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May 24, 2004

Reflections on the "God Module"

When I was an undergraduate in college I stumbled upon an article on the "God Module." It was a very exciting moment for me because I was one of those individuals that just never "got" religion on an instinctive level. Tertullian's quip "I believe because it is absurd" struck me as one of the most peculiar (and absurd!) assertions one could make. The "God Module" seemed to offer an easy and concise answer: it was a matter of biology, destinity and nature. Of course, I accepted that environmental inputs were important, though I had always felt more thoroughgoing Skinnerian conceptions of religion and other complex behaviors "missed" something.

For the public, the idea of the "God Module" was easy to digest, and for the non-religious public, it became something that was part of the intellectual zeitgeist. A unitary cause explained why we were so different, why we dissented from the gods of our era, whatever era that might be. Though the scientists who offered the research initially were tentative in their findings, the public was quite easily swept up into inferring grand implications from a thin hypothesis so long as it tantalized their predilection for the One True Answer. Over the past few years I have become more skeptical of the "God Module," though I think that it is one important vector or principle component that contributes to the cluster of behaviors that indicate "religiosity."

First, I think it is important to compare the idea of the "God Module" to something that we are on more solid ground for, the "Language Module". Though one might decompose this construct into "lexical" and "grammatical" subcomponents, it clearly exists from the evidence of aphasiacs, and its biological reality seems confirmed by the crystallization of language acquisition capacity in one's adolescence.

But note that there are sharp differences between "language" and "religion," though both seem to be human cultural universals.


  • Language capacity is an on-off feature, religiosity tends to be a continuous trait.
  • Language capacity is accurately described as a human universal on the individual level, religion is not.
  • Language is clear and defined, religion is fuzzy.
  • I know of no clear equivalent to aphasia in the area of religion.

If there was a principle component that was the "God Module," I suspect religion would be much more like language. That is, it would not display such a large variation between individuals, a variation that one might even conceive of as a normal distribution (that is, most individuals are moderately religious, with minorities at either extremes). Rather, religion might be more like a polygenic trait, multiple components may intersect in an "additive" effect. A normal distribution is much more easily explained by multiple components contributing to religion, as very few individuals would have all components "off" or "on."

What could these "components" be? Well, I suspect they are the components of the modular mind, that is, religion emerges out of interactions between cognitive domains. For instance, the fear of death might be the result of our temporal sense, our ability to conceive of and visualize a supernatural agent emerges out of our visuo-spatial and general intelligence, our need to articulate and communicate is expressed through our language facility, while the rituals that solidify group bonds are expressions of social intelligence. I am of course greatly simplifying, but I think you understand what I am getting at.

This does not mean that the research into the "God Module" need stop (that is, neurotheology), I suspect it is an important component of "religiosity," and in some individuals, might be the dominant aspect. These might be mystics, prophets and assorted religious revolutionaries, who are the drivers of religious change in the social context. Therefore, understanding the "God Module" might allow us to understand why and how religious change occurs through the force of personality of a few individuals. But, to truly understand religious expression in times of stasis, we need to take a more broad view.

Of course, this applies in the universal context, it does little to explain the differences between religion. It is here that I think a deep understanding of social and historical forces is important. Various societies are buffeted and constrained in dissimilar fasions. For example, rational choice might be a good way to explain religious dynamics in the United States because the downsides of conversion are rather low as there is little social stigma attached to switching denominations. In contrast, social stigma is important in preventing conversions in Muslim countries, so a "rational choice" theory seems harder to model social dynamics.

Perhaps one might imagine all humans as a superspet. A large subset of this are the "religious." Within this subset, one could imagine other sets that define those impacted by rational choice considerations or those who are socially constrained, and the intersection between the sets where individuals must consider individual and group costs and benefits.

Ultimately religion is complex. Biology, psychology, sociology and history all play roles. Scholars will attempt to form paradigms from their own disciplinary angle, but it is important that they also admit that they are engaging in a first aproximation only, examining one component or scrutinizing one particular subset. Those who purport to have at their finger-tips the One True Theory seem only possessed of the hubris of gods.

Addendum: Let me elaborate on the importance of using a multi-component perspective: surveys of the Far East regularly show that individuals in that region tend to express a low belief in a personal God. But does that mean that they lead a ritual life less rich than say those of the Muslim Middle East? I suspect not. I do think one can make assertion that some populations are "less religious" than others, but it is almost certainly because there are differences in the expression of various modules or cognitive domains.

Posted by razib at 01:34 PM