Much has been written over the last few decades about the relationship between science and religion. Questions have been asked about the ways in which a modern reader interprets scripture in light of scientific discoveries as well as the compatibility of faith and reason themselves. Yet even those Christian scientists among us who steadfastly hold to the view that science does in fact complement religion, revealing the majesty of God’s most awe-inspiring depths, often shy away at the thought that religion itself may be subjected to the all-seeing eye of scientific inquiry.

Even those Christians with a healthy respect for rational criticism often avoid using it to analyze at themselves, at the very experiences and acts that comprise our spiritual practice. Why is that? Is it merely our natural aversion to exposure, a weariness of the probing magnifying glass of science turned inward on the deepest, most personal parts of us? Or is it that we fear the looming threat of reductionism, the idea that this most precious faith we hold might one day be reduced to mere atoms and the random firing of neurons. Indeed I find this fear deeply understandable. For in the hands of the militant atheist, science has proved a blunt cudgel indeed, battering away at the beliefs we hold so sacred. Yet what such disparagers fail to realize is that deep, focused explanation in no way necessitates minimization. For just as it was God who asked Job “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”[1] so too do I ask, who are we to limit God? Who are we to say that the God who created the heavens, moon and stars alike, from ordinary physical elements could not possibly deign to work through the atoms and neurons of the human body. Cannot this God reveal himself in the racing of our hearts and the elevation of our senses? Science can never supplant the place that religion holds in our lives. Rather, it is a means by which we deepen our awareness of the God who revealed himself in what Augustine describes as a book not written with ink, but comprised of“the things that he had made,” a book of nature that proclaims the glory of God.[2] But why should we care to examine religion scientifically? What necessitates the merging of the rational with personal expression of faith? For me, the answer lies with Galileo, who so famously refused to believe that “the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”[3] So many among us believe science to be a gracious gift of God, a means by which to better understand his creation, the nature that we see all around us. Yet we so easily forget that we are ourselves a part of that very nature, that our religious practice, our experience of the divine, is a creation of God in and of itself. Ought it not then be subject to the inquiry we so eagerly apply to the world around us? Are we so elevated, so evolved, as to not need such thorough understanding? In this article I hope to shed some light on those areas in which behavioral biology actually has a lot to say about the religious experience. From the uniquely personal experience of religious practice itself understood in terms of our psychology to the evolutionary significance of our experience of the divine, behavioral biology has much to say about who we are and how we experience a relationship with God. I hope that by the end I will have both encouraged Christians to think about their faith through the lens of scientific inquiry as well as rigorously challenged the idea that dissecting an experience to uncover deeper truths in any way reduces it or the idea that dissecting an experience to uncover deeper truths in any way reduces it or minimizes its significance.

The Psychology of Religion

Religion is often thought to be the ultimate expression of humanity’s search for something bigger than us. It is the seeking after meaning in a world of seemingly random outcomes and the discernment of purpose, both individual and communal, through the shared encounter with the divine. Over the years, many scientists have sought to understand the deep allure that exists between humans and religious experience. When faced with the expanse of the limitless and seemingly mysterious universe, religion takes the humblest of creatures, a single human life, and makes it extraordinary. Religion gives purpose to our existence and a direction to our lives. Across religious traditions there is a concept of purpose and responsibility applied to the human experience. Whether that comes in the form of moral edicts to “love your neighbor as yourself” or the responsibility to perform ritual in a manner that brings honor to God, there is a role for human action and a description of humans’ place within the cosmos. Yet of particular interest is the psychology behind such experience. One of the unifying features of religion (certainly true in Christianity) is that we see God and God’s acts through the lens of our own human natures. In his seminal work Faces in the Clouds[4], Guthrie (1993) describes the animistic and anthropomorphic roots of religious experience. Using case studies from across the animal kingdom and focusing particularly on primates, Guthrie makes the argument that animism or “attributing life to the lifeless” is a common psychological strategy that relies on the brain’s tendency not to “see…” but rather to “see as…” a thing. Furthermore, the brain makes a choice about what to see by balancing its preference for coherence and significance. Coherence entails seeing things that make sense of a situation given its broader context, while significance means favoring the perception of information that conveys the most meaning. In an evolutionary context, interpretive modules that maximize survival and minimize risk are favored. Guthrie presents the example of a large, unknown lump that could be either a bear or a boulder. Given the uncertainty of the situation, the best bet is to anticipate a bear because the effect of guessing correctly is huge (read: not getting eaten) while the negative effects of guessing wrongly are minimal. Even though the odds favor the boulder (given that there are more boulders than bears in the world) the significance of the bear trumps those odds. This means that cognitive modules were likely favored over the course of evolutionary history that would skew you towards seeing a bear instead of a boulder.

