The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing

The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing

by John C. Wathey
The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing

The Illusion of God's Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing

by John C. Wathey


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An essential feature of religious experience across many cultures is the intuitive feeling of God's presence. More than any rituals or doctrines, it is this experience that anchors religious faith, yet it has been largely ignored in the scientific literature on religion.

Starting with a vivid narrative account of the life-threatening hike that triggered his own mystical experience, biologist John Wathey takes the reader on a scientific journey to find the sources of religious feeling and the illusion of God's presence. His book delves into the biological origins of this compelling feeling, attributing it to innate neural circuitry that evolved to promote the mother-child bond. Dr. Wathey, a veteran neuroscientist, argues that evolution has programmed the infant brain to expect the presence of a loving being who responds to the child's needs. As the infant grows into adulthood, this innate feeling is eventually transferred to the realm of religion, where it is reactivated through the symbols, imagery, and rituals of worship. The author interprets our various conceptions of God in biological terms as illusory supernormal stimuli that fill an emotional and cognitive vacuum left over from infancy. 

These insights shed new light on some of the most vexing puzzles of religion, like the popular belief in a god who is judgmental and punishing, yet also unconditionally loving; the extraordinary tenacity of faith; the greater religiosity of women relative to men; religious obsessions with sex; the mysterious compulsion to pray; the seemingly irrepressible feminine attributes of God, even in traditionally patriarchal religions; and the strange allure of cults. Finally, Dr. Wathey considers the hypothesis that religion evolved to foster reproductive success, arguing that, in an age of potentially ruinous overpopulation, magical thinking has become a luxury we can no longer afford, one that distracts us from urgent threats to our planet.

Deeply researched yet elegantly written in a jargon-free and accessible style, this book presents a compelling interpretation of the evolutionary origins of spirituality and religion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633880757
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 463
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

John C. Wathey is a computational biologist whose research interests include evolutionary algorithms, protein folding, and the biology of nervous systems. From 1991 to 1995, he was a senior applications scientist at Biosym Technologies (now named Biovia), a company that develops molecular modeling software for the pharmaceutical industry. In 1996, he founded his own business, Wathey Research, and since that time most of his scientific research has been funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health. He is currently writing a follow-up work to The Illusion of God's Presence, which explores in detail the neurobiology of religious emotion and behavior.

Read an Excerpt

The Illusion of God's Presence

The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing

By John C. Wathey

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2016 John C. Wathey
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-075-7



Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

— Henry F. Lyte, "Abide with Me"

Would I leave my brother to die in the desert, to save the rest of us? It was not a hypothetical exercise for Philosophy and Ethics 101. William had just collapsed in the wispy shade of a large mesquite bush, one of the few places where we had found any shade on our five-mile hike in the Carrizo Badlands. A sick feeling came over me, an incongruous chill, as I finally understood how desperate our situation had become. Of the five of us, thirteen-year-old Rebekah and I were the only ones who had not yet vomited. I asked her for her water bottle; all the others were empty.

"Your Dad needs it," I said.

I knew it wouldn't be refreshing. It had long ago reached ambient temperature, so it felt like drinking fully hot tap water. William drank it, but he still looked sick, weak, and confused.

"That's the last of our water," I said, "but we're out of the canyon. It's only a mile to the car. We'd better go now." I helped William to his feet, and we walked on. He said nothing and looked only half awake, paying little attention to where he put his feet. I shaded him with an umbrella and held his arm, occasionally nudging him left or right to avoid soft patches in the sand. Only a mile, but uphill and getting steeper all the way, under a blistering desert sun at midday in July. I no longer knew how hot it was. I had broken the thermometer hours ago, squeezing through a slot canyon, but back then it had been 115°F.

"I don't remember this," Nick said. "Are we lost?"

I tried to reassure him. "I've done this hike before. We're not lost. The car is up there." I pointed ahead and to the left, toward a cholla-covered ridge, but the sandy Jeep trail we were following looked endless, and our car could not be seen.

