Is Religious Belief Just a Brain Function?

Religion, we are told, has a scientific explanation; so we have no need of the God hypothesis. But is that so? This article reviews the alleged evidence and then responds to it.

by Paul Copan

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The “new atheists” tend to be a blustery, cranky lot. Even fellow atheists recognize their arguments as embarrassing. These new atheists are on something of a crusade to show that religion is delusional and even harmful. One is Richard Dawkins. He suggests that humans are predisposed by evolution to belief in God. Natural selection has programmed us to do what our biological hardwiring tells us—just like computers. The downside? Humans, like computers, can also go wrong: a virus can infect computers, and humans are likewise vulnerable to harmful mental viruses.1

Another new atheist — Daniel Dennett, a Tufts University philosopher — focuses on one of the “curious by-products” of evolution — namely, religion.2 The mind (i.e., the brain, according to Dennett) is a bag of tricks shaped by its drive to survive in a dangerous world. The brain forms concepts that lead to religion. These concepts create certain systems: agent-detector, moral-intuition generator, memory-manager, cheater-detector, an inclination for stories and storytelling, various alarm/alerting mechanisms. Putting these into a whole package looks a lot like religion.3

Dennett here follows anthropologist Pascal Boyer’s arguments. Boyer believes the latest “scientific” developments reveal that our “central metaphysical urge” stands at the root of all religion; we are inevitably inclined toward “superstition, myth, and faith, or a special emotion that only religion provides.”4 What looks supernatural is really natural; God is simply a brain-trick. God does not exist after all; belief in God is a widespread brain-inspired illusion.

In the past 20 years or so, evolutionary psychologists have attempted to locate the “God idea” in the human brain.5 Humans are somehow evolutionarily “hard-wired” to believe in God. A number of “cognitive science of religion” (CSR) researchers assert that a biological basis exists for humans acquiring, representing, and transmitting successful (survival-enhancing) religious ideas.6 Religion, we are told, has a scientific explanation; so we have no need of the God hypothesis. But is that so? Let us review the alleged evidence and then respond to it.

The Biology of Belief?

Here is how religion gets started, gains traction in society, and then gets transmitted from one generation to the next.

First, humans are biologically equipped to be religious. When a Buddhist, Pentecostal, or Sufi Muslim has an intense religious experience, his brain readily detects this event. Scientists call this widespread phenomenon “neurotheology,” which suggests a “biological origin for specific religious beliefs.”7 We have a longing for something beyond ourselves — an apparent biological need for meaning, spirituality, and truth.8 One writer calls this capacity for spiritual experience (which is rooted in the hyperactivated limbic system) as a “transmitter to god.”9

Boyer does not think there is actually a “special neural network that handles God-related thoughts,” but he believes the still-sketchy results of neuropsychological research may yet connect religious experience to the brain’s cortical areas related to intuitive psychology (thinking about other people’s thoughts) and those “that create emotional responses to people’s presence.”10 This brain activity is the essence of “religion.”

Second, human psychology is primed for creating supernatural agents.InThe Belief Instinct, atheist Jesse Bering states that humans are quick to ascribe purpose to things like biological traits: noses are for smelling, hearts for pumping blood. We can easily attribute agency to these purposes. We take natural disasters as an omen or sign. “It all happens for a reason,” people frequently say. What is more, many humans are convinced they will live beyond the grave since they just cannot imagine their own nonexistence. Bering calls this an “overactive theory of mind” — the result of our brain’s particular evolution.11 In these cases, humans invent God to explain mysteries and to plug the holes of our ignorance — what some call the “God of the gaps.”

Dennett affirms much the same thing, noting that humans seem to come with a hyperactive agent detection device (HADD).12 Likewise, Boyer thinks humans tend to “anthropomorphize” their experiences — that is, they project “humanlike and personlike features onto nonhuman and nonpersonlike aspects of the environment.” So they often concoct nonexistent agents — demons, ghosts, God, angels. According to evolutionary understanding (think, “predator and prey”), we have the capacity to detect agents around us, even if they are not there. We project agency (say, a dangerous beast) if we hear a strange noise in the forest, which may in fact be due to the tree branches scraping against each other in the wind — and this tendency enhances survival: better safe than sorry.13 Similarly, humans easily jump to religious conclusions — including beliefs in souls, spirits, and supernatural agents.14

