Imagination, Evolution, and Gods You Can’t Bargain With

This is a guest post from Connor Wood. Read his article, co-authored with John H. Shaver, in ESIC 2.2: “Religion, Evolution, and the Basis of Institutions: The Institutional Cognition Model of Religion”

A mentor of mine happens to be an expert in Talmudic demonology. In conversation the other day, he observed that the authors of the Talmud questioned seemingly everything in Judaism, but never for a moment doubted the existence of spirits and demons. In a religious text famously filled with quibbling disagreements, the existence of the spiritual world is simply taken for granted. How could the existence of invisible spirits be as obvious to the Talmud’s authors as the existence of gravity and oxygen is for us moderns?

The cognitive science of religion (CSR) tries to answer this question using cognitive and evolutionary psychology. Specifically, many CSR researchers argue that our brains were shaped by natural selection to be hyper-attentive of agency, or intentionality, in our environments, in order to avoid Type II (false-negative) errors as we navigated the harsh landscapes of our early evolutionary history.

Say a hunter hears a cracking twig in the forest. It might be adaptive to immediately conclude that it’s a tiger, because the cost of falsely believing that there’s a tiger nearby is far less than the cost of falsely concluding that there isn’t one when there really is. As a result, the human mind has a hair-trigger sensitivity to signs of agency. We see intentionality everywhere. So, the story goes, we naturally believe in invisible beings. 

The CSR story is easy to tell, easy to believe, and intuitively satisfying. But it flies in the face of what anthropologists know about actual human religion. For instance, philosopher Kim Sterelny recently pointed out that ethnography shows that ritual is nearly always the critical driver of religious beliefs, implying that religious beliefs take work to sustain. Moreover, the CSR consensus

imagines our ancestors as timid, anxious victims tip-toeing through their terrifying environment, rather than as the efficient apex predators that they were.

Moreover, empirical research has recently shed doubt on the standard CSR story about the basis of our supernatural beliefs. For example, one study in Eastern Europe found that cultural upbringing was a far more important predictor of adult religiosity than cognitive biases were. Again, religious beliefs seem to be something we acquire from our cultural environment, and which take effort to maintain.

So in our recent article in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, my colleague John Shaver and I drew on the work of anthropologist Maurice Bloch to outline a new way of thinking about religion in an evolutionary framework. Bloch argues that human beings live in two social worlds: the transactional and the transcendental. The transactional social world is based on strategic interactions between concrete, individual people. When people get sick or die, they exit the transactional world. They’re no longer strategically relevant agents. By contrast, the transcendental world is made up of social roles, which persist even as different people inhabit and depart from them. The role of “king” is part of the transcendental social world. The person who is currently king might be Edward II or Henry V. But the office of king remains even as individual kings are crowned, live, and pass on.

Transcendental roles are based on ritual—that is, predictable, templated behavior. Elders and kings only exist because people behave in ways appropriate for those roles. If no one acted like a king—and if nobody treated anyone else like a king—then there would be no kings. In short, the transcendental social world depends on social norms.

Chimpanzees lack abstract social roles, and so their groups lack a transcendental social layer. The “alpha” chimp is just the one who can intimidate everyone else. But in a human society, “leader” is a role. Thus, human leaders can be (and often are) physically weaker or smaller than those they lead—unlikely for chimpanzees.

For the vast majority of human societies, the transcendental social world and the beliefs and practices that we might call religious are “part and parcel of a single unity” (Bloch, 2008). John and I agree with Bloch that language and imagination are crucial for producing the transcendental social world, and so also for giving rise to religion. Religious beliefs therefore have a lot in common with other “imagined” entities, such as national borders, laws, and governments. None of these things could exist without language, which allows humans to communicate about things that aren’t tangibly present.

Our central argument builds on top of this foundation to posit that supernatural beings—such as spirits and gods—are crucial to this transcendental unity precisely because they lack physical instantiation. A king is both a role and a person, so there’s always both a transactional and a transcendental dimension to any interactions with him. By contrast, gods are (at least cognitively) pure abstract roles. To interact with them, we imaginatively behave as if they were really there.

As such, gods end up being templates for our own behavior. Making a temple sacrifice, the believer substantiates the reality of the “other” she’s interacting with, but all the responsibility is on her. Just as a soldier salutes “the uniform, not the man,” the worshiper attends to the imagined role of the deity, not the absence of a physical presence. And just as our treatment of a border as if it were real makes it real—political borders don’t exist in the natural world—our ritualized interactions with gods and spirits are what make them tangibly present in the world we can experience and see.

Since gods and spirits lack a transactional component, they aren’t strategically manipulable agents. You can’t threaten them, gang up on them, or strike hard bargains with them. John and I think that this makes them important anchor points for culturally parochial social norms in general. One of the main reasons people obey social norms, after all, is that they stand to get something out of it. If I help you move this month, then you might help me move next month. There’s a transactional dimension to my decision to fulfill the friendship role.

But relationships with spirits and gods don’t work like that. Most prosaically, if I spend time saying evening prayers, there’s no guarantee I’ll get what I prayed for. Time spent fulfilling religious duties is thus a conspicuous sacrifice. It acknowledges the normative requirements of the transcendental social world without transactional incentives. Over time, we think it inculcates a reflexively deontic, or normative, stance toward social obligations. Believers in gods learn to reflexively fulfill socially normative obligations—without calculating the transactional costs. 

For this reason, John and I think that the human imagination is likely to converge on supernatural agent beliefs, time and again, across cultures. Only social roles that lie beyond the strategic reach of transactional incentives can stabilize the norms and roles that are linked together in a single transcendental whole. What we call “religion” is indeed cognitively natural, then, but not because it’s a byproduct of cognitive biases, nor because beliefs in gods and spirits are somehow hardwired by evolution. Rather, we’re a species whose social world is always half-physical and half-imagined. Gods are a convergent solution to the age-old problem of getting people to reliably play the roles necessary to sustain the imagined half of that divide.

Read the full Open Access article →