Random AsidesReligion

Why do people believe in God?

Yesterday I was thinking about why people believe in God. I don’t mean why one individual or another believes — I think that’s based on personal experiences, what we’ve been taught by our parents or other mentors, what continent we were born on, and other social accidents. In other words, individuals today believe in God because other humans have told them about God.

What I’m wondering is this: what made human beings think there was such thing as a god in the first place? I can only come up with two ideas.

Star Trek Apollo’s Temple1) A powerful being came to earth and revealed itself to some humans a long time ago. This could have been an actual deity or a powerful alien. The primitive humans wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference, so they declared that this being was a god.

If this being was an alien, it was misunderstood or it intentionally deceived the primitive humans for the love of power. We’ve seen this in lots of TV and movie plots, from the original Star Trek to Stargate.

Start Trek ApolloIf this being was indeed a god, whatever it may have revealed during first (and only?) contact with humans has since been distorted and interpreted in a gigantic game of telephone until the original message is so buried in various religious doctrines that it is unrecognizable. If this indeed happened, is it unreasonable to consider that this could be traced back to its source the way languages can be traced backwards to earlier proto-languages? (On the other hand, if this really happened and this god cared about what we thought about it, why has it been hiding for all these centuries?)

An alternative to this idea is that a human once hallucinated about a powerful being like this, and believed that the hallucination (perhaps drug induced) was a real experience, and concluded that a god had revealed itself, even though it was just a figment of his imagination. People hallucinate today and think they’ve seen real specters, so this would not be a far-fetched idea.

2) Human beings could not understand the universe and their own consciousness and experiences, and they assumed there must be some even more powerful being controlling these things. In other words, man created god to explain natural phenomena that were incomprehensible to those without science as a tool to study, and/or to overcome existential angst that arose once we became sentient and realized that we were going to die.

I can’t think of any other reason that humans would have come to believe in a god. Either someone saw or thought they saw such a god, or they invented, perhaps unconsciously, such a god. Neither of these alternatives leads to any practical or convincing reason to believe the teachings of any specific religion today. Or am I missing something?


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. It's also possible that some clever people invented or rather created God to gain power over gullible people. Meaning, religion was originally an elaborate scam, a political tool.

    The political benefit of having a God is that you can make him say and do a lot of things that, coming from a normal person, would be suspicious or paradoxical. God, unlike people, moves in mysterious ways, so he can easily command you to do stuff that doesn't make sense.

  2. I blame superstition. Maybe it served us well at some point in evolution, but it seems to have been throwing up a some anomalies over the past few thousand years.

    Religion is a great method of control and subjugation, but I doubt any one person or group was able to deliberately spread an idea like that across any large population with a particular purpose in mind.

  3. Another possible explanation is that our species' propensity to believe in a god is a by product of evolutionarily necessary modules in our brain. So, for example, we have an "agency detector" build into our heads. We're always looking for motives in things that we see. This is a Good Thing. Rather mistakenly impute a motive to the predator about to attack you than not anticipate and be the predator's lunch, or supper for that matter.

    We also have a face recognition module – works along similar lines. Various shapes often look like faces. Rather mistakenly see a face in a rock, than miss the sabre toothed kitty in the bush. These two modules and various others, taken together could form the basis of some religions, for example the animist religions. Once the religious ball is rolling it can grow and evolve in our minds.

  4. Well, I got here late. But I think that Thadocta's explanation sounds most plausible to me. I can see how this would contribute to the evolution of human superstition.

  5. In fact, in Hebrew, the term "nefesh" is interchangable between "soul" and "breath."

  6. Pseudonym, I'm familiar with Campbell and Jung.

    I think Jung's stuff is very interesting and fun to read, but in the end I can't buy into the collective unconscious idea the way he represents it. I think the common stories across cultures are probably an artifact of a common evolutionary history, such as what thadocta mentions, rather than anything more mystical. But I agree that studying stories and myths does tell you something, a lot in fact, about human psychology.

    I think Campbell's stuff is useful for writers, but offhand I can't think of anything of his that I've read that leads to different conclusions about where the belief in dieties might have come from. Do you have any specific references to recommend?

    (I did mention "telephone" in my original post, which is what we called the "Chinese whispers" game when I was a kid.)

  7. Interesting ideas. thadocta, I think what you are saying fits into my second idea, although you’ve gone more into the evolutionary reasoning as an explanation for why early humans might have adopted this type of thinking to explain what they saw or experienced. Thunder goes “boom,” man goes “who did that? must be a super-being who has more power than I do.”

    The idea of what life is or what makes us alive one minute and dead the next could lead to a beleif in spirits, too. The idea and word “spirit” was once more literally connected to the idea and word “breath” than it is today. We can see a metaphorical connection, but I can easily see how breath was once thought to literally be spirit.

  8. echobucket great post!

    Douglas Adams R.I.P.