Bonnie asked for the keys. "We'll start the air conditioner," she said. She knew William and I would be the last ones out. Soon she and the others were out of sight.

William collapsed again, first sitting, then lying on his back. The sand was so hot it was painful to the touch. I knew he couldn't take much more of this. "I need to rest" was all he could say.

"We don't have time for this, big guy." I pulled him by both hands and got him to his feet again. I reminded him how much Rebekah needed him, how much his family loved him. "Just keep putting one foot in front of the other," I said. "Concentrate on that."

He was at least fifty pounds heavier than I. I knew there was no way I could get him up that last hill if he lost consciousness. The car was not four-wheel drive. If I took it down that steep trail to retrieve him, it would probably get stuck in the sand, and that would kill us all. William collapsed a few more times, but each time managed to stand again and resume walking. As we followed the steepening trail around the ridge, we found Rebekah in tears, sitting in the burning hot sand, crying that she could go no farther. She too had begun vomiting. I abandoned the two backpacks I had been carrying and tried to help her stand. Seeing his daughter in such a desperate state helped to focus William's mind. Somehow he was able to help me half carry, half drag her up the last hill to the car.

I drove us to the nearest town, about ten miles away, faster than I had ever driven a car before. William was barely conscious. We got two gallons of water, one from a trucker I flagged down, the other from the first house we came to. We quickly drank that, calmed down, and went on to a restaurant a few miles down the road, where we drank, ate, and rested for a long time. We learned that someone in the area had reported a temperature of 123°F that day.


Although grateful we had survived, I was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and horror at how close I had come to killing my loved ones. I had thought it would be a hotter but otherwise fun reprise of the delightful hike my wife and I had done just three months earlier. I thought I had brought enough water. Our visitors from back East didn't know any better, but I should have. It was the stupidest thing I had ever done.

I slept little that night. What sleep I had was of the tortured kind, and my waking nightmares were worse. Around four in the morning I pulled from the shelf a book by a friend of mine on the subject of forgiveness.2 As I read that book and wept, I suddenly felt the presence of a loving, caring, and understanding being, one who had the power to forgive and make things right. At that moment I did not believe what believers believe — that this was the presence of God — but I felt what believers feel. It was a religious experience devoid of religious belief.

Experiences like this are seldom described in much more detail than in the preceding paragraph and are often said to be ineffable. My experience had that quality, but I can add a few clarifying details. I did not see or hear anything unusual. The feeling vanished as suddenly as it came and seemed to last a few tens of seconds at most. I can best convey the sensation by analogy.

Imagine you are waiting in a checkout line at a store, and you see another customer get in line behind you. He smiles and gives you a cheerful greeting, so you have a positive feeling about him. You turn away to face the cashier. A few minutes go by while the line slowly advances. The person behind you is silent, but you have a sense that he is there. You know not to step backward suddenly because you know you might step on his toes if you did. You have a sense of where and about how far away he is with respect to your own body. If you turn around to look at him, you might discover, much to your surprise, that he quietly left to get another item a minute ago, and no one is behind you. In that case, your sense of his presence had been compelling and real to you, but, for some of that time, it was an illusion.

My sense of a presence was that kind of feeling, but with vastly more intense emotion. I was lying on my side in bed at the time and felt the presence of someone near me, watching me, loving me, wanting to help me. Like the feeling in the checkout line, it was spatially specific: the presence I sensed was above me and close enough that I felt I might be able to touch it had I reached out for it.

I was raised by devout Christian parents and had been a true believer as a child. I had just lived through an almost biblical trial in the desert. In my sleep-deprived depths of despair, at the moment of my greatest emotional vulnerability, I had had this overwhelming sensation of an invisible but compellingly real and loving being. Why did I not take that path to religious or spiritual belief, when so many others do? I answer that question in chapters 2 and 4, but here I consider a more basic one.


