God and afterlife : Is it in our genes ?

Jul 24th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Articles, Neuroscience

The recent Oxford University study carried out by 57 researchers in 20 countries was aimed to find out whether concepts like God and after-life are acquired culturally, or there is an instinctual basis that in ways that can be traced back to the earliest part of the lives. The study was carried out as several individual projects, in many population groups, some of whom were atheistic and others believed in a God.

An array of disciplines were used, including theology, psychology, sociology and anthropology. The results unanimously showed that in all population groups, irrespective of their cultural beliefs, believe in the afterlife and that of other personal God was an innate part of our psychology that is present from birth. Experimental data from two separate groups of experiments supported this conclusion too :

1. Emily Burdett and Justin Barrett, two researchers from the University of Oxford found that children below the age of 5 tend to believe in supernatural powers preferentially over understanding the limitations of human ability. For instance children around the age of three years in this study believed that their mothers and God of both knew the contents of a box that wasn’t shown to either of them. However at the age of five, children began realizing that their mothers did not have supernatural abilities, although God or gods continued to do so.

2. Adult experiments carried out by Jing Zhu (Tsinghua University,China), and Natalie Emmons and Jesse Bering ( Queen’s University, Belfast) showed that at some time in our lives, many of us across various cultures start believing that some part of life somehow continues after death through an afterlife. This supports the notion that biologist Richard Dawkins presented in this book ‘The God Delusion’, that children are born dualists; they separate the mind from the body intuitively. Perhaps cultural values reinforce this innate duality, and our belief in an afterlife gets solidified.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
— Galileo Galilei

Dr Justin Barrett who was the lead researcher, based at the Anthropology and Mind Centre at the University of Oxford, UK, however categorically stated that the study does not endorse either afterlife or God, just that humans find some ways of thinking easier than others. This might have played a role in early societies where common religious beliefs in an afterlife and God made social cooperation easier, and resulted in accepted standards of moral behavior applicable to that group.’Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network”, he added.

Professor Roger Trigg, at the University of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre, and co-director of the project thinks that “attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.”

There are several important implications of the findings of this study. People belonging to several traditional communities, bound by religious beliefs, may find it impossible to give up their innate feelings of of an afterlife and God, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. Many of us perhaps face this conflict between reason and ‘gut feelings’, and for this reason alone, adopt various philosophical and religious beliefs to reconcile these two opposing modes of thinking.

More importantly, the concept of God should not be perhaps viewed as a delusion (as Richard Dawkins suggests), but more of a neuropsychological phenomenon, deeply rooted in our instincts. This basic neuro-theological awareness could even promote religious and cultural tolerance, and a greater understanding of our own minds.

Reference :

University of Oxford (2011, July 14). Humans ‘predisposed’ to believe in gods and the afterlife. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm

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