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Chapter Four: Why people believe

Section 2: In the genes?

There is no specific gene for religion, but our evolutionary heritage makes us susceptible to belief in the supernatural

The first three chapters brought us to the conclusion that there is no evidence for God. But if there is no evidence for a deity, why do so many people believe in him?

Our view of the world is influenced by both internal and external factors. Internally, our individual personalities and experiences may lead us to seek an all-powerful father-figure in our lives. Externally, the society we live in - our families, friends, the media we pay attention to - may reinforce the idea that there is a god.

Does this mean that atheists are only atheist because of their personalities and the influence of others around them?

In some cases, undoubtedly yes. But most atheists live in a society which fosters belief in God, and many atheists were once believers. We come to atheism through a process of reasoning which recognises, analyses and finally sets aside the potentially biased influences of both personality and society.

Later sections in this chapter examine the different rationales that lead many people to believe in God. In this section, however, we start by looking at a possible scientific explanation: is there a gene, or are our brains hard-wired, for religion?

4.2a Genes and faith

Is there a gene for religion? Before we answer that question we have to be sure we understand what such a gene would do.

Genes determine physical traits such as the colour of our hair or the shape of our nose. We inherit genes from our parents, with dominant genes (eg for brown eyes) more influential than recessive genes (eg for blue eyes).

The influence of genes varies - for example our eye colour cannot change, but our height is determined partly by genes and partly by other factors, such as the food we eat as

The deep roots of belief

Despite reason and evidence indicating that God does not and cannot exist, billions of people across the world continue to worship him in one of his many forms.

Belief in God draws its strength from a wide range of sources and provides a sense of security and wellbeing for many. Transforming that belief into an understanding and respect for rationality takes time and much effort.

4.1: The origins of religion
Where did faith come from?

4.2: In the genes?
Are we programmed to believe?

4.3: Community and identity
Defining ourselves through faith

4.4: Peer pressure
Faith as fashion

4.5: Death and despair
There must be a better world

4.6: A sense of justice
Evildoers must be punished

4.7: God and meaning
Religion gives us a purpose

4.8: The power and the glory
They reflect on us too

4.9: Against the tide
Converts and natural-born rebels

4.10: Nature calling
A glimpse of God?

4.11: Pick 'n' mix
What are your reasons?

4.12: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter 5
Faith in action

People create God in their own image. What happens when they not only believe in God but put their faith into action?

The results are predictable: good people do good things in the name of religion and bad people do bad things. They act in God's name but God is irrelevant.

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4.2b Are our brains hard-wired?

A gene for religion would affect the structure of our brain, "hard-wiring" it, so that some neurons (the cells which transmit information through electrical signals) were predisposed to interpret certain experiences as religious.

Very little research has been done in this field, but there is a small amount of evidence to suggest that this is the case: people's tendency to believe is partly influenced by genes.

This evidence comes from scans that reveal that people undergoing religious experiences show distinct activity in certain parts of the brain. The neurologist Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has identified an area of the brain which shows strong activity when our sense of self appears to dissolve and / or when we experience God.

Does this finding mean that our brains are hard-wired for religion? And if so, is this hard-wiring, and the experiences it registers, proof of God?

The short answer to these is no. Let's see why.

4.2c Internal and external realities

We have to distinguish three separate phenomena - (a) physical activity in the brain, (b) the way we interpret that activity, and (c) external reality.

From birth to death, our brains are active twenty-four hours a day as electrical impulses pass from neuron to neuron. The pattern of activity changes according to whether we are awake or asleep and what we are doing with either our minds or bodies. Different activities (eg language, running, sight) are associated with specific parts of the brain. The intensity of brain activity varies from individual to individual and after an accident or stroke some tasks may be lost or shift from one part of the brain to another.

Researchers are a long way from pinpointing the exact function of each individual neuron and the implication of every electrical impulse. In fact, with billions of brain cells, it is likely to be a very long time, if ever, before we reach that state of knowledge. What is clear, however, is that impulses can be interpreted in different ways. Some impulses, from ear to brain, help us to interpret the sounds we hear neuron: pic source to be confirmed
as music; others, from thumb to brain, tell us we have hit ourselves with a hammer.

We usually interpret our experiences according to preconceived patterns - if we have heard the sound of a police siren in the past, we will recognise the police siren in the future. Where we do not have experience, we rely on others to help us. In a strange city we may not recognise local sirens, but if our companion tells us that is what we are hearing, we are likely to believe her even if she is lying.

The same is true for religion - if we are predisposed to interpret an experience as evidence of God, we will do so. One day our mind drifts away, we are overcome by a sense of awe, we see and hear things that appear to come from beyond our present reality; we are convinced we have known God.

The problem is such experiences only take place within our minds; they are electrical impulses with no external reality. This is true of all our thoughts and emotions, whether faith-based or not; no matter how intense they may be, they are nothing more than neuron activity, irrelevant to the rest of the world.

What does this mean for the idea of a "religious" gene? Absolutely nothing. If such a gene exists, all it does is predispose some people to experiences which they interpret as evidence of God. It is certainly not proof of God.

4.2d Our evolutionary heritage

With or without the gene, why do many of us interpret some experiences as religious? Probably because the brain evolved to make connections, even where connections do not exist, because our lives may depend on it.

Let us say we hear a strange noise in the forest. Do we ignore it or decide that comes from a predator? It's safer for us - and we will live longer and pass on our genes to our offspring - if we make the connection and assume that we are hearing a predator. If we ignore every strange noise, at one point we will suffer for our mistake and we are much less likely to have offspring. We have evolved to make connections, even where connections do not exist.

That is why we see someone acting suspicious and assume they are a thief. Or we see lights in the sky and jump to the conclusion that they come from an alien spaceship. In an old house we hear and see ghosts where there are only creaking timbers and tricks of the light. We experience God not because he exists but because we expect to experience him.

There is no god and there is probably no specific gene for religion but our evolutionary heritage makes us susceptible to belief in the supernatural.

Chapter Four: Section 3 Community and identity

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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