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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