Religion – A “Natural” Phenomenon?

All human societies have some phenomenon that can be described as religion. It is difficult to understand why religion is so pervasive in human culture. Some theories suggest that religion is a byproduct of evolution. However, no other animal group has anything that even remotely resembles the concept that has been labeled as religion in anthropology. Unlike other social animals, humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond a physical presence. From childhood, humans are capable of forming enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends and super heroes. Thus, for humans, it is not difficult to imagine a god who is although invisible and intangible, yet somehow involved with them. Religious thoughts are based on tacit assumptions, when people proclaim their loyalty to a particular faith, they subscribe to claims for which there is no evidence. Unlike conscious beliefs, which differ widely from one tradition to another, such tacit assumptions about religious beliefs are very similar across religions.

The regions of the brain engaged in processing religious knowledge can be studied using modern neuroimaging techniques. Experiments were done to determine the psychological components underlying religious belief and evaluate their neural foundations. These studies support the view that there is no specific domain for religion in the human brain. Religiosity is integrated in our cognitive processes and employs the same brain networks used in social and emotional interactions. Religious understanding probably emerged as a unique combination of several evolutionarily important cognitive processes. Humans are naturally inclined to faith due to these traits. Thus, religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems and is a consequence of having a very ‘human’ type of brain.

By contrast, atheism is harder for the human brain to comprehend. Atheism is generally the result of a deliberate effort against our natural cognitive dispositions and is thus a more difficult ideology to propagate. It is therefore not surprising that despite the appeal of logic and rationality that atheism offers, it has few takers.

Perhaps a capacity for religious thinking — and not specifically religion in its present socio-political context — provided fitness benefits to our ancestors during the course of evolution. Religion can evoke very diverse and strong emotions, which can now be experimentally studied. Neuroscience is trying to provide a pragmatic explanation to the complex phenomenon called religion. Religion continues to dominate both the personal and political aspects of our modern society and it is unlikely that any understanding of the foundations of religious belief in humans will undermine the impact of religion in our lives.


Boyer, P. (2008). Being human: Religion: Bound to believe? Nature, 455 (7216), 1038-1039 DOI: 10.1038/4551038a

Kapogiannis, D., Barbey, A., Su, M., Zamboni, G., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2009). Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (12), 4876-4881 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811717106

Divya Mathur, PhD

Divya Mathur, PhD, holds a doctorate in molecular biology with several peer reviewed journal articles. She currently writes about medical research for the lay audience.
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