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Meditation 748
Why do people believe and is there a benefit?

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A recent article[1] in the New Scientist suggests that belief in God arises out of the way the brain works; a combination of "the fact that our brains have separate cognitive systems for dealing with living things - things with minds, or at least volition - and inanimate objects" and "an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none."

It does not, however, explain why some of us don't believe. According to the article: "Religious belief is the 'path of least resistance', says Boyer, while disbelief requires effort." For me it would be the other way around, requiring a great deal of effort to return to religious belief. I suspect most agnostics and atheists would feel the same way. Perhaps our brains are wired differently.

But we are in the minority and most people do follow a religion of some sort. It has been suggested that belief provides (or used to provide) an evolutionary advantage. According to a recent study[2] published in Psychological Science, religious belief is associated with a lower level of stress and anxiety, and believers are more forgiving of themselves when they make a mistake. I suggest that reduced stress levels may indeed have been an advantage in a hunter-gatherer society in which life was brutal and short. But today, where the stresses we face are of a far different nature, I wonder if being more accepting of our own errors is still advantageous.

In the same edition of the newspaper in which the study was discussed was a report[3] on the trial of the killer referred to in Meditation 722. Apparently, the brutal murder was carried out under God's direct orders to kill a demon, then dismember him so he could not put himself back together. In fact the killer had been living his life according to God's personal directives since 2005, wandering back and forth across the country, switching jobs and disposing of all his possessions except a knife. The result of the trial was that the killer was found not guilty by reason of insanity. But, going back to the study about religion and stress, I wonder, even in his schizophrenia[4], if the man had been able to be a little more anxious about whether he was doing the right thing or not, he might have sought a second opinion about the voice in his head. Did his religiousbelief contribute to his acceptance of his schizophrenic delusions?


  1. Born believers: How your brain creates God by Michael Brooks, New Scientist, 4 February 2009
  2. Religion helps beat stress, study finds by Charles Lewis, National Post, March 5 2009
  3. Killer on bus was 'psychotic,' court told by Mike McIntyre,National Post, March 5 2009
  4. Given that the way the brain operates is probably genetic (the opening issue in this article) and so is schizophrenia, it is tempting to draw a link between religious belief and schizophrenia. It's probably a stretch, so I won't. But there is a Swiss study which addresses it if you are interested in reading further. http://www.smw.ch/docs/pdf200x/2004/25/smw-10322.PDF