God: A Human History of Religion

Revisiting one of the (good) books I’ve read last year;

On pages 38 & 39;

Imagine Eve and her children begin to scout for food into the woods in the early morning darkness, she suddenly sees, out of her eye, a face staring back at her through the trees. She freezes. Her muscles stiffen. Her blood vessels consrict. Her heart rate accelerates. Adrenaline floods her body. She is ready to pounce or flee.

Then she looks again and realizes that what she thought was a face was actually knots of a trunk of a tree. Her muscles relax. Her heart rate drops. She lets out her breath and continues on her journey through the woods.

Cognitive theorists have a term for what Eve has just experienced. They call it Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD). This is a biological process that arose deep in our evolutionary past, all the way back in the days when hominids were still stooped and hairy. In its simplest terms, HADD leads us to detect human ‘agency’, and hence a human ’cause’, behind any unexplained event: a distant sound in the woods, a flash of light in the sky, a tendril of fog slithering along the ground. HADD explains why we assume every bump in the night is caused by someone doing the bumping.

Our innate willingness to attribute human agency to natural phenomena can have clear evolutionary advantages. What if it hadn’t been a tree that Eve saw? What if it had been a bear? Isn’t it better to err on the side on caution? There is no harm in mistaking a tree for a predator, but there certainly would be in mistaking a predator for a tree. Better to guess wrong than to be eaten.

It is obvious in the above example, how HADD could promote Eve’s survival. Yet according to a group of cognitive scientists, who study religion, what Eve experienced in those dark woods is more than just an involuntary reaction to a potential threat. It is the basis for our belief in God: the true evolutionary origin of the religious impulse.

The cognitive science of religion begins with a simple premise: Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon. The religious impulse, in other words is ultimately a function of complex electrochemical reactions in the brain. Ofcourse this fact on its own is not a compelling observation, and it certainly does not diminish or delegitimise the religious impulse. Every impulse – every impulse without exception – is generated by complex electrochemical reactions in the brain. Why would the religious impulse be any different?

Knowing the neural mechanics of the religious impulse does not undermine the legitimacy of religious belief any more than knowing the chemical process of romantic attraction makes the feeling any less real or the object of our affection less worthy.

The mere fact that we have beliefs that spring from mental tools selected for by natural selection is, all by itself, totally irrelevant to the justification of the beliefs that spring from them.

Nevertheless, if it is true that religion is a neurological phenomenon, then perhaps we should be searching for the origins of the religious impulse where that impulse actually resides: in the brain.

(God: A Human History of Religion)

Reza Aslan 2018

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