Guthrie applies this same principle to the human religious experience in his claim that we’ve imbued the God we worship with an anthropomorphic nature. Intimately connected to animism, anthropomorphism (seeing the world as humanlike) is a strategy that Guthrie argues is universal in human perception. Interestingly, he argues that the human tendency to anthropomorphize arises not merely as an application of familiar models to understand the world or as comforting wish fulfillment, but rather as the result of our innate tendency to “see humans despite human camouflage.” According to Guthrie, our minds’ attempts to see what is important disproportionately favor anthropomorphizing the world because humans are the most important factors in our environment. From our physical dependency on other humans during our long childhoods to our emotional and intellectual need for human contact, over the course of our lives we naturally and disproportionately orient ourselves towards other human beings.

In Guthrie’s view, our tendency to attribute a humanlike nature to God arises from this psychological proclivity. But it’s not just any random aspect of humanity that we attribute to God. We credit God with the most fundamental and irrevocable aspects of our humanity that we are able. We describe a God capable of language and communication, the ability to have a relationship with his mortal creation. We understand God through the lens of the hierarchical, seeing God as the epitome and the most complex representation of our highest values. God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. In Guthrie’s view, God becomes the ultimate manifestation of our desired selves. Yet this I must challenge. Could it not just as likely be that we are but the fractured image of an epitomic God? Perhaps we see God in this way because in him we see the image of the thing that we were always meant to be. Rather than Guthrie’s envisioned God as a projection of humanity, I see humanity as a scarred and dimly lit reflection of God.

The second, and closely related feature of religious experience involves the agency we see in the events of the universe. In his book Minds and Gods: the cognitive foundations of religion[5], Tremlin (2010) describes how evolution naturally favors modules in the brain that enable organisms to quickly and efficiently detect other agents in their immediate environment. These other agents are capable of “independently and intentionally initiating action” and are therefore unpredictable and can be either dangerous or helpful depending on the circumstances. It is therefore of the utmost evolutionary importance for animals to be able to distinguish agents from objects and asses their threat. To do this, animals utilize the mental mechanism that psychologists call the Agent Detection Device (ADD). ADD acts quickly and subconsciously in a whole host of species to detect agency in the environment. Yet ADD can also produce anxiety as it overreacts to either inanimate or benign subjects. Similarly to our tendency to detect animism, our prioritization of ADD results form the huge consequences that may result from underestimating risk relative to the low consequences that result from overestimating it.

Tremlin argues that this detection of agency (as well as the closely related Theory of Mind that attributes minds to those detected agents) is critical to the religious experience in that it plays a huge role in how we relate to God. Religion is, first and foremost, a relational experience. We encounter God in our experience of the world he created. We see meaning in our actions and purpose to those events that happen to us throughout our lives. Whether we look to signs in nature or quest internally for a sense of the correct path, it is ultimately the detection of agency that we seek. It is that sense that something lies beyond our comprehension or the strange conviction as to another’s presence that alerts us to our experience of the divine. Tremlin calls this misattribution and overreaction; I call it God.

As I study these two scientists’ perspective on the psychology behind religion, I tend to conclude that what Guthrie and Tremlin label as anthropomorphism and theory of mind do play a significant role in the human religious experience. Yet I don’t see this as the same critique of religion that Guthrie and Tremlin seem to imply. Rather, I see a number of possibilities that might reconcile their arguments with a faith-based worldview. First and foremost, why must we assume that humans have constructed a human-like God that they can better relate to when it could just as possibly be the case that God constructed God-like humans able to relate to him? Indeed, why wouldn’t he create them with the capacity to encounter God in precisely the same way that they’re able to best understand themselves? For if God does exist and he is in fact relational, then why would he not desire that his creatures evolve the capacity to encounter him for themselves? Perhaps we anthropomorphize because we sense that there is something bigger out there and desire nothing more than to feel connected to it in some small, tangible way.