    I hope u froze yourself (or vitrification 4 u snobby types) in some sort of giant coke can so afterwards I can interview you in a few hundred years.

    a lot of the god stuff also has to do with people following the ways of their parents, if you are Jewish most likely your parents are or if you are Hindu… etc Douglas Adams goes into why people began thinking there was a god , but we all ask why do people STILL believe there is a God..

    if you believe in the tooth fairy at the age of 7 ok

    if you believe in the tooth fairy at the age of 17 eh??

    if you believe in the tooth fairy at the age of 27 HEY! c'mon now.

    if most people believe in a god in 1308 ok

    if most people believe in a god in 1908 eh??

    if most people believe in a god in 2008 HEY! wake the F**K UP!!!!!

  9. Just a thought: Go read some Joseph Campbell and then try to answer the question again. I suspect you’ll still be none the wiser, but you’ll have a few more plausible explanations.

    One hint is noting that some apparently unconnected cultures have similar stories that they tell. If you think of oral storytelling as a kind of “Chinese whispers” game, then stories will evolve. There is a random mutation element (copying error) and a selection pressure (human psychology).

    What you end up with is the intriguing idea (due to Jung) that studying stories (and mythology, which is a kind of story) tells you something about human psychology.

  10. @thadocta – Does your concept of "agency recognition" include our tendency to confuse correlation with causation? I'm not sure if it would have led to humanity creating gods, but that tendency seems to do an awful lot to reinforce religious/superstitious beliefs.

    @writerdd – I find the idea that all our religions were created by an extraterrestrial visitor sometime early on in our evolution a fascinating one. It could explain why we see so many similar themes in disparate religions, like the dying & rising god narrative. Some alien came to earth, looked like they died, appeared to come back to life and we've been screwing the story up ever since. It's wildly far fetched speculation with no empirical support, but I think it's a fun idea to play around with. At the very least, it makes for some of that great scifi you mentioned.

  11. this post is EXACTLY what i've thought about, over and over again. whenever i try to tell this to my more moderate christian friends, they get into how atheism is a belief just like anything else. even with rational, intelligent religious people, this discussion is water off their back and i don't understand that.

    may i just say an ironic "hallelujah" to this blog? :)

  12. peaches, yeah, I doubt the alien scenario is true but it's at least feasible to me. The common theme of resurrection could also just be a way to deal with the fear of death.

    btlzu2, I agree completely. The thing is, I haven't figured out how to articulate this yet, which is why I'm writing about it, so I can try to figure out what I am thinking. But really I just don't get where the idea of god came from in the first place. I mean, if some humans were isolated in a distant environment, and if they had science (to explain consciousness and other natural phenomena), and if they had no one telling them about the existence of a god, would they come up with that idea again from scratch? I really don't think so.

    Rambling, sorry. :-)

  13. I agree in part with thadocta (who sounds like he's been reading Pascal Boyer), but think religion may be more than just friction between different cognitive modules (this is what Gould would call a "spandrel"). I agree with David Sloan Wilson that religion may have played an adaptive role in our evolutionary history, and that history is still with us today predisposing us, under the right conditions, to develop religious convictions that are resistant to rational dispute.

    For example, religious beliefs may be an adaption to allow for stable coalitions among rational self-interested bands of about 50 people. Whereas our brains are generally adapted to accurately depict the world, in order to avoid defections from social groups, we're adapted to hold certain false beliefs (all knowing ancestor spirits that will punish us w/ bad luck if we cheat or defect from the group, even if nobody finds out). Sort of like an adaptive solution to collective action problems.

    This part of our brain is still around today, and provides the basis for more organized literate religions that are partly products of culture and partly built on genetic predispositions (like language).

  14. "Does your concept of “agency recognition” include our tendency to confuse correlation with causation?"

    That would make sense to me. Those two concepts seem to be interrelated in various superstitions, even though they're separate phenomena. For instance, if a shaman does a funny dance before a much-needed rainfall, and decides that his dance *caused* the rainfall, he is not only confusing correlation with causation, he is also presuming that someone/something is out there watching and reacting to his dance. That definitely places a false agency on the cause of rain.

  15. Campbell’s work is very important. But so is Thomas Kuhn’s. What needs to be remembered is how the vast majority of humans learned things over evolutionary time. The vast majority learned things by being taught them by other humans. The cognitive paradigm that humans learn by being taught by someone who knows more then gets over generalized when something new is discovered, such as fire. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. How can something as magical as fire originate? Obviously only by some magical being teaching it to the human who first used it and first brought it to other humans. Paradigm breaking scientific advances are not always accepted even when they are taught. The notion that some smart man/woman simply figured it out on their own is simply too incredible. Virtually all people simply can’t conceive of inventing something. Even when the inventor tells them that he/she simply “figured it out”, people can’t believe it because simply “figuring it out” isn’t something they have the ability to do. If I can’t figure out how to invent fire, no other human could possibly figure it out either. It must have been some supernatural agent that taught that human.

