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In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Evolution and Cognition Series) Hardcover – 1 Oct 2002
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"In Gods We Trust is by far the best exploration so far of the evolutionary basis of religious behavior."--James Fox, Prof of Anthropology, Stanford University"With almost 1000 references and discussions of most of human history and culture, from Neanderthal burials to suicide-bombers in the Palestinian anti-colonialist struggle, this book is consciously and truly encyclopedic in scope, and shows both breadth and depth of scholarship...the reader finds himself constantly challenged and provoked into an intellectual ping-pong game as he follows the arguments and the huge body of findings marshalled to buttress them...Atran managed to combine the old and the new by relating the automatic cognitive operations to existential anxieties. This combination will be a benchmark and a challenge to students od religion in all disciplines."--Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Human Nature Review
About the Author
Scott Atran is a senior research scientist at the Institut Jean Nicod at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. He is also Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, Psychology, and Natural Resources and the Environment at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A respected cognitive anthropologist and psychologist, his publications include Fondement de l'histoire naturelle, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science, and Folk Biology. He has done long-term fieldwork in the Middle East and has also written and experimented extensively on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature. He currently directs an international, multidisciplinary project on the natural history of the Lowland Maya.
Top customer reviews
The "ten easy steps" are not. The astute reader may jump to the Conclusion for an outline of Atran's thesis. There he explains that religion is not an "entity", even though we publicly commit resources to it. Since it's not an entity, religion itself cannot be an evolutionary adaptation. However, it does fit into an "evolutionary landscape". That landscape he describes in a metaphor of hills and valleys, with certain behaviours following the path of least resistance. The supernatural, Atran contends, arises from a "cultural manipulation" of habits derived from the Pleistocene - fear of predators, death and the quest for nourishment. Since humans live in groups, the interactions of individuals within the group reinforces these habits. When natural phenomena are transformed into the supernatural conformity results. Once completing the outline, readers will find enlightening and reasoned arguments supporting the thesis that the foundations for religious behaviour have well-established roots.
Atran discusses the distinction between pathological and mystical mental states. While these are useful, his analysis of the sociobiological and "group selection" theses make truly compelling reading. Sociobiology has sought the roots of many human behaviour traits in the actions of other creatures. While that works for some behaviours, Atran sees no justification for applying it to religion. Religion is too human specific, he argues. Nor, he contends, does the notion that "group selection" - which claims religion is a "superorganism" - has any basis. He further dismisses the notion that "memes" - a form of replicable and transmitted idea, cannot account for the persistence of religious ideas. Memes, he finds, require a fidelity of transmission that isn't reflected in reality. Religion, being highly variable across many environments, isn't supportive of such rigid definition.
As a final topic, Atran addresses the dichotomy between religion and science. The underlying distinction between these two social forces is that science recognises that humans are incidental elements in the universe, while religion places them at the centre. Religion fares poorly in knowledge, while science lacks a strong moral element. It's a fitting conclusion to a book closely examining how science has addressed the phenomenon of human belief in the supernatural.
Although Atran's prose style is a bit stiff, the information he conveys is too significant and well thought out to make that objection important. His command of the sources is indicated in the bibliography and carefully shown as presented in the text. He acknowledges in his first note that Pascal Boyer's "Religion Explained" was published as this book was going to press. Any student of causes for human religion will need to carefully study both books. They are a major contributions in understanding why humans engage in such seemingly bizarre practices as religion. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
A community sincerely practising religion obtains benefits. These include: social solidarity, lowering economic transaction costs (due to increased trust), political effectiveness 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!
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
In Gods We Trust is a highly technical and thoroughly scientific book whose aim is to explain how humans have evolved to invent and practice religions. With nearly 1,000 references, Atran has encyclopedic knowledge of the literature on his subject and supports every argument with studies and experiments. In Gods We Trust is exemplary of the rigid objective scrutiny of the scientific method.
This is by no means an introductory book, nor is it easily accessible to the general reader. The language is technical and the vocabulary obscure; I was constantly consulting a dictionary for definitions of words like autochthonous, epiphenomenon, nomological, internecine, tendentious, profligacy, endogenous, fecundity, and pedagogic, to name a few. But those willing to make the effort will find a sophisticated objective analysis and striking insights into religious origins and behaviors.
Humans' religiosity presents an evolutionary riddle: all human cultures practice religions and religious practice is materially costly and always includes sacrifice on the part of believers. But natural selection tends to stamp out waste and produce highly efficient organisms, so how did the human race evolve to habitually form and practice religions? Atran rejects various previously proposed explanations for religion, while also denying that it is naturally selected as an adaptation with benefits which outweigh its costs. Instead, he suggests that some aspects are byproducts of adaptations while other aspects are plausibly adaptive; "both adaptations and by-products, in turn, have been culturally co opted...by religion to new functions."
The evolutionary byproduct I thought was most striking and explanatory is that of hyperactive agency detection. An agent is an entity that "instigates and controls its own actions," such as a person or an animal. Atran explains that humans have evolved generally advantageous abilities to recognize that other people and animals are agents as opposed to inanimate objects, which helps us to predict what they will do (IE a predator might attack us, prey will run away when attacked, a person could be a friend or foe). It makes sense that we would evolve this trait, since if you hear a rustle in a bush and you think there is an animal there but it turns out to just be the wind, then no harm done. But if there is a predator in the bush and you think nothing of the noise, you may not survive. Thus, there is little penalty for over-detecting agency but sometimes severe penalties for under-detecting agency, which leads to a "hair-trigger" on our agency detection abilities.
Uncertain and "emotionally eruptive" events such as earthquakes, floods, disease, and death prompt humans to search for a reason or purpose behind them. But since these important events have no apparent controlling force, they are quickly associated with supernatural agents. "In all cultures, supernatural agents are readily conjured up because natural selection has trip-wired cognitive schema for agency detection in the face of uncertainty." There is much, much more to religion than hyperactive agency detection, and Atran gives compelling explanations for a wide variety of other aspects as well.
This is the second book that I have read on this topic (the other being Pascal Boyer's "Religion Explained") and I am surprised that while notable intellectuals such as Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson blurbed that book, such plugging is absent from Atran's work. Atran's is clearly the superior of the two. While Boyer's book is definitely worth reading, "In Gods We Trust" surpasses it by orders of magnitude in explanatory power and depth.
Consistently while reading this book, I felt like Atran was lifting up religion's skirt to show us its naked psychological underpinnings.
These things being said, I have one medium and one small complaint about this book. First, the style is extremely formal. It is not like reading something from Dawkins or Sagan. Secondly, (and this is really very minor) the charts and graphs in the book look they were drawn using MS-Dos running early 90's computer. It doesn't however, hurt their information conveyance. I hope the publisher corrects this in later editions.
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