Brains wired for “seeing” the invisible

Can you really be an atheist? This question is not often asked, perhaps because one implicitly assumes that not believing in god, or soul, or the afterlife, are philosophical positions, or personal choices, or indeed the result of rational analysis. After all famous atheists, like biologist Richard Dawkins or philosopher Anthony Grayling, claim that believing in non-physical entities is not only absurd but also the outcome of social coercion. For them believing in a god or gods is caused though brainwashing by parents, schools and priests: take away the brainwashing and humans will revert to their natural state of healthy scepticism and rational materialism.

Unfortunately for militant atheists science tells us otherwise. From what we know about our evolutionary history, as well as from neuropsychology, we are born with a natural tendency towards religious belief. And that includes everyone, atheist or not.

In his 1994 book “The naturalness of religious ideas” Social anthropologist Pascal Boyer explains that a belief in non-physical beings, or spirits, is the most common feature in religions. And yet this belief appears paradoxical, since spirits violate intuitive biological and physical knowledge; they can live forever, pass through walls or exist in many places and times simultaneously. But let us look a little deeper into the constituent parts of religion, according to Boyer. There are three other recurrent features in religious ideologies. Firstly, that a non-physical part of a person can survive after death and stay as a being with beliefs and desires. Secondly, that certain people receive direct inspiration or messages from supernatural agencies. And thirdly, that performing certain rituals in an exact way can bring about change in the natural world. All three characteristics of religion result from the cognitive makeup of our modern minds. In other words, religion is the result of how our minds function. But why did this happen? Perhaps death has a lot to do with it.

Even self-declared atheists honour the dead. And although they might claim that they honour the “memory” of the deceased rather than the corpse itself, the fact is that our minds – atheistic or not – find it hard to come to terms with the notion that a person actually “dies”. To our minds, there is always something about a person that survives his or her death. One may choose to call it “memory” or “soul” depending on one’s convictions. However, as we approach the end of life, our inner inability to deal with death compels us to invent something that does not perish, even after the body dies.

The reason for this is that death wrecks havoc with our cognitive systems. Death severs social connections, and by consequence destroys the cognitive social map that makes us who we are. We are social primates whose survival depends on forging strong social bonds with family and friends. Death replaces people we love and care for with empty holes. It hacks at emotional bonds forged over long periods of time. The loss of a loved one is the virtual destruction of our mental universe. The intensity of the feeling of loss is usually proportional to the degree of connection with the deceased. The further distance of the person who died is from our inner social network the lesser our loss, our sadness, and our devastation. Although we may feel shocked and saddened when thousands are killed in a distant country because of a natural disaster or war, we never feel sad in the way we do when a person close to us dies.

So our minds invented the notion that life continues beyond death; and that the dead keep on living in the hereafter. This is a relatively new invention in our evolutionary history. The earliest human burial dates back 100,000 years. This suggests that about that time something happened and humans became “dualists”: our minds would henceforth understand the natural world as made of two realms, a visible and an invisible one.

We are born dualists, regardless of our beliefs (Image courtesy of radiologist Andrew Newberg.).
We are born dualists, regardless of our beliefs (Image courtesy of radiologist Andrew Newberg.).

Human skeleton remains discovered in the Skhul Cave at Qafzeh, Israel were stained with red ochre. Around them there were several goods designed to escort them to the life beyond; the mandible of a wild boar was found in the arms of one of the skeletons. No human burials have been discovered prior to that date. Once the concepts of an afterlife and the survival of the soul had been conceived, our rational part kicked in to produce numerous “logical” relating to these notions. To this invisible realm access was privileged to the very few, or under very special circumstances to the many. The few would be called shamans – and later priests, prophets, messiahs, or gurus. The special circumstances would occur during communal rituals where rhythmic dances or the use of hallucinogenic drugs induced ecstatic states of mind. Shamans and hallucinations further enforced beliefs in non-physical beings. The roots of religion were sown.

The Sorcerer

A cave painting of the Upper Palaeolithic from the cavern of Trois-Freres in Ariege, France probably shows one of those “special individuals”. The painting was made around 13,000 years ago and it depicts a being with an upright posture and hands that look human, the back and ears of a herbivore, the antlers of a reindeer, the tail of a horse and a phallus positioned like that of a feline. The “sorcerer” – as the painted figure is known – is interpreted by scientists as a great spirit, or master of animals. The French anthropologist Henri Breuil has suggested that the painting depicts a shaman performing a ritual.

