Supernatural belief is an evolutionary adaption with a long and varied history that led to the continued survival of our ancestors. Shared belief systems within early societies likely increased cooperation and led to a greater survival rate for the group. In a larger sense, shared beliefs and moral values, across cultures, may have increased survival regionally as a result of strengthening trade networks. As supernatural explanations for natural phenomena have been repeatedly selected for centuries, it should come as no surprise that they have spread throughout the world.
In the Arctic, there is a myth of a young girl called Sedna. Sedna was tricked into marrying a birdman that could not provide her with the comforts he had promised her before their marriage. Sedna was desperate to escape this marriage so she asked her father for help. Sedna’s father rescued her from the birdman’s home, but as they crossed the sea in their small boat a storm rose up. Sedna was tossed from the boat and was left clinging to the side. Eventually, her father was left with only one option — to survive, he had to sacrifice Sedna. He began to cut off Sedna’s fingers one by one until she could no longer grasp the boat, but as each finger fell into the water it was transformed into a sea animal. Sedna then became the goddess of the sea to rule over all of her creatures.
Supernatural belief is essentially a human universal. Some form of mysticism or religion has existed in hominid cultures for millennia. During the Upper Pleistocene, we see an explosion of symbolic art that may represent the beginnings of religion. Cave paintings and carvings of half-man half-animal figures and busty Venus figurines may be early examples of ritual practice and superstition. Since the Ice Age, superstition has blossomed into complex mythologies.
Cultures everywhere utilized their creativity and teleological tendencies to explain the world in which they lived. When crops didn’t grow or rain didn’t fall and the naturalistic explanations were outside their reach, humans delved into religion to find the answers they needed. These supernatural explanations often morphed into creative and detailed mythologies and in some cases have become the organized, dogmatic religions we know today. Though I think I prefer Sedna and her lost fingers.
Caitlin Page is a fourth-year cultural anthropology major.
By definition, supernatural concepts are ungrounded in natural science. However, like spoken languages, they have a universal quality, as they occur spontaneously in every culture. Scientific research has given us insight into many evolutionary reasons why there is a strong compulsion to believe in concepts and entities that are not real.
One reason is the nature of cognitive or perceptual processes inherent in the brain. For example, when a stimuli is ambiguous, we tend to assume that an agent is present rather than not. It is a less costly error to assume that, let’s say, a snake is lurking nearby when it really isn’t, rather than to assume a snake is not present when it really is. The first scenario is a false alarm, but the second is a potential attack. Therefore, the detection of agency is hypersensitive because it is evolutionarily advantageous, but as a side effect, could lead one to falsely perceive natural phenomena as the actions of ghosts or gods.
Social context also explains why religion would be so compelling and beneficial. As societies get larger, the easier it is for people to avoid contributing to the community. A vengeful deity concerned with morality is an invisible enforcer of laws, bringing people to police themselves to “cheat” less in an experimental setting.
Limitations of our minds also influence our tendency to believe in superstition. Humans are naturally bad at understanding randomness and probability, evidenced by scientific research and casino profits. Events such as the occurrence of life on Earth, or finding $100 after praying for money, may seem too impossible or serendipitous to have occurred without supernatural influence. There is a simple explanation, as Lawrence Krauss said, “The universe is huge and old … rare events happen all the time.”
We can explain supernatural belief in terms of evolution, cognition and social interactions, showing that it is perfectly natural because it was advantageous in the past. But as we expand our collective knowledge, the explanatory power of our intuition can only decrease. Proclivity to supernatural belief is like the drive to consume sugar in a world where it is no longer scarce; it is a trait that transitioned from adaptive to detrimental because of our changing environment.
David Sañosa is a fourth-year biopsychology and biochemistry major.