Religion as a belief system goes back hundreds of thousands of years. So why are so many of the religious peoples of today so focused on a supposed God that goes back only 5,000 years? The answer lies in how our brains work.
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Reza Aslan: Studies of children have shown that we are born with this instinct for what’s called “substance dualism,” the idea that the body and the mind or soul, however you want to think of the psyche, are separate.
Children who as young as three or four years old, who have not grown up with any kind of religious instruction, naturally assume that they have a soul.
And so I think a lot of theorists believe that this belief in the soul is universal, that it can be traced back deep into our evolution. Why? There’s a whole host of reasons for that: I mean I suppose that if you’re an “unbeliever” you think that it’s just some kind of evolutionary accident—It’s a trick of the mind, as it were, that makes you think that you are an immaterial being inside a material body.
If you’re a believer you think that it’s probably because there is a soul and maybe perhaps that we were intentionally created in such a way as to think that there is more to us than just the material realm.
It’s really a choice, but what cannot be denied is that belief in the soul is a belief that all peoples share regardless of their culture or their religion. And it’s a belief that goes back as far back in time as we can possibly trace it. And if these psychological studies that I was talking about are right, it’s a belief that we’re born with.
Over the last couple of hundred years, there’s been an enormous amount of thought that’s gone into the question of “why religion?”
You know the one thing that we all agree on is that religion has been a part of the human experience from the beginning.
In fact, we can trace the origin of religious experience to before homo sapiens. We can trace it with some measure of confidence to Neanderthals. We can measure it with a little less confidence all the way to Homo Erectus. So we’re talking hundreds of thousands of years before our species even existed. So the question is why?
If religion is a universal phenomenon—or rather I should say religious experience—If religious experience is a universal phenomenon, if it can be traced in all peoples, all cultures and throughout all time, then there must be some evolutionary reason for it. There must be a reason. Some adaptive advantage to having a religious experience or faith experience. Otherwise, it wouldn’t exist.
And so there have been over the last couple of centuries numerous attempts to figure out exactly what that adaptive advantage would be. The most popular explanation, of course, is the sociological one: that religion creates a sense of cohesion amongst a group. And that sense of cohesion, the idea that we could come together and create a collective identity based on shared symbols or shared metaphors gave an adaptive advantage to believing communities that non-believing communities did not have.