    I actually get this all the time, people asking me how I came up with such-and-such idea. It is kind of hard to tell them that I spent my childhood building stuff in the basement, 5 years at MIT, read a few thousand papers in the field, then months/years of critical and rigorous thinking to put it all together. They want a one sentence answer that they can repeat. The background falls on deaf ears because it isn’t something they can duplicate.

    Even now, how many athletes credit their performance to God? But somehow God is quite selective and only helps athletes who exercise and train at their sport for years. Maybe the stories were disinformation to competitors. Trying to get your competitors to uselessly pray for success instead of training and working.

  16. you know, i’ve been tinkering with the idea of researching the “origins of god” more deeply. prehistoric humans supposedly thought that, say, the sun was a god (egyptians, correct?) and anything they couldn’t understand was attributable to “god”. i imagine there was inherent fear of what we were experiencing in our infancy and we had the need to provide answers to things as our awareness grew, correct?

    this is probably a lot of hypothesis or speculation, but i’d like to solidify it myself. i was even considering writing a book about it and doing serious research. (note, i am not a professional writer, but this interests me so much…).

    i think that the willingness to start ascribing our ignorance to a god or powerful being was then often used by smarter people as a means to control others.

    what i can’t understand, too, is why people believe when all the reasons for belief when religions, early churches were founded are now destroyed. isn’t religion now “fruit of a poison tree” since a) the earth being the center of the universe b) god creating immutable life on earth c) god being involved in day-to-day life is basically disproven?

    it boils down, for me, to willful ignorance. hate to be judgmental, but it’s the only conclusion i come to. my smarter religious friends have themselves so wrapped up in twisted logic and confusion that they cannot see the forest for the trees….

  17. Donna, I guess I was actually trying to point out what thadocta said, but suggest Jung/Campbell-type stuff as a specific mechanism. (I hadn't read thadocta's comment when I wrote that.)

    I agree with you about the collective unconscious thing. I think the idea has merit, but I think that Jung hadn't quite understood it.

    By the way, if you read some of the early Freudian stuff (like Jung), you get the impression that their explorations of religion were… well… they thought that religion was an approximation, and they'd found the truth. But reading it today, you get the strong impression that they'd actually created a new kind of religion and just didn't realise it. (For a lot of the 20th century, and still today, the therapist is really just a more expensive confessional.)

    I think that a lot of people noticed this in the 50s and 60s, but couldn't really articulate it in those terms. A deep but unsophisticated skepticism about the religiosity of psychiatry is possibly one factor in the creation of Scientology, for example.

  18. Well, in light of our little talk here, I picked up Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief by Lewis Wolpert today. The author is an atheist and a biologist, but he was raised Jewish and was very religious as a child, and his son is a fundamentalist Christian. Oddly enough, he feels that this has helped his son. I haven't read the book yet, but all I can say about that is, if fundamentalism helps you, you were really fracked up to begin with. Not that I don't believe him. Becoming a born again Christian helped my mother a lot, and probably is one of the only things that enabled her to have a happy life. Anyway, in the wake of his son's conversion, Wolpert wanted to research where belief comes from. The book is the result of that research.

  19. For humans to have a belief in God, it is pretty clear that they must have the neural structures that support that belief. The behavior (belief in God or gods) can't exist without those structures. Presumably the neural structures to support those activities evolved over time and were adaptive for the behaviors to originate and be maintained. I suspect that the original function was some sort of "respect for authority", or "belief in authority" as in children respecting and believing their parents. Learning which root was poisonous and which one was edible is certainly important. Children have to learn and accept some of these things before they have the cognitive ability to understand the reasoning behind it. The "problem" occurs when the authority provides information that is wrong.

    I suspect that there was a transition from parent as authority to patriarch as authority. There are numerous cultures where the leaders (essentially always male) were considered divine. The Pharaohs in Egypt were gods themselves, the Emperor of Japan was divine, in Europe there was the "divine right of kings".

    With the patriarch being considered divine, it becomes quite easy for belief in gods to evolve. The patriarch "god" is going to do what ever it takes to get as many of his female subjects pregnant as possible. This perpetuates his genes fostering his belief that he is divine, but also fosters the genes of females who believe he is divine also. There are not a few religions that attempt to foster that kind of belief even now, Mormons for example. Particularly the polygamy versions.

    The transition from patriarch as god to spiritual being as God may have been a survival feature for the patriarch. Better to be a man who has the favor of an invisible and invincible God than simply a man who can be replaced by anyone who kills him.

    In many cases females with offspring sired by an alpha male will fight to protect him from a new alpha male because they know the new alpha male will kill their offspring sired by the previous alpha male (as in lions). That is a very strong incentive for females to buy into the patriarch's belief system, if that is helping keep their children alive.

  20. With the patriarch being considered divine, it becomes quite easy for belief in gods to evolve

    daedalus2u, very interesting comment. But I would think you'd need a belief in god before you could have belief that a patriarch was divine. Unless you just mean that the patriarch was some kind of super-human, not really the incarnation of some spiritual-god being.

