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« Is Religion the Inverse of Autism? | Main | God’s Multiple-Personality Disorder »

Is Religion a Spandrel?

My last post described the notion that belief in God may be a byproduct of our over-active theory-of-mind capacity. “The God Experiments” describes another intriguing—and possibly complementary--theory advanced by Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He speculates that ecstatic religious and mystical visions have piggybacked on the neural processes that underpin orgasms.

The really interesting implication of these theories is that religion originated as what the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called a spandrel. (This point, like the theory-of-mind material and my confession about being a lapsed Catholic, got cut from the final draft of “God Experiments.”) Spandrel is an architectural term for the space between an arch and its surrounding structure. The spandrel does not serve any function; it is just a byproduct of the arch. Gould borrowed the term spandrel to refer to accidental byproducts of evolution. Perhaps religion is a spandrel derived from adaptations such as the orgasm or the theory-of-mind capacity, both of which serve obvious biological purposes.

Just because a trait originated as a spandrel does not mean that it never acquires any use or value. Our capacity for science is arguably a spandrel, a byproduct of our innate curiosity and compulsion for finding patterns in the flux of nature. And yet science has proved to be an enormously powerful method for understanding and controlling over nature.

My point is that the biological origin of religious beliefs has no bearing on their truth and value or lack thereof. As William James pointed out in Varieties of Religious Experience, all our perceptions, thoughts and beliefs—including the belief that religion is bunk—are tracable to biology. Even if a religious believer or leader is shown to be schizophrenic or epileptic--as Saint Paul, Joan of Arc, Saint Teresa, and Mohammed may well have been--that per se does not invalidate their insights, any more than the mental illness of an artist like Van Gogh or a scientist like John (Beautiful Mind) Nash invalidates their achievements. As James said, religious visions must be judged by their fruits, not their roots.

And of course, if a spandrel is defined as something intrinsically purposeless and unnecessary, then everything is really a spandrel, including humanity, life and the entire universe.



I don't know John. Biological roots having "no bearing" on the fruits or insights of religious beliefs. Before Ramachadran came along and identified the 'root' cause of the phantom limb in the motor cortex, I'm sure people attributed things like elan vital to their missing limb. So 'no bearing,' even when the guru proclaims the Oneness Doctrine as the be all end all, can we not stick his head in an f.M.R.I. and note his parietal lobes doing neural backflips. And see that sometimes stimulating this area in the average Joe with magnets has the same effect. Isn't this at all suggestive of a 'root.' Or just rationally deducing that when the brain slowly deteriorates, we (can) lose our identities, our subjectivity while 'incarnated.' And it takes a supernatural, religious belief to say that, "yeah, you get it all back when your dead.' C'mon.

John Horgan

Bill, William James's point, and mine, is that you can't dismiss a vision based just on an fMRI or even a medical diagnosis of dementia. You have to judge these visions on their own merits with all the intellectual tools at your disposal. Maybe you experience God as this really great guy who will answer your prayers and screw your enemies. Well, I can dismiss that vision on intellectual, empirical and moral grounds. Similarly, I can dismiss a vision of astral projection, because no one can offer proof that this isn't an illusion. But a visceral, ecstatic sense of oneness has positive moral implications and correlates nicely with what science tells us about the interrelatedness of all life. At the very least, you can rank religious experiences according to reasonableness.

Sam Taylor


Some psychotic experiences might be interpreted as religious, others not. Assuming we can trace psychotic experience to a physical brain malfunction (and have no idea if there is any real evidence that we can), this does not explain "religion". Religions appear to me to be a cultural phenomenon, one whose evolution is totally understandable and was not irrational in the world where it evolved. People were simply trying to find explanations and doing the best they could with what they had.

Looking for a "gene" or a "spandrel" seems to me roughly on a par with trying to identify divine inspiration.

I'm with David Buller ("Adapting Minds") and find Evolutionary Psychology essentially bankrupt.

When someone has a good explanation of how the brain creates the mind and what the mind "is" perhaps it will be possible to retrodict behaviors. Alternatively, perhaps someone will actually find a link between a particular neuron, gene or whatever that influences normal human behavior.

In the interim, it seems unscientific to ignore cultural explanations for religious behavior.

This is a complicated discussion, but I wanted to raise this issue.



"If nirvana(oneness) is so great, why does God create?" "The reduction of all things to one thing is arguably a route to oblivion." "I still find oneness metaphysically creepy."

In case you're wondering, these quotes were taken from Horgan's book, Rational Mysticism. It sounds like you're a 'oneness' apologist, John.

John Horgan

Bill, you read my mind! I was just thinking of posting on how, in spite of the positive things I say above about oneness, I find it metaphysically creepy! May still do that, for those who haven't read Rational Mysticism, in which I describe a psychedelic trip that led me to fear oneness--and to believe that God fears it too. But for now, theology must wait, cuz I gotta drive my kid to the mall.


On the topic of purposeless belief systems, string theory is worse than any religion!

It is a money-making scam for an elite group of dominating priests, the professional string theorists (no names mentioned to save embarrassment should they be reading).

There is no understanding in string theory. It is the supreme end of the Bohring physics which Popper attacked violently:

‘What they now care about, as physicists, is (a) mastery of the mathematical formalism, i.e., of the instrument, and (b) its applications; and they care for nothing else.’

– Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, R.K.P., 1969, p100.

Mike Cook

The ancient Greeks could argue the "many or one" speculation with you until the goats come home. Better yet, they invented the vocabulary for doing so.

Any expansion of knowledge on the part of us self-aware matter units takes us toward
one-ness with the whole. That may even be true of string theory and the evolution of baseball statistics into a true science of how to build a world series team. I experienced my best epiphany after a night in a tavern in Nome while stumbling home under the Northern Lights through a village covered with crystalline rine, the air so still that all chimney smoke went straight upwards like perfectly linear pillars to hold up the stellar canopy.

I'll believe in AI when silicon based life self-assigns itself the task of pondering either beauty or intricate theories that have no possible utility.

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