Where Religion And Science Overlap

Where Religion And Science Overlap

A majority (56%) of people in the US believe in God as described in the Bible. but nearly 80% believe that either a god or another “higher power” has protected them at some time in their lives. Rather than dive into a distracting theological or semantic discussion, I will oversimplify and refer to the 80% as “believers” and the remaining 20% as “non-believers”.

The human mind is wired to corroborate both believers and non-believers with a heavy emphasis on the former, which is where I begin.


Weapons Included

Humans are social animals instinctively attracted to organize into cooperative like-minded groups. Research confirms that formal rituals alter our brain chemistry increasing feel-good chemicals including serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine. This combination of innate human characteristics predisposes us to form socially cohesive in-groups that include rituals. And, as elaborated below, evolution has predisposed us to overlay our in-groups with religious and supernatural beliefs.

Evolution allowed humans to improbably survive to become the most dominant species on earth. We lack the strength and built-in weapons of other primates and large mammals (e.g., large teeth or poisonous venom), we lack the speed of four-legged mammals, we lack the protection of fur in cold conditions, and we lack other survival apparatus like wings or claws.

But we overcome these weaknesses with a unique mind capable of designing tools and technology that more than compensates for our physical vulnerabilities; we have superior abilities to understand cause and effect, we have an unmatched ability to see the world through the eyes of other’s and infer their intentions, and we are inclined to learn by imitation. Chimpanzees, for example, more readily abandon imitation in favor of seeking short cuts by observing cause and effect in solving simple mechanical problems

In one study chimpanzees (2 to 6 years old) and human children (3 to 5 years old) observed a human demonstrate a sequence of manipulations of a tool to extract a food reward from an opaque box. Both the chimpanzees and the children retrieved the reward by imitating the demonstrator. All the manipulations except the last one were unnecessary to release the reward. The experiment was repeated using a transparent box in which the internal workings of the release mechanism were visible. The children generally repeated the unnecessary manipulations that succeeded earlier. The chimpanzees, however, tended to skip the unnecessary manipulations and directly released the reward.

In addition to learning by imitation, humans rely heavily on social learning. Humans persistently adhere to cultural norms throughout their lives. When one is raised in a religious family, there is a greater likelihood that the individual will remain religious as an adult regardless of education and scientific orientation. Recent fMRI studies reveal that logic centers of the human brain become less active, and emotional centers become more active when religion is pondered compared to problem-solving. Another study demonstrated that intense religious experiences stimulate the same areas of the brain as sex and listening to music. Throughout history, humans have developed and refined ways to induce intensely pleasurable religious experiences through the nature of the experiences varies greatly across the diverse practices of different religious groups.

Humans have a need to seek comfort from some external source in situations that are beyond personal control, even if that source of comfort originates in our minds. We indeed appear to have an inherent tendency to invent a power greater than ourselves to soothe our fears and discomforts.

Considering these and other predispositions to adopt religious practices, it is not surprising that we humans are predominantly believers. But what explains the minority that remains non-believers?


Moral behavior often is attributed to religious teachings and/or rewards and punishments administered by a judgmental god. Absent a belief in God, some believers assert, mankind would be morally and behaviorally unconstrained. Research studies discount this belief. If humans evolved from subhuman primates as most people believe (see the Pew survey below}, we see many examples of budding moral values in our close relatives.

Female chimpanzees have been observed to resolve conflicts between males by dragging the feuding males together while removing weapons from their hands. Chimpanzees have been known to compassionately comfort members of their troop who are ailing or dying. Unlike humans and chimpanzees, bonobos by nature live in peaceful communities by the motto “thou shalt not kill”; there is no documented murder of one bonobo by another. Bonobos are also far more peaceful and display more compassionate behavior than their chimpanzee relatives.

