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

  • People are religious because it makes sense to them.

    I don’t buy atheism because it has been falsified by my experience. If Bell’s theorum is correct it faces some challenges from physics too.

    No one has ever seen a cause – does this make it a religious belief?

    Studying the effects of something is different to studying its cause or the phenomenon itself. (These people are scientists?!)

    I really hope people will genuinely study religious experience (William James made a brave beginning a while ago now). The neuroscience approach seem fundamentally mis-oriented.

  • Even if a tendency to religion is “natural”, it can just join the list of “natural” things that have outlived their usefulness. There was a time when it was “natural” to fight other tribes and wipe them out entirely, but niw we call that genocide. There was a time when it was “natural” for men to rape of seduce women, then leave them to bring up the children alone, but now we expect more from men.

    Why do we insist on fetishising and justifying our ancient primitive vices? I’d like to think that we can move on and, you know, evolve our ideas more quickly than our biology?

  • Well, Atheism is too a phenomena, like any other religion..You coudnt say that that they dont have any argument….So far is the any religion is concerned , This is what we can see in past, that the most important aspect of life is “Religion” its Like, something that describe what the human is going to do in this world.

  • Ola

    I take issue with the following statement:

    Atheism is generally the result of a deliberate effort against our natural cognitive dispositions […]

    While supernatural belief may be common in children, as mentioned in this article, it seems many adults merely grow out of it without the need for any form of “deliberate effort”. The statement might be true in societies where religion is highly prevalent in culture and society such as rural USA, but in most of the western world, abandoning religion is not nearly as strenous as this article makes it seem.

  • Copypasta

    Let me introduce some relativism, wikipedia-quoting style:

    The Canadian scholar of comparative religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith argued that religion, rather than being a universally valid category as is generally supposed, is a peculiarly European concept of comparatively recent origin. His work has been enlarged upon by E.J. Sharpe, C.F. Keyes, and Timothy Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald especially notes in The Ideology of Religious Studies that the concept of religion as a study irreducible to sociology, history, etc., is a fallacy caused by a desire to protect the transcendent ideals of world cultures. He claims that writers cannot define a single concept called “religion” that applies to all cultures, because all definitions of religion have the dual effect of setting up an imaginary ideal onto which real practices are merely mapped, and serializing individual identity to include a separate aspect called “religion.” In short, “there is no coherent non-theological theoretical basis for the study of religion as a separate academic discipline.”
    The implication of Smith’s and Fitzgerald’s work is that religion, rather than being a special category which can be criticized or praised as a group, is merely one type of ideology, alongside humanism, Marxism, nationalism and so forth.

    I’m skeptic about “religion”.

  • Hi Copypaster, re: no non-theological base for studying religion. Well, there wouldn’t be if it was a valid category.

    As to the difficulties of definition: same thing with families and money but families and economics exist.

    Any definition taking account of large numbers of examples will necessarily be an abstraction and to some extent an ‘ideal’. And once a person is committed to this definition they will naturally view human experience through it – that just means that they believe the definition is accurate and helpful.

    Could religion be viewed as a human phenomenon along side others? Of course. This doesn’t mean that it is the same as them though. There may be differences.

    The question I think is: can the hypothesis/definition “religion” take account of human experiences that the others can’t? Do people have experiences which are transcendent?

    As to the ideology of philosophy etc (something else for which there is no one definition) I believe my experience has falisified materialism. I believe the data for this is good (though it didn’t occur in a scientist’s laboratory or an academic’s study.

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  • Andrew

    I’m going to go ahead and suggest that any real attempt to explain religious thought and practice using evolution is still speculation. Speculation, if the goal here is really to talk about this scientifically, really relies on a belief in evolution. So, to assert at this point that religion is a bunch of hogwash is too strong. There is a case for saying that religion is probably a bunch of hogwash, but let’s not overstep our bounds.

    A second point, most people beginning around the teenage years, find it difficult to believe in anything that their own experience has not provided for. I, like some of the earlier commentators, take issue with the implied easy route of religion against the rational route of atheism. To be sure, religious people are not and cannot be grouped as those who take this ‘easy route.’ This would pejoratively imply inferiority of these people. Certainly, this is not where a learned society wants to take this discussion. There are much smarter believers than me or probably you.

    Just some points for thought and talk.

  • philgeland

    All kinds of serious human relations are based on trust. Trust means believe.

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  • Mark

    Stats show that as civilization has progressed, eg, Europe, it has become ‘post-Christian’. This trend continues. Only Islam has more and more adherents in Europe, but only because of the influx of people from that culture. People bring their REGIONAL religion with them. It is a codified format of belief and in no way arises ‘naturally’.

