Beware of simple yet false explanations for religion

July 29, 2007 | By | 82 Replies More

It’s not because I am obstinate, though I can be obstinate. 

Rather, I simply can’t believe things like: “A virgin had a baby” or “A man who was dead later became alive” or “This piece of bread is really a man’s flesh.”  I can’t believe such things because these things are simply not true.  To me, such assertions are nonsense and it befuddles me when I hear other people uttering them.  It’s especially befuddling to see the way many people utter religious claims.  It’s as though they believe they have knives in their backs and they damned well say such things, or else.  “Or else what?”  I often think.  “Let go of those scary thoughts.  It’s just a bad dream.  Free yourselves! Wake up!”

I also try to be kind.  I am sadded to see people wasting their time and energy due to fear and ignorance.  I want to do my part to help those who feel compelled to utter patently untrue things, even if they only do this on Sundays.

I am not alone, of course.  In our frustration, many of us non-Believers wish to come up with a quick and dirty explanation for why other people publicly proclaim oxymoronic religious claims. It is this urge to quickly dispense of this mystery of religion (the mystery that anyone takes religious claims seriously) that is addressed by Pascal Boyer in his 2003 article, “Religious thought and behavior as byproducts of brain function.”  Boyer is a faculty member in the departments of anthropology and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.

In an earlier post, I briefly mentioned Boyer as one of the prominent writers on religion who holds the position that religion is a byproduct of normal human cognition.  This byproduct theory is certainly one emphasis of Boyer’s article.  He also reminds us, however, that it might not be easy to determine a simple mechanism causing this byproduct.  After all, human cognition, the source of this “byproduct,” is exceedingly complicated.

In his article, Boyer notes that most attempts to explain religion in terms of evolution have proved unsatisfactory “because a single characteristic identified as crucial to the origin of religion is not in fact general.” For instance, my characterization above (that people follow religions due to fear and ignorance) is one of the overly-simple explanations Boyer had in mind.  Boyer suggests that any meaningful explanation for religion would to be a cognitive cocktail, requiring reference to many aspects of human cognition. 

In his article, Boyer presents a chart to warn us to avoid many of the commonly heard simple (and false) explanations for “why does religion exist?”  Here are the commonly heard overly-simple explanations for religion, coupled with Boyer’s refutations:

The claim: Religion answers people’s metaphysical questions.
Why it’s not true: Religious thoughts are typically activated when people deal with concrete situations (this crop, that disease, this new birth, this dead body, etc.).

The claim: Religion is about a transcendent God.
Why it’s not true: It is about a variety of agents: ghouls, ghosts, spirits, ancestors, gods, etc., in direct interaction with people.

The claim: Religion allays anxiety.
Why it’s not true: It generates as much anxiety as it allays: vengeful ghosts, nasty spirits and aggressive gods are as common as protective deities.

The claim:  Religion was created at time t in human history.
Why it’s not true: There is no reason to think that the various kinds of thoughts we call ‘religious’ all appeared in human cultures at the same time.

The claim:  Religion is about explaining natural phenomena.
Why it’s not true: Most religious explanations of natural phenomena actually explain little but produce salient mysteries.

The claim: Religion is about explaining mental phenomena (dreams, visions).
Why it’s not true: In places where religion is not invoked to explain them, such phenomena are not seen as intrinsically mystical or supernatural.

The claim: Religion is about mortality and the salvation of the soul.
Why it’s not true: The notion of salvation is particular to a few doctrines (Christianity and doctrinal religions of Asia and the Middle-East) and unheard of in most other traditions.

The claim: Religion creates social cohesion Religious commitment can (under some conditions) be used as signal of coalitional affiliation.
Why it’s not true:  But coalitions create social fission (secession) as often as group integration.

The claim: Religious claims are irrefutable. That is why people believe them.
Why it’s not true: There are many irrefutable statements that no-one believes; what makes some of them plausible to some people is what we need to explain.

The claim:  Religion is irrational/superstitious (therefore not worthy of study).
Why it’s not true: Commitment to imagined agents does not really relax or suspend ordinary mechanisms of belief-formation; indeed it can provide important evidence for their functioning (and therefore should be studied attentively).

Boyer warns that most of the mental machinery inviting believe in religion “is not consciously accessible.”  Our conscious beliefs represent the tip of the cognitive iceberg.  Further, he cites experimental tests demonstrating that

people’s actual religious concepts often diverge from what they believe they believe. This is why theology’s, explicit dogmas, scholarly interpretations of religion cannot be taken as a reliable description of either the contents or the causes of peoples beliefs. 

Rather than first-order beliefs, Boyer argues that religious beliefs, which are conscious and explicit, are “interpretations of one’s own mental states.”