Third, humans then pass on these religious beliefs (“memes”) and create holy books and religious institutions to reinforce them. Dennett believes he can “reverse engineer” religious belief. That is, he can backtrack the naturalistic development of religion to its source in unguided biological (Darwinian) evolution — the “universal acid” that eats through traditional concepts like religion and morality, that requires a completely revised outlook on life.15 Because of the human brain’s wiring, humans have a psychological inclination to create religion — beginning with attempts to see agency in trees and rivers (animism) to more sophisticated religions (monotheism).16

Of course, we cannot falsify such claims— that is, there are not any conditions that would show these projected agents do not exist. People tend to store these religious conclusions in their memory and then pass them on to the next generation; these then become embedded in human minds. In Boyer’s words, “Information about gods and spirits mainly comes from other people.”17 Not only are we biologically hardwired and thus psychologically prepared to believe in God, but we pass such religious ideas on to others in the form of religions and rituals. Dennett writes that while there is no “God gene,”18 the idea of God, like the idea of chocolate, triggers a certain reaction in our brain. The idea that religion is good for people is a very Darwinistic concept. Like language learning or good manners, we spread these religious ideas nongenetically to the next generation. They are the result of overactive dispositions and sensitivities within many human beings. Dawkins and Dennett call such ideas or convictions “memes.”19 Dennett claims that various religious rituals, music, and art move him — though he is “utterly unpersuaded by the doctrines.”20

Reinforcing transmitted religious ideas involves a social component — the desirable cultural feature of social stability. We created this through mutually beneficial coalitions and networks; we maintain social controlor dominance through certain social hierarchies involving shamans, priests, and pastors — a system that punishes cheaters and excommunicates the uncooperative.21

This is the rough sketch of how religion is strictly brain-based. If Dennett and others are right, then God does not exist — nor does the soul, free will, human dignity, rights, or reason. Now let us see why this scenario fails to eliminate God and genuine religious experience.

Problems with “Biologizing” Belief in God

Problem 1: Science cannot eliminate the soul and its capabilities. Naturalists assume that humans are strictly physical beings. All mental activity dies when the body dies. If we are only physical beings, forces beyond our control produce our beliefs, choices, reasoning, and behavior. According to one naturalistic philosopher, the “desouling” of personhood is “the primary operation of the scientific image.”22 However, we cannot so easily eliminate the soul’s existence — and the existence of nonphysical entities like souls and God undermines physicalism, which cannot account for key features of human experience such as consciousness, rationality, free will, moral responsibility, and more. The idea of humans being made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) makes better sense of these features.

Consciousness: Naturalism cannot explain how consciousness could have emerged from nonconscious matter. Naturalists philosophers of mind readily acknowledge this. Colin McGinn confesses that we cannot “explain how ever-expanding lumps of matter might have developed an inner conscious life.”23 Ned Block admits researchers are “stumped” about this and do not have a clue where to begin explaining it.24 Jerry Fodor acknowledges not having “the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious.”25 Theists, however, believe in a supremely self-aware Being that brings into being finite (self-)conscious creatures; thus they have a ready-made context to consciousness.26 Consciousness is an indication of a supernatural, immaterial origin, and it is the central feature of soulish beings. This would include humans (whose souls have a range of spiritual, rational, and volitional capabilities — that survive bodily death) and animals (whose souls have limited capabilities that cease at death). The main point is that matter cannot produce consciousness, whether in humans or animals.

Truth and reason: Beliefs — not bits of physical matter — can be true or false. Matter just is.27 It is nonsense to say one piece of matter is true of another.28 You see, matter cannot give rise to rationality. Furthermore, why trust our beliefs if they have been produced by physical forces beyond our control? Evolution is interested in survival — not true belief — and we may end up holding lots of false beliefs that help us survive. For example “humans have rights” or “humans have moral duties” are false beliefs, according to many naturalists.

