On the most recent bloggingheads.tv you can watch Paul Bloom explaining why he thinks the propensity for theism is an innate bias of our species. Several years back Bloom wrote a piece for The Atlantic, Is God an Accident?, where he makes a similar case. But the general outline of Bloom’s line of thinking is actually most powerfully argued in Scott Atran’s In God’s We Trust. The cognitive psychologists and anthropologists who work within this paradigm operate under some background assumptions in regards to our mental architecture. First, human cognitive states are strongly biased by innate tendencies which have a biological origin. Perception and language acquisition are easily explained by nativist treatments, but Atran and others have argued that more obscure biases such as folk biology also exist, while other domains such as theory of mind are broadly accepted within the scholarly community.
One can conceive of a model where on a lower structural level a set of biological parameters interact with exogenous inputs to generate a set of psychological biases. But the subsequent mental skills are not independent, and I suspect broadly distributed ones contingent upon environmental inputs such as language are among the least encapsulated from other cognitive domains. It seems rather clear that language aptitude is one of the components which can be used to explain the facility for mathematical abstraction, but it can not explain the totality of this skill. Cognitive anthropologists have also noted that preliterate peoples have extreme difficulties with comprehending the logic or rationale behind syllogistic reasoning (see Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind), suggesting that there are strong cultural preconditions to particular styles of thinking which may seem natural to us. Even though language, reading and writing all are learned, they are also facilities which we as humans have an innate aptitude for because of our neurobiology (language is obviously “more innate” insofar as it seems that our priming is so strong that it might emerge out of any conventional socialization processes, which literacy is historically and culturally contingent).
Another working assumption of Bloom, Atran & co. is that a great deal of our cognition is implicit. Again, this is well accepted among the community of scholars. It stands to reason that our conscious mind lives under the illusion that it is all that there is, but a substantial body of work tells us that most of our conscious decisions are strongly influenced and primed by subconscious background parameters. Not only does this include priming an individual immediately prior to a psychological task, but it also includes the enormous swath of territory which falls under the category of intuitive thinking. A dense network of background connections and implicit inferences is often an outsized shadow of the visible chains of reflective rationality. Even in structurally transparent and deductive disciplines such as mathematics the dark-net of subconscious facts and assumptions loom large in the process of creativity.
The fact that psychological biases have many different upstream neurobiological and environmental parameters, as well as the syngergistic nature of cognition which produces subsequent cognitive abilities (e.g., mathematics or painting which includes perspective), means that a hypothesis that posits a God Module is obviously going to be false. There are god modules such as the medulla oblongata, but only insofar as they are necessary for the proper functioning of a human in general. But it seems highly unlikely that there is one localized region of the brain which is specifically the causal element for belief in God (i.e., if said region is damaged atheism ensues, but most other cognitive function is left unscathed). This assumption doesn’t derive simply from an a priori understanding of how the mind works; we can see it in how the phenotype of theism plays out. The pathological character of many aphasia sufferers is pretty obvious; in contrast the avowed attitude toward the God hypothesis is characterized by a rich range of opinion in terms of both plausibility and character. In other words, religion is more properly characterized as a quantitative trait which exhibits a wide range of continuous variation, subject to a norm of reaction.
Do note that I said avowed attitude; when it comes to theism there are many ways to evaluate belief or lack thereof. Despite wide variations in verbal descriptions of the particular flavor of deity believers assent to, psychologists know that the implicit model of most humans in regards to supernatural agents is strongly constrained. This is one of the main reasons that many cognitive scientists believe that our mental architecture is rigged toward a belief in god; not only do the gods which individuals from widely disparate societies model in their mind’s eye differ from the entities which they avow a conscious belief in, but those psychological constructs exhibit a very strong universal central tendency. In other words, the human model of a god, or supernatural agent if you will, seems to be predicated on the various elements of universal neurobiology. Unless strongly constrained by experimental or observational methodologies as in natural science, or a rigorous formalism as in mathematics, our species tends to reason extremely sloppily so that inferences unmoored from experience or unchanneled by formalism invariably explore an enormous sample space of possibilities starting from the same axioms. That humans tend to conceive of the same god-construct despite lack of communication or outside input suggests that the channeling is occurring on an innate level.
