Connor Wood, co-author (with John Shaver) of “Religion, Evolution, and the Basis of Institutions: The Institutional Cognition Model of Religion” in ESIC 2.2, has written an article on his study for Pantheos.
Why do so many people worship invisible beings, accept the authority of millennia-old texts, or or congregate on weekends in buildings for no apparently practical reason? The cognitive and bio-cultural sciences of religion are burgeoning as researchers attempt to answer these questions in the context of our secularizing culture. According to one popular hypothesis, people naturally tend to be religious because our brains, evolved to survive in the dangerous Paleolithic era, are hyper-sensitive to signals of agency, or personhood – and as a result, we’re constantly “seeing” signs of disembodied agents everywhere around us. In a new paper, my colleague John Shaver and I advance a different possibility: gods and spirits are ubiquitous because it’s really, really hard to bargain with them.
The paper was published the other week in the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture (ESIC), which I recently mentioned here.* Our investigation comes at the question of how religious beliefs and behaviors evolved in the human species from a somewhat unusual angle. First, we survey the existing cognitive and evolutionary explanations, highlighting what we think their strengths and weaknesses are. We start with cognitive byproduct theories, which posit that the form and prevalence of religious beliefs are accidental functions of the evolved human mind. The “hyperactive agency detection device” (HADD) hypothesis is the usual name for the byproduct account I mentioned above: people are religious because our brains are hardwired to over-impute signs of agency around us, so that we sense invisible spirits or personalities everywhere.