In formal debates on the existence of God, the arguments typically involve the need for a creator to get the big bang started, the fine-tuning of the constants of nature that made the universe suitable for life, and the ability of evolution by natural selection to account for the complexity of life. These arguments, and the concept of the deist God they defend or attack, in some sense miss the point. Among my religious friends, and in opinion polls, few believers are interested in worshipping a god who merely set the universe in motion and then sat back to watch it like a TV show, never getting actively involved in subsequent events. Instead, the god most of them worship is a personal God, one who follows and cares about the events of their individual lives, who knows and loves them, who has the power to perform miracles, and who hears and answers their prayers. He is worthy of the hymns they sing to him, because he is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.

Of course some sects emphasize other traits of God, like his wrath and vengefulness, and the most extreme commit atrocities in his name. Buddhism, by contrast, seems to place little emphasis on the concept of a personal god, while the tradition from which it sprouted, Hinduism, has a multitude of personal gods. Humans have invented thousands of mutually contradictory religions, each with its complement of gods, demons, angels, or ancestral spirits. Their diversity makes it hard even to define religion, yet they seem to share some common essence — common enough that we all know religion when we see it. What is that commonality? What is its source? Can science explain it?

Religious belief, like any belief, is a phenomenon of the human mind and, therefore, of the human brain. Like all of our mental experience, it emerges from the electrical and biochemical activity of our immensely complex neural circuitry. How our mental experience, our conscious sense of self, and our mental model of the workings of the world emerge from the activity in our brains is perhaps the deepest unsolved mystery in science. We are not, however, wholly ignorant on the subject.

Over the last century, and especially the last fifty years, great progress has been made in our understanding of the brain. Much of the mystery has been removed from the electrical signals used by nerve cells, the electrical and chemical mechanisms of synaptic communication between them, and the biophysical mechanisms of the cells that sense light, sound, touch, acceleration, smells, and so forth. Much is known about the specialization of different parts of the brain for different functions and how this specialization arises in embryonic development through cell division and migration, the outgrowth of nerve fibers, and the competition among those fibers for synaptic connections. Cognitive studies and neuroimaging techniques allow the localization, at rather coarse resolution, of the neural correlates of surprisingly subtle and complex phenomena of thought, emotion, and imagination.

In light of this knowledge, conscious mental experience — what some would call the soul — appears to be nothing more or less than, and inseparable from, the activity of the brain. This "astonishing hypothesis," as Francis Crick called it,6does not astonish most neuroscientists. I expect that it will be increasingly supported by the growing body of evidence as progress in neuroscience continues and that the concept of an immortal soul will be increasingly difficult to defend. I shall return to this subject in chapter 14, and I explore the connection between religion and the brain in chapter 12 and in the sequel. For now I merely emphasize that religious belief appears to be a completely natural, neurobiological phenomenon.

Of course, to understand that phenomenon in terms of neural activity may take many years. Even when it comes, that explanation will only reveal how we have religious thoughts and feelings, not why we have them. Fortunately the why question is much easier, mainly because our brains and behavior are products of evolution. Although much of what we do is learned, our learning is constrained and guided by innate and unconscious forces, and the influence of those forces on our individual behavioral differences can now be measured through twin studies. Yet it is mainly through the comparison of our behavior with that of nonhuman species that we can understand why we behave as we do.

Why, for example, do we often use gestures while speaking? Vocalization and gestures of face and hands are deeply connected in our primate cousins, as they are in us9 — so much so that a strong if somewhat speculative case can be made that the emergence of language in early hominins lay more in gesture than in vocalization. Can an analogous case be made for the evolution of religious behavior in humans? Like language, religion is a cultural universal — a behavior to which we are innately predisposed, but the specific details of which come from our cultural environment. What, if anything, do nonhuman animals do that might explain why humans believe in their various gods?

