From A Lion Behind A Bush To God Behind The Oz Curtain: The Evolution Of God Belief

What is the relation between God belief and ignorance? I have a colleague in the science department at my college who said this to me yesterday (I’m paraphrasing): “I’m less sympathetic to the young Earth creationist of today than the one from, say, four hundred years ago because the latter was simply in ignorance, but the former is in willful ignorance.”

I thought this was a wonderfully sharp distinction, and it got me to thinking: what is the relation between ignorance and religion generally?

Hyperactive agent detection and God. Three things that evolutionary psychologists tell us are the following: (1) as well as being integrated, the brain is also modular, and among its modules is an agent detection system; (2) natural selection works by selecting among variations in organisms along a continuum, which means that different people have evolved different set points for their agent detection systems (some are more hyperactive in detecting agents in phenomena than others); and (3) the brain’s agent detection system is generally biased by natural selection toward the hyperactive side of the continuum (it tends to be better to assume that a rustling in a bush might be a large cat, like a lion, and be anxious about it, even if it’s usually just the wind).

So agent detection systems that are biased toward assuming potentially threatening agents are behind just about everything may account in some significant measure for the evolution of religion, conspiracy belief, and superstition generally.

God belief and over-arching conspiracy theories are obvious examples of an overactive agent imagination, for they unify our agent detection proclivities at the grandest scale. They are the ultimate superstitions; the last superstitions; all superstitions rolled up into One. If it’s not God, it’s the Illuminati or the Bilderbergers. Paranoia is next to godliness.

Perhaps this is why Pascal’s Wager is such a pervasive and effective evangelism tool: in your present state of ignorance, you’ve got a lot to lose. Even if there are only hints that God might exist, you better believe–just in case. You don’t want to end up in hell, do you?

This appeal exploits and hijacks to religious ends one’s hyperactive agent detection complex, which has always been a form of fire insurance.

From ignorance to knowledge. If a bush rustles, we might approach it with caution, but once we’ve investigated, and find there is no large predator behind it, we have moved from ignorance to knowledge. Our hyperactive agent detection system initially biased our approach to the bush when we were in a state of ignorance and anxiety, but it can now stand down. When we investigate, we learn what is in fact the case, and we no longer are in need of engaging our agent detection system on that particular matter.

Something like this is what has happened to us collectively, within global culture, over the past 400 years (since the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that accompanied it). When we were in broad ignorance concerning the nature of the world, religion and superstition were the sources for our first theses about it, and these theses were grounded in hyperactive agent detection. There were presumed to be devils, gods, angels, ghosts, and systems set in place by divine agents–and these were lurking behind all that we saw.

We are no longer in ignorance.

That means we can now see how far our pre-scientific era religious and superstitious theses veer from reality. And it isn’t pretty.

Wind things and contingent things vs. agent things and conspiracy things. Because religion and superstition have had such an atrocious explanatory track record, we now tend, in the 21st century, to make science our go to source for our first theses concerning what’s going on around us. This isn’t “scientism,” it’s pragmatism; it’s the habit of skepticism. We have science now. There are many things on which we no longer have to speculate. We know. And where we don’t know, we’re skeptical of supernatural agent explanations because they’ve failed so spectacularly in the past. They’ve always brought us to a dead end.

So if we tend to cling to agent detection explanations even after scientists have discovered more “wind things” than “agent things” at work behind natural objects–and historians have discovered more “contingent things” than “conspiracy things” behind history–then we are being superstitious–and willingly so. We’re ignoring what science and historiography have worked out over the past four centuries.

Put another way, no reasonable person can pretend to unspill the milk of the scientific revolution. We have moved from innocence to experience. And this brings us to intellectual religion–the last refuge for superstition.

Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my! Science has not yet looked behind all of our anxious bushes yet, and so supernatural agent detection theories frequently take on the form of intellectual religion, retreating ever further to the boundaries of our knowledge. Intellectual religionists can always say, “Of course we no longer believe in Noah’s ark on Ararat, and Adam and Eve in a garden in Mesopotamia, but beneath it all is still a supernatural agent, beyond empirical access. This is the Ultimate Agent: a personal, all-knowing designer God who makes everything work to his purposes (there are no accidents). This Being wants our absolute submission and obedience.”

But we don’t really know this, and if history is any indication, it’s probably an incorrect thesis. (And notice how similar the all-knowing and controlling God thesis is to the all-knowing and controlling Bilderberger thesis.)

