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Dennis Campbell's 'essay on religion from a behavioral viewpoint' was posted in the Rational Skepticism forum (in the 'Biological Sciences' section) on April 15, 2010:



This is posted as a general framework that might be useful in considering the question of "why religion," at least from a viewpoint of a behavioral psychologist. It does not deal with genetics or neuropsychology, that is simply beyond my expertise. It may have implications for the claim of "mental illness" as being somehow inherent in theism: I do not think that is a useful predictive or explanatory tool, apart from perhaps some individual cases.


Religion, as a set of beliefs and practices usually involving some deity, is so common among the majority of human beings of different cultures, that is seems inaccurate and not useful to consider that religion is necessarily pathological or unusual. Regardless of culture, all cultures both historically and present, have some form(s) of religion. All ethnic groupings of people as well express some form of religion. It therefore follows that there must be variables and functions of religion that apply to almost all people, regardless of culture, ethnicity or geographical location.


No one variable or function seems plausible as a necessary and sufficient explanation for the occurrence of religious beliefs, but whatever the explanatory variables or functions may be, they must apply to everyone. Religious beliefs are not universal, therefore these hypothesized explanations take the form of probability statements, not absolutes. Some variables appear to be antecedent, or prior to and distinct from any religious belief; some functions appear coincident with or consequent to religious beliefs, some just appear correlated with no clear temporal standing.


1. Antecedent variables appear to include the following, with the order of listing reflecting a more basic and neurological basis, and the later increasingly having a learned or conditioning basis.


1.1     Zeitgeist. This is a basic human disposition to experience or perceive isolated visual or auditory stimuli as wholes, not unconnected stimuli.

1.2     Extrapolation from present to future. People from birth tend to anticipate the occurrence and nature of future events and experiences on the basis of past and current events and experiences. Lower animals do this as well, but people appear to be able to do so with a much greater extension in time.

1.3     Projected parental power. Children tend to perceive parents, especially in the first few years of life, as omnipotent and omniscient, and that belief in a power greater than themselves seems reflected in later religious beliefs, with the religious beliefs having similarities with the beliefs of their parents.

1.4     Animism. Children are commonly observed to behave towards inanimate objects as though they were animate, ascribing thoughts and feelings like they have to objects. Primitive peoples as well posited "spirits" as animating most of their physical world (air, wind, fire; rain, lightening, water, trees, etc). Animals were assumed to have thoughts and feelings quite similar to those of people.

1.5     Superstitious behavior. Any behavior followed by a reinforcing event is more likely to be repeated, even when there's no more association between the behavior and reinforcing event than coincidence. Someone prays, and some desired event occurs: praying has an increased likelihood of occurring again. Press an already lighted button on an elevator control panel, the elevator comes: that behavior is more likely to be repeated, even though there's no "cause and effect" relationship.

1.6     Classical conditioning. Parents, who provide desired and needed services, and are therefore an important element in a child's life, tell the child "god is important." The child comes to attach to the idea of "god" an importance associated with their parents.

1.7     Fear of death. Older children and adults come to realize that death ends animation. Animals, insofar as can be inferred, do not appear to express such a fear, perhaps because of a relative lack of language and cognitive skills. People express avoidance behavior when confronted with the abstract possibility of death. Any belief that serves to reduce the anticipation of an end to personal animation is more likely to be adopted.

1.8     Future shock. Changes in the social or physical environment, especially sudden changes, results in anxiety and stress. Anxiety and stress are avoided when possible. Therefore change tends to elicit avoidance, and any belief system that reduces change is more likely to be endorsed. Religions tend to be politically conservative in that respect.

1.9     Intolerance of Ambiguity. People appear to be inclined to find ambiguity, of meanings or decisions, to be an uncomfortable event. They prefer linear or singular decision trees, and express varying degrees of anxiety when faced with having to choose between conflicting meanings or decisions absent some clear guidelines or criteria for meaning or decisions.



2. Consequent Functions. These are functions that appear to occur with some frequency if not always as a result of the expression of religious beliefs. Whereas antecedent variables might be said to be likely to elicit religious beliefs, these consequent events can be said to reinforce (make more probable) religious beliefs once expressed.


