Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

How culture gives birth to gods

TheophanyAnybody with kids can tell you that childbirth is full of uncertainties. Should the nursery be painted light green or yellow? Will the delivery be covered by insurance? What’s the best method of parenting? And, most importantly…how did this happen!? Unfortunately, Science On Religion isn’t here to answer any of those concerns. If you’ve had similar questions regarding the birth of a god, however, you’re in luck. Much of the current work in the biocultural study of religion (BCSR: a multidisciplinary field covering such disciplines as neuroscience, evolutionary biology, moral psychology, political science, and others) focuses on just this event – that is, how supernatural entities are generated and maintained in a society.

In a recent article, F. LeRon Shults (University of Agder) considers two mechanisms that are jointly posited by many scholars in the BCSR for the process of theogony, or the birth of gods. The first mechanism, what he calls our “anthropomorphic promiscuity,” is found in the human propensity to overdetect agency in the natural environment. When I hear an ambiguous sound behind the bushes nearby, in other words, my first response is to assume that it was made by a potentially threatening entity, usually in the form of another person or person-like being. The second mechanism stems from our social nature, which makes us simultaneously protective of our own group’s stability and suspicious of interactions with foreigners. Shults emphasizes the popularity of this framework in the BCSR by noting its presence in works recently published by four prominent authors.

David Lewis-Williams, for one, discovers the first mechanism at work in our interpretation of internal experiences during altered states of consciousness. Although these states are generated by neurological activity in the brain, they give us the impression of entering into supernatural domains and interacting with supernatural agents. According to him, for example, the experience of either ascending flight or descent into inner depths gave rise to beliefs about a tiered cosmos, a concept found in the mythological narratives of many different cultures. The second mechanism emerges when a specific individual – the shaman, the priest, the witch doctor, etc. – comes to possess an authoritative role in society based upon the perception of a unique ability to access these supernatural domains. Ultimately, the controlling presence of this specialized individual advances the internal organization of the group and further differentiates it from others in the immediate area.

Likewise, Pascal Boyer identifies intuitive categories that humans naturally use to classify and describe phenomena encountered in their surroundings. When supernatural agents are detected in the environment, we typically group them into the category of “Person” and attribute to them all of the qualities normally associated with people. Whether it’s a ghost, a god, or a demon, in other words, we expect the detected entity to possess goals, intentions, and even a vested interest in our activity or behavior. We assume that it is both protectively watching over us and concerned with the moral status of our actions. As a result, the entity’s presence has a tendency to promote loyalties within the group and deter threats from outside.

Scott Atran, on the other hand, focuses on the ability for religious belief to actually signal a person’s commitment to their group. That is, once our tendency to detect supernatural entities in the world has been activated, beliefs about these beings become a benchmark for social inclusion. Because such beliefs are unable to be verified by direct observation and are therefore “preposterous” in a sense, religion can use them to generate passionate commitments of an often irrational nature (for instance, take Atran’s primary concern with explaining the motivations adopted by suicide bombers). While these commitments may take any number of forms – from painful initiation ceremonies to the obliged acceptance of counterintuitive concepts – they’re always costly in some way for the person to maintain. The upside is that these commitments are difficult to fake, thereby increasing trust between group members and making it easier to spot foreign interlopers.

Meanwhile, Matt Rossano employs this theory to explain the triumph of Homo sapiens over other early hominids. As human groups expanded in size and became socially stratified, increasingly complicated rituals were required to ensure interpersonal bonding and community stability. The intellectual capacity of early humans was vital to this process, which required the individual to keep track of complex behavioral patterns and communicative movements. As social life selected for this trait, people became more adept at elaborating imaginative realms populated by supernatural beings to explain these socially stabilizing rituals. When such beings were depicted as morally concerned with the welfare of the group, this led to greater internal loyalty and fewer external threats. Rossano suggests that the robust cohesion of such communities played the decisive role in establishing the evolutionary success of our species.

Shults argues that the recent success of this theory in the BCSR has several implications for other domains of public life. In the philosophy of science, for example, the framework is able to distinguish scientific inquiry from religious thought. While the latter is “anthropomorphically promiscuous” and protective of exclusive community, science discourages explanations that rely upon agent detection and promotes interpersonal consensus across group boundaries. For human psychology, all four scholars observe religion’s ability to significantly affect our mental and emotional state. Whether one argues for its psychological benefit (Rossano) or for its ability to inflame emotional distress and outright hostility (Atran), the influence of religion in at least one of these directions is difficult to deny. Finally, political consequences stem from this theory’s fundamental connection to group dynamics. For Shults, our proper understanding of religion’s social impact will prove vital to the healthy integration of diverse communities in an increasingly globalized world.

Academic analyses aside, this article also provides the following highly reliable truisms taken straight from the common vernacular. You see what you want to see; or, if you look hard enough, you’re eventually liable to find something. And, more worrisome for the parent: if promiscuous enough, you’re eventually liable to give birth.

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