Evolutionary psychology of religion
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Evolutionary psychology of religion is based on the hypothesis that religious belief can be explained by the evolution of the human brain. As with all other organ functions, cognition's functional structure has been argued to have a genetic basis, and is therefore subject to the effects of natural selection. Like other organs and tissues, this functional structure should be universally shared amongst humans and should solve important problems of survival and reproduction. Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand cognitive processes, religion in this case, by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might serve.
Pascal Boyer suggests, in his book Religion Explained, that there is no simple explanation for religious consciousness. He builds on the ideas of cognitive anthropologists Dan Sperber and Scott Atran, who argued that religious cognition represents a by-product of various evolutionary adaptations, including folk psychology, and purposeful violations of innate expectations about how the world is constructed (for example, bodiless beings with thoughts and emotions) that make religious cognitions striking and memorable.
Boyer's friend and colleague Justin L. Barrett in Why Would Anyone Believe in God? suggests that belief in God is natural because it depends on mental tools possessed by all human beings. He suggests that the way our minds are structured and develop make belief in the existence of a supreme god with properties such as being superknowing, superpowerful and immortal highly attractive. He also compares belief in God to belief in other minds, and devotes a chapter to looking at the evolutionary psychology of atheism.
Mechanisms of Evolution
There is general agreement among scientists that a propensity to engage in religious behavior evolved early in human history. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that drove the evolution of the religious mind. There are two schools of thought. One is that religion itself evolved due to natural selection, in which case religion conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage. Alternatively, religious beliefs and behaviors may have emerged as by-products of other adaptive traits without initially being selected for because of their own benefits.
Religion as an adaptation
Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta have reviewed several of the prominent theories for the adaptive value of religion. Many are "social solidarity theories", which view religion as having evolved to enhance cooperation and cohesion within groups. Group membership in turn provides benefits which can enhance an individual's chances for survival and reproduction.
These social solidarity theories may help to explain the painful or dangerous nature of many religious rituals. Costly-signaling theory suggests that such rituals might serve as public and hard to fake signals that an individual's commitment to the group is sincere. Since there would be a considerable benefit in trying to cheat the system - taking advantage of group living benefits without taking on any possible costs - the ritual would not be something simple that can be taken lightly. Warfare is a good example of a cost of group living, and Richard Sosis, Howard C. Kress, and James S. Boster carried out a cross-cultural survey which demonstrated that men in societies which engage in war do submit to the costliest rituals.
Studies that show more direct positive associations between religious practice and health and longevity are more controversial. Harold G. Koenig and Harvey J. Cohen summarized and assessed the results of 100 evidence-based studies that systematically examined the relationship between religion and human well-being, finding that 79% showed a positive influence. These studies are popular in the media, as seen in a recent NPR program including University of Miami Professor Gail Ironson's findings that belief in God and a strong sense of spirituality were good predictors of viral load and immune cell levels in HIV patients. However, Dr. Richard P. Sloan of Columbia University was quoted in the New York Times as saying that "...there is no really good compelling evidence that there is a relationship between religious involvement and health.". There is still debate over the validity of these findings, and they do not necessarily prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between religion and health.
Religion as a by-product
Stephen Jay Gould was a proponent of this hypothesis. He and Elisabeth Vrba proposed the term exaptation in 1982 to mean "features that now enhance fitness, but were not built by natural selection for their current role." Gould and R. C. Lewontin compared such features to spandrels, "an architectural term for spaces left over between structural elements of a building". A more complete explanation of this metaphor can be found in Gould and Lewontin's 1979 paper, "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme". Gould cites religion as an example of an exaptation or spandrel, but he does not himself select a definite trait which he thinks was actually acted on by natural selection. He does, however, bring up Freud's suggestion that our large brains, which evolved for other reasons, led to consciousness. The beginning of consciousness forced humans to deal with the concept of personal mortality. Religion may have been one solution to this problem.
Other researchers have proposed specific psychological processes which may have been co-opted for religion. Pierre Lienard and Pascal Boyer suggest that humans have evolved a "hazard-precaution system" which allows us to detect potential threats in the environment and attempt to respond appropriately. Several features of ritual behaviors, often a major feature of religion, trigger this system. These include the occasion for the ritual, often the prevention or elimination of danger or evil, the harm believed to result from nonperformance of the ritual, and the detailed proscriptions for proper performance of the ritual. Lienard and Boyer discuss the possibility that a sensitive hazard-precaution system itself may have provided fitness benefits, and that religion then "associates individual, unmanageable anxieties with coordinated action with others and thereby makes them more tolerable or meaningful".
