of God(s) - Excerpts from 'Are we
hardwired for God?'
(Top Posts - Distance From Belief
in theism - 020702)
Thursday February 7, 2002
Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods,
Spirits and Ancestors, by Pascal Boyer
- - - begin excerpts - - -
Any argument about religion, whether conducted in the
seminar room or the saloon bar, is likely to hit the buffers
not just because people hold different religious beliefs but
because they disagree about what should or should not
be counted as an instance of religion in the first place.
Nobody will query the inclusion of what goes on at High
Mass in Notre Dame or on the prayer mats of the Islamic
faithful or in a Hindu temple or at a Merina death ritual in
.... Pascal Boyer tells us in his opening chapter that "reli-
gion is about the existence and causal powers of nonob-
servable entities and agencies." He doesn't appear to have
in mind things like gravity or magnetism or radio waves.
.... The diverse beliefs which Boyer cites extend from Apollo
and Athena, to shamanism among the Panamanian Cuna, to
aliens from remote galaxies allegedly landing in New Mexico.
But his central agenda is the particular set of unobservable
causal agencies cited in his subtitle, and his primary concern
is with the question of how we are to account for beliefs that
involve the attribution of conscious agency to beings other
than humans and animals of the normal and familiar kind.
Such beliefs are, as Boyer says, remarkably widespread,
and for all their variant forms the variation is neither limitless
His answer falls into two parts: first, these beliefs have in
common a counterintuitive attribution of a certain range of
properties to certain kinds of quasihuman being; second,
the explanation of their diffusion and persistence is to be
sought not in the extensive anthropological literature about
the origins and functions of religion, but in recent advances
in developmental, cognitive and evolutionary psychology.
Whatever reservations that second proposition may invite,
Boyer is surely correct in saying that some beliefs about
supernatural beings are better candidates for propagation
within an established system of ideas than others.
No anthropologist ever has, or ever will, come back from
the field with an account of a people that worships an
all-powerful god who exists only on one day of the week,
any more than of a people that believes the spirits of its
ancestors will inflict punishment on those who dutifully
obey their commands.
On the other hand, it is no surprise to find that there are
cultures in which it is believed that the soul survives the
body after death, or that humans can sometimes meta-
morphose into animals, or that either saints or demons
or both can be supplicated for help or protection, or
that local divinities need to be propitiated by sacrifices,
or that mountains or jungles have some kind of spiritual
as well as physical existence, or that trances or other
abnormal mental states enable certain people to see into
the future, or that holy men (and sometimes women)
can perform miraculous cures of otherwise untreatable
illnesses, or that one or more supernatural beings not
only observe but pass judgment on the day-to-day con-
duct of human beings.
Boyer thinks that beliefs like these persist neither because
of the social cohesion which they generate, nor because
of the psychological gratification which they afford, but
because the subconscious architecture of the human
mind has so evolved over many millennia as to be recep-
tive to them.
Critics of evolutionary psychology will retort that the
link between presumptive ancestral cause and present-day
behavioural effect is forged (in both senses) with the ben-
efit of hindsight.
But the research that Boyer cites from developmental
and cognitive psychology does furnish support for his
argument for universal psychological dispositions of a
kind which help to explain why the beliefs which he
counts as 'religion' are much more common across
all times and places than those which he counts as
The latter are often counterintuitive, too. But scientific
theories are counterintuitive in a way much less con-
sistent with our inherited mental architecture than reli-
gious belief systems.
It isn't that religious belief systems are what natural
selection has constructed our minds for, but that a
side effect of what our minds have been constructed
for is a susceptibility to the belief in gods, spirits and
ancestors that Boyer describes.
That natural selection has made the human mind (or,
if you prefer, brain) into what it is will not be disputed
except by avowed creationists.
Nor will it be disputed that it has done so by selection
for a kind and degree of imagination, and therefore
credulity, which, over those many millennia, made those
of our ancestors with theory-building minds more likely
to pass on the relevant genes to their descendants than
those without them.
As a species, we are born not only to construct all sorts
of belief systems out of what are sometimes the flimsiest
materials, but also to retain whatever beliefs our local
environment favours in the face of seemingly discon-
.... Missing from Boyer's account of why the human mind
is receptive to the notion of gods, spirits and ancestors as
supernatural agents is any account of the psychology of
conversion and apostasy as such.
It is highly plausible that in the unpredictable and often
threatening environment of the Pleistocene, it was adaptive
for our ancestors to attribute agency not only to animals,
whether as predators or as prey, but to less directly ob-
servable beings of other kinds as well.
'Scientific' criteria of inference and test need have nothing
to do with it. If the inhabitants of a particular environment
are inhibited from maladaptive behaviour by a seemingly
irrational taboo or wishful conviction about life after death,
their inclusive reproductive fitness will be promoted no
less than if they were following the advice of a 21st cen-
tury professor of medicine or philosophy.
Once such beliefs are there, they will be handed down
from parents to children along with the myths and songs
and rituals and everything else that makes up the cultural
tradition of the community in question.
But religion - however defined - is full of doctrinal rever-
sals, disputes, heresies, disillusionments, reformations
and sometimes startlingly rapid replacements of one
belief system by another.
Boyer explicitly disclaims any ability to explain why some
people believe things that other people don't.
