March 12, 2009

Does a belief in God prove evolution?

Posted in Science at 1:20 pm by Stephanie

No, it doesn’t.  But the question isn’t as absurd as it might sound on face.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is being used in quite a few different applications now.  The essential idea is that by measuring oxygen utilization in specific regions of the brain, doctors can determine which areas are active during a given time frame – for instance, when performing a task or thinking about an idea in response to a question.  It’s sort of like science based mind reading!  Of course, analyzing the data is difficult and sometimes controversial, but the technique is giving evolutionary scientists a lot of new paths to explore.

A new study looked at the fMRI scans of 40 people while they were presented with various statements about God.

Statements based on God’s involvement — such as “God protects one’s life” or “Life has no higher purpose” — provoked activity in brain regions associated with understanding intent. Statements of God’s emotions — such as “God is forgiving” or “the afterlife will be punishing” — stimulated regions responsible for classifying emotions and relating observed actions to oneself. Knowledge-based statements, such as “a source of creation exists” or “religions provide moral guidance,” activated linguistic processing centers.

In short, the study concludes that there is no “God region” of the brain; a belief in the supernatural can arise out of the same regions that we use for every day life.  No soul required.

The debate rages on within the community as to whether a supernatural belief was an accidental by-product of group interaction (being able to appreciate the concept of an abstract “other” and considering people who aren’t currently present is a short hop away from grasping a supernatural being) or an adaptation to group life (belief in a deity might have encouraged better child-rearing and group morality).  This study seems to lead to the conclusion that religious belief could come from both camps — what began as an accident turned out to be fairly useful.

Of course, one should be leery of over-interpreting the results.  This was a very small study with a new-ish technology that isn’t yet fully understood, a technology that currently has serious shortcomings.  Not all variables were controlled.  But the science will only continue to evolve and improve, and hopefully with it, our knowledge.