    The fact of the matter is that religion is not a ‘natural’ phenomenon, it is a FORCED one. You become the religion of the region or you are removed from that region. That is a matter of history.

    This article did not enlighten me one iota about the nature of its widespread adherence.

  • Andrew


    First, a quick note about your application of statistics. You provide statistics (which is a fine and good thing) but then try to account for their causes. Any good statistician would tell you that you cannot read causes into statistics without a good amount of study done to eliminate other possible causes. As you have not provided this, the conclusion of your post (beginning with “People bring …”) does not follow necessarily from your stats.

    That aside, you do bring up a good question for consideration: Is religion a natural phenomenon or not? You have sided with the negative answer to this question. But then how do you account for the fact that Christianity originated as a middle eastern religion and has all but died out in its original geographical home? Other religions have also done similar things, particularly Buddhism in India.

    Just some points for thought and talk.

  • Theodore A, Hoppe

    The person that is writing this has a PhD in molecular biology and is basing this opinion, in part, on a abstract from the second reference. It states: We propose an integrative cognitive neuroscience framework for understanding the cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief. Our analysis reveals 3 psychological dimensions of religious belief (God’s perceived level of involvement, God’s perceived emotion, and doctrinal/experiential religious knowledge), which functional MRI localizes within networks processing Theory of Mind regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics, and imagery. Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.

    Thoughts anyone?

  • It’s hardly surprising that belief involves the brain.

  • Ali

    I think that the the religion has an evolutionary basis, when the human brain start to talk to himself, when hallucinations started in the human brains. and human brain divided in to two hemispheres (lateralization). The ability of human brain to have hallucinations , to sense some sounds from far and gradually start to have dialogs with himself (consciousness).

  • Jason

    I think the really interesting question about belief comes when you separate it from your preconceived ideas and prejudices about known religious institutions. If religious thinking is a natural phenomenon in the human brain then I just do not buy the idea that atheists can somehow bypass that natural heritage by a superior effort of thinking. That sounds like the kind of apologetics that other faith systems have made in the past!

  • Heres a narrative…religion as a conditioner and agency for stressed family groupings (higher densities)

    Religion positively promotes and is initially created by close proximity living…such as Caves , or in resource dense areas that can sustain higher densities.
    The child is denied free will and has to succumb to a hierarchy through intense parental subjugation.
    The loss of free will is compensated by a population that can bear to live much more closely to each other .Emotional outbursts from close living could increase violations of the moral codes. Moral codes ( being innate )are re-ratified through taboo and ritual.That inner repressed self is allowed to burst out / channelled towards a ‘parent God – sinful child who can become good ‘ narrative…the inner child can re-channel the damage done by the branding done by the parent by loving an outer parent…invisible …but very apt for a love that was lost in childhood and kept unconscious.( invisible itself )…
    The upshot is higher densities , stratified societies.Very sucessful.So sucessful that they can sustain Atheism…a reaction against that parental authority paradigm or just open defiance from individuals who have a need to express their non- belief….only possible in societies that have grown beyond the sustenace of the religion paradigm and are generating new paradigms.
    But when societies fail…its religion that comes back.
    We see reason everywhere as we move away from childhood .We serialise , intentionalise everything.
    The kernel of emotional damage is never fully assimilated and we are forever projecting it outwardly…so our emotions become to flavour the outer world as they are left orphaned within us….
    So we see intentionality in animals and the Sun and rain…..
    The inner damage also causes us to seek more security amonsgt each other and that positively re-inforces the hierarchy.
    The left brain -right brain hierarchy is the first hierarchy that is the cornerstone .The parent affects the emotional right side and effects changes in the left brain…hence re-inforcing a naturally occuring hierarchy.The right brain spills over into the outer world and the left brain channels new explanations that help it cope ( intentionalizing the inanimate..idols..sun moon….and the animate….animals ) .
    Those that are left feeling insecure from the parental ‘conditioning’ seek more security and become ‘conservatives’….those that have a more fluid relationship with both cerebral hemispheres ..can become liberals.Those that have an emotional sides that career wildly within ..uncontainable by the left brain..are potential prophets.
    Smaller religious societies require a higher proportion of rightwingers.When they get incredibly sucessful…they need liberals to occassionaly steer them onto novel or new paths ( social democracies).
    Sorry if it bit waffly.

  • Those brought up in supportive environments can also have a religious sense.

  • The religious enviroment is the support and symptom.The cause is population density .Religion follows and causes more population density…in a supportive manner.

  • All this may be true for organized forms of religion. however, there is a facet of religion called ‘spirituality’, which is personal and not society driven. thoughts anyone!!!

  • Tribal groups – about as dispersed as population gets still have religion.