As an example of how religious beliefs dovetail with normal cognitive function, Boyer raises the issue of communication with non-present nonphysical entities.  When we think of a friendship, we often imagine walking are talking with a friend.  Boyer reminds us, however, that “a good deal of spontaneous reflection in humans focuses on past or future social interaction and on counterfactual scenarios.  This capacity to run off-line social interaction is already present in young children.”  He reminds us that all of us have lingering thoughts and feelings about our acquaintances who are recently dead; all of us are capable of carrying on conversations in our head with dead people.

Indeed, our spiritual “friends” are much like our real-life friends.  How startling is should be to us that spirits and gods all communicate with English-speaking believers in English.  How odd it should be that the spirits so often agree with our own moral intuitions.  How surprising it should be that the things that we find disgusting are also disgusting to them.  Their favorite foods and hobbies are the same as ours!

What are the other cognitive systems from which religious beliefs might sprout?  Boyer suggests these:  “detection and representation of animacy and agency, social exchange, moral intuitions, precaution against natural hazards and understanding of misfortune.”

All of this is fodder for Boyer’s suggestion that we should look for our explanation for religion in the blossoming research on cognitive neuroscience.  At bottom, Boyer warns that religion might not be a spectacular or fundamental error of reasoning, as many skeptics would like to believe.  Rather, cognitive science suggests “a less dramatic but perhaps more empirically grounded picture of religion as a probable, although by no means inevitable byproduct of the normal operation of human cognition.”


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Category: Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (82)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Xiaogou: I appreciate your suggestions. I will continue to look for wisdom in the various holy books, including the Bible. Holy books are not the exclusive depository of wisdom, however. How about reading Shakespeare? How about conversations with ordinary (as in not famous) people? How about the great wisdom you'll find in many short quotes (e.g., try here: )? I think it is a great mistake to limit one's sources of spiritual guidance to the official holy books of bureacratic religions. Worthy advice can be found in innumerable small corners of the world, as well as in non-religious songs, poetry and prose.

    One other point. Chemistry and physics books do not pretend to give moral guidance. The Bible, rife with oppression and violence, does.

  2. Xiaogou says:

    You are right to look into everything and it is good that you realize that holy books are not the only books of wisdom. Did you read the Bible story that tells of a man who gains wisdom from the mouth of a donkey? Many Christians miss this very important message that wisdom comes from many sources and if one does not keep his eyes and ears open (and preferably mouth shut, which is hard for many Christians) then they miss out on such hidden wisdoms. One message they often miss is when people tell them stop being so annoying:P

    I guess I did not make my second point out very clearly. Violence and oppression is part and parcel of human history and endeavors. If you look at the Bible it is not only a spiritual guide, but the chronology of a race of people. If we rule out a book just because they contain violence and oppression, many of the classics that we read will be gone from our book shelves such as Shakespeare, Homer and Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles. So unless we apply the same rule to all our media it becomes prejudice. The key here is spiritual guidance. It is not law, not something immutable or set in stone (unless you count the Ten Commandments which no longer exist except in reference and the Hebrews rejected and broke the first set.) In fact Jesus himself said let us get rid of the Laws. If a Christian uses the Bible as a law of life book and follows it blindly, such as young Christians and legalistic Christians do, they become the modern day Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus berated. Besides, if the Bible was all flowery with rainbows, apple pie and Chevrolet I would definitely be sick or diabetic. On the other hand if the Bible was like an immutable instruction book sans the lives of the people in it, it would be boring and worse be used by all sorts of control freaks leading us.

    I understand you are upset with Christians but let’s be fair to the Bible. As Gandhi said I have no problem with Christianity, only with Christians (sorry about the misquote). I say go on bashing Christians who stray off the path. But, let people read the Bible unbiased by other people’s opinions. Let people decide if it is a good book or a book about violence and oppression. I believe not everybody is an idiot and can’t come to a decision by themselves. If they don’t get it I just smile because I know the truth or, as in this conversation with you, we can discuss it. By the way have you actually studied the Bible? I know most Christians have read the Bible, but like Confucius and Zen the meanings are often hidden within the words. I still have problems with Zen.

  3. Erich has caused a little riot here with his post, eh? 😀

    Xiaogou, that all makes sense what you say, but I don't think Erich ever said that the Bible only consists of crime and violence and is worse than other source of spiritual writings. I think he made it quite clear here:

    Xiaogou: The reason a few fatal defects are important to note in the Bible is that most of the most vocal and insufferable supporters of the Bible are people who claim that the Bible is “inerrant,” totally and completely true and without error.

    It's ok if people cherry-pick and prefer the sections about loving thy neighbor. What irritates though is their vehment denial of contradictions in the other parts and their imposing of their beliefs on other people who prefer not to believe due to these flaws. I assume if they would shut up and believe in quiet without disturbing anybody nobody would trouble that much to engage in arguments about their beliefs. Unfortunately, they are not happy with having found the right way, they also feel the need to proselytize and influence other people's life. I see pointing out the flaws in someone else's reasoning as a legitimate way to defend myself.

