Why Do Humans Keep Inventing The Supernatural?

Most cultures throughout history have invented the supernatural, and just as many have argued it doesn’t exist. So why do we keep returning to it?

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

James is a published author with four pop-history and science books to his name. He specializes in history, strange science, and anything out of the ordinary.

Senior Staff Writer

Pretty much anywhere at any time, humans have invented the supernatural. Why does it keep happening? Find out in IFLScience's digital magazine, CURIOUS

Everyone has their own idea of what the supernatural may look like. Image credit: (C) AnnaMaria Vasco/IFLScience

This article first appeared in Issue 6 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS

There is an old quote by Voltaire that goes "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him". Unless all religions, including the ones that specifically rule out the existence of other gods, are correct, then inventing gods is something we have done many times over during humanity's stretch on Earth.


Pretty much every culture around the world has developed some belief in the supernatural or embraced an organized religion. Excluding physics-denying explanations (ghosts violate pretty much everything that we know about physics, and the Large Hadron Collider has so far not turned out any evidence for an all-seeing god), why is it that this keeps happening?

Why is that man running at me with a rock?

As strange as it may seem, a belief in the supernatural may have been useful to early humans, or at least the belief arose thanks to other useful evolutionary advantages that early humans picked up as they began to try and make sense of the world.

As our brains evolved, we began to develop what psychologists call the Theory of Mind, or the capacity to realize that people other than ourselves have motives, intentions, and (as the name suggests) minds. Evolutionarily speaking, this was pretty useful to us. Simply speaking, you stand a better chance of survival if you can figure out whether another human approaching you at speed is here to offer you a nice shiny rock they've found and are excited about, or bludgeon you to death with the aforementioned shiny rock. 

Those that possessed theory of mind were more likely to survive, passing this useful trait to the next generation. But one problem that came with this new ability is our tendency to apply it to several things that don't have minds at all.

The triangle, the circle, and the slightly smaller triangle

In 1944, a group of psychologists showed volunteers a simple, short animation. The video showed a triangle, a circle, and another slightly smaller triangle against a white backdrop. The only other object in view was a larger rectangle with a "door" that could be opened and closed by the shapes passing through it.

The movement speed was varied, while the objects performed various actions such as leaving the rectangular "house" and moving around it, or jostling up against one of the other shapes. After the video, the participants were asked to describe what happened in it. With the exception of one volunteer (who described the physical movement of geometric shapes), all the participants, of course, anthropomorphized the hell out of the shapes. One triangle was labeled an "aggressive bully" that was fighting the other smaller triangle for the affections of a circle, which was sometimes said to be sleeping around. They even labeled one of the triangles "dumb, stupid" and "apt to get confused", in a move that would have Pythagoras rolling around in his grave.

People, in short, will ascribe motivation and character to just about anything given half the chance, and even when presented with a few shapes will exclaim with confidence "that thick oval over there definitely wants to bang that rhombus".

 Where do gods come into this?

How does our belief that a triangle is a three-sided bullying jerk lead to belief in a god? Well, according to the theory put forward by psychologist Justin Barrett, our overactive tendency to ascribe agency to objects and concepts without agency (for instance, the Sun, thunder, or the wind) may have led us to see a particularly fierce storm and assume it to be angry, or evidence of divine intervention (hence Sun and thunder gods). 

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As such, belief in these gods can be seen as a (largely harmless) by-product of a generally useful feature of the human brain. People who have this overactive tendency to ascribe motive to inanimate objects and concepts are more likely to survive and pass it along. There are fatal consequences to not recognizing that a lion's motive is it is going to kill you, but the only downside to believing the wind is angry at your lack of respect is you may look a bit silly if other people don't go along with it.

So, why organized religion?

It's a long way from those early superstitions to you sitting in church on a Sunday and hearing about how wearing mixed cloth will earn you an eternity spent in hellfire. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have attempted to explain the rise of organized religion and the possible benefits it has for society, ensuring its continuation. 

Explanations range from the functional (religion, with its enforced values, encourages cohesion) to the sinister (one psychologist, Matt J. Rossano, suggests that implying you are being watched by a supernatural agent will help you stick to society's agreed code).

As pleasing as that explanation might be for any atheists out there, it's not the whole picture. People are not just religious out of fear of an ever-watching god. For religion to persist as it has, there must still be something in it beyond this fear, or the benefit of survival (long after it's the case that it would be helpful for us to ascribe motive to the wind)K

What's in it for me?

Imagine the scene from Scarface where he snorts a pile of blow before taking on the authorities with a machine gun. Now picture the same scene, but this time Al Pacino is frantically running down a line of prayer stools, kneeling on each one in prayer.

Religion, it turns out, really is the opium of the masses. Karl Marx just missed the fact that it was also cocaine.

 OK, praying isn't quite on par with doing blow, but research has found that religious experiences (as reported by Mormon volunteers scanned inside fMRI machines) activate regions of the brain including the nucleus accumbens, an area that is "a common pathway for chemically altered euphoric states associated with many drugs of abuse, including cocaine and methamphetamines". The research into the effects of religion on people, though not extensive, does find other tangible benefits to it. Religion, as uncomfortable as it may be for rational beings moving away from the superstitious, has benefits for the religious. 

“Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide," one group of researchers reviewing the literature concluded in 2001. Others have found that people who consider themselves religious tend to score better in terms of mood, well-being, and pain intensity than non-religious people. 

Religion, it turns out, really is the opium of the masses. Karl Marx just missed the fact that it was also cocaine.


CURIOUS is a digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 9 is OUT NOW.


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