michael_shermer's picture
Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Monthly Columnist, Scientific American; Presidential Fellow, Chapman University; Author, Heavens on Earth

The scientific idea that a trait or characteristic of an organism that is hard-wire means that it is a permanent feature should be retired. Case in point: God and religion.

Ever since Charles Darwin theorized in his 1871 book The Descent of Man that "a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal" and therefore an evolved characteristic of our species that is hardwired into our brains, scientists have been running experiments and conducting surveys to show why God won't go away. Anthropologists have found such human universals as specific supernatural beliefs about death and the afterlife, fortune and misfortune, and especially magic, myths, rituals, divination and folklore. Behavior geneticists report from twin studies—most notably twins separated at birth and raised in different environments—that 40-50% of the variance of God beliefs and religiosity are genetic. Some scientists have even claimed to have found a "God gene" (or more precisely, a "God gene complex") that leads humans to have a need for spiritual transcendence and belief in a higher power of some kind. Even specific elements of religious stories—such as a destructive flood, a virgin birth, miracles, a resurrection from the dead—seem to appear independently of one another over and over again throughout history in a wide variety of cultures, implying that there is a hard-wired component to religion and God beliefs. I have held this theory myself. Until now.

If and when we establish a permanent colony on Mars, if its members consist of nonbelieving scientists with a purely secular worldview it would be interesting to check in 10 (or 100) generations to see if God has returned. Until that experiment is conducted, however, we have to consider the results of natural experiments run here on Earth. In the Western world, for example, a 2013 survey of 14,000 people in 13 nations (Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Brazil, India, South Korean, and the UK and US) conducted by the German pollster Bertelsmann Stiftung for their Religion Monitor found that most of these countries showed a declining trend in religiosity and belief in God, especially among the youth. In Spain, for example, 85% of respondents over the age of 45 report being moderately to very religious, but only 58% of those under 29 years of age so report. In Europe in general, only 30-50% said that religion is important in their own lives, and in many European countries less than a third say that they believe in God.

Even in the über religious United States, the pollsters found that 31% of Americans say they are "not religious or not very religious." This finding confirms those of a 2012 Pew Forum survey that found that the fastest growing religious cohort in America are the "Nones" (those with no religious affiliation) at 20% (33% of adults under 30), broken down into atheists and agnostics at 6% and the unaffiliated at 14%. The raw numbers are stunning: with the U.S. adult population (age 18 and over) at 240 million, this translates into 48 million Nones, or 14.4 million atheists/agnostics and 33.6 million unaffiliated. There were also generational differences that reveal a significant trend toward unbelief, with the "Greatest" generation (born 1913-1927) at 5%, the "Silent" generation (born 1928-1945) at 9%, the "Boomers" (born 1946-1964) at 15%, the "GenXers" (born 1965-1980) at 21%, the "Older Millennials" (born 1981-1989) at 30%, and the "Younger Millennials" (born 1990-1994) at 34%.

At this rate I project that the Nones will reach 100% in the year 2220.

It is time for scientists to retire the theory that God and religion are hardwired in our brains. Like everyone else, scientists are subject to cognitive biases that tilt their thinking toward trying to explain common beliefs, so it is good for us to take the long-view perspective and compare today to, say, half a millennia ago when God beliefs were virtually 100%, or to the hunter-gatherer tribes of our Paleolithic ancestors who, while employing any number of superstitious rituals, did not believe in a God or practice a religion that even remotely resembles the deities or religions of modern peoples.

This indicates that religious faith and belief in God is a byproduct of other cognitive processes (e.g., agency detection) and cultural propensities (the need to affiliate) that, while hard-wired, can be expunged through reason and science in the same manner as any number of other superstitious rituals and supernatural beliefs once held by the most learned scholars and scientists of Europe five centuries ago. For example, at that time the prevailing theory to explain crop failures, weather anomalies, diseases, and various other maladies and misfortunes was witchcraft, and the solution was to strap women to pyres and torch them to death. Today, no one in their right mind believes this. With the advent of a scientific understanding of agriculture, climate, disease, and other causal vectors—including the role of chance—the witch theory of causality fell into disuse.

So it has been and will continue to be with other forms of the hard-wired=permanent idea, such as violence. We may be hard-wired for violence, but we can attenuate it considerably through scientifically tested methods. Thus, for my test case here, I predict that in another 500 years the God-theory of causality will have fallen into disuse, and the 21st-century scientific theory that God is hardwired into our brains as a permanent feature of our species will be retired.