Why Religion May Not be Hard-Wired | Newsweek Voices - Sharon Begley | Newsweek.com
I'll leave to braver souls the question of whether religiosity leads to social dysfunction, as the new breed of public atheists contends. More interesting is the fact that if social progress can snuff out religious belief in millions of people, as Paul notes, then one must question "the idea that religiosity and belief in the supernatural is the default mode of the brain," he told me. As he wrote in his new paper, "The ease with which large populations abandon serious theism when conditions are sufficiently benign . . . refute[s] hypotheses that religious belief and practice are the normal, deeply set human mental state." He posits that, rather than being wired into the brain, religion is a way to cope with stress in a dysfunctional society—the opium-of-the-people argument.
This doesn't have to be an either-or proposition, however. The brain may indeed be predisposed to supernatural beliefs. But that predisposition may need environmental input to be fully realized.
Something like that seems to explain a number of animal behaviors that have long been thought of as innate. For instance, ducks are supposedly wired to prefer their mother's call and not, say, a goose's. But in the egg, ducklings hear the sounds of their mother, their embryonic siblings, and themselves; deprived of those experiences, they do not exhibit the "hard-wired" imprinting. Similarly, studies seem to show that fish have an innate sense of geometric direction. But if the fish do not first explore their tank, their sense of direction stinks, suggesting that they acquire it and are not born with it. "Researchers sometimes claim we're hard-wired for things, but when you peel through the layers of the experiments, the details matter and suddenly the evidence doesn't seem so compelling," says psychologist John Spencer of the University of Iowa.