Our Vestigial Gods

Posted by on March 9, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 5 comments

Religion is powerful and persuasive, and permeates almost all cultures on earth. It is generally accepted as one of the key points that separates man from beast, and is revered in most cultures as a cornerstone  or foundation of human existence. I would argue otherwise though, as I see mounting evidence that religion and religious beliefs are a byproduct of a much greater process in our minds, and comes from a place in our personal and evolutionary development that is key to the maturation of the human brain. This has less to do with the factual stance that there is definitely a god, and more to do with the early developmental stages of our brains as children and the evolutionary advantages of this development.

The distinction between animate and inanimate objects, or agency detection as children helps us become social animals and assists with the maturation of the human brain from helpless infant to functioning child and adult. As a child develops their minds absorb information about the world around them, and the one thing they begin to notice is that all things around them seem to have a cause. Given that human children are basically helpless until they are able to propel themselves, all things around them are supplied to them by an agent, namely the primary carer (usually the mother). Identifying this agent comes very early, and learning to communicate with this agent is an crucial in the development of language and socialisation of a child. One of the first things a child learns to recognise visually, and one of the visual patterns that is deeply ingrained in our psyche, is that of the human face, due to the proximity of the mother’s (or sometimes the father’s) face to a child while holding him or her. Two eyes a nose and a mouth first, and eventually the likeness and visual cues that distinguish one person, or agent, from another.

All things that happen to a baby are initiated by an external agent; the child needs milk and the agent supplies it, the child wants a toy, the agent supplies it, the child is tired and the agent delivers the baby to the sleeping area. The role of caregiver here is an almost godlike role, and one I think most people never fully grow out of. Add to this, when something happens, for example a toy is moved up and down in front of the baby’s eyes, at first the baby thinks the toy moves by itself, but eventually the baby sees the adult hand attached to the toy, then the arm and eventually links it back to the body of the external agent propelling it. To a baby, the world is the domain of the external agent, and the baby is simply a player in this grander scheme.

Agency detection, or the ability to detect the agents that cause an event, is another aspect of this development. The recognition of a human face is a large part of this and, as our minds develop, the agents become much greater than just the parents or relatives; the wind blows the trees and we see the trees blowing, the dog knocks over the cup of water, the bird makes a noise. Agents are everywhere, and we learn to distinguish these from other objects in our lives. As social animals, the main players in human society are other humans, so face/body-shape detection and agency detection go hand in hand; many of the things that happen around us will be initiated by another human.

This is overly simplified, and there is a whole field of psychology dedicated to the study of early childhood development, but I use this as a grounding for the larger picture, which is that many of these early childhood developmental stages continue to affect us well into adulthood. Remember these are foundational steps, and are there for a reason; to help us develop as we age.

Of course all of this has an evolutionary basis. Survival and reproduction are the key points in propagation of any species, and the human species is no exception. The detection of external agents, be they other humans we are likely to interact with or the tiger lurking in the grass that wishes to have us for dinner, is what allows us to stay safe from external factors and allows us to identify a potential threat or friend from a tree stump or a lamp post. Without this ability, society as we know it would not exist.

It has been suggested, and opinion that I think makes sense, that the god hypothesis has developed from this idea; we see agents everywhere, and in the ultimate question we therefore deduce that an agent is responsible. Richard Dawkins talks about this in “The Selfish Gene“, stating that the supernatural is agency detection gone too far. There is an evolutionary advantage to this, that being overly cautious of potential threats is a great way to survive (for example “Is that a tiger in the bushes or is it the wind? If it’s a tiger I’m dead, if it’s the wind I’m okay. Better bet it’s a tiger just to be safe”). I’ve written about this before, and Michael Shermer talks about this at length in “Why People Believe Weird Things“, citing ideas of “false positives” being preferable to “false negatives”.  We trust in our feelings, the ones that if incorrect have no adverse affects, but if correct will save our lives. These feelings can so often be wrong, but don’t harm anyone when they are, so we go with this as the best way forward.

The “Pascal’s Wager” scenario, where it’s better to believe and be wrong than to not believe and be wrong, stems from this idea of false positives and false negatives. The constant threat of eternal damnation and hell from the major religions is a far worse potential fate than the inconvenience of not believing in a god. Our ancestral fear of threats plays perfectly with the potential of everlasting torment, and those who constructed our modern religions knew this all too well. It’s easier to control with fear than with benefits. (I won’t dwell on this tangent any further in this piece as it is another topic and shall be discussed at another time.)

These days most of us never have to positively detect the presence of a tiger on our way to work as a survival mechanism, but these instinctual hangovers still live with us. Our evolutionary past is a long and complicated road, and to think that we can simply leave  this behind is to fail to see what has brought us here, and to see who we really are. We owe our survival as a species to these safeguards against predators, and agency detection. Our ability to know the shape of a human from a distance, our ability to read expressions in faces, and our ability to recognise face-patterns are all key to the development of modern society. But it is these very things that lead us to attribute the unexplained factors in our lives to external agency, be they imaginary tigers, ghosts, spirits, pixies or gods. That face you see in your burrito may once have been an enemy hiding in the bushes. Today it’s just a tasty snack with a face.

To be on the safe side, rather than saying we don’t know why something happened, we say that something was watching over us. To be on the safe side, rather than trying to explain our origins, we say that the universe must have been created by an agent. To be on the safe side, rather than learning from our evolutionary past, we look to books written with the exclusive purpose of control for guidance in our lives. And these factors are ingrained in the very cores of our beings, both evolutionarily and developmentally. It’s easier to go with our “gut” than to do the hard work of explaining things.

Rather than religion being a cornerstone of our societies, it is an overreaction to our own evolutionary past. It is instilled in us at an early age, and backed by our own fears and insecurities about our own existences. It is perpetuated by itself, in our societies through indoctrination and miseducation, is taught as fact, and demanded of us by our peers. To go against it is seen as wrong, and to applaud it is seen as virtuous. But once we break it all down, when we see where our ancestry has led us, the power of unwarranted fear begins to hold less power over our lives.

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  1. Good post Martin. I think there is much to what you write. The problem that I have with most religions is that they do not accept the ideas of reality, as you presented them. They do not see themselves as living within the infancy of human development. They do not stop to question if there is an agent that is looking out for them. In fact, many of them consider such questioning as heresy.

    In today’s world that kind of thinking serves to only to hold society back from reaching its full potential. If we are not free to question such things, where does that leave us? If we must accept a supernatural agent to explain answers that we do not know, then it is nothing more than a cop-out. We would be far better served if most religious people understood the principles that you write about. However, I think we are a long way away from that happening.

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  2. “Is that a tiger in the bushes or is it the wind? If it’s a tiger I’m dead, if it’s the wind I’m okay. Better bet it’s a tiger just to be safe”

    The use of agenticity and our primal fears to justify belief, with the use of, to an atheist’s understanding, fallacious arguments like Pascal’s wager, seems to be why such arguments are so compelling to those who already believe, using it not to arrive at a logical, truly justified, rational conviction, but to reinforce an irrational conviction that already exists.

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  3. Another great post that just makes sense. Keep up the good writing :)

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  4. Agency detection seems to be a major factor in why we “see” beings, that turn out to be inanimate objects. Maybe even our pets do that.

    In addition, our human psychology has an anthropomorphic bias. So we see humanlike features when we look at, well, anything. So our ancestors saw an “act of (a personlike) god”, when they saw lighning, healing, etc.

    So yes “agency detection” in part helps us understand how theists can see their god/s (as a living being with a humanlike mind).

    Nowadays though I don’t think religious teachings ask you to “see” the God that created the universe and spoke to Abraham, just to trust them (faith) and trust what you feel in your heart (ignore academia).

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  5. I was interested in this website and this post but the spelling errors in the first few sentences turned me off… Many might say this is pedantic, but if you’re not checking your work for spelling errors, you’re certainly not checking it for content errors.

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