In 2012 bonobos were the last of the great apes to have their genome mapped. The result proved that bonobos are 99.6% identical to the chimpanzee genome and 97.8% identical to the human genome. While bonobos and chimpanzees have virtually identical genes, bonobos are nonviolent, mutually supportive, and otherwise peaceful compared to both humans and chimpanzees. The predominant scientific explanation of this difference is that long ago two groups of chimpanzee-like apes were separated by a river and continued to evolve in different environments. The northern group continued to compete with gorillas for food and the southern group, isolated from the gorillas, lived without that stress of resource competition. Over time, bonobos evolved to become more peaceful and cooperative and display what appear to us to be higher "moral values" than chimpanzees.   

Other social mammals display emotions that appear empathetic, altruistic, and compassionate. A group of female elephants was observed walking slowly to allow a mother carrying a dead calf to keep up with the herd. Dogs seem to enjoy work as therapy dogs calming people suffering from PTSD. Of course, there is some anthropomorphism mixed into the observations but the implication is sound: animal behavior can display some of the key ingredients of moral behavior. We differ from other species primarily in that human morality is a more highly developed abstract concept that pervades our laws and mores. It is entirely reasonable to assume morality could have evolved with or without direction from a higher power. Non-believers often look to science and evolution to explain why humans behave in socially acceptable ways and live honorable and moral lives.

Many believers and most non-believers believe in evolution. Recognizing that results of polls asking about evolution versus creationism have varied greatly depending on the way the question was asked,
the Pew Research Center recently established a more reliable and stable way of asking the question in American surveys: Pew survey respondents are now asked to choose one of the following statements.

  • Humans have evolved over time due to processes such as natural selection; God or a higher power had no role in this process.
  • Humans have evolved over time due to processes that were guided or allowed by God or a higher power.
  • Humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
Unlike prior Pew surveys, the second question kept God or a higher power in the picture when asked about evolution. As a result, the percent of Americans who claimed to reject evolution dropped from 31% to 18%.

Sociobiologists generally accept that humans evolved from lower forms of life(as do 95% of self-identified scientists) and many argue that human morality preceded supernatural and religious beliefs because they were an effective way that enhanced the cohesiveness of human social groups and restrained socially destructive behavior.

There is no reason to think that nonbelievers are less capable of living compassionate and moral lives than believers. Both groups have innate emotional brain centers, that cause us to care about and protect one another, whether implanted by a god or evolved in nature.

Science and Belief In God Can Coexist

Many believers are increasingly reconciling their faith with modern science. Many scientists are believers. How can both a belief in God or a higher power and an acceptance of scientific facts exist in the mind?

Recent research using fMRI and other imaging studies have demonstrated that different portions of the human brain activate as pondering religion versus solving problems. The emotional centers of the brain are suppressed, and the logic centers are activated while exploring quantitative or scientific subjects. The reverse is true when discussing God and religion.

The human species has survived by using brainpower to recognize patterns, invent weapons and tools, infer intent, and make predictions among other traits. Equally importantly, human survival during most of human history has relied on emotions: fight or flight, wariness of the unknown, reproductive instincts, and a variety of responses to other hormones and instincts. The brain has specialized areas to deal with a variety of problems. We engage different specialized compartments of our minds as needed to seek comfort and pleasure and to avoid harm and discomfort. Belief and non-belief might direct attention to different mental resources but the end result brings us together as a species more than it separates us. As the saying goes: "it's all in your head".

As I write this, what I see is not light projected onto a screen in my head; it is the result of light that strikes the back of my eye where the photons die, triggering electrical signals that travel in total darkness to my visual cortex. My brain then constructs an illusion of a lit screen that reveals some version of what is “out there”. That version is not the same as the one in the mind of a dog or an eagle.

The best we can hope for is to be comforted in time of trouble, to compassionately comfort others in need, and to experience the pleasures we seek, If that involves a god or a higher power, it’s good. If that results from a scientific discovery that adds to a better understanding of the wondrous universe, it’s good. If, on the other hand, belief in a higher power leads to one religion waging violence against another, that’s bad. If science leads to weapons that destroy us, that’s bad.

My personal perspective leads me to accept the legitimacy of both believers and non-believers. There is no room in my mind for "us versus them". Though I personally do not believe in the "supernatural", religious or otherwise, I'm happy to quiet the portion of my brain that might deprive me of the pleasure and comfort I get from fiction and fantasies that appeal to my emotions.