Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center wanted to know “why and how brains come to believe in gods.” They explored that question using a concept in psychology called implicit pattern learning.

Explicit learning is conscious but implicit learning is unconscious. For example, explicit learning is mastering the times tables in arithmetic class. Implicit learning is absorbing, without consciously thinking about it, the way the teacher treats others.

The researchers’ hypothesis was: “people whose brains are good at subconsciously discerning patterns in their environment may ascribe those patterns to the hand of a higher power” To test that, they studied people who believe in God in the United States and in Afghanistan, using a conventional test for unconscious pattern learning:

For this study, 199 (mostly) Christian volunteers in Washington, D.C. and 149 Muslims in Kabul watched a sequence of dots on a computer screen. They were tasked to press a corresponding button every time a dot appeared. Participants with strong implicit learning abilities began to unconsciously recognize patterns in the appearance of the dots, preemptively hitting the corresponding button before they appeared. None of the volunteers claimed to have seen a pattern, suggesting their guesses were unconscious.

Derek Beres, “Pattern recognition influences religious belief, according to new study” at Big Think

The researchers concluded that, indeed, “People whose brains are more predisposed to implicit pattern learning are more likely to believe in a deity”:

Individuals who can unconsciously predict complex patterns, an ability called implicit pattern learning, are likely to hold stronger beliefs that there is a god who creates patterns of events in the universe, according to neuroscientists at Georgetown University.

Georgetown University Medical Center, “Unconscious Learning Underlies Belief in a God” at Neuroscience News (September 9, 2020)

Senior investigator Adam Green noted another significant finding as well:

“A really interesting observation was what happened between childhood and adulthood,” explains Green. The data suggest that if children are unconsciously picking up on patterns in the environment, their belief is more likely to increase as they grow up, even if they are in a nonreligious household. Likewise, if they are not unconsciously picking up on patterns around them, their belief is more likely to decrease as they grow up, even in a religious household.

Georgetown University Medical Center, “Unconscious Learning Underlies Belief in a God” at Neuroscience News (September 9, 2020)

For several reasons, such a finding should not be surprising. The world around us shows considerable evidence of order. With specific reference to Earth, it is called the Rare Earth hypothesis. For our solar system, it is called the Goldilocks Zone. For the universe, it is called the fine-tuning of the universe for life. Thus, if a person is accustomed to implicitly seeing patterns in nature, they will notice a great many. What we have learned in the past few centuries about the planet, the solar system, and the universe only confirms what we knew already.

Most people through the ages have interpreted these patterns to mean that there is an intelligence behind nature, usually considered to be God. Thus, people who notice patterns are more likely to believe in God, whether in Washington or Kabul.

The puzzling part is the researchers’ framing of the question as “why and how brains come to believe in gods.” But brains don’t believe in anything; minds do. Brain process information about patterns. We must use our minds to make a decision about what the patterns around us mean.

Note: The paper, “Implicit pattern learning predicts individual differences in belief in God in the United States and Afghanistan” by Adam B. Weinberger, Natalie M. Gallagher, Zachary J. Warren, Gwendolyn A. English, Fathali M. Moghaddam & Adam E. Green. Nature Communications, is open access.

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God’s existence is proven by science Arguments for God’s existence can be demonstrated by the ordinary method of scientific inference. (Michael Egnor)


Jerry Coyne hasn’t got a prayer He understands neither natural theology nor natural science. We are more scientifically certain of God’s existence than we are of quantum mechanics or Newtonian or relativistic gravitation. The logic is rigorous. (Michael Egnor)

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