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Religious people may believe that God is supernatural, but new research shows that their brains respond as if he or she were just another person. That could help explain how the capacity for religious belief has evolved along with the human brain.
NPR's Jon Hamilton has this story.
JON HAMILTON: A team from the National Institutes of Health wanted to know what goes on in people's brains when they encounter statements like this.
D: I believe a God is with me throughout the day and watches over me.
HAMILTON: Or statements like this.
D: God is angry at human behavior.
HAMILTON: Jordan Grafman runs the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. He was part of a team that studied the brains of 40 people, some religious, some not, using a technology called functional MRI.
Grafman says some people agreed with the statements about God's love or anger, while other didn't. But either way, the statements got a response in areas of the brain involved in empathy and understanding what other people might be thinking.
D: If the statement was that God has a presence in my daily life, well, that's making an inference, first of all, about God as a being of some kind, as an essence of some kind. So you're making an inference about an entity and their relationship with you. That would activate areas, for example, in the left frontal cortex of the brain. All such areas activated, as well, if you were making an inference about a friend's intentions.
HAMILTON: Grafman says there were differences between religious and non-religious people. Those who said they believed in God had a negative emotional response to statements like there is no higher purpose. Non-believers had the same reaction to statements that assumed God exists. Grafman says the results show that to the brain, religious belief is a lot like political belief.
D: If you're very conservative, and you have to make a judgment about what looks like a liberal statement, and you disagree with that, you might find this very same brain system is being activated.
HAMILTON: Grafman says the new study says nothing about whether God exists, but it does suggest that belief in a supernatural being depends on brain systems that evolved quite recently.
D: We believe that some of the same underlying abilities that support other sorts of complex human social behavior also support the behavior that we're terming religious belief.
HAMILTON: Grafman says that probably means religions appeared as humans evolved the ability to handle really complicated social interactions. Joseph Bulbulia is an expert on the cognitive psychology of religion at Victoria University in New Zealand. He says religious belief has helped societies survive and thrive for thousands of years. Without religion, he says...
D: So much of what is possible for us, large-scale cooperation, which now spans the world, would be impossible.
HAMILTON: Bulbulia says religious belief means people share the same set of rules about behavior and think they'll be punished if they don't follow them. It also unites people, especially in times of great uncertainty. Bulbulia says it's no accident that President Obama invoked religion during his inaugural address.
P: And with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations. Thank you. God bless you. May God bless the United States of America.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
HAMILTON: Bulbulia says much of that speech was about how people have survived hard times in the past by working together.
D: We've got through it by being committed to each other. And we'll do it again, but only by being committed to each other through these old values.
HAMILTON: Which means using the areas of the brain involved in empathy and understanding. The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.