We're Only Human

Why Do We Have Religion Anyway?

serenityThe vast majority of the world’s 7 billion people practice some kind of religion, ranging from massive worldwide churches to obscure spiritual traditions and local sects. Nobody really knows how many religions there are on the planet, but whatever the number, there are at least that many theories about why we have religion at all. One idea is that, as humans evolved from small hunter-gatherer tribes into large agrarian cultures, our ancestors needed to encourage cooperation and tolerance among relative strangers. Religion then—along with the belief in a moralizing God—was a cultural adaptation to these challenges.

But that’s just one idea. There are many others—or make up your own. But they are all just theories. None has been empirically tested. A team of psychological scientists at Queen’s University, Ontario, is now offering a novel idea about the origin of religion, and what’s more they’re delivering some preliminary scientific evidence to support their reasoning. Researcher Kevin Rounding and his colleagues are arguing that the primary purpose of religious belief is to enhance the basic cognitive process of self-control, which in turn promotes any number of valuable social behaviors.

They tested this theory in four fairly simple experiments, using classic measures of self-control. In the first study, for example, they used a word game to prime some volunteers’ (but not others’) subconscious thoughts of religion. Then they asked all the volunteers (using a ruse) to drink an unsavory mix of OJ and vinegar, one ounce at a time. They were told they could stop any time, and to take as much time as they liked, and that they would be paid a small amount for each ounce of the brew that they drank.

The amount they drank was a proxy for self-discipline. The more OJ and vinegar they forced down, they greater their self-control. And as predicted, those with religion on their mind endured longer at the unpleasant task. Since society and religion ask us to tolerate many things we don’t particularly like for the common good, the scientists interpret this finding as evidence of a particular kind of self-control.

Another way to think of self-control, perhaps the most familiar, is delayed gratification—resisting immediate temptation to wait for a greater reward later on. In another experiment, the scientists again primed some of the volunteers with hidden religious words, but in this case they were told (falsely) that the experiment was concluded and that they would be paid. They were told, further, that they could either return the next day and be paid $5, or come back in a week and get $6. This is a widely used laboratory paradigm for measuring the exertion of discipline in the face of temptation, and indeed, almost twice as many of those with religion opted for more money later.

Self-control is costly, consuming a lot of mental resources. Recent research has demonstrated that our cognitive power—in the form of glucose, the brain’s fuel—is limited. The mind and brain can become fatigued, just like a muscle, and when depleted, normal self-control is impaired. The third experiment built on an understanding of this process, often called “ego depletion.” The scientists wanted to see if cognitively depleted people are “refueled” with reminders of religion, so they had only half of the volunteers perform a mentally draining task while listening to loud music. Then they primed half of these depleted volunteers, and half the controls, with religious words.
So at this point, there were four groups: Depleted; depleted but religiously primed; undepleted controls; and religiously primed controls. All of these volunteers then attempted a set of geometrical puzzles, which, unknown to them, were impossible to solve. The impossible task was included to test their persistence against great difficulty—another measure of self-control.

The results were unambiguous. Among those who were mentally depleted, the ones with religion on their minds persisted longer at the impossible task—suggesting that the religious priming restored their cognitive powers—and their patience in the process. They performed basically the same as those who were never tired out in the first place. The scientists take this as strong evidence for the replenishing effect of religion on self-discipline.

The fourth and final experiment was the only one with ambiguous results. The first three studies had shown direct causal evidence of religion on self-control—and downstream effects on enduring discomfort, delaying rewards, and exerting patience. But is it possible that the religious priming might have activated something else—moral intuition, or death-related concerns? In order to rule out these possibilities, the scientists used a completely secular self-control task, one with no moral overlay: the so-called Stroop task. This is the task where one must rapidly identify the ink that words are printed in, rather than read the words. It’s very difficult, requiring mental exertion and self-control.

The scientists primed some with religious words as usual, but others were primed with moral words—virtue, righteous—and still others with words related to mortality—deadly, grave, and so forth. Then all the volunteers attempted the Stroop task on a computer, which measured accuracy and reaction time. The results, as reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, showed that religiously primed volunteers had much more self-control than did controls or those primed to think about mortality. But those with religion on their minds were statistically no different than those with morality on their minds. This was an unexpected finding, and it suggests that activating an implicit moral sensibility may have some of the same effects as religion.