Additionally, not only do theists no matter their affiliation agree upon an intuitive model of God, but so do atheists. Paul Bloom has noted that the offspring of secular parents are usually innate Creationists. Many of the ideas bracketed within “religion” are very natural and intuitive. In our gut we know them to be “true” without deep reflection or analysis. Atheism can not exist without theism because it is simply a negation of the latter. It is a conceit of many atheists that children are naturally unbelievers and that they are indoctrinated into a religious system of belief. This is correct; children are indoctrinated into a system of belief, but more specifically they are indoctrinated into a system, not a belief. That in almost all human societies a supernatural model of the world is numerically dominant strongly suggests that these sorts of belief do not necessarily need the institutional scaffolding of established churches or professional priesthoods. Rather, it seems that these features of religion are secondary and subsequent, and that they operate upon the preexistent assumptions of the population. Some atheists live under the delusion that the withering of organized religion will result in the collapse of belief in God or the supernatural; this is not so. Though the extremely high rates of theism in some societies may be an upper bound contingent upon social and historical conditions, in no society does it seem there exists an inverse dynamic where theism is extant at trivial levels. Note that even after 70 years of state sanctioned atheism Russians have now swung back to a default affiliation with their historical religious identity as Orthodox Christians. This is not to say that Russians are a religiously fervent people; rather, the high levels of atheism espoused during the Soviet era was a function of a skewing of the environmental inputs which shifted the median value of the trait distribution. With the norm relaxed the distribution has shifted back.
The plausibility of theism doesn’t need to be something we note only in terms of macrosocial metrics in regards to religious affiliation cross-culturally. As I imply above, theism is at root a psychological phenomena, and the bundle of biases and presuppositions which our biology confers upon us stack the deck in terms of weighting the plausibility of god concepts. This applies to atheists as well. We might not believe in god on the conscious level, but that does not mean that we are immune to the priming affect of agents, and likely supernatural agents as well. The folk wisdom about there being no atheists in foxholes is a reflection of this assumption. Now I’m not going to tell anyone who says they don’t believe in god that deep down they really do believe in god; rather, I simply believe that many of the psychological characteristics which prime one for finding god plausible are present in those who consciously assert that they don’t believe in gods. For example many atheists may feel unnerved in cemeteries despite a materialist world-view; the psychological response may be a result of social conditioning, but it is also possibly a cognitive reflex at an intersection of environmental inputs (think snake aversion as something similar).
So far I have alluded to biology & psychology, but what about the higher-level social sciences? Paul Bloom and most cognitive scientists are focused on the first two disciplines, so they tend to strongly adhere to a model that religion is a byproduct of our cognitive architecture. An analogy might be the heat given off by the functioning of a car’s engine; the heat is not a designed product of the various components of the engine, but it is an inevitable byproduct of the physical processes entailed by combustion. Similarly, theism may not be an adaptation to any exogenous selection pressure, but the intersection of various adaptive psychological characters such as agency detection, theory of mind and folk biology necessarily lead to the plausibility of supernatural agents within the minds of most humans. Because of Bloom’s disciplinary focus he tends to not be very open toward a functionalist explanation for theism; that theism (or religion) is an adaptive trait which increases individual fitness. Insofar as explanations at a lower level of organization are preferable to those at a higher level, I think that Bloom’s skepticism is warranted. But even cognitive anthropologists who tend to focus on the psychological dimensions of theism can’t dismiss the social aspects of religion, and a substantial body of social science research implies that variation in religious belief might track other social variables.
Instead of repeating the functionalist explanations elucidated by scientists such as David Sloan Wilson (see Darwin’s Cathedral), I think it is easy to illustrate the relation of these various theories by using an analogy with narrative. Despite the attempts of authors who dabble in “experimental fiction” it seems pretty obvious that a great story has a dimension of temporal permanence derived from the timelessness of the primary themes and styles. The Epic of Gilgamesh speaks to us even after 4,000 years, and many of its motifs are still extant in the heroic fantasy genre. Despite the lack of qualitative originality in plot and the constraints upon the plausible range of the psychology of characters we continue to consume fiction because our brains are attracted to particular themes arranged in a familiar structure. One could contend that fiction is a waste of time, but it seems likely that the same mental ticks which draw us to compelling stories are useful in other areas of life.
But narrative is not only a byproduct of our promiscuous mental functioning, it is an essential part of myth-making and religion. The cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer has reported on research which suggests that minimally counterintuitive stories are the ones which are most memorable and “sticky” over the long-term. In other words, experimental fiction is just too weird to really make a deep impact, you don’t have any common basis for associative memory to operate. In contrast, exceedingly conventional and banal narratives just don’t add anything new to the base of data. A boring story is a boring story. But a familiar scenario with just the right amount of spice adds enough twists and turns within the comprehensible base to make it memorable enough to catalog and retrieve later. This explains why most science fiction and fantasy tends to constrain the deviation from normality; you can’t relate to a story where most of it is unfamiliar or disorienting.
