A surge of interest in the evolutionary basis for religion has resulted in some fine works. Few, however, approach the careful analysis and depth of insight offered by Atran's excellent book. Asking the question, "Why do humans put so many resources into a counterintuitive supernatural world?", he responds that the answers fall easily into an evolutionary framework. He goes on to explain, in ten easy steps[!] how this circumstance has come about. The core of the presentation is what practices we follow are derived from normal, everyday behaviour traits. These traits are human cognitive ones, which makes their biological roots distant but traceable. The human mind, derived from the sudden expansion of cognitive abilities about fifty thousand years ago, put us in a unique position in the animal kingdom. Religion is the price we pay for being "special".
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]
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 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!
on 2 October 2003
This is a review I found useful from the HUMAN NATURE REVIEW
Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist and psychologist, presents in this volume a rich, nuanced cognitive-evolutionary account of religion. Eschewing attempts to translate genes directly into behavioral propensities, group selectionism and memetics, Atran situates his project firmly in the emerging synthesis of cognitive science and evolutionary biology.
From this vantage, religion is not doctrine, or institutions, or even faith. Religion ensues from the ordinary workings of the human mind as it deals with emotionally compelling problems of human existence, such as birth, aging, death, unforeseen calamities, and love.
Religion is costly and its doctrines typically starkly counterintuitive. If one assumes that religion is an item that has been directly selected for, this entails a Quixotic quest to identify specific fitness enhancing features of religion offsetting its considerable costs, but if religiosity is an essentially non-adaptive consequence of adaptive features of human cognition, then we are free to look for the payoffs elsewhere: 'Religions are not adaptations and they have no evolutionary functions as such.' Atran regards religiosity as a phenomenon fed by several evolutionary sources. Religion, like other cultural phenomena, 'results from a confluence of cognitive, behavioral, bodily and ecological constraints that neither reside wholly within minds nor are recognizable in a world without minds' - the evolutionary landscape of the book's title - each defining ridge of which is constituted by a set of psychological faculties. One such influence consists of primary and secondary affective programs. Another involves the social intelligence module, which was probably rooted in ancestral experiences of avoiding predators and hunting prey, and received tremendous impetus by the selection pressures exerted by group living. A third lies in the operation of functionally independent evolved cognitive modules such as those devoted to folkmechanics, folkbiology, and folkpsychology.
The book begins with a discussion of evolution and, in particular, cognitive evolution. Although much of this will be 'old hat' to anyone with a serious interest in evolutionary psychology there are some gems here (I particularly enjoyed the powerful critique of the use of attachment theory to explain religiosity). We then move on to a discussion of the human tendency to detect agency where none is present. The belief in supernatural agency can in large measure be accounted for by the same cognitive adaptation that caused our remote ancestors to interpret the sound of a breeze rustling a bush as the presence of a saber-toothed tiger. In short, 'supernatural agency is an evolutionary by-product trip-wired by predator-protector-prey detection schema'. The next two chapters cover the counterintuitive nature of religious thought and the significance of sacrifice. In Chapter Six Atran concentrates on the dynamics of ritual and revelation in the context of the cognitive psychology of memory. Chapter Seven, 'Waves of Passion', surveys the burgeoning literature on the neuropsychology of religious experience which includes some fascinating accounts of experimental work and a nice critique of Persinger's work. Chapter Eight criticizes traditional sociobiological and group-selectionist accounts of cultural evolution on the grounds that these strange bedfellows all neglect the causal significance of the cognitive architecture of the human mind in the generation of culture. They are 'mindblind'. This chapter contains a rather striking account of group selection as ultimately a notational variant of Hamiltonian kin selection, and incisive critiques of group-selectionist claims made by David Sloan Wilson and Kevin MacDonald. Chapter Nine is a marvelous and highly original critical analysis of memetics. The final chapter - 'Why Religion is Here to Stay' - pulls it all together.
I have little but praise for this marvelous book. I am ashamed to say that, although I was familiar with the author's pioneering work on folkbiology, I had not read anything by him prior to In Gods We Trust. It does not take long to realize that one is dealing with a formidable mind; Atran is not only a fine writer, his breadth of knowledge and intellectual depth are nothing short of inspiring. This book is one to read slowly and savor. Keep a post-it pad handy, to mark the pages: the scope of this book is so wide-ranging that whatever your research interest in evolutionary psychology, it is bound to be touched upon at some point in these 400 pages of informative analysis.