Sight unseen: Are we hard-wired for religion?


By Jeffrey Weiss The Dallas Morning News

Almost every faith centers on a Supernatural Enforcer. An invisible power - a god, ancestral spirits or karma - rewards those who follow the rules and punishes those who don't.

Why do most religions have that in common? It's not inevitable, after all. A faith with a god who is indifferent toward people is simple to imagine. But it's much harder to find.

Believers will say their religion reflects divine will: that's the way God (or something) planned it.

But a less theological explanation finds support from an experiment conducted at a British college psychology department: Maybe that common element of modern religions was the product of Darwinian evolution.

Refreshments are sold on the honor system in the break room at the University of Newcastle - people who get a cup of coffee or tea are supposed to leave money. Researchers found that when they added a picture of eyes above the payment box, more than twice as much money was deposited, compared with weeks when the eyes were replaced by a picture of flowers.

People were subconsciously triggered into acting more honestly, as if they were actually being watched, even though they knew the eyeballs were mere paper and ink.

Those results, published last month in the journal Biology Letters, support a controversial theory that connects prehistoric humans to modern faiths.

The theory says that so many of today's religions feature Supernatural Enforcers because of survival of the fittest. That sort of religion was most successful at prodding people into greater cooperation and honesty, which in turn helped their culture thrive, say the theory's supporters.

If that is true, successful early religions may have developed as they did because of how prehistoric human brains had previously evolved. Our ancestors may have been hard-wired in ways that inclined them to accept the notion of a powerful God (or something) who enforces rules of right and wrong.

Whether this theory gains mainstream acceptance - and it's a long way from that - it represents an increasingly common science strategy. Evolution started as a theory about biology. It's now used in anthropology, psychology, economics and political science to explain how people behave - even how and why they pray.

For this particular theory about religion, scientists started with a hard question: Why are people as honest and cooperative as they are?

In general, people are nicer than they need to be, experiments show. That's not to say some individuals aren't liars or cheats. But many of us show a bit of Good Samaritan, even when we don't know whom we're helping and seem to gain no benefit.

But that seems to contradict evolution theory, because successful individual cheaters should gain a Darwinian advantage. A prehistoric thief who swiped the equivalent of a cup of coffee would have been better off than the honest fellow who "paid" for it. And the thief, by gaining an advantage that improved his odds of survival, would have been more likely to pass on those "selfish" genes.

Relatively successful cultures, on the other hand, seem to be made up of relatively coperative and generous people. Charles Darwin suggested as much in 1871, in "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex:"

"A tribe including many members who ... were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."

If that's so, evolution raced in opposite directions, pushing our ancestors toward both selfishness and cooperation. Cooperation may have won by a nose - but why?

A rabbi or priest might say it's because we're created in God's image. But some scientists find a more naturalistic answer in the power of religion, specifically the power of a perceived Supernatural Enforcer to nudge people toward cooperation.

That leads to more hard questions: How did the first Supernatural Enforcer religion appear? Is there something about the way people are put together that made that concept more acceptable?

Maybe so.

Scientists agree that human brains pay special attention to faces. And all kinds of critters - from tropical fish to jungle monkeys to mall shoppers - act more honestly if they think they're being observed, said David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York.

Call it the Santa Claus Effect: "He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake."