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.


  1. Anselm said,

    This is interesting. Not only may belief in God prove evolution, but evolutionary science may provide evidence for God by scientifically confirming the sensus divinitatis, thereby bolstering Plantinga’s epistemology.

    • Stephanie said,

      That would be interesting. However, the direction this science is headed in would be more likely to disprove such an argument.

      • Anselm said,

        Actually, evolutionary science is more likely to disprove naturalism, as pointed out in Plantinga’s “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism”: see

  2. Stephanie said,

    The article doesn’t seem to be on point or responsive.

  3. Ben said,

    Plantinga should stick to bad apologetics and leave science to, you know, actual scientists.

    Anselm, are you going to do nothing but drive-bys on Stephanie’s posts and comments? She linked to an interesting research topic, discussed it in a serious manner, identified the weaknesses… and you come along with boilerplate links to *lecture notes* that make even less sense than Plantinga’s usual fare. That might be fun for you, I guess, but it’s not really “discussion” the way the adults here are using the word.

    Did you even read the article Stephanie linked to?

    • Anselm said,

      It seems your specialty is ad hominem argument. Is “Plantinga should stick to bad apologetics” your version of a refutation? Even if you are uninterested in taking the time to absorb Plantinga’s argument in a version that is more than a few sentences, perhaps other readers of this blog are, and would appreciate the link (just as Andrew linked to the McGrew paper in his post on “minimal facts”).

      I will attempt to summarize the lecture as briefly as possible for those with short attention spans: Our beliefs are only justified and have warrant if our cognitive faculties are reliable, i.e., designed for truth-attainment. Assuming evolution under atheistic naturalism, our cognitive faculties are adapted only for survival, not truth-attainment. And indeed, the article above theorizes that our sense of the divine, as adapted for survival, points us to a false belief (again assuming atheistic naturalism is correct). Thus, under atheistic naturalism, we can have no confidence in the truth value of any of our beliefs–including our belief in atheistic naturalism. Such a belief is thus self-refuting.

      On theism, however, we can have confidence that our cognitive faculties are reliable and geared toward truth-attainment, because they were so designed by God. We can also therefore have confidence that our sense of the divine (as produced by our brains which developed under a God-guided evolutionary process) is pointing us toward truth, and not misdirecting us toward a false belief which is only adapted for survival purposes.

      • Ben said,

        Well, that answers my question. I did not ask for more information on Plantinga’s irrelevant (and stupid, and wrong) argument. I asked if you had read the *actual* topic this post is about. Obviously not.

        P.S. It isn’t ad hominem to point out that Plantinga has no relevant credentials to opine on evolution.

  4. Nathaniel said,

    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.

    Did anyone ever think otherwise?

    No soul required.

    How does that follow?

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