By Fiona Macrae
Religion is part of human nature and our brains are hard wired to believe in God, scientists believe. The evidence includes studies of babies and children which have shown the brain is programmed to think of the mind as being separate from the body. This distinction allows us to believe in the supernatural, to conjure up imaginary friends - and to conceive of gods, this week's New Scientist reports.
Other studies suggest our minds come with an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect, which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even when there is none.
Children as young as seven or eight believe that rocks, rivers and birds have been created for a specific purpose. Taken together, the two traits mean were are perfectly programmed to believe in god. Professor Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University in the US, said: 'There's now a lot of evidence that some of the foundations for our religious beliefs are hard-wired. 'All humans possess the brain circuitry and it never goes away.'
Richard Dawkins. Britain's most famous atheist, argues in his book the God Delusion that religion is propagated through indoctrination, especially of children. Evolution predisposes children to swallow whatever their parents and elders tell them, he argues, as trust and obedience are important for survival.
Asked about the idea of pre-programming, the Oxford University professor said: 'I am thoroughly happy with believing that children are predisposed to believe in invisible gods - I always was. 'But I also find that indoctrination hypothesis plausible. The two influences could, and I suspect do, reinforce one another.'
Others argue that religion spread because it aided the survival of our ancestors. Shared religious beliefs helped our forefathers form tightly knit groups that co-operated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling them to out-compete others, so the theory goes.
However, none of this necessarily means that the gods we believe in do not exist.
New Scientist says: 'All of the researchers involved stress that none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods: whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it.'