As my post on intelligence was quite successful, I thought perhaps I would offer up something similar on religion, since that’s a topic where I have been giving opinions based on fragments of my own views for some time. The point in this post is to unpack the general set of ideas and frameworks that I take for granted and are tacitly operating with as background priors.
If you have been reading me back more than ten years ago, you know that there was a period between 2005 and 2008 when I wrote a fair amount about religion. This was the several years when Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was at the center of the culture, and near enough after 9/11 that there remained a fresh interest in Islamic radicalism and religious fundamentalism (e.g., The End of Faith). I wrote enough about the topic that I even got invited to a conference about religion and evolution, and received books from publishers on religion and evolution.
But that period cooled off because at a certain point my views were changing only on the margin, and stabilized into a form which conditions my ideas in a stable state. The distance between me in 2018 and me in 2008 on this topic is one to two orders of magnitude smaller than the distance between me in 2008 and me in 2004.
Instead of defining religion a priori, I will describe my perception of the dynamics and phenomena in terms of scale and history (small to large, earlier to later).
First, let’s start at the atomic unit of the cultural phenomenon, the mind. By the mind, I don’t just mean conscious, reflective, and rational mind. I mean our deeper psychological impulses. Our intuitions and instincts. One of the major insights of cognitive science over the past few generations is that the mind is not a blank slate and that certain ‘innate ideas’ likely exist. Ultimately these ideas can be framed in an evolutionary context. That is, our intuitions emerge due to selection pressures over thousands of years, and these intuitions serve as the raw material for cultural variation.
This took some time and reading for me to understand. A major reason is that I’ve been secular in my worldview since I was a small child, and my species atypical atheism first manifested itself self-consciously when I was eight years old. I believe that this is due to some psychological abnormalities which predisposed me to scientific naturalism. Even before I was self-consciously atheistic, I recall finding religious services mind-numbingly boring and oppressive. Religion to me was a set of irrational and ancient systems of belief and practice. To understand Christianity, read the Bible, to understand Islam, read the Koran. To understand Confucianism, read the Analects.
These perceptions and beliefs might be modified by reading the Church Fathers, or the Hadith, or Zhu Xi. But ultimately religion was a system of belief and practice codified, explicated, and able to be examined in a reflective and rational manner. Religion was a book.
This was a profound misunderstanding on my part, informed by my abnormal psychology. A work such as Atheism: the Case Against God might convince a certain type of fedora-wearing nerd, but it does not get at the lived experience of most people, which is not about the ontological argument or the argument from design, at least in a philosophical sense. For most humans, the “way of reason” is nothing more than a superficial gesture overlain atop deeper, more primordial intuitions and inferences.
If religion is reduced to a book, a revelation, and reflection on the Ground of Being, then religion is only a few thousand years old.
This is clearly false, so we need to drill down more deeply into the mental architecture of religious intuition. Books such as In Gods We Trust, Religion Explained, and Theological Incorrectness present a cognitive anthropological framework which outlines how intuitions about supernatural forces and beings emerge. A simple root trigger from an evolutionary perspective is that hyperactive agency detection is probably adaptive in terms of avoiding danger in most environments. This means that one’s mental software may often see agency, and meaning, in patterns in the world around us which are entirely impersonal and natural. And yet on occasion, the software may pick up a “true positive,” and so justify its vigilance through avoidance of danger.
Better safe than sorry.
Agency detection, social intelligence, and our tendency to theorize causes for aspects of the universe through storytelling results in the recurrent phenomenon of myth-making and animism among “small-scale societies.” One might say that these “primitive peoples” might only have “superstition,” but I will avoid these pejorative. They are simply different.
Small-scale societies show how cognitive intuitions are universally evoked by environmental stimuli to generate myths, legends, and tales of gods and demons. Though no one has ever seen a god, the reality is that collective human intuitions are strong that they do exist, and those intuitions are not arbitrary.
