Before I start, I would like to thank Peretz for being a very special Hebrew school. My experiences over these last eight years have been great and I am thankful to have been part of it. My question for today is: why does a belief in G-d exist? Many people do not talk about the existence of a belief in G-d for much the same reason fish do not talk about water. It is everywhere and it has been there since the beginning of existence. It is like two people sitting in a living room talking about the weather and ignoring the gorilla that has always been sitting there. Most people ask themselves if they believe in G-d, but not many people ask themselves why there would be that concept of G-d to choose from. In other words, why does the belief in G-d exist? Mind you, I am not debating whether or not G-d exists, which is a matter for philosophers and theologians, but why the belief does. There are only two possible answers, which are contradictory. First, we could possess the belief in G-d because we were programmed by G-d, assuming that G-d exists. In this case, I can end this speech right now because G-d is omnipotent and acts in ways that are beyond our understanding. The other potential answer is that the idea of G-d is related to an evolutionary advantage, in which case I might never end this speech because there is so much to say.
By evolutionary advantage, I mean a characteristic or behavior that helps a species survive. Because belief in G-d is common across all human cultures and most individuals, there must be something positive about it that helped the people with that belief survive and reproduce relative to others without it.
I saw this fact, among others, in a New York Times article about “Darwin’s G-d”, and it really opened my eyes. Did you know that there has never been a society that has survived more than three generations without a religion? Even in our highly technical society, 6 in 10 people believe in concepts like “heaven” and “hell” and as many as 7 in 10 believe in an afterlife or angels. Even the members of the National Academy of Science count 40% of their members as believing in G-d. Because it costs something to be religious, this shows that a belief in G-d is necessary to survival for some reason. But what is that reason?
If a belief in G-d really is related to an evolutionary advantage, then the question moves on to another two categories that it could be a part of. First, it could be a direct evolutionary advantage. In other words, it evolved to help us and our descendents to survive. It could also be an evolutionary byproduct, which is a side effect of something that did help you survive.
First, I would like to talk about the scenario where a belief in G-d is related to a direct evolutionary advantage. To be an evolutionary advantage, the positive consequences have to outweigh the negative consequences. However, a religious belief in G-d has many costs, so there must be a very big advantage. The costs include, but are not limited to, burning animals for sacrifice instead of eating them, using many resources and time building temples, and restricting your whole style of life. So, what could the advantages be?
In the New York Times article by Robin Henig that I have been using, David Sloan Wilson, one of the most vocal adaptationists, suggests an answer. Robin writes, “There are costs to any individual of being religious: The time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But, in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being a cohesive group that out-competes the others.” This is basically saying that all of the individual costs of being religious can be outweighed by the whole-group benefits of surviving the natural group selection.
Wilson gave the example of sentry birds. Sentry birds help the group by providing warning when a predator is approaching. However, this is bad for the individual bird in two ways. First, because the sentry bird is constantly on the lookout, it doesn’t have much time to hunt for food. Second, when it warns the birds, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator and be killed. Because of these costs, one would think that the sentry bird gene would become extinct after a generation or two. However, if the whole group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird, then the sentry gene will prevail. In other words, even if individuals reduce their chance of survival by warning the group, the overall chance of survival of the next generation (including the offspring of the sentry birds) will be much higher.
Another way that a belief in G-d might be a direct evolutionary advantage is one of the most important. One of the things that is part of the idea of G-d is the belief that G-d is always with you. This is very important because in some scenarios, it actually makes your chance of living higher. The reason for this is, believe it or not, a result of positive thinking. Scientific studies show that the way someone thinks and feels can strongly affect the welfare of their body. For example, a patient with a dangerous infection has a better chance of recovery if that person has a positive attitude and the proper medicine rather than just the medicine alone. Dr. Robert DeLap, head of one of the Food and Drug Administration Offices of Drug Evaluation was quoted in the FDA Consumer Magazine as saying “Expectation is a powerful thing. The more you believe you’re going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that you will experience a benefit.” To the extent that a belief in G-d and religious observance increases this expectation, it is a clear evolutionary advantage.
Conversely, stress over something that you cannot do anything about can cause real physical damage to your body. Since for much of human history, most of the bad events on a daily basis were out of our control, finding ways to reduce the stress would clearly be a survival trait. Religion and a belief in G-d did this, in all cultures and over all times. Of course, in the modern world, there are a growing number of problems that we can address directly and have to balance the tendency to be accepting with the possibility of taking action. For example, if your child dies from polio, you could find peace in accepting it as part of G-d’s plan, or you could work on understanding the causes and finding a vaccine or cure. It seems that this tension between the peace that comes with acceptance of tradition and the benefit (and stress) of change and progress is one of the major issues in our culture today.
The second reason for why the belief in G-d might exist is because it is a neurological accident or byproduct of some other behavior or characteristic that directly helped our survival. In other words, the belief in G-d does not directly help us, but we can learn something about how such a belief results from some factor that does help us. One of the important behaviors that we have evolved over time is to look for patterns and reasons for events in everyday life. Causal Reasoning, as it is called, has helped us because it has made us question the reasons behind an event and maybe help us take actions that will increase our chance of survival.
"Agent Detection” is the ability to infer the presence of a being with individual behavior from just subtle clues. This has a clear evolutionary advantage because it helps us find predators and prey without seeing them. For example, if you are a caveman in the savannah, and you hear a rustling of leaves next to you, it is better to assume that it was caused by an agent than not. If the rustling of leaves turns out to be a tiger, then you are still alive because you detected it beforehand and ran. If it is just the wind, then you are still alive with little cost beyond some exercise.
Another example comes from an experiment conducted in the nineteen forties by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. They showed viewers a video of triangles and circles moving randomly around on the screen. However, when the viewers were asked what they saw, they used words such as “pursuit”, “planning”, and “escape”. They saw the shapes as having almost a mind of their own and acting as independent agents. There was no reason to assign such motives to these shapes, but it was a side effect of the survival trait of looking for causes to actions in the environment.
Belief in a supernatural being, such as G-d, can be the byproduct of this adaptation by being the reason behind the action of something that doesn’t appear to have an agent, for examples, the wind in the bushes. Suddenly, G-d becomes the common denominator behind everything without an obvious reason. So instead of the bushes rustling because the wind (if there is not a tiger), they rustle because G-d willed them to. While not a direct evolutionary advantage, it would be somewhat helpful because then people would not have to use a lot of their time worrying about why something happened if the cause was not apparent. It simply was because G-d willed it.
Why would an idea be so strong that a civilization can’t survive without it? A belief in G-d has been around ever since we have become a species, and obviously it is imperative. So, that being said, why would the idea exist and what are its advantages? Scientists tend to agree on one point—that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree on is whether the belief was a direct evolutionary advantage or whether it is just related to an evolutionary advantage, acting as a byproduct. In either case, it is still a fundamental part of being human.