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Why People Believe In God: The By-Product Hypothesis

Scientifically speaking, it makes no sense to believe in things that completely lack empirical evidence. Of course, we’re not purely scientists. Though our prefrontal cortices give us the power to study the natural world, our reasoning often leads us to believe things that are untrue. As Bruce Hood points out, even the most rational materialist would be averse to wearing a sweater that once belonged to a serial killer – as if it is “cursed”. From psychic readings to superstitions, many of us pay for and live by things which are false. The mother of all unproven beliefs is God – there is simply no evidence which suggests that He or She exists. To be believe in God is akin to believing in Apollo, Zeus, or Pink Unicorns – all are ontological identical in that they exist as ideas in the brain but not objects in reality.

The question is: why do humans, usually for lifetimes, believe in God or Gods even in the face of overwhelming opposing evidence?

One line of reasoning is the by-product hypothesis, which states that a belief in God or Gods is the by-product of one or several cognitive capacities; as Pascal Boyer said, “religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources.” What cognitive resources does it hijack? One is our tendency to form theories of other minds, what is referred to as a dualistic theory of mind. It is a propensity to think that other people are made up of material (neurons and nerves) and immaterial (souls and spirits) substances. Descartes is the dualism poster child. He believed that our bodies are material and terminate at death while our minds are immaterial, eternal disembodied spirits that inhabit the body. It is easy to see why dualism is evolutionarily advantageous – it helps us effectively and efficiently predict the behavior of other people. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom provides experimental evidence that children are especially likely to be dualist, suggesting that it is an innate tendency.

Another is our tendency to be essentialists. As Bloom explains in his latest book, “essentialism [is the] notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly.” For example, the essence of the Democratic party is that it is socially progressive, in favor of more government and liberal. You could think of an essence as a résumé, a sort of snap shot that captures what something generally is. Like dualism, it is also easy to see why believing in essences is evolutionarily advantageous – they help us categorize the world. Instead of taking time to analyze a lion (how heavy is it, what color it is, if it’s a mammal or not, etc.), which would be counter-productive to our survival, we instantly know what it is by just looking at it and recalling its essence (fast, hungry, dangerous).

There is an important difference between essentialism and dualism. Whereas dualism applies to other minds, essentialism tends to describe things. Put differently, dualism is a theory of how we understand other minds whereas essentialism is a theory of how we understand other things.

Finally, in addition to being essentialists and dualists, we have an innate propensity to believe that things have a purpose – we are teleologists in other words (teleology – the reasons behind why something happened, why something was created or why something exists). For example, we believe that water is for drinking, the Sun is for giving life to Earth and plants are for making oxygen, eating and contributing to the ecosystem. It is true that we drink water, that the Earth needs the Sun and plants are vitally important, but it is false to think that these things are for something. The realistic picture is that they are here via the ongoing process of natural selection, which doesn’t have an end goal.

How exactly does being an essentialist, dualist and teleologist translate into believing in God or Gods? Thinking as an essentialist and dualist perpetuates beliefs in immaterial categories and minds, and from this, it easy to imagine, as Richard Dawkins does, “the existence of a deity as pure spirit, not an emergent property of complex matter but existing independently of matter.” Moreover, as Dawkins goes on, a belief in objective purpose “sets us up for religion. If everything has a purpose, whose purpose is it? God’s, of course.” When you don’t have objective purpose, as Nietzsche famous exclaimed, God is dead.

Does providing a full neurological or psychological explanation of God or Gods end the debate? No. Unfortunately, it is impossible and unscientific to say that God or Gods do not exist. There is no proof. But keep in mind, it is also impossible to prove that the universe wasn’t started by a Pink Unicorn or a Green Sloth.

Hopefully in the years to come cognitive and evolutionary psychologists will have more to say about why humans have such a strong propensity to believe in higher beings and superstitions even when there is no evidence to do so.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Care to expand on the evidence for the non-existence of God? (This should get interesting.)

    October 18, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      I really don’t want to go there… do you? I’ll just say that given what we know about natural selection, the ubiquity of different Gods across cultures, the problem of evil (and other philosophical problems) it seems highly unlikely that God or Gods exist. But again, I’m not saying that there is proof that God does not exist.

      October 18, 2011
      • With you, Sam, probably not. Were it someone less, how shall I put this, tutored, perhaps. 😉

        Both you and I know that it is impossible to prove God’s existence or non-existence. I contend there are good reasons for believing God exists (including the problem of evil. Yes, it’s not emotionally a comfortable thing to have to defend; suffice it to say it’s a problem for both theists AND atheists).

        My view is, succinctly: we both agree on the lack of proof—not evidence, mind—either way, but IF such a being were to exist, then seeking to adhere to such a Being’s commandments may be the ultimately most important thing one could do as a (created) human being.

