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. Hisbook 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: 9781633880740
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

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 greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge."

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself 

Religion is a fascinating mystery. Why does the idea of an invisible but omnipotent God have such a powerful grip on the human mind? Why do such beliefs motivate both selfless generosity and mindless hatred? Why do people think of God as vengeful, judgmental, and punishing, yet also unconditionally loving? Why does a discussion of religion tend to ruin an otherwise pleasant conversation? Why is religious belief special, unusual, and tenacious? Humans have invented thousands of provincial and mutually contradictory religions, each with adherents absolutely certain of the truth of their own unique brand of magical, spiritual, or supernatural revelation. This fact alone strongly suggests that mysticism arises not from the efforts of an infinitely wise and powerful deity to reach us, but from something intrinsic to human nature. What is that something, and what is it about our peculiar ecological niche that led to its evolution?

Although my study of religion began with my first Sunday school class at age four, I did not begin asking such questions until I was in high school. By the time I was studying neuroscience in graduate school, I had formulated some incomplete but personally satisfying answers, and in my more self-indulgent fantasies even imagined publishing them someday. Many years later those answers were clarified by what most believers would call a mystical or religious experience, a description of which appears at the beginning of chapter 1. It was not my first such experience, but it was so vivid and intense that it left me with a feeling of great empathy for believers. I had experienced that compelling sense of presence that is often interpreted as the presence of God. Ironically it also left me feeling that I should not write this book, because, although more convinced than ever that this sensed presence was an illusion, I had learned how comforting the illusion can be to someone who really needs it.

Two months later all of that changed. Suddenly the dark side of religion became manifest as crashing jets, burning buildings, and mass murder, and the need for understanding seemed urgent. In the years that followed, prominent New Atheist authors retaliated in words. Part of their message was a much-needed proclamation that the unclothed emperor has a dangerously warped sense of morality, but several of them also tried to explain religion as a natural phenomenon. Meanwhile authors in the pop-science genre of neurotheology attempted another kind of explanation of religion, in some cases clearly in reaction to the New Atheists.

All of these books were missing something important. The New Atheism books were rousing and delightful reading for nonbelievers, but they largely ignored the real reason that most believers believe: their personal experience of the presence of God. By contrast, some studies in the neurotheology literature tried to get at that ephemeral sensed presence, but mainly at a mechanistic level, often with too few subjects and inadequate controls, and sometimes with no clearly specified hypothesis to test.

I felt I had something useful to contribute to the discussion and so began to write. After several difficult years I discovered that I was really writing two books: one that tries to explain why humans are prone to feel the illusion of God’s presence, and another that tries to explain how we feel that illusion. This book, the first of the two, deals mainly with the behavioral and evolutionary biology that underlies religious and spiritual emotions in humans, with special emphasis on the feeling of a sensed presence. The second book, which I will sometimes refer to as the sequel to this one, is still in progress at present. It explores the neurobiology of mystical experience, guided not by mysticism, but by the ethological hypothesis developed in this volume. A few of the most important ideas developed in the sequel appear in condensed form in chapters 12 and 13 of this book. I have tried to make both books accessible to the general reader, but the neurobiological sequel is unavoidably more technically demanding.

In the first chapter of this book, I define the kind of religious experience I seek to explain, and I present some typical examples. In chapter 2, I explain why I am not satisfied with the believer’s interpretation of the sensed presence. In chapter 3, I summarize prominent naturalistic explanations of religious belief, and I define several important biological concepts that I use in subsequent chapters. I emphasize that religion is a complex and multifaceted thing and that we should not expect any one idea to explain it all.

I present my own explanation for the feeling of a mystical presence in chapter 4. I suggest that highly emotional religious experience of this kind arises indirectly as a natural consequence of a biological adaptation. Although that adaptation is specific to the peculiar ecological niche we humans occupy, analogous adaptations can be seen in many other animal species. I argue that religious emotions are neither as supernatural in origin nor as uniquely human as commonly assumed.

