Monday, May 20, 2013

The Biology of Religion

A review of "In Gods We Trust" by Scott Atran.

All societies at all times have exhibited religions but it is hard to really understand why. Scott Atran characterises a religion as ‘a community’s costly and hard-to-fake commitment to a counter-intuitive world of supernatural causes and beings’ (p. 264). Why would natural selection have permitted the evolution of such costly and pointless behaviour? Many theories have been advanced and Atran devotes substantial space to rebutting most of them and advancing his own rather compelling idea.

A community sincerely practising religion certainly obtains benefits. These include: social solidarity, lowered economic transaction costs (due to increased trust), political clout through group cohesion, intellectual closure (of a kind) on life’s intractable mysteries and emotional solace.

But why do people feel able to believe in the supernatural in the first place? The author looks to folk psychology and the innate human propensity to see agents everywhere: in a shaking bush, in a face in the clouds, in dream imagery. It appears easy for humans to believe that agents can exist which are insubstantial and incorporeal, and all religions are populated by myriads of these (think of angels and demons in Christianity).

So if believing in supernatural entities is hard-wired into our nervous systems, how do we deal with the apparently nonsensical fairy stories of theology? Atran argues that sacred texts are different from secular ‘theories’ in one crucial regard. Secular writing is authored by specific people with personal intentions to convey their message, whether it be political, scientific or dramatic; such texts are in principle rebuttable by future work or are known to be fictions. Religious texts, on the other hand, are authorless, timeless and true by definition (authorless means that the actual writer was inspired by the divine). Consequently, believers do not attempt to assess the real-world credibility of religious text: it is, after all, assumed to be true. Where the text is ‘difficult’, the problem believers actually address is to work out what it must ‘really mean’.

An overarching supernatural world of superior and controlling agents, built on irrefutable foundations delivers important advantages. Humans are unique in living in social groups larger than close kin. This means that there is always the danger of your exploitation by someone unrelated to you. How do you know whom to trust when surveillance of behaviour can only ever be partial? Atran argues that the kind of expensive commitments shown in the practice of religion (time spent at collective worship, the expenses of sacrifices) are a costly demonstration of non-selfish commitment to the community. The sincere believer also accepts that they are under the surveillance of God even when no-one else is present. Religion is being considered here as an underpinning for ‘reputation’ within the paradigm of reciprocal altruism.

In summary: humans have a propensity to see agency everywhere in the natural world via the mental module of folk-psychology. This easily leads to stable beliefs in a pantheon of spirits which, although supernatural, are all-too-typically human-like in their beliefs, desires, intentions and interactions with human-kind: they can be placated, asked for help and thanked. Once religion has become somewhat institutionalised it delivers a number of social benefits which can be leveraged for morality, economics, politics, social-cohesion and war. It also delivers personal benefits in dealing with life’s existential dilemmas of grief, loneliness, loss, sickness and death. Religion is therefore part of the human condition and attempts by scientific rationalists to debunk it are entirely beside the point and speak only to unbelievers: sacred texts by definition are irrefutable by rational analysis.

Now, putting aside the entirely interesting message of this book, its actual reading is difficult. ”In Gods We Trust” is an academic book, assuming familiarity with a number of relevant disciplines including language syntax, semantics and pragmatics; anthropological theories; cognitive science; cognitive psychology together with some neuroscience thrown in. The author is keen to refute many other theorists and to this end discursively summarises competing positions at length in order to then pursue a leisurely demolition: it’s easy to get lost. He’s diligent in buttressing his arguments with plenty of hard data, so we get many pages of description of his fieldwork (he is an anthropologist) and his university research on transmissibility of counter-factual beliefs. Although Atran is immensely scholarly and well-read, he has his blind spots. I didn't recognise, for example, his cavalier dismissal of the concept of IQ (he seems unaware of the critical role factor analysis plays in the definition of the g-factor and his negative remarks are quite wrong-headed – p. 298).

This is an important book to read if you have a broad background in the fields mentioned above,  if you are prepared to wade through the lengthy digressions and if you are prepared to do a lot of the work to reconstruct the main lines of his argument yourself. The central problem with this book is that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees!