Atheism vs religion: is there a scientific explanation for why we believe or disbelieve?

July 9th, 2018

Last post I looked at the differences between scientific thinking and religious thinking, at least as one social scientist sees it.

But where does religious thinking come from? Religious belief has been an important component in virtually every culture in human history. Why is this so?

Social scientists have studied this question extensively. Whether you believe in God, as I do, or you don’t, their conclusions help us understand religious belief and disbelief.

The cognitive science of religion

Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have studied religious belief as an element of human culture, and while there are still many disagremeents and uncertainties, some fairly clear conclusions have emerged.

Evolutionary explanations

Since religion has grown and persisted in human culture, it must be based on features that confer a survival advantage via natural selection. A number of factors are important ….

The way our brains work

Our brains receive a vast amount of sense information, and they try to make sense what we see and hear. Psychologists have found that, from when we are very young, we interpret sense information in several ways:

  • We tend to see order out of chaos. We often see patterns, even in apparently random events like the shape of clouds.
  • We are prone to anthropomorphise our surroundings. The patterns we see are often human, like a face in a tree or even a pizza. We can easily think a shadow at night is a person.
  • We often infer events are caused by agents rather than just random. It is easy to think a tree tapping on a window pane in the wind at night is a person.
  • We tend to infer teleology – natural things and events have a purpose, they are created for our use.
  • People are natural dualists. We find it easy to believe our minds are separate from our bodies and just inhabit our bodies.

We can see why our brains may work this way. For example, an ancient hunter who infers that a rustle in the grass is a lion, even if most times it isn’t, is more likely to survive to reproduce than one who doesn’t make that inference but waits to see.

Right from when we are very young, we experience our parents caring for us and our needs, and taking actions that affect the world around us for some purpose, and we extrapolate to think other events have a purpose and an agent behind them.

These characteristics easily lead to religious belief

With our brains thinking in these ways, we are naturally predisposed to believe in the supernatural, because we see personal agency in the world. Children find it very easy to believe in disembodied minds, such as gods, ghosts and invisible beings, and to believe in an afterlife.

Our memories most easily recall stories which have some counter-intuitive elements, but not too many. Many religious stories are like this, and so religious stories tend to stick in our minds.

Some anthropologists conclude that belief in “big gods” (e.g. the classic monotheistic creator God) was necessary to provide the moral sensitivity for complex cultures to form – religion and morality evolved together, helping people form large moral communities.

Religious belief has many personal advantages

Religious belief and practice has been shown to benefit both mental and physical health. It tends to reduce anxiety, depression and stress, and helps us cope with life issues that may not be abled to be resolved, such as grief, death, poverty or personal dysfunction. It provides explanations for uncertainties and adverse events. Religious people tend to live longer. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg: “even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health”.

Religious practices such as prayer, meditation and ritual can actually change our brain structure in a beneficial way. Andrew Newberg says spiritual practices “enhance the neural functioning of the brain in ways that improve physical and emotional health”.

So religious belief and practice confers an evolutionary advantage that makes it more likely that religion survived and spread.

Religious belief has many societal benefits

Studies have also shown that religious belief can assist human groups, whether families, tribes or nations, to prosper. Several different mechanisms have been proposed and argued over:

  • Religion can assist in promoting altruism within the group. Religious people tend to be more prosocial and charitable. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “members of religious communities are simply better citizens. …. participation in a religious community has an effect that reins in selfishness and draws them out into community.” (The corollary is that religion can tend to make people suspicious of those outside their group or nation.)
  • Religious belief can help promote ethical behaviour. Psychologist Ara Norenzayan: “If you believe in a monitoring God, even if no one is watching you, you still have to be pro-social because God is watching you.”
  • Religious rituals, which at first sight may seem to expend time and energy on worthless activities, actually assist altrustic and cooperative cultures to develop. This is because if most people in a group are willing to be altruistic to serve the interests of the group, anti-social individuals can get a free ride without giving anything to the group. But religious rituals build trust and group solidarity, and help demonstrate who is part of the group and who isn’t.
  • While religious belief sometimes leads to mistrust of outsiders, some studies show that “people who participated in a world religion were more fair toward strangers when playing economic games than people who were not religious.” (Beth Azar)

Group selection, natural selection acting at the level of the group and not just the gene, is controversial and not accepted by some scientists. But it seems that most cognitive scientists of religion conclude that religion helps groups survive.