  21. In that sense I was just meaning "better than all the other guys". Which is kind of what one would expect a female to want in her mate, and would be predisposed to believe (whether it was true or not). My thought is that it would start out as that he is just a better guy than all the rest, but once “abilities to convince girls they are god-like” starts to be selected for by girls; it could get quite extreme, sort of like the peacocks tail. The only reason peacocks have a big tail is because peahens like it.

    Some girls, and even women have almost supernatural ideas of what they want in a guy. It becomes only a tiny step between a “rich, handsome, worshipful prince charming soul mate” and someone divine. Whoever got Mary pregnant with Jesus convinced her that He was divine and that she remained a virgin. That is some pretty powerful Mojo. Not a surprise that Jesus was a great preacher.

  22. The virginity of Mary is something that only popped up several hundred years after she (supposedly) lived. Particularly in an attempt to give Jesus that extra little extra to qualify for divine status. He wasn't just another prophet born of an ordinary human male, he was part holy spirit. This is particularly obvious if you see the attempts that already existed in biblical texts to make Joseph the umpteenth descendant of king David. Something which is completely irrelevant if he isn't even genetically related to his own son.

  23. Regarding the "remarkable similarities" between religions in various areas around the world. Well, I'd say part of that may be due to the fact that a detailed religious idea is much older than we might imagine.

    I think about 4'000 or 5'000 years ago, humans had pretty much reached every nook of the planet, but many continents weren't even inhabited as little as 10'000 years ago.

    I think The Egyptian "empire" can trace its origin to some 7'000 years ago, and it's pretty much established that they already had a very developed sun-based religion when they did, even if it did experience a lot of evolution over the following millenia.

    And then there's ideas that aren't really that original to begin with, like flod-myths and the like. The idea that every religion worldwide has a flood story isn't really surprising, considering floods are major events that would be remembered for a long time.

    Something as uncommon as a resurrection (perhaps even as silly as a "miraculous" recovery) would stick in the collective mind for an equally long time as well. In fact, it may have happened to "a friend of a friend", but no matter how many times a story gets retold, it's always a person just outside your own immediate circle of friends.

    As such, stories about events happening to specific people could easily travel from one group of people to the next without ever becoming a story about some guy far away, happening to "them". It'll always be a story about "some guy not far from here, "one of us".

    I don't see why religion wouldn't evolve and grow the same way. You hear a story about a miraculous healing? Well, who else than YOUR god could have done that? And who else could he have performed it on than one of YOUR people?

    As such, I think Urban Legends are an excellent comparison for religion.

  24. @ writerdd

    The common theme of resurrection could also just be a way to deal with the fear of death.

    Yeah, probably. It seems a reasonable assumption that once we figured out we would die we immediately began looking for a "solution." But the alien idea is just soooooo cool.

    @btlzu2 – Having been one of those people who was twisted up in theology for several years I can say that at least some of it is definitely willful ignorance. Looking at the evidence and accepting that it meant my entire world view was wrong was the hardest thing I've ever done. I kept myself willfully ignorant for quite awhile to avoid it.

    But there are other reasons people keep believing, including neurological ones. The fact that temporal lobe seizures cause some people to have religious experiences is a valid explanation for some of the folks out there. Also, I can't discount the feeling of community and love that some people get from church. For many people at the church I attended the beliefs had become incidental. Their main reason for attending church was social.

  25. To answer the question, “Why do people believe in god?”, I’d have to say that day to day life is easer with answers, and the powerful get what they want when they provide the answers; which sets up a dyad of self serving societal structures that meet individuals psychological and societal needs. Just my theory. (or Aliens)

    What I’ve found in reading the general skeptical blog-a-sphere regarding religion and the religious is mostly misinformed and reactionary rants about isolated news items. (though the above is an exception… mostly) Scientists may have opinions about religion but rarely are they terribly qualified to make authoritative remarks about the development of religion. Science and physics can take general issue with religion as it’s premise is not provable by the scientific method and most claims of things supernatural do not hold up to scrutiny. The development of human institutions of religion and governance is most suitable addressed by historians, social historians and in terms of pre history anthropologists and those who study human social and psychological development. Human society has grown, flourished and evolved as a result of the structure and controls that have been provided and instituted through religions and governments. That those who govern have used religion and that the religious leaders have used those who govern is academic and without question. However the simplistic notion that religion is false ergo bad and therefore those who practice it are stained with it’s badness is reductionistic and not, in my opinion a rational view of history or current reality.

