The Religious Mind

This post is being expanded. Last edit: 9/19/18

“The word ‘religion’ comes from the Latin for ‘binding together,’ to connect that which has been sundered apart. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelations among things that appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, I believe, are identical or very nearly so.” – Carl Sagan


Towards the end of college, I regarded religion with distaste. Faith should have no place in society. It is foolish, outdated, and deceiving. As a child, I had embraced a delusion that included everything from speaking in tongues to raising the dead. And without a doubt, letting go of my faith was a difficult process. But now I see my upbringing not as an unfortunate circumstance, but as invaluable insight into one of the most powerful dispositions of the human mind.

Spirituality seems to be hardwired into our brains. It has always been, and will continue to be, integral to the human experience. From our religious beliefs arose our laws, our literature, our art, and our first attempts at understanding the world and its heavens. Even after four centuries of scientific reasoning, we remain trapped by our religious assumptions. In a society transformed by quantum mechanics, many still manage to believe that the Earth is six thousand years old.


Our religious behavior likely began as intentional burials over 100,000 years ago. As cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman suggests, burials signify a “concern for the dead that transcends daily life.” However, new evidence might indicate that our propensity for such behavior is more deeply seeded in our evolutionary past. Even more, we may not be the only species with a concept of mortality—death rituals have been observed in elephants, dolphins, primates, and birds. Unsurprisingly, these animals also demonstrate the greatest capacity for cognition, emotion, and complex social and moral behavior.


The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states [or] intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”


Consciousness has developed independently in different branches of the evolutionary tree. In particular, birds offer a striking case of parallel evolution in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy. Although the lineage of birds and mammals diverged about 320 million years ago, the emotional and cognitive networks of their brains “appear to be far more homologous than previously thought.” Parrots and crows exhibit near human-like levels of consciousness and self-recognition. Some birds even have neural sleep patterns like those of mammals, including REM sleep.


Fairness, reciprocity, empathy, cooperation—caring about the well-being of others seems uniquely human. But behavioral research confirms that we share many of these moral traits with primates and other mammals. Other studies suggest that birds get jealous, rats have empathy, dolphins show compassion, and dogs feel guilt. On the darker side of human nature, immoral behaviors are also found throughout the animal kingdom.


Elephants have been observed to return to the remains of their dead, touching and sniffing the body with their feet and trunks. In some cases, the carcass was visited by completely unrelated elephant groups. Thus, researchers have concluded that elephants have a “generalized response to the dead.”


A newly-published film captures the solemn reactions of a group of chimpanzees who discover the dead body of a friend. As in humans, chimps and other primates seem more affected by the death of individuals with whom they have formed meaningful relationships and closer social ties.


The original Great Pyramid of Giza was smooth, white, and shiny. Its construction, which remains an engineering mystery, required tens of thousands of skilled workers crafting and moving 2.3 million stones that weighed several tons each. The sides of the pyramid’s base had a mean margin of error of just 2.3 inches. For more than 3,800 years, this tomb was the tallest man-made structure in the world—just one example of our “concern for the dead that transcends daily life.”


[insert] “Evolution’s Random Paths Lead to One Place.” A massive statistical study suggests that the final evolutionary outcome—fitness—is predictable.

“Human nature may represent a universal tendency found in the evolution of all sentient beings. Maybe any self-awareness that arises will consider its own existence meaningful, and its intelligence will be bound with an emotional purpose.”

If human nature reflects the nature of all sentient life, then our spirituality may be tied to higher consciousness. A religious tendency may be an indispensable element of self-awareness. In this case, our beliefs in angels and ghosts are indicative of something more than complete nonsense. By creating the most compelling distortions of reality, our spiritual views also reveal the most powerful dispositions of the mind. And while these views reflect subjective truths (and delusions of all sorts), their underlying parallels may uncover something real about the nature of consciousness. Supposing the mind has any purpose, perhaps there is some truth in what the mind believes its purpose to be. So what makes our beliefs so captivating? What creates such meaning and hope?


The earliest religions began with the worship of nature. Everything had a spirit, including mountains, lakes, animals, plants, and the cosmos. Some believed that nature had many minds, while others believed that one mind encompassed all of nature. Why? Because we came from nature. And the self-aware mind, in order to make sense of its own awareness, figured that it must have been the product of a greater awareness. We assumed that our health and harvest weren’t up to chance. They were determined by the same causes that created us. Our Origin. Mother Nature. Father God.


“Stop and consider God’s wonders. Do you know how he controls the clouds
and makes his lightning flash? Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?”
– Job 37:14-16    


As we distanced ourselves from nature, our beliefs followed suit. Our concept of god became more humanlike, and our interactions with each other replaced our rituals with the environment. But still, this profound bond with nature remains a fundamental feature of human spirituality. Psychologist William James described the religious sense as a “feeling of being at home in the Universe.” From the complexity of life to the elegance of the cosmos, nature brings an indescribable awe to the human mind. This is perhaps best captured by the Japanese word yugen: “an awareness of the Universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words.” Carl Sagan, in one of his essays on religion, described this same phenomenon:

“By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion.”


“The heavens declare the glory of God.
The skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
– Psalm 19:1    

Antennae Galaxies reloaded
This collision of two spiral galaxies, also called the Antennae Galaxies, is located about 45 million light years away. Image source: NASA/ESA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is
the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”
– Albert Einstein    

“Supposing the mind has any purpose, perhaps there is some truth in what the mind believes its purpose to be. So what makes our beliefs so captivating? What creates such meaning and hope?” Most obviously, we want to exist. Like any other organism, we have an innate determination to survive. And as the evolving mind became self-aware, it developed a concept of its own existence—and a fear of its nonexistence. Thus, we find comfort in a form of immortality, a continuation of the mind through reincarnation or an afterlife. Our aversion to death explains, at least in part, our beliefs in heaven and hell, spirits and souls, gods and ghosts. The mind wants to be, so it considers itself an eternal being. We want to continue beyond the spacetime boundaries of the Universe. While some might call this fanciful imagination, most of the world considers this their fate. The mind is inevitably drawn to the idea that its being is just one part of a never-ending sequence. Simply put, we crave eternal relevance.

The Pillars of Creation.

“The pioneering psychologist William James called religion a ‘feeling of being at home in the Universe.’ Our tendency has been… to pretend that the Universe is how we wish our home would be, rather than to revise our notion of home so it embraces the Universe. If, in considering James’ definition, we mean the real Universe, then we have no true religion yet.” – Carl Sagan

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