Natural selection

So the cognitive science of religion indicates that, whatever the truth or otherwise of a religion, religious belief has been evolutionarily advantageous to individuals and societies, and so is in that sense “natural”. Of course some argue that it is no longer beneficial in our modern world, but most of the experts I have read (most of them not religious themselves) believe religion is still an important and positive element in society.

Believers and sceptics react

It is interesting to see how some people react to these findings.

Some believers feel threatened by the ideas, feeling that a “natural” explanation for religion may threaten their supernatural one. But Justin Barrett, one of the few cognitive scientists who is also a christian believer, thinks the opposite. He says that it seems reasonable that God would have created a human race that was predisposed to believe and to see divine agency in the world.

Besides, believers still need an explanation for all the religions they believe are false.

Some sceptics, sometimes characterised as “new atheists”, have also reacted against these findings, apparently feeling that they are too positive about the sociological and psychological benefits of religion, when they want to portray religious belief as a waste of time and a dangerous delusion. These critics, generally not experts in the field, prefer explanations for religious belief that portray it as a valueless by-product of evolution which doesn’t assist survival.

I feel both sides have allowed emotion and bias to lead them to ignore the clear scientific evidence. And they have no need to worry. The scientific findings can fit with atheism or theism.

A personal profile of believers and non-believers

The cognitive science of religion has also been able to produce a profile of people who are more likely to believe or disbelieve.

Believers are more likely to be intuitive, holistic thinkers, people oriented, idealistic, conforming and less open to new ideas. Non-believers are more likely to be analytical, systematic thinkers, less interested in personal relationships, pragmatic, individualistic and more open to new ideas. Non-believers are more likely to be interested in science, which requires many of the characteristics typical of them.

It turns out that autistic people are less likely to be religious because they have similar characteristics to those of non-believers generally, though to a greater degree.

I find all this interesting, and a little strange, because I fit the profile of the non-religious person, yet I am a religious believer. (I think the one area where I fit the believer profile is idealism.) This explains, I think, why I find myself thinking very differently from most christians I meet, and why many atheists online assume things about me that are not actually the case.

Two bad assumptions

I am happy to accept the scientific findings and adjust my understanding of faith and life to fit. But there are two assumptions commonly made by scientists working in this area, generally with no justification or explanation, which I disagree with and feel are unwarranted.

Materialism vs immortal soul

Many scientists of religion present religious belief as being dualistic, which they understand to entail an immortal soul, and which they see as being in opposition to materialism. But not all non-religious scientists and philosophers are materialists, and not all religious people believe in an immortal soul.

These days many christians, including me, don’t believe in an immortal soul that survives the death of the body, even though we are dualists. We believe there is a non-material aspect to human beings, but it isn’t separate from the body and doesn’t naturally survive death. Rather, we believe God resurrects the whole person.


So many papers I have read simply state that religion entails non-verifiable beliefs, something which I and most believers strongly contest. Of course believers generally don’t believe we can observe God or place him under a microscope, but we do believe the actions of God can be seen and understood in the world, in people, in science and in history, just as an astronomer can infer the presence of an invisible planet via its gravitational effects on visible objects.

Bad assumptions threaten the science

If scientists interpret the data using false assumptions, it is bound to lead to some doubtful interpretations at some point. Most scientists studying religion are non-believers, but I wish they wouldn’t make unjustified or unexplained assumptions.

So why is all this important?

I am excited by what I have learnt on all this. I think it explains many things and helps me understand both believers and non-believers. As psychologist Thomas Plante says: “this work reiterates that we are whole people; the biological, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual are all connected.”

