Rarely do I dip my toes in scientific waters I am not thoroughly experienced in swimming. This is partially why most of my discussions tend to revolve around molecular biology and natural history with the occasional taste of (don’t run away) biochemistry. I know I will make many mistakes here, so please, feel free to correct me. So now that you’ve heard my reservations, let me continue:
Between Pliny and Michael, I’ve decided to write about my views of behavior and “belief” from the perspective of genetics. Most of the attempts at finding “god genes” have been riddled with statistical and methodological problems. At best, all we have found, scientifically, are regions of the brain which seem to be more active during religious experiences are also functionally used for a number of other purposes. For this reason, I tend to agree with Steven Pinker (and Stephen J. Gould) that religion is more of a spandrel than an evolutionary adaptation. This is not to say that specific alleles do not convey differing degrees of this spandrel trait.
My view of religion as a spandrel can be more easily illustrated by my definition of the following:
spirit/soul=a mind independent of a physical body
god/gods=spirits which are considered to embody specific traits or personalities
The belief in a person as consisting of a body and of a “spirit” or “soul” is functionally useful for communication. It allows a person to mentally construct a working model of another person based upon previous encounters or how others have described that individual. This “innate dualism” allows us to think of what a person would do, rather than only what a person will do. We can even, if we pay attention, catch ourselves describing a stereotypical individual (gods) quite frequently, and I shall refer to this as “anthropomorphic stereotyping (A.S.).” We also tend to apply notions of agency even when they are not appropriate. i.e. “What causes radioactive elements to emit a particle at specific times?” I shall term this “agency misapplication.” This “innate dualism” and A.S. are further influenced by experiences and environment, including experiences with agency misapplication, which can enhance or reduce the chances of an individual believing in supernatural agency depending upon specifics of said experiences.
I would go too far if I were to say we are “hard-wired” to believe or not believe in the supernatural or “woo.” I would not go far enough if I were to say it is entirely environmental. Environment does not just use what the genes have made (in the sense that they just make the blank slate and environment does the rest) but influence gene expression, and thus influence how neuronal connections are strengthened or weakened, what memories form or do not, and what behaviors we will do.
Are our brains “hard-wired” to believe or not? Probably not, but there may be something to the notion that some people are less inclined to believe from birth. That variation, however, is likely to be easily drowned out in the noise known as “normal human neuroplasticity.” Indeed, belief isn’t like Harlow’s monkeys experiments, but it may not be entirely different.
Below is the “Immunology” metaphor discussed in a comment and reproduced below:
If you have a molecule with only one epitope which the Ig binds to tightly (observed reality, morality, ritualistic behaviors, fears, etc), it is still not as strong as something which has multiple epitopes which the Ig binds.
In the above illustration, the three different parts which have places prepared (left image) all fit together with only a few gaps separating them. They form a piece of what is collectively termed “culture” in the image, but could, perhaps, be better described as “understanding of reality.” Orange is labeled “knowledge,” but could, more accurately be labeled “observational explanations.” Religion attempts to give both behavioral guidelines, social rituals, and explanations for observations. As such, it displaces the alternatives and comes with the additional baggage of dark blue fluff which Ockham’s razor would shave away so easily.
For this reason, I would not say religion is entirely useless, indeed, the social structure, moral code, and explanations it gives can be quite useful, but it can also be quite disastrous when unchecked by reality. Its explanations may not be accurate (they probably aren’t) and its moral codes may be downright dangerous to some people (slavery, anyone?).
Most religious texts (at least every one I’ve read) are so contradictory that the principle of explosion allows pretty much any conclusion to be reached “logically” by cherry picking the text.