2.1     Conserving the known. There is a tendency of religious beliefs to resist and oppose both social and technological changes in general, and those in particular seen as threatening to religious premises. Appeals are made to establish authority and to "eternal truths," and such are more likely to promote status quo. (See 1.7, 1.8 above)

2.2    Controlling the physical and social world. Religion offers the promise that through subscription, somehow the unknown physical world can be controlled, and future events somehow influenced. Social control is a more immediate and plausible consequence, religion usually seeks to reduce the social changes that might threaten the social influence of religion and to promote those that increase that influence.

2.3    Defining the universe as caring. Religious beliefs hold that the apprehended physical universe is somehow caring about and interested in individual thoughts and feelings (1.4 above). Chance is reduced given that intent can be posited, so all one need do is placate the gods to increase security.

2.4    Group comfort. Religions are almost always expressed in group behavior; very few advocate individual subscription absent group participation. Associating with others with shared values and beliefs is experienced by most people as comforting. Social contact has been a prerequisite for survival throughout human history, endorsing beliefs held by a social group into which a person is born and raised is critical in soliciting the needed support of that group.

2.5     Increased personal significance. An individual, considering themselves as an isolated person, is likely to feel relatively powerless and insignificant. But by being part of a group and/or the object of caring and attention by a sentient universe, one's personal significance in increased.

2.6    Rationale for morality and ethics. Religion provides a rationale and claimed authority for both prescribed and proscribed behaviors that are not obviously of merit or risk. Social control is also involved. There are few significant moral issues regarding behaviors directly related to personal survival; and any behavior widely accepted as necessary or justified does not require an abstract belief system.

2.7    Assurance of post death longevity. Religions usually offer some assurance of personal longevity, though usually highly conditional on expressed subscription to some religion.

2.8    Reduction of personal responsibility. Subscription to a religion reduces any anxiety-inducing responsibility for being accountable by others for personal behavior, as long as that behavior can be considered required or endorsed by that religion. "God made me do it," is a far more preferable defensible argument than "it was my decision."

2.9    Social cohesion. Religion promotes social cohesion across a culture or within a sub-culture. Social cohesion increases personal comfort and reduces anxiety for those participating in that religion.

2.10 Social control. Religion is a powerful social force for providing mechanisms and arguments for increasing the control of a culture of its members. "It is God's Will" is a far more influential argument than referring to abstract and ambiguous scientific data. Further, religions decrease ambiguity, which makes adherence to its prescriptions and proscriptions more likely. Religions are often associated with authoritarian and dictatorial political regimes, both being supported by some (not all) and supporting them, and their structures of "top-down" rules are similar.



3. Other associated correlates. These appear less clear in terms of temporal or ordinal relationship.


Free Lunch Syndrome. Religions offer a great deal for minimal work, effort or thought. All that is required is that one "consigns oneself" to some God, one follows that God's dictates, conveniently articulated by other people claiming to represent God, and one is relieved of:

-       A requirement for work that is not assured of reward;

-       Any anxiety attendant on making choices in ambiguous situations;

-       Any risk of loss or injury provided one adhere to religious dictums.


The above antecedents and functions seem to provide a multi-factorial basis for yielding a high predictive statistic for the occurrence of an expression of and adherence to religion. Many of these as well correlate with other human (are there any others?) belief systems that are not explicitly religious in nature, such as some political ideologies that require unquestioned belief and adherence. I do not treat religion as some "pathology", it is a common human expression.


Clearly, there are immediately injurious and unique or rare expressions of religious (or non-religious political ideology) beliefs that most consider "pathological" or "abnormal", but by far for the majority of people who express religious beliefs, those terms have no useful merit. My argument is that religion is a common human disposition, rooted in both neurology and basic laws of learning. It is clearly not derived from logical or rational deliberation, and those who claim it does lack any explicated reasoning apart from "personal revelation" and "divine intervention", which are hardly qualified as logic or reasoning.


Author: Dennis Campbell (originally posted in Rational Skepticism)



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