Part Two of exploring the possible reasons why religion is ubiquitous across all societies. Read part 1 here.
The Benefits of Religion – Offering Power to Gain Comfort
So a way of rephrasing the question “Why is religious belief so pervasive?” is to ask, "Who benefits?" Another way of putting it is that one must distinguish the possible benefits of religion to the producers of religious belief from the benefits to the consumers of religion –the parishioners, the flock. The answer might be different for the two cases. One must distinguish the question "What good is an inculcation of religious belief by priests, shamans and so on?" from the question "What good is an acceptance of religious belief by believers?"
A number of anthropologists have pointed out the benefits of religion to those causing other people to have religious beliefs. One ubiquitous component of religion is ancestor worship. And ancestor worship must sound pretty good if you're getting on in years and can foresee the day when you're going to become an ancestor. Among the indignities of growing old is that you know that you're not going to be around forever. If you plausibly convince other people that you'll continue to oversee their affairs even when you're dead and gone, that gives them an incentive to treat you nicely up to the last day.
Food taboos are also common in religious belief, and might be explained by the psychology of food preference and dispreference, in particular, disgust. If you withhold a food, especially a food of animal origin, from children during a critical period, they'll grow up grossed out at the thought of eating that food. That's why most of us would not eat dog meat, monkey brains, or maggots, things that are palatable in other societies. There are often ecological reasons why food taboos develop, but there are probably also reasons of control. Since neighbouring groups have different favored food, if you keep your own kids from having a taste for the foods favored by your neighbours, it can keep them inside the coalition, preventing them from defecting to other coalitions, because to break bread with their neighbours they'd have to eat revolting stuff.
Rites of passage are another intelligible feature of religion. Many social decisions have to be made in categorical, yes-or-no, all-or-none fashion. But a lot of our biology is fuzzy and continuous. A child doesn't go to bed one night and wake up an adult the next morning. But we do have to make decisions such as whether they can vote or drive or buy a gun. There's nothing magical about the age of 13 or the age of 18 or any other age. But it's more convenient to arbitrarily anoint a person as an adult on a particular, arbitrarily chosen day, than to haggle over how mature every individual is every time he wants a beer. Religious rites of passage demarcate stages of life. Another fuzzy continuum is whether someone is available as a potential romantic partner or is committed to someone else. Marriage is a useful way of demarcating that continuum with a sharp line.
Costly initiations or sacrifices are also present in almost all the world's religions. A general problem in the maintenance of cooperation is how to distinguish people who are altruistically committed to a coalition from hangers-on and parasites and free riders. One way to test who's genuinely committed is to see who is willing to undertake a costly sacrifice. To take an example close to home: to see whether someone is committed to an ethnic group I am familiar with, you can say, "You've just had a baby. Please hand over your son so I can cut some skin off his penis." That's not the kind of thing that anyone would do unless they took their affiliation with the group seriously. And there are far more gruesome examples from the rest of the world.
Yet another explicable feature of religion is signs of expertise in occult knowledge. If you're the one who knows mysterious but important arcane knowledge, then other people will defer to you. Even in non-religious contexts, most societies have some division of labour in expertise, where we accord prestige and perquisites to people who know useful stuff. So a good strategy for providers of religion is to mix some genuine expertise –and indeed, anthropologists have shown that the tribal shaman really is an expert in herbal medicine and folk remedies – with a certain amount of hocus-pocus, trance-inducing drugs, stage magic, sumptuous robes and cathedrals, and so on, reinforcing the claim that there are worlds of incomprehensible wonder, power, and mystery that are reachable only through one's services.
These practical benefits take some of the mystery over why people like to encourage religious belief in others, without committing oneself to a specific biological adaptation for religion. The inculcation of religious belief would be a by-product of these other, baser, motives.
What about the other side of these transactions, namely the consumers? Why do they buy it? One reason is that in most cases we should defer to experts. That's in the very nature of expertise. If I have a toothache, I open my mouth and let a guy drill my teeth. That involves a certain amount of faith. Of course, in these cases the faith is rational, but that deference could, if manipulated, lead to irrational deference.
