In a post on Asperger's syndrome, my fellow blogger Karen Schrock manages to knock both religious believers and nonreligious rationalists in just a few paragraphs. Kudos, Karen! People with Asperger's, a mild form of autism, tend not to attribute events in their lives to a "higher power or supernatural force," Karen reports. Conversely, the tendency of supposedly healthy people to see "intention or purpose" behind random events may stem from an overactive "theory of mind," the innate ability to sense perceptions, emotions and intentions in others. Faith is a pathology, and so is the lack thereof. Basically, we're all nuts. Who could disagree?

The linkage of religion to theory of mind strikes me as particularly plausible. The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie floats a similar hypothesis in his book Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (Oxford University Press, 1995), which attributes religion to anthropomorphism, "the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events." Our anthropomorphism is an inborn, adaptive trait, Guthrie contends, which enhanced our ancestors' chances of survival. "[I]n the face of chronic uncertainty about the nature of the world, guessing that some thing or event is humanlike or has a human cause constitutes a good bet," Guthrie explains.

If a Neandertal mistook a tree creaking outside his cave for an assailant, he suffered no adverse consequences other than a moment's panic, Guthrie argues. If the Neandertal mistook an assailant for a tree, the consequences might have been dire. As natural selection bolstered our anthropomorphic tendencies, Guthrie writes, they extended to all of nature, and we persuaded ourselves that "the entire world of our experience is merely a show staged by some master dramatist"—that is, God.

Another intriguing theory of religion—or, more specifically, religious or mystical experiences—has been proposed by the radiologist Andrew Newberg. Using single-photon emission computed tomography, a variant of the better-known positron emission tomography, or PET, Newberg has scanned the brains of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhist monks, and he has found some overlap between their neural activity and that of sexually aroused subjects (scanned by other researchers). The correlation makes sense, according to Newberg. Just as sex involves a rhythmic activity, so do religious practices such as chanting, dancing and repetition of a mantra. Like orgasms, religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence and unity; that may be why some mystics describe their raptures with romantic or even sexual language.

Consider this description by the 16th-century nun Saint Teresa of Avila of her vision of Christ: "I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God."

The theories of Guthrie and Newberg imply that religion originated as what the biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin call a "spandrel." Spandrel is an architectural term for the space between an arch and its surrounding structure. The spandrel does not, at least initially, serve any function; it is just a by-product of the arch. Gould and Lewontin borrowed the term to refer to accidental by-products of evolution. Perhaps religion is a spandrel piggybacking on adaptations such as the orgasm or theory of mind, both of which serve obvious biological purposes.

Now, just because a trait originated as a spandrel does not mean that it never acquires any value. As William James pointed out in his classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience, the biological origin of religious beliefs has no bearing on their truth and value or lack thereof, because all our perceptions, thoughts and beliefs—including the belief that religion is bunk—are traceable to biology. A 1997 report in The Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences suggests that religious icons such as Saint Teresa, Saint Paul, Joan of Arc and Mohammed may have suffered from epilepsy or other brain disorders. But this diagnosis does not invalidate the faithful's insights, any more than the illness of an artist like Van Gogh or a scientist like John (A Beautiful Mind) Nash detracts from his achievements. As James insisted, religious visions must be judged by their fruits, not their roots.

And of course, if a spandrel is defined as something intrinsically purposeless, then everything is a spandrel, including humanity, life and the entire universe.


Photo of 17th-century sculpture of Saint Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Credit: Wikimedia Commons