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Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?

Jesse Bering's mother died of cancer on a Sunday, in her own bed, at 9 o'clock at night. Bering and his siblings closed her door and went downstairs, hoping they might somehow get some sleep.

It was a long, hard night, but around 7 a.m., something happened: The wind chimes outside his mother's window started to chime.

Bering remembers waking to the tinkle of these bells, a small but distinct sound in an otherwise silent house. And he remembers thinking that those bells carried a very specific message.


"It seemed to me ... that she was somehow telling us that she had made it to the other side. You know, cleared customs in heaven," Bering says.

The thought surprised him. Bering was a confirmed atheist. He did not believe in any kind of supernatural anything. He prided himself on being a scientist, a psychologist who believed only in the measurable material world. But, he says, he simply couldn't help himself.

"My mind went there. It leapt there," Bering says. "And from a psychological perspective, this was really interesting to me. Because I didn't believe it on the one hand, but on the other hand I experienced it."

Why is it, Bering wondered, that even a determined skeptic could not stop himself from perceiving the supernatural?  It really bothered him.

It was a very good question, he decided, to take up in his lab.


God, Through The Lens Of Evolution

For decades, the intellectual descendants of Darwin have pored over ancient bones and bits of fossils, trying to piece together how fish evolved into man, theorizing about the evolutionary advantage conferred by each physical change. And over the past 10 years, a small group of academics have begun to look at religion in the same way: they've started to look at God and the supernatural through the lens of evolution.

Whether it's a dead ancestor or God, whatever supernatural agent it is, if you think they're watching you, your behavior is going to be affected.

In the history of the world, every culture in every location at every point in time has developed some supernatural belief system. And when a human behavior is so universal, scientists often argue that it must be an evolutionary adaptation along the lines of standing upright. That is, something so helpful that the people who had it thrived, and the people who didn't slowly died out until we were all left with the trait. But what could be the evolutionary advantage of believing in God?

Bering is one of the academics who are trying to figure that out. In the years since his mother's death, Bering has done experiments in his lab at Queens University, Belfast, in an attempt to understand how belief in the supernatural might have conferred some advantage and made us into the species we are today.

In one experiment, children between the ages of 5 and 9 were shown to a room and told to throw a Velcro ball at a Velcro dartboard. They were told that if they were able to hit the bull's-eye, they'd get a special prize. But this particular game had an unusual set of rules: The children were told that they had to throw from behind, they weren't allowed to throw the ball while facing the dartboard, and they had to use their nondominant hand -- rules that basically made it impossible for any of the children to win the game unless they cheated.

The children in the study were divided into three groups. The first group was left alone and told to play the game as best they could. The second were told the same, with one difference -- the children in the second group were told that there was someone special who was going to watch them. The experimenters showed the kids a picture of a very pretty woman -- a character that Bering had made up whose name was Princess Alice.

Princess Alice, the kids were told, had a magical power: Alice could make herself invisible. Then the children were shown a chair and were told that Alice was sitting in the chair and that Alice would watch them play the game after the researcher left. The third group of kids was told to play the game, but the researcher sat with them and simply never left the room at all.

The question that Bering sought to answer was this: Which group of children was least likely to cheat?

The children in the first group -- the completely unsupervised kids -- by far cheated the most. But what was surprising was the behavior of the second group.

The children who were under the impression that Princess Alice was in the room with them were just as likely to refrain from cheating as those children who were actually in the room with a physical real-life human being. A similar study Bering did with adults showed the same thing -- that they were dramatically less likely to cheat when they thought they were being observed by a supernatural presence.

A Change In Behavior

Bering has a credo, a truth he says he's learned after years of studying this stuff.

"I've always said that I don't believe in God, but I don't really believe in atheists either," Bering says. "Everybody experiences the illusion that God -- or some type of supernatural agent -- is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives."

These supernatural agents, Bering adds, might have very different names. What some call God, others call Karma. There are literally thousands of names, but according to Bering they all have the same effect.

"Whether it's a dead ancestor or God, whatever supernatural agent it is, if you think they're watching you, your behavior is going to be affected," he says.

In fact, Bering says that believing that supernatural beings are watching you is so basic to being human that even committed atheists regularly have moments where their minds turn in a supernatural direction, as his did in the wake of his mother's death.

"They experience it but they reject it," Bering says. "Sort of override or stomp on their immediate intuition. But that's not to say that they don't experience it. We all have the same basic brain. And our brains have evolved to work in a particular way."

Through the lens of evolution, a belief in God serves a very important purpose: Religious belief set us on the path to modern life by stopping cheaters and promoting the social good.

Why would the human brain have evolved to work in that way?

