The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods

Many mental ingredients are necessary for religion as-we-know-it. But scholars emphasize three tendencies in particular, which are pronounced in humans, but minimally expressed in other species: We seek patterns, infer intentions, and learn by imitation. These are cognitive adaptations that helped our ancestors survive. For example, it’s obviously useful to notice paw prints (a pattern) laid by a lion planning to eat you (an intention), and to deter the predator with tactics others have successfully used (imitation, at least before you could read how-to online). However, people overextend these tendencies. We also find patterns in randomness — like reading tea leaves — ascribe intentions to nonexistent beings — like blaming disasters on angry deities — and copy others even when it’s costly — like fasting and sacrifice. In this way adaptive mental abilities could have led to religious beliefs.


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