Religions will continue to thrive despite the rise of science and rationality because we are all born with a tendency to believe in the supernatural
"Magical thinking" is hard-wired into our brains, according to Prof Bruce Hood, of the University of Bristol, speaking at the British Association's annual festival in Norwich. Prof Hood challenged the assumption of Prof Richard Dawkins and other "ultra rationalists" that belief in the supernatural was spread by religions in gullible minds.
"Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces," he said.
"It is pointless to get people to abandon their belief systems because they operate at such a fundamental level that no amount of rational evidence or counter evidence is going to be taken on board to get people to abandon these ideas."
Prof Hood said religion would persist because people were not going to evolve a more rational mind.
He has carried out studies to show how the brains of even young babies organise sensory information, supply what is missing and use the information to generate theories about the world.
In adulthood, the visual centres of the brain still fill in details that are not there, as shown in common visual illusions such as the blind spot, for example. Equally, the "intuitive reasoning" of childhood persists too. "Intuitive reasoning observed in children explains many aspects of adult magical beliefs," he said.
The mind is programmed to see coincidences as significant and to think that inanimate objects have minds.
"We see faces wherever we look, whether in the clouds or on Mars," he said. "We think that cars are vindictive and computers nasty when they don't behave properly." Prof Hood has studied attachment objects — blankets, soft toys and so on — which children are unwilling to part with even if they are promised a copy.
"They are frightened the integrity of the object will be violated," he said.
When he offered adults the chance to duplicate a wedding ring, down to the last atom, most of them would, like the children, prefer the original.
"We think there is something unique which defines artefacts which we associate with somebody we love."
Prof Hood has investigated the flip side of this attachment to inanimate objects by asking audiences whether they would wear a cardigan that supposedly belonged to Fred West, the mass murderer.
"The audience will in general wear a cardigan for £20 but not when I tell them it belonged to a murderer." Many feel that the cardigan was contaminated with evil. "That is irrational," he said.
Another example of an intuitive theory underpinning adult supernatural beliefs can be found in the common assumption that we can detect someone staring at us even though we cannot see them. In 1898 the psychologist Edward Titchener said 90 per cent of his students believed they could detect the unseen gaze of others.
"The belief is still so common that most people are unaware it is controversial."
We may all recognise the fantastical nature of ghosts, fairies, and wizards in the world of Harry Potter, but other, equally magical beliefs are so common that most adults assume that supernatural phenomena — those that cannot be explained by natural laws — are real.
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