Most archaeologists believe that painted prehistoric caves were sites for the practice of magical ceremonies. This may also explain one of the greatest puzzles about prehistoric cave paintings: why were they painted in the darkest of places, in the deepest of caves, in spaces where people did not live. By 35,000 years ago humans had mostly abandoned cave dwelling. We had ceased to be “cavemen”. Most lived in small, makeshift camps which were befitting to a species of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Nevertheless, the beautiful, naturalistic cave art of the Upper Palaeolithic is profound testament that caves remained a focal point of human life for thousands of years to come. For millennia humans continued to use these caves for purposes other than dwelling. But what were they doing in there? Before beginning to speculate let us look at some interesting facts.

From Gibraltar to the Ural Mountains archaeologists have discovered around 150 caves with wall paintings. Given the enormous time span from the beginnings of cave art to the end of the Upper Palaeolithic around 12,000 years ago, these caves must have been used only sporadically. On average, for the whole of Europe, there was one painted cave for every five generations of people. Even the most utilized caves seem to have been in use for only a restricted time by a limited number of people. Astonishingly, there is a thematic similarity across all of these disparate caves: big animals, few humans, many geometric designs recur in almost every cave. It is as if there was a common set of beliefs that span Peoples that lived across thousands of miles, and across tens of thousands of years.

There are other common features as well. Most paintings are placed in the deepest and darkest of places. At Niaux most images are located at the end of a deep galley. At Chauvet one must descend down a narrow shaft. At Lascaux one has to follow several passages with wall paintings continuing to the very end of the caves several meters deep. These passages and caverns produce few finds of human debris, suggesting that no one lived there. Engravings, tucked away in narrow or low niches suggest individual devotions. Footprints of adults, adolescents and children suggest that dances were performed. All evidence points to the conclusion that in these deep, dark, underground places, people gathered for special occasions only.

We cannot possibly know what went on in there but many archaeologists believe that our ancestors performed religious rituals. Caves echo with reverence down the ages to our day, which may indeed have its roots in prehistory. The ancient Greeks believed that caves connected to the underworld; the Eleusinian mysteries were performed in caves. Persians and Romans worshiped Mithras, the god of light, in caves; a tradition that was emulated by the first Christians who worshipped in catacombs. Later Christian iconography depicts Jesus born in a cave. The relationship between caves and religion is not a western phenomenon only; for the Incas caves were places of emergence and origin; for the Maya a conduit to the other world. One of the holiest shrines in Hinduism is the Amarnath cave in Jammu and Kashmir, dedicated to Shiva.

The combination of dances and paintings reveals evidence of something equally important to the birth of religion: the manifestation and communion of narratives. I can imagine people in those underground caves telling stories about hunts and hero-hunters who transformed into animals, of supernatural beings, of the creation of cosmos. Perhaps those rituals were somewhat like a Palaeolithic movie-theatre-cum-church: a shaman with torchlight at hand leading a procession of faithful into the cave’s mystical innards; stopping under a mural with lions and horses and re-enacting a magical story.

These stories must have passed from mouth to mouth, travelling across space and time, finally arriving at the dawn of the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago. The prehistoric stories, retold many times, were now transformed, but ever so slightly. The magical beasts remained; and so did the heroes, although some of them were elevated to gods. The Neolithic man, the farmer, the soldier, the priest, the king, edited the stories of his Palaeolithic past, using the same cognitive apparatus, the modern mind with its wired-in dualism. Complex, agricultural and proto-industrial civilizations reconfigured the rituals of communal dancing and ecstasy into the religious narratives of Ancient Egypt, of Mesopotamia, of Greece. These stories, with time, were absorbed in the narratives of the Abrahamic religions. Almost every other religion in the world today has had a similar development. The persistence of religious belief over thousands of millennia is a testament to the function of our dualistic minds. Regardless of the rational analysis that atheists encourage us to do it is ultimately impossible to escape our minds. We can reject god, or gods, but deep inside us we derive meaning for our lives from immaterial, and not material things. Take for instance love: explaining it scientifically as the transfer of chemicals in the brain, does not make us love deeper or more truthfully. Even atheists are inherently dualists, and therefore crypto-religious, because none of us can escape nature.