So I submit that we believe in God (the last superstition) because we were once afraid of lions. The dreaded lion in the bush has become, in the 21st century, God behind the Oz curtain. Both are the targets of an evolved and hyperactive agent detection system born of ignorance and fear.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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13 Responses to From A Lion Behind A Bush To God Behind The Oz Curtain: The Evolution Of God Belief

  1. I enjoyed reading your work, I especially related to the way you worded the relation of ignorance and the belief in God.

  2. drakodoc says:

    “we were once afraid of lions”
    Well I guess under the right circumstances (alone, on the Serengeti, without a firearm) I, and most reasonable, people would still be terrified of lions. However, that would be a ‘rational’ fear of a tangible and very real potential threat. Our agent detection system does yet have some protective value, but you are right to point out that we need to control it with moderation based on appropriate risk assessment.

  3. Alan says:

    It is a well known phenomenon in science that if you have a large set of data you can justify a wide range of conclusions by selecting with care which data to use and which to ignore. Most animals display agency detection, putting that characteristic back over three hundred million years in evolution. Humans appeared in an environment shared by lions over two million years ago. Organized religion and a belief in demanding, controlling gods developed about ten thousand years ago. Any correlation between agency detection and demanding gods looks completely fanciful.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      How do you account for the vagina dentata aspect of all religions? In other words, the great symbolic mouth from which we emerged, and which supposedly protects us now, also threatens us. Religion and paranoia always seem to be closely aligned. God stands ready not just to favor you if you do the right things, but to eat you if you don’t. Isn’t that agent detection grounded in fear and ignorance of the monster behind the bush or Oz curtain? When we don’t know what we’re dealing with, we suspect agents that might turn on us. Trust, but verify.

      And our agent detection system didn’t just evolve in response to big cats, but to people–the most terrifying big predators of all (as with coalitional violence between competing groups of chimpanzees).

    • Alan says:

      Santi Says: ‘And our agent detection system didn’t just evolve in response to big cats’ –

      Agency detection appears to have evolved long before mammals.

      Santi Says: ‘Religion and paranoia always seem to be closely aligned’ –

      Atheist under Stalin or Mayo had a lot of paranoia. Atheists on drugs are often paranoid. Most humans in the world for the last forty thousand years have been religious, so most of any other character for humans would also be primarily among the religious.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        But didn’t Stalinism and Maoism function as secular religions exploiting conspiracy theories? Align yourself with Papa Stalin and Mao (the good papas) against the conspiratorial bad papas (the rich, the Jews, the Japanese, the Americans, etc.)?

        What’s the difference between this sort of animating force grounded in hyperactive agent detection, threat, and the war between God and the devils in monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity?

        Most religionists (secular or religious) have this dual consciousness of loving Big Brother and hating Big Brother, fearing his punishment. Once you’re convinced that there’s a punishing God, you’re kind of trapped in a Stockholm Syndrome phenomenon, don’t you agree?

        Think of the torment that religious people put themselves through as to whether they’re really saved. Once saved, always saved?

      • Alan says:

        Stalin and Mao function as dominant alpha characters, common among many animal groups. But that phenomenon always relies upon knowledge of their presence, the opposite of assuming a hidden agent. Not nearly as ancient as agency detection, but alpha submission is far older than humanity or religion. Humans are also subject to manipulation by parents, politicians, police or priests. That is just human nature, not specific to religion and may or may not be related to agency detection.

      • Alan says:

        Saved or not saved relates to a minority of religions and has nothing to do with agency detection.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        But, Alan, you do think Freudian transference is a valid idea in psychology, yes? Isn’t it pretty obvious that if, as you put it, “alpha submission is far older than humanity or religion,” then this instinct to alpha submission enters religion as submission to the ultimate alpha: God the Father?

        In other words, if you combine hyperactive agent detection with things like scapegoating of out-groups and alpha submission, you get the basic outlines of montheistic superstition, theology, and religion.

      • Alan says:

        Santi, what you have to decide on is what you are trying to explain – humans or religion. Political parties’ even PTA meetings display these characteristics. To point out that many practices of religious organizations mirror human behavior and virtually all other organizations seems rather trivial. I don’t see where you have found anything that specifically addresses religion or why most humans believe in God(s).

  4. hedonix says:

    This deserves promotion so I shared it on my Facebook page.

  5. colinhutton says:

    And the odds that the rustle in the bushes in Central Park is a lion escaped from the zoo are small. But still much greater than the odds that there is a supernatural being.

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