    I think it’s fair to say that we feel having a royal or noble family rule over us is no longer necessary and many countries by force, fight or peaceful edict have moved toward representative democratic governments. (more would be better) We can clearly look at human history and say that the growth of knowledge benefited from having kings and queens rule as this tended to quell the baser tribal instincts that often tug ignorant superstitious humans toward anarchy and gave structure that allowed the development of economies. In the same manner religious institutions in the west have championed and have been the genesis of most altruistic and educational institutions. The movement away from religion is likely to be a much slower process than was the movement away from royal families ruling most countries. I expect that there is some inevitability to this, which is more likely to be civil, when those who do not find a need for or do not think there is a reason for religion respect the history and historical benefits of religious institutions. And please do not think I’m not aware of the evil and harm done in the name of religion. I think that absent a “scientific” explanation religion was inevitable for early humankind. We seem to need explanations or answers to why questions. I expect that most women married to men know that men feel a need to explain even if they don’t have the answer. Myth development and shared stories that have evolved in different cultures is quite fascinating. I however have no time for those who want to package their discussion of religion and anthropology with Woo, psychobabble or self aggrandizing books and PBS series that smell very religious. The facts are bazaar and interesting enough. We did got over kings (for the most part) and I expect we will get over religion in a similar manner. The notion that royals had a birth right to rule is irrational and clearly not evidenced by history, and we know that religion also leads to irrational beliefs that are not confirmed or supported by history of observable human behaviors. Animas and painting with a broad brush when addressing contemporary problems with religion from the skeptical side of the argument does not help the discussion and only seems to distances those who need to hear rational thinking people intelligently talk about the world we live in.

  26. Why did humans begin believing in God? How about why did Neanderthals begin exhibiting apparent spiritual practices when burying their dead?

    Assuming we stick to materialist answers and don't say "God this and God that", we must hypothesize that something in the Neanderthals' and early humans' brain capabilities changed from earlier ancestors. If I were going to guess, I'd agree that it involved discrepancies between various neural modules and the memetic constructs or memeplexes (hats off to Susan Blackmore and The Meme Machine) that attempt to negotiate these discrepancies.

    While we could feel sorry for these poor, ignorant ancestors, we can assume that it must have provided at least some evolutionary advantage to groups that developed memes about powerful gods handing down social mandates (don't steal the grain that your neighbor harvested) and granting followers some rewards including a possible afterlife (die well in battle and you get to go to Valhalla and die well in battle daily). One can argue that we may have been better off if less hierarchical hunter gatherer spiritualities had won the day, but natural selection is natural selection and we are stuck with ten fingers and temptations towards deities.

    In addition to our predisposition to for pattern recognition and agency attribution, I'd add the chasm between our memetic or conscious self and wider brain function. Consciousness is usually late to the table as it were (given the time lag it takes for messages to reach the higher parts of the brain) and historically is lousy at understanding the brain from something as simple as "I didn't know I thought that until I said it" to feelings of being possessed by a force bigger than yourself. Basically, without a good understanding of human brains and a functional MRI, it is easy to believe that Jim Carey and the young Robin Williams were in fact demon possessed and if that were the case, I'd appeal to a higher power as well.

  27. What I find interesting about these comments is that there seems to be 2 different levels of discussion. One is floating around the genetic history of brain development and the other is floating around the social history of mental development. I think these are both two different ways to look at the same thing, and I'm not sure which angle is most useful. I don't think the two viewpoints contradict each other, they are just different levels of examination. Sometimes I tend to think the reductionist tendency to always look underneath to a more physical level searching for an answer is not the most productive.

    Although I am basically a reductionist materialist, I don't always think that looking at things at the "lowest" level gives the best results. For example, you wouldn't necessarily study elementary particles to make conclusions about evolution or medicine. So I'm not sure talking about genetics — or even memes — gets at the crux of what my particular question is.

    Anyway, just thinking out loud.

  28. The two levels you talk about are linked and have to be linked. It takes a certain genome to generate the brain anatomy to support the behavioral aspects of social interactions. While a certain brain anatomy is necessary to support a belief in God or gods, that belief isn't "hard wired" or everyone would have it and could only lose it with major brain injury.

    People may constrict their thought processes and squelch any plasticity in thought so that their beliefs do become "hard wired" and incapable of change. Some people do this with religion, are there other beliefs that are "hard wired" and incapable of change? The religious fundamentalists always claim that science is equivalent to faith but we know it isn't because science is examined critically and changed if it is found to be in error (faith never is). Support for the local sports team may have some similar aspects. Football is considered by some to be Texas's unofficial religion. Politics has some of the same attributes, leaders trying to foster blind obedience. Religion as a force to unify a village to do battle against invaders might have been a way for people to set aside their petty individual competitions and unite against a common enemy. Those villages where people did that survived, those that didn't were overrun and massacred.

    Some amount of uniformity of thought via religion may be useful in promoting cooperation, but if there is too much uniformity and blind cooperation, it may be usurped by the leaders to enrich themselves to the detriment of the group (think the wealthy pastors of mega churches). The lack of flexibility may prevent adaptations needed to survive change. This might be part of what leads to the decline in empires and other organizations. The forces and individuals resisting change are too powerful and change is squelched to protect power of individuals and subgroups even when that change is necessary for survival of the larger group. The (impending) implosion of the GOP might be a case in point. The religious right can't concede their priorities even though they are a minority within the party.

  29. My guess is that at the point we humans were developmentally capable of theorizing deities and formulating the practice of religion we were pretty close to where we are now with regards to intellectual development. The capacity for imaginative thinking clearly was an important step in the development of religion and superstitions. Who knows, perhaps things really got started when hallucinogenic plants and there “useful” properties were discovered??