Of course narrative is an essential part of religion. Even “primitive” religions have a robust narrative base; tales of gods & heroes unfettered by abstruse theologies. The story of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels has a power to draw people in and inspire them toward belief & action. In contrast, despite the fact that Christians accept the divine provenance of Deuteronomy, very few believers have ever recounted to me how it inspires them or serves as the ground of their faith. Just as narrative emerges naturally as a byproduct of our overall psychological architecture, it also immediately slots into the overall cultural entity which we label “religion.” I suspect the exact same model is applicable to gods; their plausibility precedes their integration into a religious framework and does not derive from direct adaptation. But the universal nature of religious frameworks as well as storytelling implies that these byproduct traits are almost always subject to co-option by cultural systems which are canalized toward a particular configuration.
But what is driving that canalization? I suspect there is some functional selection going on. Like many social science generalizations I’m not sure I can be very general here. David Sloan Wilson has collected data which shows that religious fundamentalism is more noticeable in economically depressed regions. Which way does the causality run here? I suspect that it is generally in the direction of economic insecurity to religious fundamentalism. The sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has elucidated a rational choice inspired framework which posits that religious institutions are firms which offer products which satisfy a fragmented market of religious consumers. This model seems highly plausible for the United States, but there are doubts as to its validity in other cultures where religious switching is not as socially acceptable or viable. Similarly, many of Wilson’s adaptive arguments for the functional significance of religion are quite likely more relevant in societies which lack the accoutrements of the welfare state so that religious institutions have few competitors or substitutes. In other words, generalizations about the functional significance of religious institutions may not hold across many environments. Nevertheless, though generalizations on higher levels of organization are less impressive when compared to the relatively simplicity and universality of a biopsychological paradigm, I think it is necessary that we analyze the expression of religion outside the bounds of the human mind. After all, though religious ideas are fundamentally mental, they are embedded within a social matrix and have a geopolitical relevance in terms of how they shape human relations and action.
We can, for instance, see that over the past few thousand years local tribal religions have ceded ground to the dominance of institutional religions which often have multiple products under the same brand name. The number of supernatural agents seems to be decreasing through a process of competition concurrent with the decrease in polities, languages and ethnic groups. But though institutional religions have gone through a process of consolidation this dynamic has limits; the fragmentation of Christianity during the Reformation or the schisms within the first centuries of Islam attest to this. Though religious institutions far exceed the scale of Dunbar’s Number, a One-World-Religion seems as plausible as a One-World-Government. Psychologists have also attempted to move into broader domains of social science. Scott Atran has been at the forefront of attempting to synthesize the cognitivist viewpoint with an analysis of the nature of religious terrorism. Atran emphasizes the power of religious narratives & rituals in cementing group cohesion. The functionalist interpretation on this is pretty obvious; this is a case where heat from one process is quickly being utilized to generate energy through another.
To some extent analysis of religious is like the species problem; we should measure the definition against the utility it provides in a particular context. Species define the joints around which nature is carved, and religion is a label for a cluster of integrated characters which we humans imbue with ontological significance. Both species and religion are important to understand, and can serve as frameworks for robust research programs, but a final definition will never be attained so long as scholars in disparate fields have distinct ends. A diversity of ends does not imply that these ends are contradictory, rather, when you have a many dimensional character it is necessary to observe from a variety of angles to obtain the clearest picture.
Addendum: I want to add something: theism & religion are very robust phenomena. This is why adaptationist explanations are so compelling. That’s why an analogy to misunderstandings due to intuitive physics (e.g., flat earth, variance of acceleration in proportion to mass of an objection) is informative, but only to some extent. Overactive agency detection feeds into something which is far more than the sum of their parts, the falsifiable manifestations of religion such as Young Earth Creationism can resist disconfirmation because of their association with psychological tendencies such as group conformity enforced by common rituals & beliefs. To say religion is a spandrel or exaptation understates its interaction with other aspects of human culture so as to make it inevitable and resistant to suppression.
Related: The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell, Modes of religion, Who Dan Dennett think he be foolin’?, An evolutionary anthropology of religion, , God lives, deal with it!, , Belief & belief in belief, Logical consistency is irreligious, God & moralityAre people naturally religious? Yes…. , The round-eyed Buddha, Nerds are nuts, Atheism, Heresy and Hesychasm, The God Delusion – Amongst the unbelievers , Innate atheism & variation across societies, “Hard-wired” for God, Buddhism, a religion or not?, Why do people believe in God?, Is religion an adaptation?, Theological incorrectness – when people behave how they shouldn’t….sort of , The gods of the cognitive scientists