May 9, 2009

Evolutionary Psychology and Early Religious Indoctrination

Something that has always fascinated me is how pervasive religious belief is amongst people who are intelligent or educated enough to know better. Why are the thoughts of an afterlife and a divine controller so addictive? Why is the concept of God so easily acquired at youth? I believe that these questions can be addressed from a lot of different angles. On this post, however, I'll try to cover the evolutionary aspect of it.

I’d say that propensity towards belief is a byproduct of the evolution of our mind that can be triggered by certain environmental factors. It would make sense to assume that the degree of pervasiveness of his/her belief would be linked to the subject’s environment and particular psyche.

Let’s start with the psyche.

Humans are, in theory, the only species capable of long-term thinking. Long-term awareness, although very convenient for the survival of our species, is also a frequent source of psychological stress, particularly in cases with high uncertainty about future food provision or environmental threats in detriment of the well-being of us and our loved ones. It could be argued that, upon conditions of high uncertainty and therefore high stress, the idea of certainty could be extremely tempting.

Another psychological trait in humans for the survival of the species is the ability to learn quickly. This becomes evident if we picture early humans with children living in dangerous unpredictable environments. The chances of these children to die are very high, and their survival will depend in part on the ability of the children to learn and follow orders: “if you see a predator, run”, “don’t touch these types of insects”, etc. Doubt and disobedience at early stages would very likely result in death.

Therefore, ideally, children would remember and follow orders without any question or doubt, thus efficiently capitalizing on the lessons learned by their parents and their ancestors. These lessons would be strongly fixated in the child’s permeable psyche through adulthood, and then passed to the next generation.

A third psychological trait present in humans is the ability to make associations. It is easy to understand the great survival benefits from associating snakes with danger, cliffs with falling, or fire with burning. What is interesting is that we seem to be hardwired to make *positive* associations.

Let’s imagine someone watching a group of people walking along a cliff. The group then gets too close to the border and half of them die. The spectator will then very probably make the following association: “if you get close to a cliff, you might die”, a positive association. The spectator, however, could have also made a negative association such as: “if you get close to a cliff, you might not die”, which is also logical and valid.

The survival advantages of using positive associations over negative ones seem clear. If this is the case, it could be argued that hard-wired positive associations have been positively selected on humans.

So, up to now, we have the following:
  • Uncertainty can trigger strong stress as a byproduct
  • Children are particularly susceptible to incorporate borrowed information as absolute truths
  • Humans are hardwired to privilege positive over negative associations when interpreting reality

Now let’s talk about the environment.

Humans, in their struggle to survive on dangerous and unpredictable environments, developed hardwired behaviors that persist today. In many respects, our environment is much more benign than the one experienced by our very early ancestors. However, it could be argued that some modern environmental stressors could trigger the aforementioned behaviors. We can still experience uncertainty, danger.

Now, let’s picture the environment of an 8 year old girl in a strict religious school (let’s say Catholic) where:
  • She is being taught absolute “truths” about the origin of the universe
  • She is given a set of absolute rules to follow (commandments) and be a good person
  • She is threatened with eternal damnation if she breaks the rules
  • She is told that what happens to us is the will of god, that he has a plan for us.
  • She is told that questioning is a sin.
  • She is taught that faith (belief with no evidence) is a good thing.

The above environment exposes a young human to threats of great danger (hell) and rules to avoid it in a period when her brain is like a blank canvas and the information given is adopted as absolute truths.

This girl will probably experience the same environment at home, and these sets of absolute rules and certain long-term scenarios will be constantly fed to her through adolescence and maybe adulthood.

I think it could be argued that, after years or indoctrination starting at such a cognitively vulnerable stage, the person would learn to cope with sources of uncertainty and stress such as death and future scenarios by adopting the absolute certainties previously taught to her. Additionally, her critical thinking skills will very likely be affected as a result of the threat to punishment upon doubt.

On top of the above, we have prayer, which feeds from the inherent predisposition of humans to make positive associations. If we pray 20 times to get something, and the prayer “works” one time only, the person would associate “one prayer produces the result” as opposed to “19 prayers produce no result”. Every one of these “effective” prayers will then continue to feed the belief system inherited by this person since her youth.

Now, let’s picture this person at 40 years of age, and let’s expose her to the possibility of no god. No certainty. No after life. No absolute rules to follow.

Let’s ask her to unlearn what she was taught since these very early stages, when she was (in ancient times, very conveniently) hardwired to be extremely gullible.

Now, let's ask ourselves: what should we expect?


Miguel B. said...

Sad but true.
Even those who have managed to free themselves from these paradigms will still have to deal with their inconscious tendency to stick to those early teachings and may react equally to some sudden circumstances.

Patricia Villanueva said...

It is true that if you were raised catholic, hardcore catholic... but then you free yourself from these beliefs as an adult, its is very hard to avoid certain things that come natural to your "nature". Someone is sick and you suddenly discover yourself praying to Someone for help.....
It is not easy to re-educate oneself, i don´t think its easy at all.
But different environments create different people, and we are all the product of our life and choices.
I wouldn't lose faith in that 40 year old woman.

(no pun intended)

Anonymous said...

Its so easy to understand how we behave when its so brilliantly explained. Can a de-indoctrination method be developed based on this same theory? A great deal of good could be made to humanity...imagine a world without religion full of free-thinkers....what should we expect then? sin, no threats, ethics and values inspired only in the will of no harm to others...and less fear of death and uncertainty.

Anonymous said...

The trust!
Thank you

Anonymous said...

Very Good!!

yahoo said...


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