There are also emotional predispositions which evolved for various reasons and make us prone to religious belief as a by-product. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict summed up much of prayer when she said "Religion is universally a technique for success.” Ethnographic surveys suggest that when people try to communicate with God, it's not to share gossip or know-how; it’s to ask him for stuff: recovery from illness, recovery of a child from illness, success in enterprises, success in the battlefield. This idea was summed up by Ambrose Bierce in "The Devil's Dictionary", which defines "to pray" as "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy." This aspect of religious belief is thus a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they've exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success. Those are some of the emotional predispositions that make people fertile ground for religious belief.
But there also are cognitive predispositions, ways in which we intellectually analyze the world, which have been very skillfully explored by the anthropologists Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer, and Scott Atran. The starting point is a faculty of human reason that psychologists call intuitive psychology or the “theory of mind module"; here “theory”is not referring to a theory of the scientist but rather to the intuitive theory that people unconsciously deploy in making sense of other people's behaviour. When I try to figure out what someone is going to do, I don't treat them as just a robot or a wind-up doll responding to physical stimuli in the world. Rather, I impute minds to those people. I can't literally know what someone else is thinking or feeling, but I assume that they're thinking or feeling something, that they have a mind, and I explain their behaviour in terms of their beliefs and their desires. That's intuitive psychology. There is evidence that intuitive psychology is a distinct part of our psychological make-up. It seems to be knocked out in a condition called autism: autistic people can be prodigious in mathematics, art, language, and music, but they have a terrible time attributing minds to other people. They really do treat other people as if they were robots and wind-up dolls. There's also a concerted effort underway to see where intuitive psychology is computed in the brain. Parts of it seem to be concentrated in the ventromedial and orbital frontal cortex, the parts of the brain that kind of sit above the eyeballs, as well as the superior temporalsulcus farther back.
Perhaps the ubiquitous belief in spirits, souls, gods, or angels, consists of our intuitive psychology running amok. If you are prone to attributing an invisible entity called “the mind” to other people’s bodies, it's a short step to imagining minds that exist independently of bodies. After all, it's not as if you could reach out and touch someone else's mind; you are always making an inferential leap. It's just one extra inferential step to say that a mind is not invariable housed in a body.
In fact the 19th-century anthropologist Edward Tyler pointed out that in some ways, there is good empirical support for the existence of the soul, or at least there used to be, until the fairly recent advent of neuroscience, which provides an alternative explanation for how minds work. Think about dreams. When you dream, your body is in bed the whole time, but some part of you seems to be up and about in the world. The same thing happens when you're in a trance from a fever, a hallucinogenic drug, sleep deprivation, or food poisoning.
Shadows and reflections are rather mysterious, or were until the development of the physics of light with its explanation of those phenomena. But they appear to have the form and essence of the person but without any of their actual matter.
Death, of course, is the ultimate apparent evidence for the existence of the soul. A person may be walking around one minute, and the next minute be an inert and lifeless body, perhaps without any visible change. It would seem that some animating entity that was housed in the body has suddenly escaped from it. So before the advent of modern physics, biology, and especially neuroscience, a plausible explanation of these phenomena is that the soul wanders off when we sleep, lurks in the shadows, looks back at us from a surface of a pond, and leaves the body when we die.
The universal propensity toward religious beliefs is a genuine scientific puzzle. But many adaptationist explanations for religion don't, I think, meet the criteria for adaptations. There is an alternative explanation, namely that religious psychology is a by-product of many parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes. Among those purposes one has to distinguish the benefits to the producer and the benefits to the consumer. Religion has obvious practical effects for producers. When it comes to the consumers, there are possible emotional adaptations in our desire for health, love, and success, possible cognitive adaptations in our intuitive psychology, and many aspects of our experience that seem to provide evidence for souls. Put these together and you get an appeal to a mysterious world of souls to bring about our fondest wishes.
*[This speech was originally presented at the annual meeting of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin, October 29, 2004, on receipt of “The Emperor’s New Clothes Award.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.