But to claim to have explained religion requires more than
showing that attribution of agency to gods, spirits and
ancestors is 'part of what the baby's brain is built to
The baby's brain isn't built to assume that Jesus of Nazar-
eth rose from the dead, or that we are all destined for
successive reincarnations, or that plague is a punishment
for excessive covetousness, or that Mohammed is the last
true prophet of the one true God, or that the future can be
divined in the T-shaped cracks on heated Chinese bones,
or that epileptic attacks can be warded off by carrying a
parchment on which have been written the names of the
.... Mistaken as Frazer may have been in equating magic
with bad science, he was right in seeing that the accep-
tance of what to others may seem irrational beliefs is
often the result of the universal desire to link causes to
effects in matters directly connected with human well-
being; and mistaken as Durkheim may have been in
seeing religion as the worship of society by itself, he
was right to point out that it involves not just beliefs of
a noncommonsensical kind but an attitude of reverence
which extends well beyond gods, spirits and ancestors
to things like the eagles worshipped by Roman legions
and the regimental standards which soldiers in present-
day battles will risk their lives to defend.
Much can be explained by bringing together, as Boyer
does, the evidence of the ethnographic record and the
findings of recent psychology. But there is also a histor-
ical dynamic which explains why, under specific socio-
logical conditions, the members of different cultures
will adopt or discard belief systems of different kinds.
What is more, even the most traditional cultures, with the
longest histories of religious orthodoxy, contain scoffers,
cynics and sceptics who refuse to believe what they are
told they should.
The anti-Papal conspirator Scaradino, executed in 1629,
was surely not alone in his view that only fools believe
in the existence of hell, and that rulers want their subjects
to believe in it because it makes it easier for them to do
as they please.
Boyer will be as aware as any practising anthropologist
of the danger of talking about the Nuer, or the Cuna, or
the Greeks, or the (Protestant or Catholic) Christians, or
the (Sunni or Shi'ite) Muslims as either holding or not
holding supernatural beliefs of some specific and coher-
He is, moreover, alert to the human capacity for fusing
adherence to belief in gods and spirits with loyalty to
seemingly unrelated national, ethnic or other self-differen-
tiated coalitions in such a way as to generate what is
currently termed 'fundamentalism'.
But what about refuseniks like Scaradino, or like Diag-
oras of Melos who, when shown the votive offerings
in the temple of Poseidon at Samothrace, which had
been dedicated by the survivors of accidents at sea,
replied that there would be a lot more of them if those
who were drowned had had the opportunity to make
If the baby's brain is so constructed as to jump to
conclusions about quasihuman agents when faced with
unpredictable events which clamour for explanation,
is it not also so constructed as to question explanations
which impose too much on its inherited disposition to
believe whatever parents, teachers or peer groups may
A willingness to act in accordance with 'religious' max-
ims, rather than rely on individual trial and error, may
have been not only desirable but essential in the environ-
ment in which our ancestors were mothered by Mitochon-
But, to borrow a phrase from WV Quine, 'creatures invet-
erately wrong' in the conclusions they draw from their
environment will be unlikely to survive long enough to
pass on their genes at all.
Even if the scoffers, cynics and sceptics are no more
than a minority incapable of successfully invading, in the
game-theoretic sense, a population wedded to its tradi-
tional beliefs, the baby's brain also permits stable sub-
cultural variations whose explanation has to be sought
in the processes of cultural and social - rather than
natural - selection.
It is not difficult to find in the ethnographic and histor-
ical record cases where inherited religious beliefs are
shared by both dominant and subordinate groups but
where an alternative creed has been elaborated and
preserved by an intermediate group with interests and
priorities of its own.
If the dissenters are less readily disposed to credit
gods, spirits and ancestors with a capacity to intervene
in human affairs than their social superiors and inferiors
are, it is not because their genes have endowed them
with a different mental architecture.
Such cases are not inconsistent with the general propos-
ition that all human beings are predisposed from birth
to attribute conscious agency not only to animals but
to certain kinds of inanimate object on the one side,
and certain kinds of supernatural being on the other.
But they do demonstrate the extent to which predispos-
itions that derive, whether directly or indirectly, from
the selective pressures which maximised inclusive repro-
ductive fitness in the ancestral environment, can be
diverted, modified or overridden.
Boyer is sure that religion will persist, and has no lack
of evidence with which to support his prediction.
But aren't some kinds of religion more likely to persist
Human beings will always have to search beyond the
evidence of their senses for answers to the age-old ques-
tions 'What shall we do?' and 'How shall we live?' and
although Boyer is dismissive of what he calls 'meta-
physical religions' unwilling to 'dirty their hands', he
presumably agrees that the 'Why are we here at all?'
question isn't going to be solved by science either.
The future of gods, spirits and ancestors is, however,
We may not be witnessing the universal trend towards
secularisation which was mistakenly predicted by many
20th century sociologists of religion.
But there has, all the same, been a good deal of the
Entzauberung - 'disenchantment', or literally 'demagifi-
cation' - which Max Weber took to be one of the
defining characteristics of the modern world.
.... Human beings may continue to believe all sorts of
things, both metaphysical and ethical, that Boyer is
unable to share with them, and to define themselves in
relation to those beliefs to the point of being willing to
kill other human beings who refuse to share them.
But supernatural agency is no longer quite what it was.
To put it no more strongly, Hegel had a point when he
remarked that 'before the statues of the gods we no longer
bend the knee.'
- - - end excerpts - - -