Humans all over the world believe in spirits and deities, yet how the brain supports religious cognition remains unclear. Drawing on a unique sample of patients with penetrating traumatic brain injuries (pTBI) and matched healthy controls (HCs) we investigate dependencies of religious cognition on neural networks that represent (1) others agents’ intentions (Theory of Mind, ToM) and (2) other agents’ feelings (Empathy). Extending previous observations that ToM networks are recruited during prayer, we find that people with vmPFC damage report higher scores on the personal relationship with God inventory even when they are not praying. This result offers evidence that it is the modulation of ToM networks that support beliefs in supernatural agents. With respect to empathetic processing, we observed that vmPFC and pSTS/TPJ lesions mediated by the strength of the personal relationship with God affect empathetic responses. We suggest that the neurological networks underpinning God representations amplify human empathetic responses. The cultural evolutionary study of religion has argued that supernatural beliefs evoke pro-social responses because people fear the wrath of Gods. Our findings imply greater attention should be paid to the mechanisms by which religious cognition may regulate empathetic responses to others.
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