  30. I agree with you on that one, I think the use of hallucinogenic plants were integral to really getting religion roaring in cultures all over the world, about 30-40,000 years ago. I think this is evidenced in the rather sudden appearance of art around this time, cave art in particular, despite the fact that humans were pretty anatomically indistinct for over something like 100,000 years prior to this. Currently I'm reading the book "Supernatural" by Graham Hancock, and he's got a lot of interesting, and sometimes controversial, things to say about this topic. The similarities in people's hallucinations across time and cultures is uncanny, and certainly suggests a neural system in existence to allow people to experience spirituality. Why this is, I don't know, but I do agree with the comments on this forum stating that it has something to do with social cohesion. On that same thought though, the existence of DMT (dimethyltryptamine) and its alleged role in near death experiences is sort of a mystery to me… DMT is present in all humans, in small amounts, in the brain, and is capable of creating incredibly powerful hallucinations and spiritual experiences. It seems to be released right before death, and some have argued, in dreams as well. I've always wondered why evolution would have selected for such a thing, since it only seems to happen right before death… To make for interesting conversation, at the very least.

  31. Conversation all the more interesting because I expect we will never have more than educated guesses about the origins of many things in human development. The DMT thing is interesting and it may be that there is another neurological function for the chemical that is not known yet. Also those passing out in centrifuge testing for NASA and the Air Force often experience very similar experiences to reported near death hallucinations when only passing out from a high G load.

    Here’s a hypothesis. Og is a pretty good hunter, and one day he puts a spear through the eye of a mastodon and becomes the first human to fell the great woolly beast with one spear. That night while trying out that newly discovered uncooked fermented berry brew stew Og and his buddies get a bit drunk while gorging on poor woolly. Og looks up and sees a shooting star; and in a prideful drunken moment of imagination proclaims the star had given up it’s power to him so that he cold kill the beast. Og continues and states that he is now part star and should be given more consideration than his peers. Well this was fine for some folk as they liked Og and their bellies were full. Other were not so sure but they saw how often Og got laid in the following weeks and decided that if they agreed Og was part star, they might get laid with more frequency. Thus was born religion and the notion of tribal leaders being something more than human. You will also note that it all started with a stroked male ego, alcohol, good barbeque and sex.

  32. I wasn’t saying that was a good thing…, except that all the individual components do have merit. That collection of circumstances, more often than not, leads to the most common “last four words” of a Redneck.

    “Hey y’all watch this”.

    That it led to religion is only an accident of social anthropology!!

  33. lol, well we've certainly come a long way from those parties of yore… no more bbq's, but car bombs and "funeral protests". BTW, I do think that there is a big difference between the religions of today and the religions of tribal communities. I'm no expert, but I suspect globalization has done nothing but create cemented religions that are unable to change, and have long ago outlived their usefulness to a group of people – they exist now simply because there are so very, very many people who have been recruited to believe, and a small majority of very powerful individuals who benefit from that belief, and who have a vested interest in keeing it alive. We all tend to be "agenda pushers" in some respects as well, so regardless of whether a religion is actually doing someone any good, people are prone to promote it. I do think religion was a useful tool way back in the day – when you needed to feel close to your tribemates for survival's sake. But I think those religions were more adaptable, easier to change when needed, as the shamans who led hallucinatory trances saw different things on each of these trips, and reported back from the spirit world, so to speak. Just me rambling though.

  34. We as humans do like belonging, and to be affirmed, and told we have meaning and have companionship along the way. Those are very powerful human needs and reasons why people still belong to churches. There is the tendency, as I stated before, for the skeptical community to find bad things about religious folk and project their dislike toward nearly everyone religious. Most churches, in the west, are much more benign than the fundamentalist and cult type churches who spew nasty hateful garbage. Most protestants Christians would see themselves as altruistic and having a world view that calls for feeding the poor and hungry and caring for victims of misfortune, war famine etc… . The drift away from religion will likely be commiserate with education and a realization that as a system it is less and less beneficial. (individually and societally) Conversely Christian organizations build more health clinics and schools in third world countries than the UN. So be critical if you want, but I’m more impressed when folk honestly recognize that social service agencies nearly all started as church run institutions and many remain that today. If enlightenment and a movement away from religion is a result of rational and skeptical thinking, it would be nice if there was a commiserate taking on of responsibilities with regard to the vulnerable populations that need help. I still like my analogy that a fading away from religion is likely to be similar to how human governance drifted away from kings, queens and emperors, just slower and with more anguish.

  35. Everything but science is a religion and condemns the followers to uniformity? Geez, I guess most everyone is doomed. It seems like we've got a major thread in this discussion that argues that religion is but a male dominated scam to assert power over women. Surely, we can lay aside our predispositions and grievances and come up with some testable or at least useful hypotheses?

