Article ID: JAR4141 | By: Angus Menuge


This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 4 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


What does the brain have to do with religious belief? In Evolving Brains, Emerging Gods: Early Humans and Origins of Religion, E. Fuller Torrey, associate director for research at the Stanley Medical Research Center, claims that religion is the cumulative effect of several major advances in brain evolution. His conclusion is that “gods are a by-product of our acquisition of autobiographical memory,” and “religions followed the emergence of gods as the population increased and societies became organized” (p. 220).

While Torrey does not explicitly comment on the question of whether any religious claims are true, the general tenor of the book is skeptical. For example, he suggests that “an awareness of death was the original impetus to religious ideas” (116) and that fear of death led to the ideas of an afterlife, ancestor worship, and the emergence of gods.

Religious believers will find Torrey’s way of speaking about “gods” rather unusual. While reporting a religious upbringing as an “acolyte in my local church,” he says that, as “a physician and psychiatrist, I have studied the brain and wondered where in it the gods might reside” (xiii), and “this book will argue that [gods] came from the human brain” (3). But no one who believes in a transcendent god thinks that this god resides in, or is generated by, one’s brain. To suppose that what we call “god” is only a feature of the brain is to assume that no transcendent god actually exists, which leaves naturalistic science with the project of explaining why there is such widespread false belief.

At the outset, this apparent assumption behind Torrey’s project seems in tension with the idea that science is a neutral, unbiased examination of the available facts. Surely he could have said that his book would simply investigate the neurological preconditions for having various kinds of religious belief, while leaving the issue of the truth or falsity of these beliefs to one side. To see the problem, consider the Christian belief that the Resurrection shows that God became man in Jesus Christ. Confirming the Resurrection are reliable testimonies of events that occurred in public history, not inside human brains.

Brain Changes. Torrey assumes a standard evolutionary account on which human beings evolved from primate ancestors, and sees the first step in the development of brains capable of religion in the emergence of Homo habilis, a hominim with a significantly larger brain that showed its greater “intelligence by making crude
stone tools” (27). However, Homo habilis is not thought to have been conscious of the inner causes of its own behavior (29). Then, with another boost in intelligence, Homo erectus appeared, a being with self-awareness, and some ability to distinguish self from others so that cooperative tasks became possible (42). But this did not allow a hominim to know what another hominim is thinking, or to feel empathy for another’s suffering. These abilities, Torrey argues, did not emerge until Neandertals “and perhaps other species of Archaic Homo sapiens, had developed a theory of mind” (61). The theory of mind refers to the psychological capacity to put “yourself into the other person’s mind” (55) so one can determine what that person is likely thinking or feeling.

Researchers argue that it is only individuals who have a theory of mind who can believe in a divine mind, but Torrey doubts that Neandertals believed in gods, because they lacked“a second-order theory of mind that would allow them to think about what god was thinking about them” (67). Some evidence of greater self-awareness in early Homo sapiens is the increase of body decoration and fitted clothing, suggesting that individuals were more concerned about how they looked to others (70–71). This required a second-order theory of mind, the ability “to think about what you look like to other people” (76). With such a theory of mind emerged the “introspective self” that is aware of itself as a self, something that “would appear to be unique to humans” (77).

Still, Torrey thinks one more capacity was required “to become truly modern Homo sapiens and to worship the gods” (87). This is the capacity for autobiographical memory. “Autobiographical memory is a reliving of past events both sensually and emotionally” (105) and is distinct from memory of facts. This allows one not only to remember one’s actions but also to anticipate the future. In this way, humans are capable of thinking of their own death but also of the possibility of continuing to exist after death as a soul or spirit. This, Torrey argues, was reinforced by dreams of souls, either coming to visit us or leaving us for the afterlife (118).

Religious Formation. Torrey, much like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, sees religion itself as an evolutionary phenomenon. With the recognition of death and the belief in a spiritual life after death came ancestor worship. This intensified when humans moved from a migratory to a more sedentary lifestyle revolving around farming, because that meant that the bodies of ancestors were accumulated in one place. To solve disputes about the division of land to descendants, appeals were made to ancestors as authority figures.

Torrey speculates that people may have transitioned from belief in ancestors to belief in gods because prayers to an ancestor farmer or warrior seemed to be answered successfully, leading to the attribution of superhuman powers (155–56). Gods were then recruited as authorities over “the fertility of the earth to provide food needed for life, and the fate of people after they died” (168). They also were useful in maintaining social order, and “it became increasingly common for kings to assume divine prerogatives” (171), with religion playing an important role in economics and war (173–74). These gods were typically anthropomorphic (172, 176). Torrey claims that about 2,800 years ago, the “axial age” began, “the final phase in the emergence of gods and religions,” including “Confucianism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism…the latter subsequently giving rise to Christianity and Islam” (198). These religions provided answers to the problem of death, the benefits of group membership, support for political governance, and perceived economic, political, or military success (199–200).

Unwarranted Assumptions. Throughout the book, Torrey apparently assumes that the source of religion must be from below God, from within the brain of human beings, but this discounts the possibility that religion is revealed from above, by God Himself. As noted earlier, establishing that certain neurological
and psychological capacities are required to have transcendent religious beliefs will not tell us whether the content of those beliefs is true or false. An important factor in the argument that the Bible is a revelation from God is that Christian Scripture contains numerous, highly specific prophecies about the birth, life, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ that were made before the events (as shown by the Dead Sea Scrolls, including the scroll of Isaiah) and whose fulfillment is supported by the early and reliable testimony of the New Testament documents and other sources. Since unaided human beings have a miserable track record of predicting the future, and severe limits in bringing about future events (including no ability to control when and where a person is born), the most reasonable explanation is that the prophets were inspired by God.

Another reason to doubt that Torrey’s assumptions successfully undermine religious belief is that in Torrey’s evolutionary view, the theory of mind is a relative late-comer in evolution. But no one would conclude that because belief in other minds required special developments in the brain that therefore it is doubtful that other minds exist. But if other human minds do exist, why is it unreasonable to think that a divine mind exists? Such a mind would explain the existence and intelligibility of the universe and the basis for objective morality. To suggest that this is mere anthropomorphism also overlooks another possibility: that God made us in His image or likeness, so that there is an objective analogy between the human and the divine mind.

Readers should beware the tendency of naturalistic science to conflate primary and secondary causes. It may be that without certain features of the brain as secondary causes, we would not be able to entertain religious beliefs. It does not follow that these features of the brain are the primary causes of our belief. God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4 ESV). So we would expect God to so make us that we can think of Him and know His plan of salvation. But if so, there is no reason to doubt the reliability of our beliefs about God.

Finally, an oddity of Torrey’s account is that while different kinds of consciousness are described as emerging from innovations in the brain, there is no discussion of how remarkable this is. As David Chalmers argued, a complete physical account of the brain does not entail the existence of consciousness: consciousness is a new fact, in addition to the physical facts.1 It is conceivable that in possible worlds physically just like ours, our duplicates do not have conscious states at all. This shows that naturalistic evolution does not predict or adequately explain the facts of finite consciousness. But in a theistic world, there has always existed an infinite consciousness, which makes the existence of finite conscious beings much more to be expected. Further, no object of our experience in the physical world is infinite, eternal, or morally perfect. So the very fact that we can think of God as a being that has these characteristics cries out for an explanation that transcends the physical interactions of human brains with their environment. For these two reasons, the ability of human beings to believe in God is best explained by the existence of God.

Angus Menuge

Notes: 

  1. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).