What is Religion?

Andy Pepperdine

BRLSI Member

7 December 2004

When I was growing up, I was taken to a non-conformist chapel every Sunday morning. I never did understand why I was there, or what they were doing. The Bible was consulted a lot and discussion about what God wanted, but I could not see why they need to ask Him any question, or even see who or what He was? When they came to talk about Christ and how he died for all of us, that simply made no sense at all. What I do is my decision and responsibility, and if I make a mistake, then it is up to me to put it right. Asking someone else to take it on feels wrong.

But the most surprising thing about the religious congregation, and later in school classes, was that any questioning of beliefs was usually met by anger and, sometimes, outright hostility. I learnt to keep my own counsel. Nowadays, the topic has become essential because religion is being used to justify a lot of global conflicts. Why is religion, belief, faith (call it what you will) so important to people?

Researching this paper, I came across an article [RD] by Robin Dunbar (see Belief Lecture, Feb 2005, page 79), which led me onto more recent scientific developments on how the brain works, and the evolutionary needs of a cooperative society. I started to realise that this same question that plagued me so long ago was being given some serious thought by anthropologists using the data accumulated over the last hundred years, and they were making a plausible synthesis with what is now known from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

What is wrong with traditional approaches?

Early attempts seem out of their depth when confronted with acquired knowledge in the meantime, or they suffer from grossly flawed logic. But I will say one thing about Pascal’s bet. Blaise Pascal suggested that one should assume that God exists and that you should do what the church asks, otherwise when you die and are confronted with your God he will condemn you if you failed to acknowledge him. However, this assumes that He is a God who wants you to be obedient. If He in fact wants to kick you out into the wide world to think for yourself, then this is completely false reasoning. Accepting the responsibility for all of your own actions would be the preferable course, and denying God would not be a sin.

Similar problems arise with most (if not all) of these attempts. Simon Blackburn's Think [SB] is a good source of arguments and refutations.

John Macquarrie’s compendious study of 20th century religious thought [JM] purports to cover all aspects of the philosophy of religion. However, nowhere in any of the many chapters does it ask the more fundamental question of why the Question of God is asked in the first place. Why is it important? Why do people feel compelled to know? What use is the information when they think they have got it? In other words, there is no motivation for the enquiry - it is just assumed that it must be addressed.

Overall, I was struck by the lack of social context in the discussions. If one needs an explanation or principle, it must be for predicting the future in order to make decisions in social interactions. Consider some of the approaches:

Absolutes - why do we need to assume them? Why cannot everything be relative?
Personal ideals - assuming the universe has a meaning. Why? The word ‘good’ has a meaning in the phrase ‘good for something’; what can it mean on its own? Good for what?
Spirit & motivation - why do we need to posit anything other than life's existence and the maintenance of it over time? An evolved being that did not have a drive to succeed would become extinct.
Theology - I never understood it. It always appeared to address issues that were either not issues or irrelevant to life as lived.
Positivism - nearest to answering it. e.g. Ernst Mach said ‘Do not ask why?, only how?’ Brain is part of the physical universe, and we are necessarily part of it. But from a practical point of view, many people clearly reject this and earnestly seek more beyond the evidence of their senses. [JM] represents positivists as seeing only one side of the story, viz. where measurements are possible, and represent it as the whole thing. But I would accept that there are many things that one cannot measure, and that must be taken into account when deciding on a course of action. These are the intuitions and gut feelings we all know so well.
Early attempts at a historical perspective had too little external knowledge to make much progress. However, in the last fifteen years things have changed with a synthesis of cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuro-science, which is the topic of the bulk of my lecture later.
Personal experience

So much for the philosophers, now let's look at what ordinary people say about their faith and beliefs. Asking folk in the street usually gets nowhere, as they seem unable to examine their own thought patterns well enough, and what you receive is an emotional reaction to the questions. There is a good reason for this, which I will come on to later.

Luckily, the more thoughtful of them have been inter-viewed by Bel Mooney in her radio series Devout Sceptics [BM]. There are a few common threads through their submissions and interviews, of which the most noticeable is that they feel the need for an explanation about their own personal circumstances and experiences; and they find random effects most unsatisfying as a way of seeing their own positions.

For example, Kate Adie described sermons or speeches, which occur, these days in particular after a great disaster:

And there is usually some sort of gathering in a church afterwards. And up comes usually an educated, intelligent person, steeped in the law of his religion, and attempts [...] to answer the question, ‘Why has this happened?’ And I've always sat through that and waited [...] for that moment. About two-thirds of the way through, having sympathised, [etc...], he's got to give the answer, ‘Why?’ What happens [...] is that it moves into the realm of faith. [...] And that's when I’ve seen the congregation often fall away.

