Donders Wonders Blog

Is religion pre-programmed into our brains?

This post is also available in Dutch.

About half of the Dutch are religious. Globally the rate is as high as 84%. What role does our brain play in religion? Are we pre-programmed to be religious?

Picture: CC0, Pexels

Receptivity for religion is hereditary
According to research on twins, 16 to 50 percent of your receptiveness to be religious (or ‘spiritual’) is genetically determined. This relatively high heredity suggests that religion must have had an evolutionary advantage. The theory of religion as an adaptive strategy is supported by the observation that a religious community had a higher chance of surviving than non-religious ones. This chance was a whopping four times higher for any random year. This could be explained by religion keeping a group together, offering protection or stimulating regulations that promote health (such as eating kosher).

The influence of surroundings
Of course there is more in play than just genetic make-up; your surroundings also play an important role. Brain researcher Dick Swaab proposes that childhood surroundings make it so thar your parents’ religion is programmed into your neural circuits, in a similar way to your mother tongue. A child is somewhat more gullible than an adult; warnings and directions are very salient for a child’s brain. This way, faith is transferred from generation to generation and anchored in our neural circuits.

The role of the brain
In the brain there are relationships between chemical messengers and the degree of spirituality. For example, the number of serotonine-receptors correlates with our receptiveness to religion. Also substances that affect serotonin (such as LSD) can elicit mystical and spiritual experiences. Changes in activation in different brain areas can also be coupled to religious beliefs. Faithfulness can for instance be coupled to an intense activation of the neural reward system.

Often you can learn a lot about the brain by looking at changes that occur with specific brain diseases. The role of the brain in religion has also been considered: with Alzheimer’s disease there often is a loss of interest in religion, concurrent with the progression of the disease. On the other hand, an increase of religious interest has been found with dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and epilepsy. A number of these diseases are known to be related to an increased activity in the dopamine system of our brain.

So what does this brain research tell us?
Alright, so we observe a relationship between brain activity and spirituality, but our brains respond to everything we do, think and go through. The discussed research thus is no evidence in favor of the existence of a god, but also not against it. It merely provides insights into the role of the brain in religion with ‘healthy’ people and people with a neurological disorder. Furthermore, an extensive analysis of many brain experiments showed that neuroscience can so far not provide a definitive explanation for religious experiences. However, it also showed that this research contributes to an objective description of the biological and psychological dimensions of religion. This makes this kind of research very valuable, considering that it allows us a way to distinguish pathological hallucinations from religious experiences and states of consciousness (dreaming, for example). There is thus a lot to be learned from this research, but a confirmation or debunking of the existence of some higher power should not be expected.

Written by Angelique, edited by Annelies, translated by Rowena

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