Like Justin Barrett, I feel the scientific results and conclusions are quite consistent with my christian belief, and show that the more extreme anti-religion claims of some new atheists are anti-science and biased.

I think the human brain, our consciousness, ethics, rationality and apparent free will are all evidences of God working through evolution, rather than evolution being a totally random and non-purposive process. I think this reveals something more of the nature of God and how he works in the world.

So the cognitive science of religion seems to me to better fit within a theistic worldview than an atheistic one.

But then, I guess you knew I was going to come to that conclusion. 🙂

The hope for secular and non-believing social scientists, is that secular societies may be able to reproduce some of the benefits of religious belief without the supernatural. It remains to be seen if they can do this.

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Photo by Sawyer Bengtson on Unsplash


  1. Hello Eric. Wonderful post. I have been coming at the same questions from the other side for some time now. I agree with you that there can be something of value in understanding why God belief has been so selected in the origins of humankind, even for those of us who will never believe in anything supernatural. There is a baby in there which is worth saving even if we don’t want the bath water.

    God belief arises in consideration of a number of questions including origins, mortality, morality and purpose. But I think the primary place it comes in is in explaining the phenomenology of our subjective experience and it is there where it has the benefits you extoll. Believing in and revering something within which knows things we don’t and which is or can be benevolently inclined toward our happiness is a psychological benefit.

    My theory is that just as our bodies and minds still bear the marks of long evolution, so too might the forms that consciousness has taken over the course of our development. Our bodies/minds/consciousness give rise to our conscious minds and our sense of self and what we call our identity, but how do we know there aren’t other products of consciousness still active within us? It would explain a lot. Earlier products of consciousness may be primitive from our perspective as conscious/rational minds but they may well bear some of the wisdom of our organism so that our conscious minds can work unfettered to reason out solutions which have led to so much material wealth and power. The trouble is that rationality alone can never tell you what truly matters to you as a person and you can’t deduce the correct path to fulfillment by abstraction alone.

    Believers have the advantage of faith in something more than reason and an openness toward receiving its gifts. But there is no reason we who do not believe in a creator, can still embrace the something more which may well be a co-product of the same consciousness which produces our conscious self.

  2. Hi Mark, thanks for taking the trouble to comment, and thanks for your positive remarks. I think the fact that you and I, on opposite sides of the God question, can nevertheless both more or less agree on the science is encouraging, and bears out my conclusion that the cognitive science of religion can fit with either theism or non-theism.

    May I ask, without any intention to argue with you, why it is that you feel so sure you can never believe in anything supernatural?

  3. I do believe there are mysteries which may be beyond my understanding. I don’t believe there are any agents or forces which work on things we can detect which remain undetectable. I believe there are and may always be phenomena we do not understand, but I don’t believe any are in principle beyond comprehension. Really, why should that be?

    But mystery which I do embrace may -and I assume- is grounded in the natural world. If God had a natural grounding in the phenomenon of consciousness arising in our brains, that would not strip God of mystery. Consciousness itself is plenty mysterious and all the more so because we are one result of it. If it should turn out that God too were a product of consciousness and the part containing the wisdom of how to live a meaningful human life, would that render it less sacred?

    Thanks for your reply and interest too. Again, nice piece of writing up there about some very interesting ideas.

  4. Thanks Mark for your answer. Like I said, I’m not intending to argue, but it is a little surprising to me that someone who is so open-minded and accepts mystery would rule out the possibility of the supernatural.

    ” If it should turn out that God too were a product of consciousness and the part containing the wisdom of how to live a meaningful human life, would that render it less sacred?”

    I accept the possibility that our ideas about God and his existence could be just in our minds, as many of the scientists think, I just don’t believe it is a very likely explanation. But if it was true, I think it would indeed make life less meaningful, less sacred. I might be able to think it was meaningful, but I don’t think it actually would be objectively.

    I think this might be where we disagree. I think you think that as long as we think subjectively that it is meaningful, that is enough, is that right? Whereas I think I want to believe subjectively what is objectively true.

    Thanks again for your positive comments.

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