Are we wired to believe in a higher power?

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.

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.

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.

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".

Neptune was the Roman god of the sea. Whenever a storm rolled into land it was thought he was angry. He was a god with a human temperament capable of great highs and lows.
Neptune was the Roman god of the sea. Whenever a storm rolled into land it was thought he was angry. He was a god with a human temperament capable of great highs and lows.

4. 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.

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.

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

Learn more about this topic:

A Question of Faith
collection
A-Z of Religion and Beliefs
collection
Religions of the World
collection