The vast majority of humans are “born believers”, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light.
As soon as they are born, babies start to try to make sense of the world around them. As they do so, their minds show regular tendencies. From birth children show certain predilections in what they pay attention to and what they are inclined to think.
One of the most important of these is to recognise the difference between ordinary physical objects and “agents” - things that can act upon their surroundings. Babies know that balls and books must be contacted in order to move, but agents such as people and animals can move by themselves.
Because of our highly social nature we pay special attention to agents. We are strongly attracted to explanations of events in terms of agent action - particularly events that are not readily explained in terms of ordinary causation.
This hair-trigger agent reasoning and a natural propensity to look for agents in the world around us are part of the building blocks for belief in gods. Once coupled with some other cognitive tendencies, such as the search for purpose, they make children highly receptive to religion.
It is important to note that this concept of religion deviates from theological beliefs. Children are born believers not of Christianity, Islam or any other theology but of what I call “natural religion”. They have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief.
Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.