The God Engine

Oct 25, 2018

By James Alcock

Whatever its form, religion is powerful and pervasive and, for billions of people, obviously important. Yet, while major religions such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism have endured since ancient times, others, despite having enjoyed great appeal for centuries, have disappeared into the history books. No longer does anyone worship Zeus, the supreme god of the ancient Greeks; Marduk, the Babylonian god of creation; Bast, the Egyptian goddess of protection; Jupiter, the supreme god of the Romans; the Incan Apocatequil; or the Aztec Huehueteotl. Those bygone gods were central figures in highly developed theocracies and were as real to their devotees as are today’s deities to contemporary worshippers.

The continuing power of religious belief in all its many contradictory forms suggests that it serves important functions. Indeed, some researchers consider religion to have become culturally important because fear of the deity promoted social solidarity, cooperation, trust, and self-sacrifice. Important behaviors were either mandated or declared taboo by religion, and believers had little choice but to accept that a powerful supernatural being had deemed them so. This social control in turn increased the likelihood of the survival and reproduction of individuals as well as the long-term survival of the group itself. As religion became deeply established within a group, the religious beliefs and rituals taught to young people contributed an important part of their social identities, and their corresponding roles and duties further contributed to the functioning and cohesiveness of the group.

However, the prevailing view in modern psychology is that religious belief developed not because of those functions but rather as the automatic byproduct of brain systems that evolved for everyday cognition. That is, belief in the supernatural is a natural consequence of the way our brains work, a product of a metaphorical “God Engine” that endows it both with significant power over the lives of people and the groups to which they belong and with strong resistance to change. In other words, a number of automatic processes and cognitive biases combine to make supernatural belief the automatic default.

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4 comments on “The God Engine

  • …This social control in turn increased the likelihood of the survival and reproduction of individuals as well as the long-term survival of the group itself…

    Not sure about this; it smells a bit of a “for the good of the species” type of argument…

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  • I very much dislike the bit where it says the Big Bang theory is held on trust like religious beliefs. It’s based on scientific evidence.

    All three stories may seem fantastical in their own way, and all three are held on trust by those who believe them. While the first involves trust in the validity of the Book of Genesis and the second in the oral traditions of North American First Nations peoples, the third requires trust in the conclusions of modern science. While scientists understand the logic and the data that support the big bang explanation, it is beyond the layperson’s ability to do so.

    Nonsense. I’m a layperson in the sense I don’t have actual higher education qualifications in science but I understand the Big Bang Theory perfectly well. I don’t blindly “trust” in modern science. I accept that the preponderance of evidence supports that scientists know what they are talking about whereas religious leaders don’t.

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  • I couldn’t agree more, Arkrid. The average Brit is pretty well informed by excellent and attractive TV programs.

    This seems a very American take on society and way overplays rather prosaic evolved traits. Magical thinking simply reflects how neurons work. They wire together if they fire at the same time. They notice coincidence and reinforce it, using it later to anticipate a second thing from a first thing and thereby avoid or seek out things as needed. It works brilliantly for animals, with mistaken associations fading away through a reverse process. It is only in humans when culture is added in that it goes wrong, usually by way of some exploitation or other.

    Agency detection, those mistaking sticks for snakes rather than the reverse surviving better. Again it is cultural manipulation that turns a useful attribute into a weakness.

    Religion exists because over-imitation in young human children is a thing. It is the brief but uber reliable copying that secures the whole of culture and any parasitical culture also.

    Thriving religions are two-faced. They must have attributes that are congenial to the broadly empathetic masses, empathetic enough to work together happily and create wealth, calming fears, imposing modest appetites, encouraging controlled breeding. It must also have provision for a much smaller parasite class of lower empathy, to administer, promote and profit from it in terms of power and money.

    People brought up free of the parasite class have no problem with a “god-engine”.

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  • Also absent is the point that a layperson (deprived thus far of the opportunity) has nothing in principle to prevent them from learning the mathematics and physics behind the big bang theory.

    Whereas the other creation stories are “just-so” fairy stories; there’s nothing more to see, and no way to choose between competing stories. Easy enough to teach a layperson, but no such person (not exposed to these stories at an early age) is going to take them seriously.

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