But in many small-scale societies beliefs about the supernatural are not a matter of individual theory and hypothesis. Rather, they are part of the broader landscape of social cognition, storytelling, and collective comprehension of the clan or tribe’s place in the universe. For a theologian, religion can be reduced to individual reflection, while for a mystic it can be captured in a contemplative reverie. But for the vast majority of humans, religion is a communal, collective, group activity.
If psychological intuitions are the atoms of religious phenomenon, then small-scale group beliefs and practices are macromolecules. Conventional human intuitions which span the tribe are such that fantastic narratives about godlike beings being causal agents are entirely plausible to many individuals within the tribe. But as a cultural phenomenon religion does not simply consist of a set of theories about unseen agents in the universe. In general, religion involves acting upon, or toward, those agents. Rituals of communication and propitiation. Collective rites to signal group commitment to particular gods to gain favor, or avoid wrath.
These group activities, bound together by common belief, do not simply let off psychological steam. They may actually be functionally important in generating group cohesion. Though small-scale societies often have recurrent motifs common across many cultures, such as the trickster god, or a distant sky-god, the differences allow for cultural variation and demarcation of ingroup vs. outgroup dynamics. The very concept of “tribal god” illustrates the totemic power of ethnically delimited supernaturalism. Ecstatic collective rituals before the battle can induce greater emotional arousal if done to accompanying music and dedicated to a collective religious belief.
Supernatural intuitions, individual theories of god and the cosmos, may arise from adaptively beneficial psychologies on the level of an individual, but they also serve as the raw material for cultural phenotypes. Gods serve as the hooks and foci for group rituals, which reduce tension and suspicion within the group and increase salient different between groups. In Big Gods the authors suggest that progressively more expansive god-like beings became associated with progressively more complex societies. Though religious intuitions did not evolve to serve the functional adaptiveness of groups of humans, they were easily co-opted toward that purpose. Gods reinforce good behavior by serving as “eyes” and “ears” within the tribe, and they give a moral justification for the exclusion of and attacks upon outsiders. In other words, functionally, supernatural agents on the group-level increase internal cohesion by dampening free-riding, and make more salient cultural differences between groups, increasing competition.
To a great extent, this was the situation during the first few thousand years of human “civilization.” The gods of the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Hittites were tribal gods writ-large. In some cases, godhead was granted to human rulers, such as the Pharoah of Egypt. During this period of antiquity, the gods witnessed oaths between polities of the scale that we would term nation-states today, but it seems fictive kinship between “brother” kings was just as important. Religion was tightly correlated with ethnicity, and the spread of a particular ethnic identity was associated with a particular cult pantheon. Fusions between peoples might entail fusions between pantheons. The ancient Greek gods seem to be a mix of Indo-European and non-Indo-European gods, reflecting the composite nature of the Greeks themselves.
When Richard Dawkins alludes to Bronze Age sky gods, he is referring specifically to El of the Mountain, also called Baal, and etymologically the ancestor of Allah. But for anyone reading the Hebrew Bible, and then the New Testament, one can see that El transforms a great deal over time. El evolves. The Abrahamic God in its modern form is really a creature of the Iron Age, not the Bronze Age. More precisely, the Axial Age.
We have now traversed most of human evolutionary history and scaled up the unit of analysis from the individual to the tribe, and now beyond the tribe. To nations, and collections of nations. In the period between ~1000 BC and ~700 AD, most of the religions which we term “higher religions” emerged. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), Buddhism, Manichaeanism, Confucianism, Daoism, etc. Obviously, they vary in their details, but they are united by features which separate them from the tribal religions of the Bronze Age. First, most of these religions integrate some sort of philosophy into their belief systems. Second, the ethical component becomes more essential, integrated into the identity of the gods or supernatural beings or prophets, as well as incumbent upon believers. Third, these belief systems tend to be explicitly supra-tribal, portable, and potentially universalistic.