        To quote Conan, “Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you will remember if we were good men or bad, why we fought, or why we died. No, all that matters is that two stood against many, that’s what’s important. Valor pleases you, Crom, so grant me one request, grant me REVENGE! And if you do not listen, then the hell with you!”

        October 18, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          Your argument reminds me of Blaise Pascal’s. It goes like this. Even though it is impossible to know if God exists or does not exist, it would be rational to believe in Him. If one doesn’t believe that God exists and He turns out to exist then he will be damned to hell. If one does believe that God exists and He turns out to not exist then he will not be damned to hell. So, given this simple cost-benefit, it is rational just to spend the minimal amount of time and effort and believe in God.

          This makes sense to me, but my problem with it is that it is grounded purely in abstract reasoning and lacks scientific evidence. Sounds like you’re hedging your bets on belief. We’ll see, you might turn out to be right – and the Conan quote is inspiring.


          October 18, 2011
          • Oh believe me, I was basing it on Pascal’s wager (actually it wasn’t Pascal’s originally. Some Arab philosopher. Sigh, what became of Arab intellectualism after Islam?!!)

            The problem with basing anything on Science has already been handled much better than I ever could by Immanual Kant in his Critique … Aren’t we all hedging our bets (although I heard Hitchens’ blistering critique of those whose belief in God is based on hedging bets. I think this is why many Christian philosophers don’t use Pascal’s Wager.)

            The other problem with science and religion is what Stephen Jay Gould calls Non-overlapping magisteria (they simply don’t and can’t be used to deny the other and, in Gould’s estimation, can co-exists. Science’s province is rightly naturalistic. It doesn’t have the tools to manipulate or deal with the super-natural.)

            Conan’s quote is a tongue-in-cheek representation of what I like to call the Skeptic’s Prayer. 😉

            October 18, 2011
            • sammcnerney #

              I’m very concerned about the idea that science cannot touch or inform religion. We would laugh at someone who thinks that Pink Unicorns created the Universe and live on the Moon but would be sensitive towards someone who thinks the same about the Judeo-Christian God. I think that science can be used to deny parts of religion, and I would even go as far to say that it is a moral obligation to do so. These are my thoughts for my post tomorrow. Maybe we can continue the discussion there.

              October 18, 2011
    • 機會係個天俾嘅 yes. BUT it is only those who are prepared that can see and caiaitlpze the chance given. The people who always blames god/命/天 that there is no chance is absolutely wrong! If they haven’t prepared, work hard or think hard, how can they see the chance themselves, even if they see the opportunity is right in front of them, they wont have the skills, connection, knowledge or experience to take advantage of it.How sad!!!Bomb

      August 1, 2013
    • Can Performance Support be a form of Mobile Learning? (Yes!): Float Mobile Learning One of the most frequent theems that comes through in discussions of mobile learning in the conference sessions and workshops that I do is a debate about whether performance support can be a form of Source:

      October 26, 2013
  2. Kristen #

    You seem to be pointing to other human quotes to argue against the existence of a god. I’m assuming, maybe wrongly, that you haven’t spent much time researching this idea by studying a religious text like the Bible, or discussing these ideas face to face and without prejudice with an apologist. Those of us that believe in God look at someone with your perspective and see that you also believe in a god and it is self. You do believe in a pink elephant. Her name is Mother Earth. Her prophet is Darwin. How are these ideas any less ridiculous than God?

    I’ve spent several months now studying neuroscience for a project. Every author I read attempts to point to evolution. All of these people have done amazing research in this area and are finding amazing revelations. How can this intricacy be just from natural selection? How can it not be guided from some superior source?

    One of the examples that comes to mind is Stanislas Dehaene in “Reading in the Brain” who says that the development of reading is a paradox in the theory of evolution. Writing was born 5400 years ago and the alphabet only 3800 years ago. “These times a mere trifle in evolutionary terms.” He goes on to say that the mechanisms and their organization for reading, “lean toward the single apparent goal of decoding written words as quickly and accurately as possible.” He continues, “neither the hypothesis of an intelligent creator nor that of slow emergence through natural selection seems to provide a plausible explanation for the origins of reading. Time was simply too short for evolution to design specialized reading circuits.” Dehaene can see this clearly, but still thinks that it was evolution.

    My belief says that the answer is found in part from John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    October 19, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      My thoughts.

      1) I am suggesting that it is very unlikely that God exists given what science knows about the natural world and a number of other theoretical and intellectual problems. However, I am not saying that I know that God doesn’t exist or that anyone can. It is impossible to prove that God doesn’t exists.

      1.5) I have spent a lot of time research this topic through philosophy by studying the great religious philosophers (Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas) as well as other philosophers who also discussed God (most modern philosophers). Yes, I haven’t spent much time studying the Bible.

      2) I’m not sure your reasoning behind the claim “you also believe in a God and it is self…..” I clearly don’t. Feel free to flesh out whatever it is you are trying to say there.

