Posted by: Dan | October 24, 2008

Our Cognitive Traits and the Religion Instinct

For the atheists and agnostics out there struggling to understand why religion persists, Pascal Boyer has an essay in Nature on being human: Religion: Bound to Believe. The editor’s comment is as follows: “Atheism will always be a harder sell than religion, Pascal Boyer explains, because a slew of cognitive traits predispose us to faith.

So is religion an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution? Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than ‘religion’ in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times. For the time being, the data support a more modest conclusion: religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.

If you have trouble accessing the full essay, email me at dan-at-bitesizebio-com.

Research has shown that unlike conscious beliefs, which differ widely from one tradition to another, tacit assumptions are extremely similar in different cultures and religions. These similarities may stem from the peculiarities of human memory. Experiments suggest that people best remember stories that include a combination of counterintuitive physical feats (in which characters go through walls or move instantaneously) and plausibly human psychological features (perceptions, thoughts, intentions). Perhaps the cultural success of gods and spirits stems from this memory bias.
Humans also tend to entertain social relations with these and other non-physical agents, even from a very young age. Unlike other social animals, humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members. This goes even further. From childhood, humans form enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasized mates. Indeed, the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.
It is a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualizing spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible, yet are socially involved. This may explain why, in most cultures, at least some of the superhuman agents that people believe in have moral concerns. Those agents are often described as having complete access only to morally relevant actions. Experiments show that it is much more natural to think “the gods know that I stole this money” than “the gods know that I had porridge for breakfast”.

John Wilkins, Razib, and Mind Hacks comment.



  1. Very very interesting and informative.

  2. Dan,

    Hello again.

    You’re the science guy and you want some “religious” data on your candidate? Or how about a place where religion and psychology blend with science?

    Check this out.

  3. ANF,
    Please don’t waste my time with hokey stuff like that.

  4. For more on this, I’d recommend Pascal Boyer’s book, Religion Explained. Very enlightening.

  5. Religion Explained is a very good book. Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust is pretty good also, with some subtle differences.

    For people seriously interested in the subject, I’d recommend both – two points of view are better than one.

  6. Dan: Great article. Thanks for the lead.

    There was an interesting piece on Slate today, too, called: Does Religion Make You Nice? Does Atheism Make You Mean? I think you can find it here:

    I never know if those links work properly. It references another article that was in Science last month that I haven’t had the time to check out yet. But it sounds as if it might be good reading.

  7. Evolution posits that humans have their foundations in lower species, and that human things (culture, language, history, science, etc.) are elaborations from something lower.

    Religious belief posits that human beings get some aspect of their being from “above,” that human experience is a mix of the lower and higher — a similarity to the animals as well as a radical difference from them. One contemporary form of this idea is “intelligent design,” though it need not be the only form. Indeed, it’s not clear that “intelligent design” even posits a specific claim, though it does ask interesting questions. The ideas of the followers of Leo Strauss is another form. No doubt there are other forms, too.

    I wonder why it is considered scientifically “out of bounds” to even consider this oppositional view — the persistance of religious experience throughout human culture and history is itself an evidence in support of an argument to take the idea seriously.

    Dan, you often recommend books on atheism or on scientific analysis of religious impulse, but you do not seem to read serious books about religion. For instance, what about something like “Paradise Lost,” John Milton’s long poem on creation that seeks to “justifie the wayes of God to men”? Even the fact that it is a poem and not a treatise strikes me as being of the utmost consequence.

    In comparison with Milton, the whole generation of contemporary atheism books are like kid stuff. Milton was an intellectual of an order that’s rare to find today. He was throughly steeped in Greek and Latin authors and was equally, adeptly at the center of the Christian controversies of his time.

    Why not read a difficult book? Wouldn’t you gain more? Perhaps not pat answers, but provocative questions? Even just having to entertain Milton’s imagery, his characters, the complex language, doesn’t it get you more bang for your intellectual buck?

    Oh, by the way. You should chide yourself a little for poo-pooing Ericksonian hypnosis before you’d done at least a “google.” Erickson turns out to be brilliant. I’ve been reading about his work. His psychotherapeutic approach was kind of the “it” thing in the 1980s. Don’t know how it’s fared since, but Erickson was amazing in his insight into character, motivation and how the mind works.

    Best, ANF

  8. ANF,
    Do you have anything relevant to add to the discussion of cognition and psychology relating to religion? No, I didn’t really think so. You’ve made a habit of wasting my time with childish caricatures and irrelevant digressions, and I really fail to see how today will be any different.


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