Credit: Jesse Bering

Last weekend I traveled to Edinburgh to attend a small workshop on religion. The group consisted of a multidisciplinary group of scholars—psychologists, biologists, political scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists—each of whom were studying the natural (that is, Darwinian) foundations of religious belief and behavior. The meeting took place at a marvelously opulent hotel near Waverly Station on Princes Street, with distant glimpses of the castle and the Old Town district. Each morning, about ten of us, still bloated with wine and food from the evening before, sat around an enormous lion-pawed walnut table in a Victorian suite while the bitterly cold Scottish winds rattled the windowpanes and rushed down the flue of the chimney, where a coal fire quietly warmed us. Here, we hatched out a variety of ideas related to the evolutionary puzzle of religion.

Now, since all of this probably reads to you like a bunch of spoiled academics being paid to engage in idle theorizing on some wealthy grant agency’s dime, I hasten to add that this was an atypical experience, as far as conferences go. Usually on these types of trips I stay at the equivalent of a Best Western that’s adjacent to a freeway or convenience store, not at a 5-star hotel. And I’m usually chewing on a Tabasco flavored Slim-Jim rather than indulging in filet mignon and crème brûlée.

Given the world’s political climate, it is hardly necessary to point out why having a better scientific understanding of religious behavior is worthwhile. In fact, while we were meeting in this overly decadent tearoom, a large group protesting Israel’s recent Gaza strikes against Hamas was marching outside the hotel, demonstrating against yet another conflict at least partially fueled by head-scratching religious ideologies. Fortunately, the past decade has seen tremendous and quite rapid developments in the naturalistic study of religion. Topics such as God, souls and sin are no longer being treated as “outside science” but rather as biologically based emanations of the evolved human mind, subject to psychological scrutiny like any other aspect of human nature. And I can only hope that soon these scientific discoveries will translate to real world intervention strategies in the reconciliation of spiritually based social conflicts.

Here is the fly-on-the-wall’s view of just a few of the topics discussed last weekend:

As the resident psychologist, I reiterated my empirically based argument that belief in the afterlife is more or less an inevitable byproduct of human consciousness. Since we cannot conceptualize the absence of consciousness, even non-believers are susceptible to visions of the hereafter.

Political scientist and evolutionary biologist Dominic Johnson from the University of Edinburgh presented his argument that the idea of omniscient supernatural agents served an adaptive social policing function in the ancestral past. Johnson reasons that this would have encouraged individuals in groups to conform to group sanctions out of the fear of divine punishment, thus lessening the chances of social fission. This phenomenon would have been biologically adaptive since larger groups meant better chances of survival and reproductive success for individual members. It’s a bit like Santa Claus knowing whether we’re bad or good (but Santa doesn’t cause you to suffer renal failure, kill your crops, or sentence you to everlasting torment).

Anthropologist Richard Sosis summarized his “costly signaling” hypothesis of religious behavior. The gist of Sosis’s clever theory is that people engage in all sorts of costly religious behaviors—wasting time on rituals, wearing uncomfortable clothes, spending their hard-earned money—because, in doing so, they are advertising their commitment to the religious in-group. In other words, if you’re willing to do things such as cut off your child’s foreskin, pay a regular alms tax of 2.5 percent of your net worth or sit twiddling your thumbs for two hours every Sunday morning on a hard church pew, then your fellow believers will assume that you’re really one of them and can therefore be trusted.

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers from Rutgers University, meanwhile, discussed the possible role of psychological self-deception in the realm of religion and reviewed the impossible to ignore evidence that religiosity positively effects human health. And Westmont College biologist Jeff Schloss, who has worked extensively on the theological implications of Darwinism, gently compelled us to consider what these scientific developments in the study of religion will ultimately mean philosophically.

Schloss’s point is the one that gets most people thinking. “That’s all fine and dandy about the scientific research, but what does it all tell us about the existence of God?” What if, as I suggested in my answer to this year’s “Annual Question” at Edge, the data suggest that God is actually just a psychological blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? Would you still believe if you knew God were a byproduct of your evolved mental architecture?

This research committee in Edinburgh is one of three I’m currently serving on to investigate the evolutionary bases of religion. Another is the “Explaining Religion” project (EXREL) with its hub at Oxford University led by anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse. And there’s even a new sub-discipline in evolutionary biology called “Evolutionary Religious Studies” being spearheaded by David Sloan Wilson at SUNY-Binghamton. All of these projects promise to infuse new life into the tired old religion versus science debate by injecting actual data into the discussions.

At the very least, I hope that this type of research helps people get past the simplistic pigeonholing that all too often occurs when discussing science and religion—that religious people are “airheads and stubborn to science” and scientists are “cold materialists without a spiritual side.” I, for one, am a bit of both of these things.

In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature.