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Last month, the journal Science had an essay on the origin of religion. It primarily focused on researchers looking at cognitive factors contributing to our belief in a supernatural, and archaeologists searching for the earliest evidence of religious behaviour amongst humans. It is a good short overview, but I'm surprised that it did not discuss in detail ideas that invoke group selection - such as the work David Sloan Wilson and others. To balance this out, check out David Sloan Wilson's lecture at Hampshire College and also a review of Nicholas Wade's book, The Faith Instinct - How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, in today's NYT.
Here are some key points in the Science article, On the Origin of Religion (you may need subscription to access the full article):
This new field, the cognitive science of religion, draws on psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience to understand the mental building blocks of religious thought. "There are functional properties of our cognitive systems that lean toward a belief in supernatural agents, to something like a god," says experimental psychologist Justin Barrett of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Then it lays out a nice time sequence based on archaeological evidence. It doesn't go into the details here, but I'm fascinated by Neanderthal burials (for example at Shanidar Cave in the Kurdish areas of Iraq) that included rituals 60-80,000 years ago and may possibly hint at their belief in an afterlife (though this last part is heavily disputed):
Barrett and others see the roots of religion in our sophisticated social cognition. Humans, they say, have a tendency to see signs of "agents"—minds like our own—at work in the world. "We have a tremendous capacity to imbue even inanimate things with beliefs, desires, emotions, and consciousness, ... and this is at the core of many religious beliefs," says Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom.Meanwhile, archaeologists seeking signs of ancient religion focus on its inextricable link to another cognitive ability: symbolic behavior. They, too, stress religion's social component. "Religion is a particular form of a larger, social symbolic behavior," says archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. So archaeologists explore early religion by excavating sites that reveal the beginnings of symbolic behavior and of complex society.
But these issues are more well-settled when we get to 30-35,000 years ago. Now we start seeing paleo-lithic cave-paintings in Europe, such as the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet:
The first deliberate burials are found at roughly the same time, at a site called Qafzeh in Israel, dated to about 95,000 years ago. Researchers have dug up more than 30 individuals, including a 9-year-old child with its legs bent and a deer antler in its arms. And starting about 65,000 years ago or even earlier, Neandertals also sometimes buried their dead. Henry de Lumley of the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in Paris has referred to these ancient burials as "the birth of metaphysical anguish."But others aren't sure what metaphysical message burial conveys. "There can be lots of reasons to bury things; just look at kids in a sandbox," says Barrett. Burial by itself, says archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany, may best be considered a sign of "protobelief."
If they had to name one time and place when the gods were born, Conard and some others might point to 30,000 to 35,000 years ago in Europe. That's when symbolic expression flowered in what's called the Upper Paleolithic explosion (Science, 6 February, p. 709). At this time, Ice Age hunter-gatherers painted strikingly realistic animals—and a few half-animal, half-human figures—on the walls of France's Grotte Chauvet and other caves. They also left small but spectacular figurines in caves in Germany, including a dramatic carved ivory "Venus" reported in May and three "lion-men"—each a carved male body with the head of a lion.And then from artistic expressions to building structures, such as the various megaliths, starting about 10-11,000 years ago:
Twenty thousand years later, humans reached another religious milestone, building what is often considered the world's first temple at the 11,000-year-old site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 278). There, rows of standing stones up to 6 meters tall march down a high hillside in circles; each massive stone is carved with images of wild animals. "There is the erection of monumental and megalithic architecture for the first time," says excavator Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin.But then the cognitive side looks at how our mind constructs a world that may also provide clues about the origins of religious belief:
According to the emerging cognitive model of religion, we are so keenly attuned to the designs and desires of other people that we are hypersensitive to signs of "agents": thinking minds like our own. In what anthropologist Pascal Boyer of Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri has described as a "hypertrophy of social cognition," we tend to attribute random events or natural phenomena to the agency of another being.Along the same lines:
When it comes to natural phenomena, "we may be intuitive theists," says cognitive psychologist Deborah Kelemen of Boston University (BU). She has shown in a series of papers that young children prefer "teleological," or purpose-driven, explanations rather than mechanical ones for natural phenomena.For example, in several studies British and American children in first, second, and fourth grades were asked whether rocks are pointy because they are composed of small bits of material or in order to keep animals from sitting on them. The children preferred the teleological explanation. "They give an animistic quality to the rock; it's protecting itself," Kelemen explains.
Other researchers find the work intriguing. "If her data are right, we all from childhood have a bias to see the natural world as purposefully designed," says Barrett. "It's a small step to suppose that the design has a designer."
This predisposition to "creationist" explanations has resonance with another tendency in the human mind, says Barrett—something he calls the "hypersensitive agency detection device": looking for a thinking "being" even in nonliving things. In classic experiments in the 1940s, psychologists found that people watching animations of circles, triangles, and squares darting about could identify various shapes as characters and infer a narrative. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie noted in 1993 that this tendency could help explain religion, because it implies we attribute "agency" to all kinds of inanimate objects and ambiguous signals. As Barrett describes it: "When I hear a bump in the night, I think ‘Who's there?’ not ‘What's there?’ ... Given ambiguous stimuli, we often posit an agency at play."Guthrie suggested that natural selection primed this system for false positives, because if the bump in the night is really a burglar—or a lion—you could be in danger, while if it's just the wind, no harm done.
There is a subsequent discussion of "theory of mind" in the article, but then it briefly turns to the adaptive explanation of religious origins:
...an additional class of explanations for why religion is so prominent in every culture: It promotes cooperative behavior among strangers and so creates stable groups (Science, 3 October 2008, p. 58). Other researchers hypothesize that religion is actually adaptive: By encouraging helpful behavior, religious groups boost the biological survival and reproduction of their members. Adhering to strict behavioral rules may signal that a religion's members are strongly committed to the group and so will not seek a free ride, a perennial problem in cooperative groups (Science, 4 September, p. 1196). Norenzayan and others also note that helpful behavior is more common when people think that they are being watched, so a supernatural god concerned with morality could encourage helpful behaviors, especially in large groups where anonymity is possible. Some researchers suggest that cognitive tendencies led to religion, which then took hold and spread because it raised fitness.As you can see, there are multiple explanations and (so far) the question is wide-open. At the same time, it is clear that this is an active and exciting area of research. Perhaps most importantly, many of these models provide testable hypotheses and some of these ideas will scientifically prevail over others. I don't know what will be the impact on religion. One can argue that all these models only provide the "how" but not the "why" of religion - thus possibly placing God behind the mechanism that makes the belief in supernatural universal. On the other hand, one may consider it another major retreat of religion - this time not only removing God as the cause of some natural phenomena, but declaring God to be simply an invention of the human mind. Whatever the case, the discussion won't end any time soon.
Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access the article). If you are interested in this area of research, I would also like to recommend a fantastic blog, Epiphenom, run by Tom Rees. Most of his emphasis is on the sociological and psychological aspects of religion, but many of his posts also deal with why people believe in gods.