Again, why trust beliefs produced by one bit of brain matter bumping into other bits of brain matter? The late atheist geneticist Francis Crick claimed our beliefs and sense of identity are “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”29 If so, then Crick’s own beliefs were “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” If religion and morality are simply evolutionary adaptations and a lot of false or illusory beliefs beyond our control are embedded in our brains, then the new atheists are no more rational than religionists, even if accidentally correct. In fact, Dawkins himself had to admit that the wrongness of rape “is as arbitrary as the fact that we have evolved five fingers rather than six.”30

If, however, a rational God has made us in His image, then pursuing the truth and obeying laws of logic really matter. This God says, “Come let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18, NIV 1984). He calls us to “Love the Lord your God will all your … mind” (Matthew 22:37). Matter cannot seek truth or reason; this is the work of the soul.

Free will and moral responsibility: We instinctively believe that we have genuine freedom, that we could have chosen differently, and that we are responsible for our actions. Free will sets humans apart from animals, which cannot rise above genetics and environment. Little wonder naturalists tend to reject free will given their commitment to a materialistic worldview; the state of the brain dictates our beliefs and actions.31 By contrast, most theists would argue that our environment, our bodily states, and even our character may influence our choices, but these do not determine our choices. Such conditions incline; they do not necessitate.

Other soulish considerations: The mind or soul is more than the brain. Scientific discovery reinforces this fact. For example, Jeffrey Satinover of Harvard Medical School notes that by the exercise of the will, we can reconfigure the brain’s neural pathways: “The neocortex is the part of the brain that we might consider as the seat of the will. … It is also the part of the brain whose connections between the neurons will be slowly modified over time, strengthening some connections, weakening others, and eliminating some entirely — all based on how experience shapes us. This ongoing process embeds the emerging pattern of our choices ever more firmly in actual tissue changes. These changes make it that much more likely for us to make the same choice with less direct effort the next time — and that much more difficult to make a different choice.”32

Studies have shown that patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, pornographic addictions, arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and depression have been able to “reprogram” their brains by choosing alternative thought patterns. By repeated exercise of the will, new patterns can reshape the brain’s wiring. In fact, even the “placebo effect” — in which someone’s physical condition improves not because of medication itself — “depends specifically on the patient’s mental belief and expectation that a specific remedy will work.”33 This positive physical outcome is one of many examples in which a patient’s trust in a physician’s hopeful prediction can lead to improved health. In contrast to a placebo effect, we have what some call the nocebo effect: losing confidence in a medical treatment that can become self-fulfilling. In a number of cases (but certainly not all), if you do not think medical treatment will work, it will not. Improved or deteriorating health often depends on whether the physician says “Go home and get well” or “This was the best I could do.”34 (Think of the power of “the will to live.”)

We could also add near death experiences (NDEs) to all of this evidence. Numerous once-clinically-dead, later-revived patients have described in detail events and environments they could not have known unless they had out-of-body experiences; these experiences imply not only the soul’s existence, but the supernatural realm.35

Problem 2: This scenario fails to distinguish the biology of belief and the rationality of belief. It is fallacious to say God does not exist because people have religious experiences that can be physically detected in the brain. That is the genetic fallacy — calling a view true or false based on its origin. Just because a person is a neo-Nazi does not mean he is wrong for believing 2+2=4. Likewise, God’s existence is a separate question from how people come to believe in Him.

We do have strong reasons for God’s existence — the sort of thing Psalm 19:1,2; Romans 1:20, and other passages indicate: the heavens declare God’s glory, and God’s invisible attributes are clearly seen through what has been made. What are some of these indicators of God’s self-revelation of His power and wisdom and goodness? The absolute beginning of the universe; the universe’s intricate fine-tuning; the existence of beauty, rationality, moral duties, consciousness, human dignity and worth; the complex design of amazing machine-like cells (which are often compared to small-scale factories); the remarkable features of the human brain (which has more “switches” than all the computers, routers, and Internet connections on earth, according to a recent Stanford University study).36 We can better explain these features by an intelligent, powerful, good Creator rather than naturalism. Given naturalism, these features are the result of various valueless, mindless, lifeless physical processes in a universe that came into existence uncaused out of nothing.

