Sunday, April 8, 2007

New discoveries show areas of brain responsible for religion

CNN recently reported scientific discoveries that demonstrate certain areas of the brain are responsible for human religion.

It's an interesting article. The author's attempt at witty humour leaves me a little miffed, however:

"Today, scientific images can track our thoughts on God, but it would take a long leap of faith to identify why we think of God in the first place."

I don't think it would be that much of a leap at all. To understand why we believe in God (or in fact any religion), we need to ask ourselves not why we believe in such things, but what survival value a brain that is prone to such beliefs would have had in the wild?

The natural world is filled with all sorts of patterns, and organisms able to perceive and respond well to those patterns would conceivably do better than those which did not. Heavy rains leading to a flood; prolonged sun exposure leading to burnt skin; loud, low growls signalling the approach of a predator--all of these things are naturally occurring patterns that it would be beneficial to recognize. Of course, it's not necessary to have conscious pattern recognition. A species need only develop instinctual, genetic responses to the patterns around them to gain an advantage.

It follows then, that our highly developed human brain should be quite sophisticated indeed when it comes to recognizing patterns. It is our ability to understand and process patterns that gives us our unique ability to simulate and plan for the future. Unfortunately, when making decisions about patterns, there's always a potential for error. Religion is just such an error--it's an example of the human mind identifying a pattern that doesn't exist. Case in point: creationism. Since everything we see around us has an ultimate cause or creator (clay pots, houses, automobiles, computers, etc.), we assume that the universe itself must have had a creator as well. Even if we don't spend much time consciously considering it (as I would suggest is the case with most religious people) the belief that there is some type of creating force behind the universe almost "naturally" flows out of our everyday experience.

So, we believe in God because our brains are hard-wired to search for patterns and to explain them, and "God" is a convenient label our brains can use to explain the origin of the things around us that would seem to go otherwise unexplained. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the future, we find that the areas of the brain responsible for religious belief are also linked with instinctive pattern recognition.

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