Votive picture: a woman praying to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The power of prayer

Do religious beliefs provide a selective advantage?

Some scientists argue that science does away with the need for God or any other creator being. Yet religious belief seems to be thriving even in this ‘age of reason’.

A selective advantage?

One provocative suggestion is that susceptibility to religious belief is built into the human psyche, like an innate fear of snakes, because it provides a survival advantage. People with similar religious backgrounds will bond, work together and thrive better than non-believers lacking such social glue.

On one hand, there is a little evidence to support the idea of survival benefit. Belonging to a faith group provides a few health advantages – you can expect to live slightly longer and be slightly happier.

On the other hand, Richard Dawkins has pointed out the potentially huge cost of religious belief – the willingness to die for one’s beliefs or endure great pain, and to devote considerable valuable resources to activities such as cathedral building that are of no obvious survival benefit (in the physical world).

A search for an answer?

Another speculative explanation is that belief in a creator is a by-product of the brain’s desire to provide explanations for observations. The brain is not a passive observer but interprets input it receives in order to plan actions. It draws conclusions and makes assumptions (not always correctly, as optical illusions and other illusions reveal).

It’s easy to see that this skill is an advantage, as it can help us make predictions about the future and plan accordingly.

So the brain may ‘want’ an explanation for the existence of life. The existence of a ‘maker’ may provide a suitable explanation and can never be proved wrong.

Scientific insights

Genetics sheds some light on this aspect of human behaviour. Twin studies, which can be used to explore the relative contributions of genes and the environment, suggest that people’s religiousness is influenced by their genes. Two identical twins, raised apart, are likely to be more similar in religious beliefs than two separated non-identical twins.

What might these genes be doing? The likelihood is that they affect our brain chemistry. Brain imaging studies suggest that dopamine-based brain networks are especially involved in religious experience. It is notable that extreme religious behaviour in, for example, some cases of obsessive–compulsive disorder or schizophrenia is associated with high activity in these regions.

Lead image:

Votive picture: a woman praying to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Wellcome Library, London CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Psychology, Neuroscience, Ecology and environment, Genetics and genomics
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development