Justin L. Barrett proposes a similar situation. He suggests that one of the fundamental mental modules in the brain is the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), another potential system for identifying danger. This HADD may confer a survival benefit even if it is over-sensitive: it is better to avoid an imaginary predator than be killed by a real one. This would tend to encourage belief in ghosts and spirits.
Richard Dawkins suggests in The Selfish Gene that cultural memes function like genes in that they are subject to natural selection. In The God Delusion Dawkins further argues that because religious truths cannot be questioned, their very nature encourages religions to spread like "mind viruses".
This model holds that religion is the byproduct of the cognitive modules in the human brain that arose in our evolutionary past to deal with problems of survival and reproduction. Initial concepts of supernatural agents may arise in the tendency of humans to "over detect" the presence of other humans or predators (momentarily mistaking a vine for a snake). For instance, a man might report that he felt something sneaking up on him, but it vanished when he looked around.
Stories of these experiences are especially likely to be retold, passed on and embellished due to their descriptions of standard ontological categories (human, artifact, animal, plant, natural object) with counterintuitive properties (humans that are invisible, houses that remember what happened in them, etc.). These stories become even more salient when they are accompanied by activation of non-violated expectations for the ontological category (houses that "remember" activates our intuitive psychology of mind; i.e. we automatically attribute thought processes to them).
One of the attributes of our intuitive psychology of mind is that humans are interested in the affairs of other humans. This may result in the tendency for concepts of supernatural agents to inevitably cross connect with human intuitive moral feelings (evolutionary behavioral guidelines). In addition, the presence of dead bodies creates an uncomfortable cognitive state in which dreams and other mental modules (person identification and behavior prediction) continue to run decoupled from reality producing incompatible intuitions that the dead are somehow still around. When this is coupled with the human predisposition to see misfortune as a social event (as someone's responsibility rather than the outcome of mechanical processes) it may activate the intuitive "willingness to make exchanges" module of the human theory of minds resulting in the tendency of humans to try to interact and bargain with their supernatural agents (ritual).
In a large enough group, some individuals will seem better skilled at these rituals than others and will become specialists. As the societies grow and encounter others, competition will ensue and a "survival of the fittest" effect may cause the practitioners to modify their concepts to provide a more abstract, more widely acceptable version. Eventually the specialist practitioners form a cohesive group or guild with its attendant political goals (religion).
- Cognitive fluidity
- Cognitive science of religion
- Evolutionary origin of religions
- Origin of morality
- Psychology of religion
- ^ Barrett, Justin L.. Why Would Anyone Believe in God. pp. viii.
- ^ a b Sosis, R.; Alcorta, C. (2003). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior"]. Evolutionary Anthropology (12): 264-274.
- ^ Sosis, R.; Kress, H. C.; Boster, J. S. (2007). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Scars for war: evaluating alternative signaling explanations for cross-cultural variance in ritual costs"]. Evolution and Human Behavior (28): 234-247.
- ^ Koenig, Harold G.; Cohen, Harvey J. (2001). The Link between Religion and Health: Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- ^ Hagerty, Barbara (2009). "Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?". National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104351710. Retrieved 2009-12-19.
- ^ "Religion and Health: New Research Revives an Old Debate". New York Times. May 7, 2002. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E04E0DE1730F934A35756C0A9649C8B63. Retrieved 2009-12-19.
- ^ a b Gould, S. J. (1991). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Exaptation: a crucial tool for an evolutionary psychology"]. Journal of Social Issues (47): 43-65.
- ^ Gould, S. J.; Lewontin, R. C. (1979). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme"]. Proceedings of the Royal Society B (305): 581-598.
- ^ Lienard, P.; Boyer, P. (2006). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Whence collective rituals? A cultural selection model of ritualized behavior"]. American Anthropologist (108): 824-827.
- ^ Barrett, Justin L.. "3". Why Would Anyone Believe in God.
- ^ Guthrie, Stewart Elliot (1995). Faces in the Clouds. Oxford University Press.
- ^ Boyer, Pascal. "Functional Origins of Religious concepts". http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/bec/papers/boyer_religious_concepts.htm. Retrieved 2009-12-19.
- ^ a b Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books.
- Stewart Guthrie Faces in the clouds A New Theory of Religion ISBN 0195098919].
- Evolutionary psychology of religion Steven Pinker.
- Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels
- Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion ISBN 1593850883
- Atran, Scott In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion ISBN 0195178033
- Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function Pascal Boyer
- Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion By Todd Tremlin, 2006 ISBN 0195305345