The rest of the book deals mainly with the questions raised by my hypothesis, the evidence that supports it, the predictions it makes, and the possibility of testing those predictions. Along the way, it sheds light on several vexing religious puzzles, like the power behind fundamentalism, the growing preference for personal spirituality over traditional religion, the strange allure of cults, the mysterious compulsion to pray, the special appeal of baby Jesus, the religious obsession with sex, the meaning of religious misogyny, and the greater religiosity of women relative to men. Beyond these scientific issues, the book also tries to illuminate the difficult and convoluted paths most of us must navigate in coming to terms with religion in our personal lives. This spirit permeates the book and is the central theme of its last two chapters. In chapter 14, I summarize what modern neuroscience has to say about the existence of an immortal soul. The final chapter offers an alternative way of understanding reality for readers who struggle with doubts about their religious or spiritual beliefs.

This book is not for everyone. If you have encountered crushing burdens in life, your appeal to a higher power may be a sustaining source of strength, salvation, or unconditional love. Although this book is unlikely to diminish your faith, you might not find it helpful. Others may find it helpful, but only after some special preparation. This book is about biology, and its ideas, like all ideas in modern biology, rest on the foundation of Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. If you have been steeped in creationism, or even if you just feel unsure about your understanding of evolution, I urge you to start with the appendix on that subject.

For most religious or spiritually minded readers, however, the greatest challenge of this book lies in its approach to truth. How do we know something is true? How can you tell what foods are good for you, which people are your true friends, or whom you should marry? In making vital and complex decisions like these, we often get a profound feeling of knowing that seems to come from nowhere and that often proves correct. The experience is common enough that we have a name for it. Intuition is an innate and largely unconscious mechanism of the brain, a product of evolution that guides our behavior toward reproductive success, not truth-finding. An intuitive sense of certainty is useful for behavioral conviction, but it is merely an illusion of knowledge. It has impeded our comprehension not only of global geography, as historian Daniel Boorstin noted, but also of nearly every other aspect of reality. For millennia, humans have suffered and died from smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis, syphilis, measles, polio, bubonic plague, and host of other scourges that are now completely preventable, curable, or eradicated. Intuition helped in a marginal way with some of these, for example through feelings of disgust at contaminated food or dead bodies, but our intuitively appealing therapies—magical rituals, prayers to the gods, or incantations to ancestral spirits—had little effect. Eliminating these diseases required a deep understanding of the truth about how biological reality works. The requisite truth-finding mechanism was discovered and unleashed only a few centuries ago, and the way of thinking it demands does not come easily or naturally to human minds. The essence of science is an appeal to empirical evidence from the natural world as our ultimate arbiter in truth-finding, coupled with effortful, skeptical, and reflective reasoning. To see religion and spirituality in this light will be difficult for those who know by intuition—especially those who have been long committed to their faith, who have made great sacrifices for it, and whose social connections derive from it.

I wrote the book for anyone who wonders what science has to say about where religious emotion comes from, especially that powerful but ineffable longing for a mystical other. What I hope will most distinguish it from similar books is that the religious feelings I discuss will be instantly recognized by most religious readers as both familiar and essential. I expect that many of my readers will be scientifically literate and skeptical of the supernatural, but I also hope to reach a few believers who wrestle with doubt—especially young adults who are not yet so deeply committed as to be unreachable. Above all I have written it for those who genuinely seek truth and depth of understanding, wherever that journey may lead. If you are impressed with the achievements of science and disappointed with the unfulfilled promises of religion and spirituality, then read on.

Each of the first thirteen chapters builds on its predecessors, so these should be read sequentially. The last two chapters can be understood in isolation, although they also refer to earlier ones. The endnotes are mostly literature citations but include some explanatory digressions. I recommend ignoring them on a first reading. If your curiosity will not allow that, try reading them in batches as you finish each chapter. I have tried to avoid jargon, but some technical words seemed necessary. I have defined most of these where they first appear in the text, but, should those efforts prove inadequate, I strongly recommend Wikipedia. A condensed version of chapter 9 was previously published.

