Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation – or Both
Grafman started by interviewing 26 people of varying religious sentiments, breaking down their beliefs into three psychological categories: God's perceived level of involvement in the world, God's perceived emotions, and religious knowledge gained through doctrine or experience. Then they submitted statements based on these categories to 40 people hooked to fMRI machines.
Statements based on God's involvement – such as "God protects one's life" or "Life has no higher purpose" – provoked activity in brain regions associated with understanding intent. Statements of God's emotions – such as "God is forgiving" or "the afterlife will be punishing" – stimulated regions responsible for classifying emotions and relating observed actions to oneself. Knowledge-based statements, such as "a source of creation exists" or "religions provide moral guidance," activated linguistic processing centers.
Taken together, the neurological states evoked by the questions are known to cognitive scientists as the Theory of Mind: They underlie our understanding that other people have minds, thoughts and feelings.
The advantages of a Theory of Mind are clear. People who lack one are considered developmentally challenged, even disabled. Anthropologist Scott Atran, a proponent of the byproduct hypothesis, has suggested that it let our ancestors quickly distinguish between friends and enemies. And once humans were able to imagine someone who wasn't physically present, supernatural beliefs soon followed.