    I think the social vs individual can be a bit of a mistake. Human babies being so dependant we are a tribal species. The personal spirituality is often affected by language, social views of what is real (even if a sub-cultures views). As soon as the spiritual affects the social it starts becoming ‘religious’.

    These are my thoughts. Keen to hear other’s.

  • This is my angle ..

    Hunter Gatherers have the lightest density footprint and have a flat hierarchy , little or no religion and a looser or no specific bonding between children and parents( unstratified) .They are the baseline of our evolution.
    Tribes have lineages ( requires a strong child-parent bond) and require alot of co-operation ,leadership , division of clans = hierarchy ) to compete with other tribes ( high population density) .Hunter Gatherers skim of the landscape and can only exist in a low density pattern.

    The Toba event caused the population worldwide to decrease synchronously 60k years ago
    and the population increases thereafter synchronised the rise of religions/civilisations
    to the last 30k years as population densities recovered.

    The first border war we fight as individuals is for the personal/self space we feel that
    is ours.An authority figure will puncture this space and demand modulation to your behavioural
    output ( the same pathway that makes you vunerable to hypnotherapy in later life…I’m sure Hunter
    Gatherers are not hypnotizable ).This involves a loss of self and a gain for the larger group.
    The benefits to the larger group eventually accrue back to the individual..which is why religion is so sucessful..This border skirmish is usually a singular event and the parent always win .They are larger physically ( as is God) , all powerful as compared to the child ( as God is), and can punish and withhold their love…all attributes of Gods.
    If the insecurity of that breach causes you to seek more security , you are a right -winger ( good for the group).
    If it causes some insecurity but only enough for you to despise the cause of the insecurity..
    you will become a revolutionary , anarchist anti-authoutarian personality ( no good for
    the group).If the insecurity leaves you in neither can empathise both ways become a
    If you seek spirituality from a sense of weakness will seek the comfort of the
    the establised ‘ church’.This is a religious person in the fullest sense ( a follower , never a prophet)
    A spiritual person …has a sense that the locus of the events that matter in a religious sense…are
    within them selves..( quite correctly) and not in institutions..more the individual.
    These people are irrelevent to the group hierarchy but become nucleators when a large grouping needs to re-align and politically re-define itself.These spiritiual nucleators are always around , but at oppurtune times , the larger group will re-orient itself using a nucleator …a new prophet is born.

    The left+up vs the right+down arena of the brain and the relationship of these two are the backbone
    for this interplay .

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  • Javaid, where on earth do you get the idea that hunter-gatherers have little or no religion? The Australian aborigines have a religious heritage of 40-60,000 years!

  • Anonymous

    I was going by Alan MacFarlane’s description of Hunter Gatherer societies.( less to no religion ..less to no heirarchy …both not characteristics of large scale societies)
    I’ve tried an overall wide arc-ing view.Its not binary choices anywhere along the line…
    but I expect less religion in early populations as density decreases and religion as positively present in every large scale/ high density grouping.
    We evolved under the environmental pressure of other human beings ( we were the environment ) even under conditions 150k + years ago..we had already been exposed to population pressure.( smaller bodies but stable brain sizes indicate that) .But its close proximity living that causes religion.
    And religion itself then helps close proximity living.
    After a certain tipping point..the Religious memes would have fought each other into existence ( less organised Tribal , Hunter Gatherers get swept aside )..leaving aside a meme ( religion ) that is propagating itself.

  • Anonymous

    Atheism is not an ideology.

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  • Ulla

    In this text is a serious error. Brain areas are found that contain religious experiencies. Look for Michael Persinger. This kind of altered consciousness can be achieved by altered processings in the brain, as for after a strike of lightning, often reported in schamanism. Fire is often used too as a tool.

    Persinger induced a magnetic field across the brain hemispheres that gave the religious feeling. How that feeling is interpreted, if it is as God or as ET, depends on the culture.

  • Andrew

    Religion is here because men are confused and easily led astray from a plan that God himself with a physical body of flesh and bones laid out for us. We are spiritual beings here in this world having a physical experience. We are meant to learn to believe in something that isn’t factual or that can’t be proven… that’s what faith is. Believing without seeing. If we had all the answers given to us then it wouldn’t be a test. And that’s exactly what this life is is a test.

  • Jim

    Thanks for the rational approach to an irrational subject, but the proverb says, “Only a fool will argue with a fool.” Attempting to engage in rational intercourse on a subject that, by definition, defies rationality, seems ultimately futile.

    By my research, religious is an adjective primarily related to scrupulous, or exact. The popular lexicon generalizes it such that a precise meaning must depend upon its greater context.

    My point is, be careful how you evaluate or criticize a subject as subjective as religion; you may appear to practice your atheism religiously.

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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