For Bering, and some of his friends, the answer to that question has everything to do with what he discovered in his lab -- the way the kids and adults stopped cheating as soon as they thought a supernatural being might be watching them. Through the lens of evolution then, a belief in God serves a very important purpose: Religious belief set us on the path to modern life by stopping cheaters and promoting the social good.

God And Social Cooperation

Dominic Johnson is a professor at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and another one of the leaders in this field. And to Johnson, before you can understand the role religion and the supernatural might have played in making us the people we are today, you really have to appreciate just how improbable our modern lives are.

Today we live in a world where perfect strangers are incredibly nice to each other on a regular basis. All day long, strangers open doors for each other, repair each other's bodies and cars and washing machines. They swap money for food and food for money.  In short: they cooperate.

This cooperation makes all kinds of things possible, of course. Because we can cooperate, we can build sophisticated machines and create whole cities -- communities that require huge amounts of coordination. We can do things that no individual or small group could do.

The question is: How did we get to be so cooperative? For academics like Johnson, this is a profound puzzle.

"Explaining cooperation is a huge cottage industry," Johnson says. "It dominates the pages of top journals in science and economics and psychology. You would think that it was very simple, but in fact from a scientific academic point of view, it just often doesn't make sense."

It doesn't make sense because there's often tension between the interests of the group and the interests of the individual. Johnson gives an example. Recently he was on the subway in New York and as he was going through the turnstile a little child ran in with him and got through the barrier. He got onto the subway without ever paying.

Everywhere you look around the world, you find examples of people altering their behavior because of concerns for supernatural consequences of their actions. They don't do things that they consider bad because they think they'll be punished for it.

"Now we only have the Metro if everyone pays," Johnson says. "But there's an advantage for everyone if they don't have to pay themselves."

And what's true of the subway is true of everything.

Why fight in a war, risk your own death, if someone else will fight it for you? Why pay taxes? Why reduce your carbon footprint?

These all have clear costs, and from an individual perspective, you and your offspring are much more likely to thrive if you don't get killed in a war or pay your taxes -- if you behave like the child in the subway.

The problem is that even a relatively small number of people who choose to behave like the child can affect the functioning of the whole.

"Even a few cheats undermine cooperation," Johnson says, because once people realize that they are paying for the same thing others are enjoying free, they become less willing to cooperate.

Punishment And Deterrents: Enforcing God's Law

Today, if you cheat -- if you decide to pass on paying Uncle Sam or if you steal a car -- there are systems in place that will track you down and punish you. And this threat of punishment keeps you on the straight and narrow. But imagine if you lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.

"We know that punishment is very effective at promoting cooperation," Johnson says. "The problem is: Who punished in the past before we had police and courts and law and government? There wasn't anyone formally to carry out the punishment"

In those early human communities when someone did something wrong, someone else in the small human group would have to punish them. But as Johnson points out, punishing itself is often dangerous because the person being punished probably won't like it.

"That person has a family; that person has a memory and is going to develop a grudge," Johnson says. "So there are going to be potentially quite disruptive consequences of people taking the law into their own hands."

On the other hand, Johnson says, if there are Gods or a God who must be obeyed, these strains are reduced. After all, the punisher isn't a vigilante; he's simply enforcing God's law.

"You have a very nice situation," Johnson says. "There are no reprisals against punishers. And the other nice thing about supernatural agents is that they are often omniscient and omnipresent."

If God is everywhere and sees everything, people curb their selfish impulses even when there's no one around. Because with God, there is no escape. "God knows what you did," Johnson says, "and God is going to punish you for it and that's an incredibly powerful deterrent. If you do it again, he's going to know and he is going to tally up your good deals and bad deeds and you will suffer the consequences for it either in this life or in an afterlife."

Differing Views

So the argument goes that as our human ancestors spread around the world in bands, keeping together for food and protection, groups with a religious belief system survived better because they worked better together.

We are their descendants. And Johnson says their belief in the supernatural is still very much with us.

"Everywhere you look around the world, you find examples of people altering their behavior because of concerns for supernatural consequences of their actions. They don't do things that they consider bad because they think they'll be punished for it."

Of course there are plenty of criticisms of these ideas. For example one premise of this argument is that religious belief is beneficial because it helped us to cooperate. But a small group of academics argue that religious beliefs have ultimately been more harmful than helpful, because those religious beliefs inspire people to go to war.

And then there are the people who say that cooperation doesn't come from God -- that cooperation evolved from our need to take care of family or show potential mates that we were a good choice. The theories are endless.

Unfortunately it's not possible now to rewind the movie, so to speak, and see what actually happened. So these speculations will remain just that: speculations.

As unknowable -- ultimately -- as God himself.

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