  4. Xiaogou says:

    projedtleiterin actually, it would be better to know the enemy (Sun-Tzu.) That would be a better defense. The problem lies in the fact that those Christians are not well versed in the Bible. Should you be well versed in the Bible, not just one, but several. I say several because if you read oneyou will be like them. If you read several you will see what is true. Also read to understand not just to feed your pet peeve. Again if you feed your pet peeve you will be exactly like them. Try to read and understand several Bible then you will be well shielded then you can shed what they say like water off of a duck’s back. If you become skillful in the Bible you may want to correct them into proper behavior, but as a novice I would be happy to evade the conflict (also Sun-Tzu). But if both are ignorant of one another and you wade into this hoping to change that annoying Christian's way of thinking, THAT is the course of disaster (also Sun-Tzu). Wisdom is your shield not bantering of words.

    There is truth in what Erich says, the trick is to see it and use it properly without anger or malice (also Sun-Tsu)

    By the way Sun-Tsu if you ever read his works is also not simple it is very deep and worthy of study. But very very violent.

  5. Arielle says:

    First off, to the angry Christians: Nobody forced you to read the article. In fact, since the article is on a site devoted to liberal and generally non-religious thinking, you should have expected that it would not go along with your views. Why are you attacking Erich for expressing his opinion? Several have commented that he should have kept his beliefs to himself, but none of you are doing the same. They have a word for that: hypocrisy. No one is saying that religion is responsible for everything bad that has happened in this world, so don't become so defensive. Worse than that, don't try to point out the bad things that have happened in other religious societies, or societies that are not religous at all. Identifying the negative actions of other groups does not absolve yours from its own historical atrocities.

    On a scientific basic, I am utterly awed at the lack of basic logic in some of these posts. That is not an attack on your religious views, it is an attack on common sense. There is no theory that the Universe came from nothingness, because at the moment they are simply that: theories. Theories are unproven, so just because they do not have an explanation just yet, it does not mean they will not eventually find one. It is unfair to call science inferior to religion because it does not answer all of humanity's questions. If my sock disappears from the dryer, I can say "It must have been evil appliance gremlins that have taken it." That does not make what I'm saying true, even though it is an explanation. Of course science is not exact; we have only been around for several thousand years, which is not enough time to find all the answers. Things that do not seem to make sense now may one day be answered. My dad always taught me: "Just because there is no scientific explanation thus far, it does not mean it does not exist. We simply do not have the resources to identify them." It is true that this could also mean that such things as a person coming back from the dead may make sense in some way, but it does not guarantee it and it is therefore not a crime not to believe it.

    This holds true for Psychology. I believe Erich probably posted this article because he likes the way Boyer thinks. You don't have to agree. Attacking psychology in general is not going to change this man's belief. And, there is good news: there are other scientists out there who disagree. That being said, stop attacking others for their disbelief…I suggest you simply avoid reading articles you might find offensive (especially if they attain to religion).

    So, to Erich: I appreciate your insight, and I did read the article, which I found quite thought-provoking! Thank you for posting it.


    18 years old

  6. I recently commented on your Religion as aberration or adaptation blog entry. I said that there is no relevant evidence for non-human, non-adaptive byproducts. Comparing the redness of blood to complex, evolutionarily expensive religious behaviors is a ludicrous analogy.

    Here I consider Boyer’s summary of reasons for religion. He’s certainly right that all the current explanations are insufficient. He’s also right that human belief is fraught with vagaries and self-deceit leading him to say (based on Barrett and Kiel, 1996), “People don’t believe what they believe they believe.” He then suggests several cognitive approaches such as, “detection and representation of animacy and agency, social exchange, moral intuitions, precaution against natural hazards and understanding of misfortune.” He’s on the right track, but he comes up short for (at least) 2 reasons:
    1. He’s throwing all the human cognitive traits against the wall and hoping something will stick. A deeper dive is needed to pinpoint the essential cognitive changes that differentiate humans from other animals. What was it that led to or enabled all these other cognitive features that he lists?
    2. While it’s not wrong to examine human cognition, people get bogged down in their analysis of religion based on beliefs as Boyer points out. Instead of making belief and cognition the primary approach, a better tack from an evolutionary, biological viewpoint is to study religious behaviors.

    Many think religious rituals derive from belief, but I submit that it’s just the opposite. The science of belief is dicey at best. Observing religious rituals align far better with existing biology like ethology (Jane Goodall is the most famous example.) Ritual behaviors can also be measured in terms of physiological response, so there’s a wealth of opportunity there. To see a summary of this approach to the evolution of religion,
    see http://www.darwinsapple/0bookIntro.html
    That is if you really want a scientific alternative that truly explains the purpose of religion.

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