My goals in this book are to identify the emotional experiences that motivate most belief in God, to suggest a natural explanation for those feelings in evolutionary terms, and to explore the more interesting implications of that explanation. Although these ideas do not address the whole of religion, I shall try, mainly in chapters 7 and 13, to place them into a broader context of other naturalistic explanations of religious belief. Of course much has been written on this subject, but, as I suggest in chapter 3, something important has been largely ignored. Its essence is captured in the paradoxical and contradictory nature so often attributed to a personal god: Why is God seen as judgmental, punishing, and cruel, yet at the same time unconditionally loving? I give the latter part of this question its due in chapter 4.

The hypothesis I propose in chapter 4 primarily concerns belief in a personal god of the kind exemplified in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, and in those Hindu sects that emphasize the personal nature of Vishnu, Shakti, Shiva, or the various other gods, goddesses, or avatars. By some estimates these categories together constitute roughly 80 percent of all religious adherents on the planet. In chapter 10, I discuss the possible relevance of the hypothesis to other spiritual, religious, and quasi-religious beliefs. Most examples of specific religious belief and practice discussed in the book come from the Christian tradition since that is the one I know best.


Of the billions of people who believe in a personal god, I suspect there are few, possibly none, who came to those beliefs because they lay awake nights worrying about what preceded the big bang or because they found the mechanism of bacterial motility to be irreducibly complex. Most, of course, accepted their religious beliefs without question when they were taught them in childhood by their parents. But for those in whom the beliefs persisted into adulthood, and especially those in whom the beliefs became central to their adult lives, something else appears to be involved. Most religious belief of this kind is the result of an internal, and often highly emotional, personal religious experience. Richard Dawkins points out that subjective internal experiences of this kind are inadmissible as evidence for the existence of God, and, in the realm of rational argument, he is of course correct. But to the believer who has had such an experience, the attendant feeling of knowing often suffices as compelling proof of the reality of God.

The circumstances and content of these experiences have much to teach us about the nature of religious belief. Although they vary widely, there are some commonly recurring themes and features. They often occur in circumstances of great emotional or physical distress, in extreme isolation, or in times of great personal danger. This is the origin of the familiar if not strictly correct adage, "There are no atheists in foxholes." Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or of being lost, alone, and in desperate need are common in these experiences. Another typical theme is a feeling of personal guilt and an overwhelming need for forgiveness. But probably the most important common thread is the sense of the presence of a loving, caring, powerful, and forgiving god who understands and who will solve the crisis of the moment.

Thousands of reports of such experiences have been collected and studied by artist and marine biologist Alister Hardy. Through appeals in the British press, he and his colleagues solicited a wide variety of first-person accounts of spiritual or paranormal experiences using variants of this simple question:

Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or a power, whether you call it God or not, that is different from your everyday self?


Excerpted from The Illusion of God's Presence by John C. Wathey. Copyright © 2016 John C. Wathey. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Is God beyond the Reach of Science?, 21,
Chapter 2: Illusions Can Be Broken, 35,
Chapter 3: The Elephant in the Room, 43,
Chapter 4: The God-Shaped Vacuum, 55,
Chapter 5: Infantile Imagery in Religion, 73,
Chapter 6: The Nature and Nurture of Religious Experience, 105,
Chapter 7: Two Biological Roots: Social Cooperation and Neonatal Survival, 123,
Chapter 8: Is God an Evolutionary Hack?, 147,
Chapter 9: From Cuttlefish to Cults, 165,
Chapter 10: Creator, Mother, Fluid, Etc., 175,
Chapter 11: Does an Infant Have a Mind?, 195,
Chapter 12: A Trick of the Brain, 231,
Chapter 13: The Supernormal Phantom, 253,
Chapter 14: The Illusion of Immortality, 267,
Chapter 15: What If God Is Not Real?, 287,
NOTES, 321,
INDEX, 423,

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