Did we evolve to believe in God?

Posted: February 17, 2011 in india, life, religion
Tags: , , ,

Last week I happened to chance upon this interesting post about someone’s personal journey from atheism to faith. I was surprised to see evolutionary theory mentioned as one of the reasons for that switch. It got me thinking about God and science, again :). One of the threads led me back to one of my earlier conclusions that we, Homo sapiens, might have evolved to believe in God.

About three years ago, I watched this amazing talk that Jill gave at TED, about her stroke and the insights that she had drawn from that experience. When she lost her left brain functions due to brain hemorrhage, she couldn’t distinguish her body from her surroundings. Her experience of being one with the universe, losing the boundary between her body and the rest of the world, which she described as nirvana, was akin to spiritual experiences described by Yogis and other mystics. That’s what got me closer to the idea that spiritual experiences can result purely from our brain functions, or the lack of them as was in Jill’s case.
Recent neurological studies have demonstrated that stimulating certain areas of the brain can induce spiritual experiences in the subjects. There are documented cases of religious experiences resulting from temporal lobe seizures 1. This means one can have the wonderful experience of being in unity with the rest of the universe, without requiring some external supernatural entity to bestow it on oneself. At the very core level that is what eastern philosophies like Hinduism, and Buddhism teach. Ancient Indians have found ways to train our brains and induce such experiences as those that Buddha had, through meditation. It is not very clear if meditation, temporal lobe seizures, and the electrical stimuli that induce religious experiences are all closely related in the way they operate on our brains; More importantly, do they all achieve similar results by exciting the same set of neurons in the brain? There was some initial speculation on the subject suggesting there might be a dedicated component in our brains that is responsible for our belief in God etc. , The popular press went ahead and called it ‘God module’2. But it seems it is more complicated than initially thought, and is perhaps linked to many other functional parts in the brain3.

Irrespective of how complex it is or how thinly spread across it is in our brain, it is certain that there are groups of neurons in our brains that are responsible for our emotions and experiences related to God and spirituality. It can be argued that we gained those brain faculties through evolution, just like the rest of our brain functions. This implies that we have evolved to be spiritual/religious and believe in God. So what, does it have any implications on the existence of God itself? none that I can think of at the moment. Thus I still can’t figure out how evolutionary theory can uphold faith in God. However if that link can be established, it would get a lot of support from monotheistic religious groups that are fighting theory of evolution tooth and nail, and perhaps wipe out the whole intelligent design (creationism) hypothesis.

1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/godonbrain.shtml
2. http://www.naturalnews.com/023055_the_brain_religion_consciousness.html
3. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/12/4876.full

  1. […] which journal this research was published in. Anyway, the  conclusion from this research is not a surprise at all. But I do hope they had enough data from people who weren’t exposed to the idea of God […]

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