    First, if religion is a patriarchal scam, why does so much of the early archaeological evidence center on goddess figurines? Perhaps, Og the caveman invented his male god, because he was tired of Ug the cavewoman sending him to the hunt with a goddess figurine for constant divine nagging. Hypothesis – If religion was initially a patriarchal scam then we should hope to find some archaeological evidence of male ego gods pre-dating goddess figurines.

    Is religious or spiritual belief genetically based? Read the God Gene. I'd cite specific bits, but I don't have it in front of me. Basically, Dr. Dean Hamer (the author) examines the link between VMAT2 and the production of neurotransmitters that promote "spiritual" brain states. Hypothesis – Let's do some longitudinal studies and predict based on early childhood genetic testing which subjects are more likely to pursue a religious or spiritual life. Hypothesis – In populations where religion is less prevalent (i.e. Great Britain), VMAT2 will be less common than in populations with lots of religious fervor (i.e. the US and Saudi Arabia).

    Do you need religion to breed uniformity and commit evil acts? Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Yes, we can manage a hive mentality and kill lots of people without turning to a deity. Besides, I doubt anyone could get this by a university oversight committee – "Yes, in this experiment, I want to see who will kill whom first – the skeptics, the jihadists, the Marxists, or the football fans." Of course, they might approve – anyone care to try?

    Anyone else care to add a hypothesis?

    PS If anyone would care to read an interesting and informed book about religious history, look up Karen Armstrong's A History of God (though I haven't been disappointed by the other books I've read of hers either). She is an ex-nun who has studied and written extensively about the roots and development of major religions.

  36. Og was a character in what I humorously called a hypothesis that was solely intended as an amusing and funny contrivance to put a smile on folks faces. I’d have had more fun telling it over a good IPA at my local Micro-brew-pub. And I did think the audience was able to see the irony. A real hypothesis would have included lots of violence, less alcohol, non consensual sex, slavery and the conflict between agrarian and hunter gatherer economies.

  37. To defer back to the first of your hypotheses writerdd, I've read that the discoverer of DNA posited the theory that DNA was far too complicated a molecule to have just come into existence on this earth, that it had been brought here by aliens from another planet. 'Course, that's not something my profs liked to mention in my biology courses. lol

  38. Hey James,

    Apologies for misreading the irony, but then studies do demonstrate that one's irony detectors are facilitated by IPAs or Guinness, but not Tequila shots. Cheers and bottoms up.

  39. oops – further to my comment, the theory is called panspermia, and I believe it was Crick who came up with it.

  40. I’m wearing my smart-ass-pants today so my notions of humor may have been more self evident than otherwise.

    I do think the origins of things like religion surely could have had rather amusing beginnings. Like rubbing woolly mammoth blood on ones mates belly leading to pregnancy, (correlation dopes not lead to causation Og!) leading to notions of power in blood, leading to animal sacrifice, leading to transubstantiation and the whole fucked up history of Northern Ireland…… ya know!!

    And yes there is a picture of a mamoth in my head I can not get OUT, &$#@!!!

  41. There are good reasons why near death experiences induce delusional states. It is a powerful survival factor. When you are running from a bear, the delusion that you are not tired and can run forever can be life saving. If you got tired and had to rest, the bear would catch and eat you. It is better to run until you escape or drop dead from exhaustion. The delusion that allows this to happen is also known as the "runner's high".

    Understanding this is one of the topics of my research. I think that this is the mechanism for just about all the reports of euphoria and peace from near death experiences, drowning, autoerotic asphyxiation, as well as the effects of some drugs of abuse, amphetamine, cocaine, PCP and solvent huffing. They all induce near death metabolic stress which invokes euphoria. They also cause all sorts of (irreversible) damage in the process.

  42. Me thinks that the effects of G-force loss of consciousnesses does not cause any irreversible neural damage. Hard to imagine the flight or fight adrenaline induced extraordinary effort bear chase and an unconscious or semi conscious gravely ill or injured person are having an experience with substantial similarities. What I’ve read is the similarity of the pilot passing out under lots of G’s seeing a white light and having a somewhat out of body experience similar to someone on their death bed, which tends to refute the notion that it’s Peter opening the pearly gates. I’ve worked with addicts of different kinds for twenty five years and have never heard a similar description of a drugs effects. I suppose the poppy smoker would likely be at peace with dying, or just about anything else for that matter. Hypoxia could be the likely common denominator with regard to hallucinations. Delusion is probably not the best description of what people see in these situation. Whatever’s going on it must be enjoyable because everyone either reports not being afraid of the experience or would like to repeat it. I’d love to hear where your research leads!!

  43. I was speaking in respects to the hallucinatory aspects of near death experiences – i.e. seeing lights at the end of tunnels, experiencing other beings and altered states of consciousness that have nothing to do with our normal reality as reported by our five senses. Have you done any research into DMT? I'd be very interested to hear about it. In my opinion I find it hard to believe that a DMT trip right when I'm about to die would help me survive at all, although it would certainly make the passage into death a little easier on me (but then again, evolution wouldn't necessarily select for that, since if you're dead, you're not passing on your genes).