Problem 3: These biological processes actually fit with the idea of having been made to believe in and relate to God. God has placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) — and in our brains. It makes perfect sense that we are hardwired or disposed toward belief in God. A 3-year worldwide research through Oxford University indicates that children are intuitive theists; from a very early age humans are disposed to believe in God or the supernatural; we are wired to see purpose in the world and to believe in an afterlife. This is clear scientific confirmation that religion is not going away.37 Natural processes contributing to religious belief make excellent sense if God exists. God has designed us in such a way that these sorts of processes enable us to come to know God personally; that is, we are functioning properly when we direct our thinking toward true belief in God.38

The new atheists’ naturalistic explanations for religious and moral beliefs do absolutely nothing to eradicate the explanatory power of God’s existence. In fact, thanks to the cognitive study of religion, we have fresh reasons for taking God seriously.

Naturalistic explanations suggesting theology is a useful fiction — or, worse, a harmful delusion — fall short of telling us why the religious impulse is so deeply imbedded. Yet if God exists, we have an excellent reason for why religion should show up on the scene.


1. Gordon Slack, “The Atheist,” Salon (30 April 2005). Accessed 4 January 2012.

2. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell (New York: Viking, 2006), 107.

3. Ibid, 107,8.

4. Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 298. Dennett also follows Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

5. Justin L. Barrett, “Cognitive Science of Religion: What Is It and Why Is It?” Religion Compass 1 (September 2007). Available from: Accessed 4 January 2012.

6. Todd Trimlin, Minds and Gods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 7,9.

7. Andrew Newberg, Eugene d’Aquili, and Vince Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001), 8–10.

8. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, Why We Believe What We Believe (New York: Free Press, 2006).

9. Rhawn Joseph, The Transmitter to God (San Jose, California: University Press California, 2001), 187,8.

10. Boyer, Religion Explained, 309.

11. Chapters 2 and 3 in Jesse Bering, The Belief Instinct (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

12. Dennett, Breaking, 109.

13. Pascal Boyer, “Gods and the Mental Instincts That Create Them,” in Science, Religion, and the Human Experience, ed. James D. Proctor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 241,243.

14. Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), ch. 3.

15. Dennett makes this point in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 63.

16. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell (New York: Viking, 2006).

17. Boyer, “Gods,” 244.

18. See Dean Hamer, The God Gene (New York: Doubleday, 2004): the VMAT2 gene (a “hypnotizability-enabler”) is responsible for human inclination toward spirituality. Dennett thinks “something like his hypothesis (but probably much more complicated) is a good bet for confirmation in the near future” (Breaking, 139).

19. These are “cultural symbionts.” Dennett, Breaking, 83–86.

20. Ibid., 318.

21. Pascal Boyer, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 245.

22. Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul (New York: Basic, 2002), 3.

23. Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame (New York: Basic, 1999), 13,15.

24. Ned Block, “Consciousness” in Samuel Guttenplan, ed.,Companion to the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 211.

25. Jerry A. Fodor, “The Big Idea: Can There Be a Science of the Mind?” Times Literary Supplement (3 July 1992), 5.

26. Charles Taliaferro, “Mysterious Flames in Philosophy of Mind,” Philosophia Christi NS 1/2 (1999): 29.

27. Philip E. Devine, Natural Law Ethics (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000), 36.

28. C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 64.

29. Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994), 3.

30. See Justin Breierly’s interview with Richard Dawkins (where Dawkins agreed with this statement by saying, “You could say that, yeah”). Found at Accessed 4 January 2012.

31. Stewart Goetz, “Naturalism and Libertarian Agency,” in Naturalism: A Critical Analysis, eds. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (London: Routledge, 2000), 157.

32. Jeffrey Santinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 135,36.

33. See Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Soul: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (New York: Harper, 2007), 141.

34. For more on these matters, see chapter 6 in Beauregard and O’Leary, The Spiritual Soul.

35. One great place to start is Gary Habermas’ work on this. Listen to his talk “Near-Death Experiences: Evidence for an Afterlife?” Available at: Accessed 4 January 2012.

36. Elizabeth Moore, “Human Brain Has More Switches Than All Computers on Earth,” CNET News (November 17, 2010). Available at: Accessed 4 January 2012.

37. Richard Allen Greene, “Religious Belief Is Human Nature, Huge New Study Claims” Religious belief is human nature, huge new study claims,” CNN (May 12, 2011). Available at: Accessed 4 January 2012.

38. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 135–63.