Pascal Boyer continues his search for natural sources of religious belief

November 24, 2008 | By | 2 Replies More

I have previously posted on the work of psychologist and anthropologist Pascal Boyer. Throughout his writings, Boyer has repeatedly warned us that we shouldn’t settle for simplistic explanations for religious belief. We shouldn’t be looking, for sample, for a “gene for religious thinking.”

In the October 23, 2008 addition of Nature (available online only to subscribers), Boyer assures us that we are making progress in determining the multiple distributed cognitive sources of religious belief. “The mind has myriad distinct belief networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people.” Boyer succinctly makes his points in this article.

Numerous cognitive scientists have recognized that the great majority of human cognition is unconscious. Unsurprisingly, then, Boyer claims that people are not fully aware of many of their religious ideas. Believers have hidden religious assumptions that they draw upon when asserting religious beliefs. For instance, believers have “highly anthropomorphic expectations about their gods.”  Yes, they argue that God is omniscient and omnipotent. On the other hand, when people talk about their God’s functioning on a day-to-day basis, God sounds an awful lot like an ordinary fellow. He is described as attending “to one situation before turning his attention to the next.”  God’s limitations can also be seen in many other ways not noted in Boyer’s article.  For instance, may people still insist that God is much like the God of the Old Testament, and they often describe their God to be insecure, vindictive and impatient.

Boyer recognizes that societies differ wildly in their religious beliefs. On the other hand, tacit assumptions (such as God’s limited ability to attend to the world around Him) “are extremely similar in different cultures and religions.” Humans tend to best remember supernatural stories that involve a balanced combination of superhuman and plausibly human attributes.  Therefore, the most memorable stories about gods almost always involve gods that are somewhat human, but not totally so, and not substantially alien to our way of understanding.

Boyer reminds us that human beings are quite adept at acting out interactions with nonexistent agents. “From childhood, humans form enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasized mates. . . [I]t is a small step from having this capacity to bond with nonphysical agents to conceptualizing spirits, dead ancestors and gods who are neither visible nor tangible, yet are socially involved.”

Boyer points out that religious rituals involve stereotyped, highly repetitive actions despite the lack of “clear observable results.” Rituals are thus reminiscent of the ritualized behavior seen in OCD patients and in the routines of children.  All of these routines are “generally associated with thoughts about pollution and purification, danger and protection.”

Boyer points to the “specifically human coalitional capacity” on which we base our religious beliefs. As argued by Amotz Zahavi, humans “emit and detect costly, hard-to-fake signals of commitment.” While proclaiming their faith, religious folks adhere to claims “for which there is no evidence and that would be taken as obviously wrong or ridiculous by other religious groups.”  Proud proclamations that one believes things for which there is no evidence “signal a willingness to embrace the group’s particular norm for no other reason than that it is, precisely, the group’s norm.”

Boyer’s writings thus comport with my own arguments that paradoxical, evidentially unsupported, religious beliefs function as a “flag” around which people gather to actively knit the social fabric.  Religious beliefs can thus be important without being literally true.  This potential social benefit could also explain why believers fight so hard to defend beliefs they themselves don’t intellectually understand; those beliefs facilitate acceptance (i.e., the absence of rejection) by other believers.  Religious beliefs thus constitute a badge that guarantees uncritical admission and, within a particular culture, there’s no other way to gain admission.   To question religious beliefs can thus trigger emotions that seem to bear on life and death.  Certainly, in ancient times, failure to assert the required beliefs could have led to extended isolation in the wilderness and even starvation.  Though I don’t have the evidence yet, I suspect that there is a continuity between ancient community bonding (with its concomitant sharing of resources) and the uttering of paradoxical claims in slickly marketed modern churches.

Boyer argues that religious beliefs hijack human cognitive resources. He suggests that religion offers what seems to amount to a superstimulus. “Religious agents are highly simplified versions of absent human agents, and religious rituals are highly stylized versions of precautionary procedures” (my emphasis).  And, again, this super stimulus is given extra gloss because the existence of bizarre beliefs in the absence of evidence constitutes an expensive (and therefore reliable) expression of commitment to one’s social group.  Most modern religions offer this potent cocktail.  “All it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way.”

This cognitive cocktail approach to religion challenges the notion that particular creeds significantly differ cognitively from competitor creeds.  They differ to believers, of course, because the various sets of beliefs distinguish competing social groups.   To cognitive scientists, though, any particular set of factually unsubstantiated religious beliefs functions identically to any other.

How potent is the “cocktail” offered by religion?  Boyer suggests that adopting some form of religious thinking “seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. He contrasts the temptation of religious belief with disbelief, which is “generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions.”  That’s how potent religious belief is.  It seems to be the hard-wired default of the human condition.

I find Boyer’s writings to be persuasive. It would also seem that those of us who believe in a naturalistic world view would be inclined to do exactly what Boyer is suggesting: look to well-understood human cognitive machinery for a better understanding of what it is that makes religions attractive.  Like Boyer, I am not moved by claims that people join religions because they are “fearful,” or for other simplistic reasons. I sense that people join religions because those religions do light up a highly distributed array of human cognitive machinery,  an array that is so highly distributed that it, in turn, makes it difficult to pin down exactly what it is that makes religion so potent for so many.


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Category: Religion, Science

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.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I'd like to add a cross reference here: Susan Linn's suggestion that religious rituals constitute a form of creative play for adults.

    Consider, also, that children seem to have a natural affinity to believe in spirits and afterlives.… Note the discussion beginning at page 14.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Pascal Boyer's research on this topic is addressed in a 2008 article titled "Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion," by Pascal Boyer and Brian Bergstrom.

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