Similarly, what if there’s a reason why humans seek out the signs of agency in the world around them. Perhaps we seek after those glimpses on Earth because they really are just that, signs of something truly extraordinary and beyond our comprehension save the occasional peek beyond the veil. Either way, I think it’s more than possible to reconcile a psychological understanding of the religious experience with a faith-based worldview.

The Evolution of Religion

Science is, by its very nature, defined by its pursuit of knowledge, the type that is objective and explanatory in nature. Religion, on the other hand is preeminently focused on one’s sense of one’s self and place in the world, most often reflected in moral truths and very rarely objective or explanatory in any truly satisfying sense. Science is a uniquely excellent tool for understanding the natural world and its properties based on our assumptions as to the universe’s logical and deterministic nature. Yet science is simply unequipped to answer many of the questions related to ethics and metaphysics. Science can’t tell you what’s right or wrong or even what we as a species or individuals ought to do at any point in time. Science isn’t relational but rather profoundly unidirectional. Through the lens of science alone we are faced with our own attempts at understanding a universe that could not care less if we are successful in that endeavor or not.

On a species-wide level, religion has adaptive qualities that have aided human communities for millennia on end. Numerous studies have indicated that moralizing religions promote pro-social behavior among their adherents. A study by Norenzayan and Henrich[6] used behavioral economics games to test rates of charitable giving among people of varying faith backgrounds. They found that adherents to moralizing religions were willing to donate up to 10% more to strangers than did non-adherents. From an evolutionary perspective, this is valuable because of the benefits that would result for faith communities. Those who feel more attached to and supported by their community will in turn form stronger social bonds that enable greater reciprocity and potentially result in higher survival rates. This would in part explain the tenacity of religion and its ability to persist in throughout the course of human evolution.

On the individual level of this evolutionary trend, religion often plays a role that science was never designed to fill. In his book The Language of God[7], Collins (2006) writes about his own experiences reconciling religion and science and points to the Moral Law as playing a key role in his persuasion. Gaining inspiration from Christian writer C.S. Lewis, Collins describes how all humans cross-culturally seem to possess a moral code that looks remarkably similar at its core. While of course massive variation exists in the manifestation of the moral code, at its core all cultures seem to have some provision against murder and in favor of honesty to name a few iterations. For Collins, these similarities (notable for their pro-social nature) represent convincing evidence for the existence of some sort of spiritual unity and an ought for the human life that isn’t easily explained by science alone, a unity that eventually led him to a belief in God. For even if we explain these pro-social edicts in terms of evolution (and I believe that we effectively can) it’s hard to understand why we still choose to follow them.

For me at least, I still marvel at how we can know so much about the goals of evolution (i.e. survival and reproduction) and still choose to act in ways that run counter to such salient interests. I believe it’s because we as human beings are able to feel the weightiness of these edicts as far more than just social constructs. There is rightness to the universe. Whether we detect it by that thing called Moral Law, conscience, pro-social positive feedback mechanism or however else we might choose to name it, none of that detracts from its powerful realness. People across cultures and political institutions turn to religion because it provides them a guide to living that is far harder to discern from the sciences alone and more difficult to glean from our everyday experiences. Religion has the potential to unite us in purpose, transcending language, class, and race. That potential is a powerful thing and is strikingly evidenced through the lens of the scientific mind.

Hailey Reneau ’17 was a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House and a staff writer for the Ichthus.

[1]Job 38:4 (NIV)

[2]Baynes, N. H. (1936). The political ideas of St. Augustine’s De civitate Dei.

[3]Galilei, G. (1957). Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. Discoveries and opinions of Galileo, 173-216.

[4]Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds. Oxford University Press.

[5]Tremlin, T. (2010). Minds and gods: The cognitive foundations of religion. Oxford University Press.

[6]Wade, L. (2015). Birth of the moralizing gods. Science, 349(6251), 918-922.

[7]Collins, F. S. (2006). The language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief (No. 111). Simon and Schuster.