There is a saying that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” This expression refers to the notion that, given the right dire circumstances, everyone believes in religion or Gods. The startling event of being entrenched in a hole, with bullets whizzing overhead, armed shadowed figures in the night, rapidly approaching, may galvanize the mind to revert to subconscious thought. In these mostly inaccessible regions of the brain, some believe that the process of evolution, or religious doctrine, have installed tidbits of information in some neurons that are released to the conscious mind during shocking moments. Reverent beliefs about God come to mind when exigent circumstances are present. God is thought to have the power to intervene during traumatic moments, and it is not uncommon for mortals to summon God when in such peril– a “Hail Mary” prayer to the Virgin Mary, for the religious, or the rubbing of a rabbit foot for the spiritual. Evolutionists think that fear of harm or death caused living organisms to attach agency to things that “could” be detrimental to survival.
In his book, “God is Watching You”, Dominic Johnson writes extensively about what motivates individuals and groups to cooperate with one another. He theorizes that one’s belief in religion, and the fear of punishment keeps people in sync with others. An increase in secularism, particularly in the West, has lessened the number of people who fear divine punishment. However, the slack has been picked up by an even stronger subscription to a fear of supernatural punishment. He opines that such concerns have been present since time immemorial. Thus, regardless of whether a person usually has a superstitious mindset, his mental process changes and “comes to force where there are high stakes, elevated levels of uncertainty, a lack of control, or stress or anxiety”, Johnson implies. Religious people and atheists alike, believe that they “will suffer the consequences of [their] actions, whether from gods, spirits, or from karma, immanent justice, comeuppance, just desserts, and plain old fate.” Moreover, “The human brain is wired to adopt supernatural concepts whether we belong to a church or not”.
Johnson notes that we even invent supernatural punishment when it helps to promote cooperation (telling children not to be naughty, or Santa won’t come)– “what would your dead father think about “your actions today.” In essence, he suggests that religion (and the rituals contained therein), supernatural beliefs, and the fear of punishment from supernatural forces, all serve to force most people to cooperate (and thereby reduce “free-riders) and that cooperation is vital to our existence. I recommend this book.