      3) You’re really taking Dehaene out of context and misreading him. First, he (along with many others) doesn’t think that evolution can explain language. Second, it is illogical to say that that is proof of a creator.

      October 19, 2011
  3. Kristen #

    In your opinion, God can neither be proven or disproved, but it is completely illogical to believe in Him. Sounds like semantics.

    I did understand Dehaene. My point is that evolution is all or nothing, right? Either evolution accounts for all of our biology or not. If there is evidence that evolution can not explain a part of our biology, then by definition is is illogical to continue believing in it, specifically the part that we evolved from other species. Does this prove God exists? Not scientifically, but it should at least open the door to the theory of His existence.

    I would like to add, that many in the Christian community don’t argue against certain parts of this theory. We clearly see that species evolve and change over time and often change back. We challenge the idea that a species can evolve into another species. If this were true then fossil records would demonstrate this gradual change. What shows up in the record are more species coming and going from the record. Evolutionists try to argue that a similarity in species is proof of the theory without being able to show the gradual change that supposedly takes place.

    Evolutionists like to spell out the story of the Big Bang and changes in fossil records. Here is how I see it:

    1. Big Bang-enormous release of energy
    1. Genesis 1:3 “Let there be light.”

    2. Early atmosphere
    2. Genesis 1:6 “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.”

    3. Microscopic life begins to appear, continents emerged, oceans stabilized, and more complex lifeforms evolved.
    3. Genesis 1:9 “Let the waters under the sky be gathered to one place and let dry ground appear.” Genesis 1:11 “Let the land produce vegetation:seed bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to various kind.”

    4. Terrestrial life continued. After the extinction of dinosaurs, we see more recognizable modern animals.
    4. Genesis 1:24 “Let the earth produce every sort of animal, each producing offspring of the same kind- livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground, and wild animals.”
    Genesis 1:25 “Let Us make human beings in Our image, to be like Us.”

    People can continue to argue that there is no proof of God, but it seems like pretty solid proof to me that science has come to describe the very words written thousands of years ago by man writing in submission to what they believed to be divine inspiration from God. No scientific testing available.

    Under 2) “worship” would have been a better word than “believe”. I mean you no disrespect. As someone who has complete faith in a triune God, it is another situation of either/or. We either worship Him or we worship our own ability to reason and justify both our existence and choices.

    If you want to continue to argue that believing in God is illogical, it would be important for you to not underestimate that for us, it would be completely illogical to not believe in Him. For me, I have seen His supernatural hand reveal itself to me in very tangible ways.

    October 19, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      1) To say that it is illogical to believe in God is not to say that one cannot prove or disprove Him. This is not semantics. There is a very important distinction to be made here between what logic has to say and what can or cannot be said about His existence.

      2) Evolution is not all or nothing. It helps us understand somethings but it does not help us understand other things. For example, evolution clearly explains why people are not sexually attracted to their siblings – incest decreases the chances that genes will be passed to the next generation. However, evolution does not clearly explain why someone decided to buy an Blackberry over an iphone – that requires an explanation including cultural and economic reasons.

      3) It is not true that a species cannot evolve into another species. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C.. There, you will very clearly see a series of fossils dating back throughout the last several millions years that unequivocally demonstrate that evolution caused a species to evolve into another species. No legitimate scientist will take you seriously if you believe that a species cannot evolve into another species.

      4) Science is not describing what was written thousands of years ago. It is using reason and experiments to understand the natural world.

      October 20, 2011
  4. For many people, believing in God or a higher power has never truly been questioned. Sure, people may ponder His existence, but for many believers, God’s presence is everywhere and has an infinitely defined power. I work with a group of artists and researchers who look to explore the beliefs in various individuals of all walks of life, with the hope of better understanding our society as a whole. Our most recent post ( ) is a video of a young female artist, Nya Williams, who believes achieving success in her musical endeavors is a part of God’s plan. Nya unquestioningly assigns her future over to God’s will without pausing to consider that she alone controls her life. Do you think believing in a higher power has an influence in one’s goals or dreams? Does the simple fact of believing that God exists, even without proof, pose as a positive influence in achieving one’s aspirations, or could it be a potential hindrance?

    October 27, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Clearly, believing in God can have positive and negative influences. Positive psychology research tells us that spiritual people – that includes people who do and don’t believe in God or Gods – are happier than non-spiritual people. At the same time, the number of atheists are growing each year in the United States.

      October 27, 2011
    • laz #

      depends on who answers the question….ask it of the guy convicted of taking minors on as wives based on the word of ‘god’ and his belief that a conviction would bring down the wrath of ‘god’ against those who would put him in jail…

      November 5, 2011
  5. laz #

    the Pascal argument assumes that God does not have some warped sense of humor…which, just like the existence/not existence, cannot be proved…

    November 5, 2011

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