Sunday, October 11, 2009

Is Religion Natural?

"Gods and spirits are parasitic," argues cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, "because representing them requires mental capacities that we would activate, religion or not." Religion is natural but nothing special, a by-product of human minds that over eons evolved specific "mental capacities that would be there, gods or no gods."

Boyer is the author of Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors, published in 2001, which I have just finished, and I find his approach to the understanding of religious beliefs and practices exceptionally thought-provoking and challenging. Not since my investigation several years ago into the arguments of the new atheists -- Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett -- have I been so excited by unfamiliar and sometimes even disagreeable ideas. The way to find value in religion, for me, is to clear away all that is wrong about institution, doctrine and dogma. While Boyer is not as wildly destructive of accepted religious verities as the new atheists, his argument that religion is natural (his first book in 1994 was called The Naturalness of Religious Ideas) both deconstructs ontological claims and contradicts the naysayers.

For Boyer and many anthropologists who use discoveries in evolutionary science and cognitive psychology to analyze the creation and transmission of religious concepts, "it is by no means clear that there is such a thing as 'religion' in the abstract." These social scientists assert that religion is cultural. "People get it from other people," Boyer writes, "as they get food preferences, musical tastes, politeness and a dress sense." Religion as a special domain, he argues, was invented by specialists, the priests and Brahmans who came into being along with complex states, literacy and guilds for various craftsmen. They created "coalitions" (an important technical term for Boyer) which promoted the ideas that
first, there is such a thing as ‘religion’ as a special domain of concepts and activities; second, that there are different ‘religions’, that is, different possible ways of practicing religion, one of which is more valid; third, that adopting a particular religion means joining a social group, establishing a community of believers, emphasizing the demarcation between us and them.
What distinguishes Boyer from critical historians of religion, however, is his argument that our minds have evolved in such a way as to be able to easily accept concepts about non-observable agents (like spirits, gods and ancestors) who possess strategic information about everything and who can be placated by detailed and repeated rituals, as well as maintain beliefs about life after death and morality insured by an all-knowing witness. These "inference systems" were evolved to enable early humans to avoid predators and pollution, recognize friends and trust others, create social stability, and come up with causal narratives. Religious concepts "invariably include some strange properties of imagined entities or agents, which leads Boyer to conclude, "First, the religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories. Second, they preserve other expectations." There are a limited number of ontological categories, or mental "templates," such as: Animal, Plant, Tool, Person, Natural Object, Number, which allow us to make inferences and produce expectations about any object we encounter. Counter-intuitive expectations are more memorable and longer lasting. We interpret Gods and spirits counter-intuitively as minds (preserving expectations about Persons) without bodies (which violates our expectations about Persons).
Human minds did not become vulnerable to just any odd kind of supernatural beliefs. On the contrary, because they had many sophisticated inference systems, they became vulnerable to a very restricted set of supernatural concepts: the ones that can jointly activate inference systems for agency, predation, death, morality social exchange, etc. Only a small range of concepts are such that they reach this aggregate relevance, which is why religion has common features the world over.
Unlike scientists who have proposed a "god gene" and others who speculate that religious behavior may be adaptive and therefore a product of evolution, Boyer believes religion is a "mere consequence or side-effect of having the brains we have."
There is no religious instinct, no specific inclination in the mind, no particular disposition for these concepts, no special religion center in the brain, and religious people are not different from non-religious ones in essential cognitive functions. Even faith and belief seem to be simple by-products of the way concepts and inferences are doing their work for religion in much the same way as for other domains.
The capabilities of our mental system allow for envisioning hypothetical situations and imaginary friends. The real work is done in the "basement" (he avoids speaking of the "unconscious") by our implicit inference systems. "What is contained in the explicit thought – what we usually call a ‘belief’ – is very often an attempt to justify or explain the intuitions we have as a result of implicit processes in the mental basement. It is an interpretation of (or a report on) these intuitions." We are not "hard-wired" for God but rather our mental wiring lets Him in by the back door.

Religion, contrary to the new atheists, is not simply a product of ignorance and will not be going away anytime soon. And even the most religious conservative might retort that God can design humans any way He likes and that Boyer's theory simply outlines the divine plan. But for me, Religion Explained, while not totally explaining everything, opens the door to a new way of considering religious beliefs and the "experience" that has illuded me, despite many years of prayer, meditation and intellectual exploration. I'm not too happy when Boyer refers to our brains as "complex biological machines," and with his use of computer metaphors to describe the operation of our mental "processes." It seems too reductionistic for my taste. He never really explains the relationship between "brain" and "mind" and the word "consciousness" is studiously avoided. For the most part he avoids commenting on the truth claims of believers, though he does say that religion as a separate domain is "the foundation of some decidedly woolly pop-theology, to the effect that religion makes the world 'more beautiful' or 'more meaningful', that it addresses 'ultimate' questions.'" And he adds:
Another way of escaping from the conflict is the attempt, especially popular among some scientists, to create a purified religion, a metaphysical doctrine..Metaphysical ‘religions’ that will not dirty their hands with such human purposes and concerns are about as marketable as a car without an engine.
I believe in neither spirits, ghosts, ancestors hanging around after their death, or gods. Nor do I believe I possess an eternal soul, or some other entity that might perhaps be reborn after my death into another (hopefully not yet occupied) body. Religious institutions (Boyer calls them "brands") separate people more often than reconcile them, and religious differences frequently incite violence. I do not think religion necessarily insures social stability, nor do I agree that religious morality is the only way to guarantee good behavior. The thought of an eternal heaven or hell does not give me comfort before the mystery of death. I felt little in common with most Christians I met when I identified as a Catholic, and the mix of Buddhism and Hindusim with animism here in Thailand leaves me out in the cold (intellectuals can rarely adopt new belief systems wholeheartedly). But I believe in religious creative as much as I believe that music and art are among the crowning achievements of human evolution.

Boyer's nine chapters have numerous subtitles which occasionally are more distracting than illuminating. The first subtitle in both the first and last chapters refers to "airy nothing," which I tracked down to a verse from Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream."
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Although Boyer nowhere spells it out, this gives me hope. We humans see shapes in the clouds, constellations in the stars, and purpose in strings of DNA. We are the animal that writes poems, novels, and unreadable intellectual treatises about theories no one can understand. We make movies, design architectural marvels (like Gaudi's spiritual structures in Barcelona) and create iPhone apps. Why do we need gods to justify our creativity and condemn our mistakes?

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