  44. Good discussion today and I'm off until tomorrow…

    A Skep-Chick Forum would be nice… if possible.

    Mentioned before, I know.

  45. darwinfan said "To defer back to the first of your hypotheses writerdd, I’ve read that the discoverer of DNA posited the theory that DNA was far too complicated a molecule to have just come into existence on this earth, that it had been brought here by aliens from another planet."

    Yeah, I've heard that argument, too. It doesn't really, solve anything, becaues it had to "just come into existence" somewhere! :-)

    I think a lot more of this discussion is very interesting, but I'm also pooped out for the day!

  46. It isn’t the g-forces that cause the loss of consciousness, it is ATP depletion. ATP is what cells use to do everything, pump ions, move muscles, transport stuff around, pump blood, and conduct nerve impulses. The CNS is one organ that can’t generate ATP via glycolysis; it requires a continuous supply of O2. When the CNS is subjected to a brief period of hypoxia or ischemia, there is what is called “ischemic preconditioning”. A brief ATP depletion causes physiological changes that are quite protective regarding longer periods of ischemia later. In other words, exposure to brief periods of ischemia “primes” the brain (and other organs too), such that it can survive ischemic insults that would be fatal without ischemic preconditioning. My interpretation is that this occurs by modifying the pathways that consume ATP.

    The brain can’t make more ATP, but what it can do is use less. Brief periods of ATP depletion invoke ATP conservation pathways, pathways that both make more ATP, but especially pathways that consume less. The way that physiology consumes less ATP is by turning off everything that isn’t needed for the duration of the ATP crisis. Usually the ATP crisis is short, and everything gets turned back on. One of the things that gets turned off is healing and repair. If the bear catches you, any damage that has accumulated during your attempted escape doesn’t matter. Better to divert those extra molecules of ATP into more running than into healing.

    I discuss this at length in my blog under several different circumstances, acute psychosis (which includes postpartum psychosis), and the placebo effect (which is the opposite of ischemic preconditioning).

    I use the example of running from a bear a lot. That is the archetypal “fight or flight” event. Either you outrun the bear and survive or you are caught and die. Under such circumstances any injury short of death is infinitely better than being caught.

    This state is actually very difficult to invoke without drugs unless you know how. It is the state invoked when a mother picks a car up off her child. Most people have never experienced it, and won’t in their lifetime. It is also an extremely dangerous state to be in because many of the normal “safeties” that keep you from injuring yourself are disabled. Just being in the state causes damage. Pain is a distraction and a luxury that your body can’t afford while it is running from a bear. This is why the stimulants of abuse are so dangerous. Stimulants don’t increase the efficiency of the body or produce more energy or ATP, what they do is reallocate that ATP from involuntary pathways (such as healing) to the voluntary pathways such as muscle activity. Most of your basal metabolism goes toward keeping you alive and healthy. Some of that can be turned off for a few days (digestion), a few hours (immune system), a few minutes (kidneys), a few seconds (lungs). This is a very gross simplification. There are likely hundreds of thousands of pathways that are all regulated real-time in this manner in each cell. Depending on the severity and the length of the ATP crisis, that is what your physiology does by turning off the longest time constant pathways first. When the time constant reaches the present is when you drop dead from exhaustion.

    Muscle can be worked to death. That is muscle can be stimulated to contract until the ATP depletion caused by that stimulation causes the muscle cells to die. That is what happens in a heart attack. The heart continues pumping as parts of it die from exhaustion. Voluntary muscle activity is one of the last thing to get “turned off” as ATP levels fall. The reason is because sometimes it is worth killing a few, or even a lot of muscle cells if the organism survives and escapes from the bear. Of course it hurts like hell to keep running when your muscles are dying from ATP depletion. That is why the state invokes euphoria, so you can feel good while you run yourself to death.

    This is why stimulants of abuse feel so good, they invoke the Euphoric Near Death State, ENDS. The side effects of the stimulant drugs of abuse are the same as all of the degenerative diseases. Heart damage, brain damage, liver damage, kidney damage, muscle damage. The mechanism is “the same”, the turning off of healing and repair to save ATP. Some of that may be repairable, some may not be. Many of these stimulants of abuse produce malignant hyperthermia. That is likely due to mitochondrial uncoupling, a deliberate dissipation of the mitochondrial potential to lower ATP levels to get the mitochondria producing ATP at as high a rate as possible. That is what you need in a “crisis”, to produce as much ATP as you can produce at the highest rate possible. If you can’t use it immediately, dissipate it as heat but keep the ATP generator running at extreme maximum overdrive, beyond red-line. But activate those mechanisms inappropriately and they can kill you. Death from running yourself to death is balanced by surviving being chased by a bear.

    This is why the near death state is euphoric. It has to be to survive the extreme metabolic stress of running from a bear. Those who report feeling euphoric following a near death experience were not experiencing a “taste” of life after death, they were experiencing the euphoria our brains have evolved to invoke in that state.

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