Science on Religion

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Book Reviews

Review: In Gods We Trust

With In Gods We Trust (Oxford University Press, 2002) In_Gods_We_Trust_CoverScott Atran has written a rich book motivated by a subtle political impulse – namely, the realization that the mythic Abraham really does attempt to sacrifice his son to a voice, people really are interested in faces appearing in otherwise inanimate objects and events, and individuals as perfectly sane as you or I really will cut open the chests of other (sometimes willing) individuals, remove their beating hearts, and all-too-ceremoniously drench objects and themselves in the resulting gore. The feeling and thinking such individuals undergo is naturally very interesting and, possibly in the same way, horrifying.

If true, the above is reason enough for at least hoping that the nature of religion is more accidental than adaptive (186). In support of that hypothesis Atran’s book makes a central claim that this review will briefly unpack: “religion is (1) a community’s costly and hard to fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents  (3) who master people’s existential anxieties, such as death and deception” (4). Religious phenomena, Atran claims, “piggyback” (175, 183) on evolutionarily adaptive elements of the human brain but are not themselves adaptive, as neither religions nor their cultural hosts are quite that much like organisms. Rather, both culture and religion are formed within the constraints set by evolved, domain-specific cognitive modules of the brain (242), which are the origins of cognitive folkmechanics (awareness of causality), folkpsychology (awareness of intentional agency), and so on.

For Atran the shape of the community is not itself evolutionarily adaptive. Cultural norms may be loosely analogous to material genes or traits. However, according to Atran, neither would-be “superorganisms” (208) nor their fundamental elements seem to be consistent or stable enough to pass on to their analogous offspring. Moreover, as of yet, there are no real criteria for determining any given culture’s selective “fitness” (204). Atran’s tentative claim is that cultural production is highly ambiguous and rarely stable enough for Darwinian selection to take place on its scale. However, norms do tend to stabilize in highly religious contexts in which attributions of subjectivity (ancestors, nature spirits, etc.) ignite both fear and obedience to unseen personalities that sanctify those standards (226).

It is not entirely clear what Atran means by the term “supernatural,” besides that the supernatural is, by definition, counterfactual. While this does not explain much, he does elucidate how the idea of the supernatural gains momentum and how it tends to be transmitted over time and subsequent generations. The folk-psychology module of cognition adapted to recognize both cooperative agents and threatening predators. By registering telic signs one might be able to secure help with projects and purposes as well as recognize and defend against aggressive behavior (60). Folk psychology, says Atran, is “trip-wired to respond to fragmentary information under conditions of uncertainty” (78) and thus “readily lends itself to supernatural interpretation of uncertain or anxiety provoking events” (78). Much of Chapter 3 is dedicated to the empirical substantiation of this claim, particularly experiments performed on the natural responses of children to ambiguous circumstances. Atran argues that this cognitive ingress for teleological and intentional attribution seems to welcome and harbor all kinds of disembodied intentionalities.

In Chapter 4, Atran argues that, once the cognitive wire trips, the effect of the supernatural notion can be readily transmitted to others. However, the medium is not a memetic “chunk” of cultural information; rather, ideas about supernatural agents remain effective within a certain emotional and notional range and seem to be most efficient over time when they are “minimally counterintuitive” (106). Put another way, representations of supernatural agents must be intuitive enough so as to slide easily into a cognitive and cultural groove, yet counterintuitive enough to be memorable. This tendency of the brain is central to Atran’s thesis on the nature of supernatural religion and helps to explain why human beings are so frequently willing to disburse vast resources to propitiate felt supernatural presences (226).

This costly dimension of religion is fascinating. Displays of commitment tend to be costly exactly so that they are hard to fake and can thus mitigate the possibility of cheaters within an otherwise cooperative group (112). In the context of religion, costly displays of commitment tend to far outweigh their material and adaptive benefits. Human and material sacrifice, potlatch, and rigorous celibacy rules are examples of how, “in the cultural evolution of religion, proactive displays of commitment may prevail over whatever functional, functionless, or dysfunctional ecological utility they might promote” (203). It is doubtful that such sacrifice has the same selective Darwinian adaptive or maladaptive result on the cultural scale as it would for individual organisms.

Supernatural agents reign as “masters of people’s existential anxieties” because their authority tends to answer distressing questions that lack fully elaborated logical structures (113). To take obvious examples, the ambiguities of death and human morality have few fully elaborated questions and fewer fully propositional answers (113). Atran suggests that supernatural agents “invariably meet or systematically manipulate modular input conditions of the human body/brain” (210) and may act as “placeholders” (112), which govern and ameliorate anxieties.

Finally, we come to what Atran says religion is. To say that religion is the supernatural is more logically sloppy than bombastic, and likely seems more reductive than it was meant to be. It seems reasonable that Atran simply means, as he elsewhere says, that religions “all invoke supernatural agents to deal with emotionally eruptive existential anxieties, such as loneness, calamity, and death” (266). Indeed, statements like “supernatural agency is the most culturally recurrent, cognitively relevant, and evolutionarily compelling concept in religion” (57), certainly frame religion as a larger class than the specifics of his thesis definition allow.

Apart from a brief and creepy interlude in which Atran offers a welcome rebuff to the odd and somewhat sinister studies by Kevin MacDonald and David Wilson on Jewish cultural/genetic strategy, the book is enjoyable, detailed, and literate. Even so, I found it surprising that while the project sets out to explain but not explicitly deny supernatural agencies, the book does make a rather callous point of wholly discrediting a secret, judiciously cloistered, and insulated wishful thought on the part of the current reviewer that the idea of the genetically mutated Spiderman was not completely implausible. The reasoned explanation of why not (as well as what I can only credit to a mean streak in Dr. Atran’s personality) can be found or avoided on page 35.
This may, however, demonstrate the most poignant point of the book: that the supernatural has a powerful claim on the human imagination and it takes years of careful education, discipline, and cultivating hard-to-learn habits to transcend its temptations in any meaningful way (262). This is part of why Atran argues that religion is here to stay, although with the hopeful proviso that only when we “transcend, violate, or enrich,” these “folk” modules of the brain, then those “more varied and elaborate cultural ideas acquire life” (262).

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