To a great extent, my own intuition is that they emerged when they did because of the “problem of empire.” How do you integrate a multiethnic group of societies into a single polity? By creating a commonwealth of belief. To take the Western case, in particular, a parochial tribal god of the Jews was transmuted into a universal singular God of all peoples. This occurred in a stepwise fashion, involving both Jews and non-Jews. But by the end of this process, the Jewish tribal monopoly on the affections of the West Semitic sky god was broken, and a new universal God of ethics became available to all people.
It is at this point that the rationalization and systematization of religion began. As philosophy swallowed religion whole at the commanding heights, it began to be deployed as a tool on a scale heretofore unimaginable. Though obviously there were shamans who had particular religious skills in the pre-modern world, now a whole class of religious professionals emerged to interpret religion for the people and the rulers. This class explained to everyone what religion was truly about, and recorded down what religion was truly about.
To a great extent, this class of religious professionals unintentionally were engaged in a radical propagandistic agenda which masked the primordial passions which drove the religious fervor of the masses. The periodic explosion of millenarian cults and populist devotional movements are indications that elite control, co-option, and constriction, had its limitations. Religion as an instrument of social control has been so typical over human history as to be beneath comment, but on occasion, the social enthusiasm is bottom-up rather than top-down. Like hydroelectric power, cultural elites harness religious motive force with the complex machinery of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, but periodically the raw energy of river overwhelms the dam and gouges out a new gorge.
Within the tribal context conformity to group beliefs and practices came naturally. From the bottom on up. But with the rise of massive empires, the imposition of uniform norms came from above, because it was not plainly “natural” that Britons, Syrians, and Iberians, should worship a god that was incarnate as a Judaean carpenter. Despite the nominal Christianity of Romans and post-Romans in the 6th century, diverse local religious practices persisted and were integrated into Christianity through the practice of regional saints, who often assimilated aspects of local deities (e.g., Brigit).
Where the general supernatural intuitions that arise in the belief in gods is universal across peoples, specific instantiations vary a great deal. The period before the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire can be thought of as a context where individual group dynamics could operate in a competitive “marketplace” of ideas in an explicit sense. One can then frame Christianity’s success in this framework to one of its “value” to “consumers.” One needs to be careful about taking this sort of economistic model too far, but it is perhaps correct to suggest that this is the situation in much of the modern world, where religious monopolies are no longer in force across most nations.
The reality is that many societies are going through secularization right now. The United States has gone through two major waves since World War II. Though overall rates of religious affiliation have dropped, so have rates of belief in God. But, it is important to note that the former has dropped faster than the latter. My own contention from the framework I outlined above is that intuitions about the existence of God are due to individual evolved psychology, while religious affiliation and identity exist in the matrix of sociology and culture. Obviously social and cultural identity and affinity can dissolve in a way that individual identity does not.
When nonreligious people evaluate the behavior of religious people it is important to keep in mind the multiple layers of the religious phenomenon. Religious intuition about the existence of God may derive from psychological disposition, not the arguments of the Summa Theologica. But collective religious identity is likely more important in dictating attitudes and beliefs about particular points of doctrine or practice through the process of social cognition. Mass disaffiliation, as has occurred in Ireland since the year 2000, may signal a broad collective consensus more than aggregate individual decisions.
In the final summation, religious phenomena are simply the snapping together of myriad cognitive impulses and social processes. Ecstatic dance is entirely separable from religion, but it is often a feature of devotional cults. Similarly, solemn rituals commemorating life transitions and ruptures are separable from a supernatural and metaphysical scaffold, but more often than not these phenomena are bound together. When speaking of “political religion,” one is acknowledging the reality that many elements of conventional religious phenomena can be peeled off and reintegrated in an ideological-political framework. Though most political religions explicitly avoid supernatural commitments, the tendency toward cultic veneration of leaders of these ideologies the world over indicates the tendency of some psycho-social phenomena to always “flow downhill.”
When speaking of “religion”, it is always important to remember that it is a complex set of beliefs and practices, explicit and implicit.