Table of Contents

Preface 15

Part 1 Seeing God in a New Light

Chapter 1 Is God beyond the Reach of Science? 21

A Road to Damascus Not Taken 22

What Is the Real Reason for Belief in God? 24

A Sense of Presence 26

Requirements for a Scientific Theory of Religion 30

Chapter 2 Illusions Can Be Broken 35

What Does It Mean to Call Something an Illusion? 35

The Illusory Perception of God 37

Parable of the Mysterious Witness 38

Mental Gymnastics 39

Chapter 3 The Elephant in the Room 43

Is There a God Instinct? 43

Is God an Evolutionary By-Product? 45

Is God a Virus? 47

Is God a Figment of Our Cognition? 49

Why Is God a Cruel Tyrant? 51

Why the Obsession with Death? 53

Something Is Missing from This Picture 53

Chapter 4 The God-Shaped Vacuum 55

Neonatal Survival 56

A Sea Turtle's Infancy 57

Human Infancy and the Presence of God 60

The Innate Image of Mother 62

The Gull-Shaped Vacuum 65

Implications 68

Part 2 Evidence and Questions

Chapter 5 Infantile Imagery in Religion 73

Religious Experience 74

Prayer 78

Ritual 81

Hymns 82

Popular Religious Literature 85

The Messiah 88

Sacred Texts 88

Sermons 94

Sunday School Lessons 96

Secular Sources 98

Art and Architecture 99

Role Reversals 101

Chapter 6 The Nature and Nurture of Religious Experience 105

Freud Upgraded 106

Attachment as a Biological Need 107

God as an Attachment Figure 110

Correspondence and Compensation 111

A Menu of Life Paths 116

The Raw Material of Evolution 118

Oedipus Wrecks 121

Chapter 7 Two Biological Roots: Social Cooperation and Neonatal Survival 123

The Two-Faced God 125

The Dichotomy of Religion 126

Spiritual but Not Religious 129

Our Coins, the Pledge, and Prayer in Public Schools 136

The Mysterious Appeal of the Shakers 140

Is Religion Only Two-Dimensional? 144

Chapter 8 Is God an Evolutionary Hack? 147

Why Would the Innate Model Persist beyond Infancy? 148

The Hack of Infantile, Maternal, and Sexual Love 150

Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? 154

Why the Obsession with Sex? 157

The Hack of Hypersociality 163

Chapter 9 From Cuttlefish to Cults 165

How or Why? 166

Malignant Narcissism as an Adaptation 167

Cross-Dressing Cuttlefish 168

Leaders, Followers, and Evolutionary Stability 169

Sacrifice as a Biological Signal 170

Human Nature Run Amok 172

Chapter 10 Creator, Mother, Fluid, Etc. 175

Why Is God a Creator? 175

Why Is God Not Female? 177

Why Are Priests Not Female? 178

Why Do Believers Pray? 181

Why Ecstasy and Violence? 182

Why So Many Nasty Gods? 184

What about Godless Religions? 185

Why Are There Atheists? 188

Chapter 11 Does an Infant Have a Mind? 195

Infantile Amnesia and Neural Development 195

Selective Attention as a Window to the Mind 197

The Sense of Motion 199

The Smell and Taste of Mother 202

Rewarding Touch 204

Motherese 207

The Perception of Faces 209

Seeing Biological Motion 215

Imitation and the Expectation of Mother 218

Isn't This Illusion Maladaptive? 224

Chapter 12 A Trick of the Brain 231

Innate Knowledge Is the Core of Human Nature 233

Faith Is Tenacious Because It Is Addictive 236

An Embodied Self Reads the Minds of Others 239

God's Presence Is a Drug-Free Hallucination 246

The Trick 250

Chapter 13 The Supernormal Phantom 253

Are We All Born Atheists? 253

Other Things Explained 257

Supporting Evidence 259

Predictions 261

Red Pill or Truman's Boat? 263

Part 3 Personal Implications

Chapter 14 The Illusion of Immortality 267

Mind-Brain Unity 269

Mind-Brain Dualism 281

Chapter 15 What If God Is Not Real? 287

A Drastic Change in Worldview 288

God, Your Loved Ones, and You 290

Coping with Death 293

God, Humanity, and the Earth 296

Acknowledgments 307

Appendix 1 The Stumbling Block of Creationism 309

Misconceptions 310

Recommendations 318

Adjustments in Thinking 318

Appendix 2 A Psychometric Test 319

Notes 321

References 365

Index 423

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