Acceptance of supernatural beliefs

Campfire on Kaamanen Road, wili_hybrid photographerIf there's one thing we've learned from the past half-century or so of evolutionary science, it's that natural selection often works in unexpected ways. The hypothesis that culture itself may develop according to evolutionary principles (exemplified by English biologist Richard Dawkins's concept of “memes,” or ideas and behaviors that are propagated through cultures) is among the most fascinating products of our increasingly complex understanding of evolution. Many researchers have even suggested Darwinian explanations for the development of religion, raising the possibility that we believe in the supernatural because doing so helps us to survive and raise our children to adulthood.

Now two anthropologists, the University of Missouri's Craig T. Palmer and Lyle B. Steadman of Arizona State, have written a book, The Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion (Paradigm Publishers, 2008), that describes how supernatural beliefs develop family-like relationships that foster cooperation, creating an evolutionary advantage for both the believing people and their culture. Their research suggests that when one person accepts another's supernatural claim without skepticism, the two people feel an increased sense of closeness and rapport. The effect, according to the authors, is similar to what happens when a subordinate member of a social group accepts the authority of a more highly-ranked member.

Because it is notoriously difficult to apply concrete criteria to religious phenomena, it takes chutzpah and creativity to attempt an extensive, objective inquiry into how religion interacts with culture. Fortunately, Palmer and Steadman have both. Instead of trying to gather information about actual religious beliefs or interpretations, they chose to focus their research on a more objective phenomenon: language. By only including verbal cues and actual conversations in their data, they determined that the primary effect of religion is the development of relationships that resemble those among family members. Indeed, although the book focuses on ancestor worship, totemism, and shamanism, the authors point out that all types of religion use the language of nuclear families to refer to their members—brother, sister, mother, or father. Importantly, though, the mechanism that drives the creation of such family-like relationships is not just the transmission of religious beliefs themselves, but the acceptance of religious claims by new or young members of the group. The vertical relationships between people who make supernatural claims and those who accept them are analogous to parent-child relationships, while people who accept identical religious claims enjoy the horizontal relationships of siblings.

From a common-sense perspective, it certainly seems logical that group identity would be bolstered by the acceptance of supernatural beliefs. As anyone who's ever traveled to a foreign country or had dinner with in-laws knows, the best way to ingratiate yourself with your hosts is often to accept—or at least clam up and pretend to accept—their fanciful claims about the world, even those you might find distasteful. Of course, this can quickly lead to some serious moral quandaries: what if a group's religious beliefs are prejudicial to members of other groups? Or what about supernatural claims (such as, for example, that accepting a blood transfusion prevents eternal salvation) that seem downright dangerous? And finally, what does it mean for our spiritual identities if we most commonly accept new religious beliefs simply in order to show respect for the people who offer them to us?

Despite the harrowing questions raised by Palmer and Steadman's research, their book is an important advance in our understanding of how communities use religion to form common identities and solidify interpersonal bonds. And on a positive note, it would seem that we at least have a new strategy for dealing with difficult people—ask them a question about something supernatural, and then agree with whatever they say.

See here for the original article, "Anthropologists Develop New Approach To Explain Religious Behavior".