It’s not entirely clear what cognitive mechanism is at work in religion’s influence on self-control. One possibility is that religion makes people mindful of an ever watchful God, and thus encourages more self-monitoring. Or religious priming may activate concerns of supernatural punishment. A more secular explanation is that religious priming makes people more concerned about their reputation in the community, leading to more careful self-monitoring. Notably, almost a third of the volunteers in these studies were self-defined atheists or agnostics, suggesting that these robust effects have little or nothing to do with the suggestibility of the most devout.

Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, was recently published in paperback. Excerpts from his two blogs—“We’re Only Human” and “Full Frontal Psychology”—appear regularly in Scientific American and in The Huffington Post.

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.


Very interesting piece! Religion is always a topic to draw attention and the approach they are taking at Queen’s is quite different view point. I am intrigued. My only question about the experiment is how can they prove that self control is the purpose for creating religion and not just a bi-product? I do indeed think it is plausible when I think of those who are peaceful, calm and conscious of others, but I also see religion being used to control which could be another possible reason for its creation (among others).

I disagree with the authors statement “The Primary purpose of religious belief is to enhance the basic cognitive process of self-control”.

Varied levels of self-control within each Religious Preference is determined by a host of institutional variables, It’s Dogma, Receptive parishioners, Faithful who meticulously follow it’s teaching, along with an arguable host of lesser known rationale. Self-Control is a result, a carryover from the discipline, a “muscle memory” in such an environment, Repetition being the Mother of all learning as it were.

Everything on, in, or above this world has a lifespan, everything. Humans fall into this multitude of millions, and we are the only product that can think, and we can think freely. Not one of us honestly know what will happen when our life span is over, and by far, the concept of death exploding into nothingness is incomprehensible – and it’s Frightening. We have neither the advanced thinking necessary to move forward nor the empirical knowledge to prove anything beyond this point.

So, it’s no coincidence that we can “think” our way towards an answer, to continue a “Presence”, a spiritual “continuance” so as to speak, at a level similar to our past material life, or move further upward towards something better – – – and here religion fills the crucial void. To my knowledge, there is no known Religious Preference that doesn’t support an afterlife in one form or the other, and by default, draws into it’s fold those who believe, or want to believe.

And so, the World Turns, for all of us, at least at the moment.

I know this an old thread, but it caught my attention. I completely agree with your comment Tom. A simpler way of stating it might be: “Religion is a response to fear of the unknown”.

Religion is a “For Profit” business. Early promoters discovered the profitability, and the respect, that theology demanded. This was the “job” that they could do, without having to produce. Any beliefs that required explanation was easily taken care of with the old standby: “you must have FAITH”. If you don’t think it’s profitable, take a look at the Vatican, or any of the many cathedrals built by the supporters of Catholicism.

1.- God just exists – forever, for no reason.
2.- God decides to create stuff after existing literally forever.
3.- God touches off the Big Bang, does nothing for 10 billion years.
4.- God creates Earth; again does nothing for 4 billion years.
5.- God creates dinosaurs…
6.- God kills dinosaurs.
7.- God creates mankind, in “his image”.
8.- God meddles wildly in the affairs of humans in a small part of the entire Earth for about 1500 years, including giving one tribal society rules to live by and helping them to defeat their enemies.
9.- God later comes back to earth in human form to preach for 33 years before dying a bloody death meant to serve as atonement for the flaws inherent in all humans (which he created).
10.- God ceases all manifestation and direct contact with humanity for the next 2000 years, leaving us with only an arbitrarily cobbled-together collection of metaphorical and contradictory revelations as our instructions for achieving eternal bliss.


Safin Guli here’s the problem with your list for Christianity, you’re combining the secular beliefs of the world with the ideas of Christianity, therefore completely changing the timeline of what Christians believe. You should try researching the difference between creationist belief and evolutionist belief before criticizing either one of them.

I was brought up as Church of England. At Sunday School (before I was confirmed) we learnt about Jesus ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon a little child, pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to Thee.’ I liked Jesus. He was nice and kind. He loved me. Then I was confirmed and was confronted by God. He frightened me; he was portrayed as this vengeful old man. I learnt about hell, sulphur, brimstone – with the prospect of being dropped into eternal flame if I was naughty. It felt like a betrayal. For years, I was scared to be alive and terrified of dying.

