Religion Is an Enigma Our Minds Can Explain

We live in a world that is loaded with religion and spirituality, but this goes beyond simply going to pray or pray. Let's see what its implications are in society.
Religion Is an Enigma Our Minds Can Explain
Roberto Muelas Lobato

Written and verified by the psychologist Roberto Muelas Lobato.

Last update: 29 November, 2023

Religion came about as an age-old necessity, or at least so we think, and it’s stayed around until today without any signs it’s going to disappear. If you look at history, you’ll see that religion–if we can talk about it in any general way–has had a lot of variations. For example, there was the birth of the monotheistic religions, the ones that pray to a single God.

The gods have also changed a lot over the centuries and have taken a lot of different names and forms. There are gods you’re not allowed to create any representations of, and other ones that have fantastical forms. These forms are sometimes even related to animals.

Commend yourself to God with all your heart; He often rains down His mercies when hope is at its driest.”
-Miguel del Cervantes-

Religion has also managed to become institutionalized. People have created social institutions in its name that are meant to give or improve services like education and health. The negative side of this is that there have also been huge wars in its name. People have also committed a lots of crimes and injustices based on sacred texts, which they often misinterpret.


There are a lot of explanations that people have put forth to try and explain the birth and life of religion over the centuries. One of the best explanations is that it serves the purpose of giving answers to questions we’ve never been able to answer. But that’s not the only explanation people have given.

hands holding sun

Here we’re going to tell you about some of these attempts to explain the birth and ongoing life of religion:

  • Religion came about as a result of taking drugs. People who took hallucinogenic substances had unusual visions that they ended up interpreting as messages from the great beyond. Some shamans and witch doctors took drugs to be closer to the gods or communicate with them to make decisions. Perhaps they didn’t always take these drugs on purpose. So it makes sense that their interpretations have to do with divine beings.
  • Another explanation says that religion started as a way of explaining the natural phenomena that had no logical interpretations. There were some phenomena that were harder for us to explain convincingly, like rain and thunder. People couldn’t find a logical way to interpret these, and that led them to create gods. So then those gods were the ones who caused the phenomena that people couldn’t rationally explain.
  • The rise of religion also seems like a kind of idol worship. People even started to worship and idoloize certain figures for their words and actions. This adoration led people to create religions based on those figures.
  • The last explanation says that religion showed up as a cognitive adaptation. These are mental functions, processes, and states. They have a specific focus on processes like understanding, inference, decision-making, planning, and learning. This is one of the most accepted viewpoints within the realms of biology and psychology.

In Gods We Trust

According to a book by Scott AtranIn Gods We Trust, religion tries to transfer genes with a predisposition towards certain behaviors, group selection, and miming or imitation.

Religion isn’t a doctrine or an institution, and it’s not even a faith. According to Atran, religion exists due to the work of the human mind when it deals with curiosity about life, like birth, old age, death, the unexpected, and love.

To understand this perspective, you have to realize that religion is hard to understand and often its doctrines go against intuition. For example, there’s the meaning that some religions give to sacrifices.

Following one religion or another can be extremely costly, and in certain time periods it even takes lives. If we weigh the positive and negative characteristics of religion, they might even come out equal. This means that people probably don’t choose religions just based on their benefits.

Man finds God behind every door science is able to open.
-Albert Einstein-

people discussing religion

Instead, we can see religion  as a non-adaptive consequence of the adaptive characteristics of human cognition. That is, religion is an adaptation on the cognitive level. But it’s not adaptive in and of itself if we look at all its costs and benefits.

Religion, just like other cultural phenomena, is the outcome of a meeting between cognitive, behavioral, and physical mediums. It also comes from the ecological limitations inside our minds.

Psychological faculties that create religion

Religion comes from certain psychological faculties that adapt us to the conditions of life. Here are some of those faculties:

  • Primary and secondary affective programs: the emotions we feel and how we interpret them have a direct impact on our interactions with other people. Believing in a religion makes it so we have different affective responses with our group than we do with other groups. Of course, our responses will be more affective with members of our own group. This way of expressing emotions was good for our evolution because it benefitted the groups we belonged to.
  • Social intelligence: group life paved a way for different interpretations that worked to protect the group. Choosing one god or another comes from belonging to a specific group. And this choice ends up creating the differences between groups. The difference between their choice works to regulate and legitimize the relationships that groups with different gods establish. And this benefits our own group.
  • Cognitive modules: these are the mental frameworks that regulate our interpretation of actions and rituals. People understand and justify these modules through religion. We understand and accept all the rituals from our religion. Meanwhile any rituals from other religions seem strange and impossible to understand. The rituals and actions of a specific group will carry on through these frameworks.

As humans we have a tendency to detect agency, or the cause of an action, where there isn’t one. For example, our belief in the supernatural comes from the same cognitive adaptation as that of our ancestors. They interpreted the sound of a breeze shaking a bush as the presence of a saber-toothed tiger.

This interpretation was useful because it helped people survive. In this sense, supernatural actions were just a byproduct of evolution that came from our predator detection sytems.

From this point of view, religion is the tool our minds use to give plausible interpretations to any events that we’re not sure about. Our minds reproduced those mechanisms and frameworks through evolution to make sure we’d belong to a group and survive.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.