a country, the more likely people are to seek comfort in faith. Religious groups are often able to give people who are feeling marginalised the support that the state might not provide, such as food or a support network. So environmental and social factors both help develop and reinforce religious belief. As does the way we relate to the world and others.

3. Gods as other minds

In every culture gods are essentially persons, even when they take other forms or no physical form at all.

Many psychologists now think that the belief in gods is an extension of our recognition, as social animals, of the existence of others, and of our tendency to see the world in human terms.

We project human thoughts and feelings onto other animals and objects, and even natural forces, and this tendency is a fundamental building block of religion. It's an old idea, going back to the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who is quoted as arguing that if animals could paint, they would depict gods in animal shape.

So religious belief may well be founded on our human culture and thought patterns. Some scientists, however, have gone one step further and scanned our brains to look for the legendary "God spot".

4. God in the brain

Neuroscientists have tried to compare the brains of believers and skeptics, and observe what our brains are doing when we pray or meditate. Very little is known in this field, but there are a few clues. Click on each brain area to find out more.

This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.

Our brains change over the course of our lives, as we develop and experience new things. Virtually every part of the brain is involved in everything that we do and experience: so not only is there no God spot, but there is no specific spot in the brain dedicated to anything. One thing we do know: the human brain is the most advanced in the animal world, and the only one with a marvellous ability... the ability to make sense of reality.

5. Punctuating life

The brain is often referred to as a meaning-making machine. As we constantly look for patterns, structures and cause-effect relationships, religion might provide a variety of meaning-making strategies – in particular rituals.

Prof Francesca Stavrakopoulou explores the importance of rituals, places and objects at a ruined abbey.

While neuroscience, anthropology or even philosophy can't definitively answer the question "Does God exist?", these disciplines all give insights into how we respond to our deepest human needs. We may not be 'wired' to believe in God or a higher power, but we are social animals who have an evolutionary need to feel connected to the world and to others. Perhaps religions are simply channels for such meaningful connections.

6. Where else can meaning be found?

For believers, existential meaning can be found in worship and in following divine laws. Many thinkers have suggested where else it might come from.

Fulfilling your potential

You selected

Fulfilling your potential

Terry Pratchett

“Ye know full well that the meaning of life is to find your gift. To find your gift is happiness. Never tae find it is misery.”

Giving

You selected

Giving

Maya Angelou

"I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver."

Moral goodness

You selected

Moral goodness

Steven Pinker

"Morality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life."

Questioning the world

You selected

Questioning the world

Albert Einstein

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”