I just turned 69 years old and I’m no nearer understanding the necessity of religion, except as a tool to control others’ behaviour and to use fear – amongst other things – to exert this control.

I have ‘tried on’ various religions and philosophies throughout my life and have joined none of them. However, I have learnt that groups of people are drawn to each other and within these groups one can find kindred spirits with whom one can share support, kindness, theories, philosophies, and somehow one emerges from a time spent among these ‘spiritual’ friends feeling comforted by their wisdom and simplicity. Such groups of people, I believe, are important in our lives.

We inhabit this minuscule planet that is hurtling towards the Great Attractor, with no idea why we are here or if there is anything beyond the here and now. I think our species needs the idea that something knows what is going on.

We have some scary dudes in our midst who act out murderous behaviours in the name of their idea of a God, and with the full-throated support and encouragement of their religious leaders. Behaviours such as these are just that: behaviours. Human behaviours. Some humans are drawn to violence and dominance. They find kindred spirits and they form groups; give their groups a name; create a God in their own image. This seems to lead to the idea that they are no longer responsible for what they do. Religion is thus used to satisfy the need to be violent. If people don’t agree with their belief system, they see it as their right to imprison, torture, maim and kill.Not unlike a facet of the scary God I was taught about as an impressionable child.

Maybe there should be another study: one that looks at what might happen if all religions were phased out.

Life is chaos. We would still form groups of like-minded people. There would still be those who want to maim and kill. There would still be people who are gentle and kind.

I’m still drawn to the idea that Jesus was happy for me to sit near him when I was a child in Sunday School. But now I know it is because being close to someone who loves me, is one of the best things about being alive. It brings out the best in me.

Educate yourself and stop being educated

Actually all sentient beings have a religion. Maybe plants too, but let us keep it simple!
Religion is an extension of a moral code; maybe science will discover the gene responsible. An example is the drone bee, holding tight with his little feet to the entrance to the hive, while his wings fan cooling wind inside. It does this for the greater benefit of the colony, not for personal gain, and it is done because of the “god” gene. Parents (of all species) have an overwhelming urge to look after offspring, again because it is an inbuilt desire. There are countless examples of sentient beings acting not for self interest, but for the greater good and in some cases the survival of the species.
A brief look at the history of religion will show how this moral code, starting with basic “do not kill your fellow man” type advice, has evolved into a complicated code of ethics. It will also show how God has emerged “in the image of man” (not the other way around) to fill our desire for imortality.
The world does need religion, as each family group is usually too small to provide the guidance needed to instill children with a sound moral code. This is especially true when grandparents are no longer part of the communities. However “faiths” which claim to know what God wants are destroying the concept of religion. An omoeba has a far more knowledge of how to land an F16 jet plane on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier in a force 10 gale, than we can ever have of God.

Had Catholicism beaten into me as a child. Not sure I have gotten over that – totally. But, I have spent many years studying religions and they are all basically the same. If one can consider other life / intelligence then all religions must be false / nonsense. It’s just the shaman who needs your money / influence.

Just a heathen……!

To me it seems that religion is a classic confidence trick. It promises the most wonderful and desirable reward that is impossible to to achieve without making large sacrifices of treasure and time. The prize is so desirable that critical thought is suspended. To further deter critical thought, cruel penalties are periodically inflicted on critics by the believers who claim to be carrying out the demands of the deity, thus demonstrating the that the deity does not exist. So the religion industry grinds on and on. It’s as amazing as when uncle spends the family wealth on a non existent bridge. The commands in Numbers 30 and 31, when entering the broken city to kill all the men, boys and male babies and women that have been with a man but the young virgin women you may keep for yourselves, clearly illustrates the tribal nature of Abrahmic religions as do the laws on homosexuality and marrying outside the tribe.

To Safin Guli, You did not mention that Jesus is going to come back and kill all the goats so the meek and mild is backed up by terror. Ref: last book in the Holy Bible. I enjoyed your summary of eternity although the bible starts some thousand years BC.

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