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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.
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