Humans are programmed to believe in God because it gives them a better chance of survival, researchers claim.
A study into the way children’s brains develop suggests that during the process of evolution those with religious tendencies began to benefit from their beliefs - possibly by working in groups to ensure the future of their community.
The findings of Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, suggest that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.
His work is supported by other researchers who have found evidence linking religious feelings and experience to particular regions of the brain.
They suggest people are programmed to receive a feeling of spirituality from electrical activity in these areas.
The findings challenge atheists such as Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, who has long argued that religious beliefs result from poor education and childhood ‘indoctrination’.
Professor Hood believes it is futile to try to get people to abandon their beliefs because these come from such a ‘fundamental level’.
‘Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works,’ he said.
‘As they grow up they overlay these beliefs with more rational approaches but the tendency to illogical supernatural beliefs remains as religion.’
The professor, who will present his findings at the British Science Association’s annual meeting this week, sees organised religion as just part of a spectrum of supernatural beliefs.
In one study he found even ardent atheists balked at the idea of accepting an organ transplant from a murderer, because of a superstitious belief that an individual’s personality could be stored in his or her organs.
To reinforce his point, Professor Hood produced a blue cardigan during a lecture and invited the audience to put it on, for a £10 reward. This prompted a sea of raised hands to volunteer.
He then said that the notorious murderer Fred West wore the cardigan, causing most to put their hand down.
Although it was merely a stunt - the cardigan was not West’s - the professor said this showed that even the most rational of people can be irrationally made to feel uncomfortable.
Another experiment involved asking subjects to cut up a treasured photograph. When his team then measured their sweat production - which is what lie-detector tests monitor - there was a jump in the reading. This did not occur when destroying an object of less sentimental significance.
‘This shows how superstition is hardwired into our brains,’ he added.
The Rev Michael Reiss, professor of science education at London University’s Institute of Education and an Anglican priest, said he saw no reason why such research should undermine religious belief. ‘We are evolved creatures and the whole point about humanity is that we are rooted in the natural world.’