Thursday, October 30, 2008

Religion: Bound to believe?

I pass on clips from an article by Pascal Boyer that explains why a slew of cognitive traits shared by humans will always make atheism a hard sell.
In the past ten years, the evolutionary and cognitive study of religion has begun to mature. It does not try to identify the gene or genes for religious thinking. Nor does it simply dream up evolutionary scenarios that might have led to religion as we know it. It does much better than that. It puts forward new hypotheses and testable predictions. It asks what in the human make-up renders religion possible and successful. Religious thought and behaviour can be considered part of the natural human capacities, such as music, political systems, family relations or ethnic coalitions. Findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology promise to change our view of religion.

Unlike other social animals, humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members. This goes even further. From childhood, humans form enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasized mates. Indeed, the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.

It is a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualizing spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible, yet are socially involved. This may explain why, in most cultures, at least some of the superhuman agents that people believe in have moral concerns.

In addition, the neurophysiology of compulsive behaviour in humans and other animals is beginning to shed light on religious rituals. These behaviours include stereotyped, highly repetitive actions that participants feel they must do, even though most have no clear, observable results, such as striking the chest three times while repeating a set formula. Ritualized behaviour is also seen in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders and in the routines of young children. In these contexts, rituals are generally associated with thoughts about pollution and purification, danger and protection, the required use of particular colours or numbers or the need to construct a safe and ordered environment.

So is religion an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution? Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than 'religion' in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times. For the time being, the data support a more modest conclusion: religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.

Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion. This hijacking occurs simply because religion provides some form of what psychologists would call super stimuli. Just as visual art is more symmetrical and its colours more saturated than what is generally found in nature, religious agents are highly simplified versions of absent human agents, and religious rituals are highly stylized versions of precautionary procedures. Hijacking also occurs because religions facilitate the expression of certain behaviours. This is the case for commitment to a group, which is made all the more credible when it is phrased as the acceptance of bizarre or non-obvious beliefs.

Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.


  1. Miklos Hollender8:59 AM

    Group membership is part of the picture. Purity and disgust are another important parts.

    And there is even more to it:

    And then the religions of experience (Buddhism, Taoism) which work quite differently than religions of faith... it's a complicated subject.

  2. Anonymous9:23 AM

    Its a shame that man's innate desire for religious belief is exploited by institutions that abuse their power and influence. Even worse is how easy it is to manipulate believers once they are locked in to a belief system by social pressures. Finally to have societies ruled by intolerant religious zealots, thats where the world is headed. Amen.

  3. Philip D Hawker12:53 PM

    Thank you for letting us share the insights you have gleaned on religious cognition as an emergent property. Religious states of mind (of the kind analysed by d'Aquili and Newberg for ex.) seem to require a different causal mechanism. Do you agree? I'm currently preparing my dissertation on this subject and would appreciate any thoughts you have on this.

  4. I agree, Newberg/d'Aquili's observations are on transcendent states that are relatively rare, and I would think are a parallel and complimentary track to the points Boyer makes. I could fetch up the PDF of the Boyer paper if you want to email me.