The God Brain — Is Religion Hardwired or Learned?

It comes as no surprise that the topic of religion and how each of our personal religious views are formed has been a source for debate for thousands of years.

This Sunday on Brain Games, host Jason Silva travels to Jerusalem, Israel, to explore The God Brain. Fascinating new research has uncovered the possibility that believing in God may be hardwired in our brains. In Sunday’s episode, Silva will attempt to investigate whether our beliefs are pre-selected by a greater power or if they are the result of years and years of evolutionary adaptation.

As we get ready for another new episode of Brain Games, we invited top neuroscience experts to weigh in on this complicated and controversial topic. We asked them the following question:

Is belief in God innate in our brains, as if it were installed by some divine programmer? Or is spirituality a more complex, evolving adaptation that has both helped and harmed us as a species?

Here’s what they had to say:

Shaheen Lakhan, associate professor of neurology and medical education at California University of Science and Medicine’s School of Medicine and executive director of the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation, writes in BrainBlogger about the five ways scientists look for “neurobiological underpinnings.” Lakhan describes these five areas of observation as follows: “brain imaging and monitoring techniques,” “hallucinogenic agents,” “patients with neurological and psychiatric diseases,” “studies done in prayer and meditation,” and “children left to their own devices.” For example, with children, Lakhan explains, “psychologists and anthropologists deemed that children left to their own devices would have some conception of God. Some attribute this to our innate sense of detecting patterns in the world (as to discern predators or prey in nature), while others propagate the notion of a ‘supersense’ — or a cognitive tendency to infer hidden forces in the world working for good or ill.” From a more technical perspective, he explains, “a variety of brain imaging and monitoring techniques — such as EEG; MRI, including functional MRI (fMRI); PET; and SPECT — have compared data on brain activity and blood flow in specific spiritual practices. Some studies have identified specific brain areas that are consistently active (or suppressed) during the religious practice.” With many questions remaining, Lakhan concludes, “the neuroscientific study of religious and spiritual phenomena remains in its infancy. There is mounting evidence of a biological correlate to these phenomena; however, this does not necessarily negate an actual spiritual component.” Read the full article, The God Brain: Is Religion Hardwired? >>

ScienceBlogs’ Greg Laden of Greg Laden’s Blog explains, “I have often made the argument that religiosity — a personal belief in god, spirits, the supernatural, etc. — would emerge in human societies on its own if it wasn’t there already.” Laden goes on, “Imagine taking an entire generation of people in a geographically isolated region, and wiping out their memory of religion and also removing all references to religion that they might ever encounter. They would be religion-free for a while, maybe even for a number of generations, but eventually, they would re-invent it.” He responds to the question at hand saying, “It is not innate in our species, as people usually understand the term — coded for by genes, the inevitable outcome of typical development.” Laden continues, “the process of human behavior in the context of our physical world and culture would prod and poke and hint and push until it started to emerge here and there, and eventually, it would become part of the larger system of behavior.” He adds, “No, of course, a tendency to eventually develop religion in a society was not put there by a divine programmer, any more than a paisley teapot was set into orbit around the planet Jupiter by a mischievous flying unicorn.” Laden continues, “Yes, religion, spirituality and all that is a complex changing thing that may have helped and may have harmed. But is it an adaptation? No. It is a side effect.” Read Greg’s full article, Why I Would Believe in God If I wasn’t an Atheist >>

Erik Driscoll, founder and editor-in-chief of, voices his view saying, “I take the position that a belief in God, gods, souls or spirits is not innate in our brains, nor was anything installed by some divine programmer or being. I will entertain the idea that our brains can believe concepts with very little, and sometimes no, proof at all. Sometimes merely a suggestion is enough to form a belief. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to blame any one religion, or credit one being with the belief system that may or may not be in species’ nervous systems.” Driscoll goes on to explain, “Spirituality may be thought of as an evolutionary adaptation that resulted from environmental pressures. Social acceptance, mating, hunting, gathering, having more time to dedicate to survival rather than ponder difficult questions and many other factors are sure to have played a part in our brains evolving spiritual beliefs.” He talks of parasites and their hosts, elaborating, “We have species with other species inside them and on them that far outnumber their own cells, and rely on those species for basic survival (see human microbiota). Once one starts to really dig into biology, the idea of nervous systems adapting over millions of years, resulting in spirituality to aid survival at some point doesn’t seem as preposterous as many may suspect.” Read the full article here.

Thank you to all of our participants for shedding insight into this mysterious and complex subject. Tune in to Brain Games: The God Brain this coming Sunday, Feb. 21, at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.


  1. Theodore A Hoppe
    United States
    February 18, 2016, 12:45 pm

    “Neurologist VS Ramachandran explains the case of split-brain patients with one hemisphere without a belief in a god, and the other with a belief in a god. (Clip taken from talk at 2006 Beyond Belief Conference, link below)”

    Link to Ramachandran’s full talk (about 39 minutes into the video):