Spotlight: Have Humans Evolved to Believe in God?

Is the way we analyze other people's behavior telling about how we think about God?

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Is God a singular, independent being? Or just an evolved projection of human's theory of what God should be? Slate's Jesse Bering finds himself asking these heady questions after an analysis of how humans, as a species, have developed to analyze and rationalize the mental states of others--human or not.

Understanding the Theory of Mind: How Humans Attempt to Make Sense of the Unexpected

If you've ever seen an unfortunate woman at the grocery store wearing a midriff-revealing top and packed into a pair of lavender tights like meat in a sausage wrapper, or a follicularly challenged man with a hairpiece two shades off and three centimeters adrift, and asked yourself what on Earth those people were thinking when they looked in the mirror before leaving the house, this is a good sign that your theory of mind (not to mention your fashion sense) is in working order. When others violate our expectations for normalcy or stump us with surprising behaviors, our tendency to mind-read goes into overdrive. We literally "theorize" about the minds that are causing ostensible behavior.

Humans Extend 'Theory of Mind' to Inhuman Objects

Many people remember fondly the classic film Le Ballon Rouge ("The Red Balloon," 1956) by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse, in which a sensitive schoolboy—in reality Lamorisse's own 5-year-old son, Pascal—is befriended by a good-natured, cherry-red helium balloon. Absent dialogue, the camera follows the joyful two, boy and balloon, through the somber, working-class streets of the Ménilmontant neighborhood of Paris ... The plot of Le Ballon Rouge exemplifies how our evolved brains have become hypersocial filters, such that our theory of mind is applied not only to the mental innards of other people and animals, but also, in error, to categories that haven't any mental innards at all, such as ebullient skins of elastic stretched by an inert gas. If it weren't for our theory of mind, we couldn't follow the premise of the movie, let alone enjoy Lamorisse's particular oeuvre of magical realism.

We Even Get Angry at Our Cars

In particular, when inanimate objects do unexpected things, we sometimes reason about them just as we do for oddly behaving—or misbehaving—people. More than a few of us have kicked our broken-down vehicles in the sides and verbally abused our incompetent computers. Most of us stop short of actually believing these objects possess mental states—indeed, we would likely be hauled away to an asylum if we genuinely believed that they held malicious intent—but our emotions and behaviors toward such objects seem to betray our primitive, unconscious thinking: we act as though they're morally culpable for their actions.

How This Leads to God

What if I were to tell you that God's mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? ... Consider, briefly, the implications of seeing God this way, as a sort of scratch on our psychological lenses rather than the enigmatic figure out there in the heavenly world that most people believe Him to be. Subjectively, God would still be present in our lives. (For some people, rather annoyingly so.) He would continue to suffuse our experiences with an elusive meaning and give the sense that the universe is communicating with us in various ways. But this notion of God as an illusion is a radical and, some would say, even dangerous idea because it raises important questions about whether God is an autonomous, independent agent that lives outside human brain cells, or instead a phantom cast out upon the world by our species' own peculiarly evolved theory of mind. Since the human brain, like any physical organ, is a product of evolution, and since natural selection works without recourse to intelligent forethought, this mental apparatus of ours evolved to think about God quite without need of the latter's consultation, let alone His being real.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.