She includes ALL faiths in this charade, which seems to convince no one, but yet continues to be trotted out. In other words, the faith is not answering the emotional demands of the people who profess to believe in it.

Looking at all the interviews, it seems to me that what caused all the interviewees to be drawn to religion, even though they are sceptical, is one of asking a personal question about their place in the world, and looking for a set of rules to play by; without accepting the teachings of any religion. They all, without exception, discarded any attempt to remove the responsibility for their decisions from themselves, even though they on occasion strongly needed support and advice. They are all looking for a way of resolving their own moral questions.

So they are trying to find a modus vivendi, with particular reference to their interactions with others, but by an introverted examination.

To my mind, this introversion is a common theme among believers, especially when they are asked to describe or comment on their beliefs. They often explain things in terms of internal struggles and emotions and do not concentrate on the social aspects of life, which is what life in a community, any sort of community, is all about. How should one behave towards others in order to maintain the community? Even more fundamentally, what is a community, and why should it be maintained?

Recent investigations

Pascal Boyer’s book (he got his PhD at University of Paris-Nanterre, and who is now professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri) Religion Explained describes a synthesis of recent developments in cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuro-science which starts to explain how it is that religious beliefs can take hold and be propagated from one generation to another, and why they are needed for the evolution of a social and co-operative animal like humans. The rest of this talk will take most of its material from that book.

There is no denying the apparent irrationality of religious beliefs. Take these examples: ‘a neighbour in the village tells me that I should protect myself against witches. Otherwise they could hit me with invisible darts that will get inside my veins and poison my blood’; ‘My friends are told to go to church or some other quiet place and talk to an invisible person who is everywhere in the world. That invisible listener already knows what they will say, because He knows everything’. [PB] When put coldly like this we can see how counter-intuitive they appear, and yet each of these beliefs are held by some portion of the world’s population as things that have to be done.

There are two essential problems with considering these notions. Firstly, what is it about the notions themselves that make them believable, how is it that they can be transmitted so readily; and secondly, why are they needed by those who believe them? These are now the focus of the recent scientific analysis.

It is tempting to assume that religion was first created to explain certain puzzling facts, whether physical or mental. However, when different cultures are examined and compared, it is clear that the need to explain varies from place to place, and that these explanations all have something special about them; they are not like ordinary explanations.

There is a well-known story of the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard when he was studying the Zande people in Sudan early in the 20th century. One day the roof of a mud-house caved in. The local people were quick to attribute it to witchcraft and that the people inside must have powerful enemies. When it was pointed out to them that termites had weakened the structure to the point where it was inevitable it would collapse, the locals said they understood that perfectly, but what they wanted to know was why it happened at that exact moment. They were looking for an agent for everything that affected their lives. They are just not interested in the existence of misfortune in general, or that events may indeed be just random. When the religious explanations are examined, they are much more puzzling than the general explanations that an outsider might produce.

These ideas have similarities with the desire of the devout sceptics mentioned earlier to find a particular way of living that applies to them. The special trumps the general.

Another approach was to explain religion as a way of making mortality bearable. Life is nasty brutish and short for the vast majority of people for almost all the time. But again, this is not borne out by cultural studies.

In Melanesia, where there are an extraordinary number of rituals, people think they are under constant threat from invisible enemies. So we might think religion and ritual give comfort against them. But there are other places where they have no such rituals and feel no such threats. So from an analyst's point of view, it looks as though the rituals create the need they are supposed to fill, and each reinforces the other. Also, a religious world is more frightening than a non-religious one, as they contain supernatural forces and presences that cannot be controlled.

What about the moral aspects of religion? Perhaps they are a Good Thing for society. This is more reasonable as an explanation, and is an essential part of the teaching of most religions. But let's consider this more carefully. In no society is it permissible to kill one's siblings in order to obtain all the resources for oneself. In no society is it right to see other members of the group in great danger, and not offer some help. If these are universal principles, then there must be a suspicion that the morality in religion is a post facto rationalisation, rather than the fount of the rules.

It is not fair either to treat religious thought as totally illusory since the concepts cannot be refuted. It is clearly very real to a large portion, if not the majority, of mankind. And religion is not a domain of unfettered ideas. All religious notions and rituals fall into a very restricted set of acceptable ones. The supernatural seems to be constrained. Boyer goes through a number of possible beliefs, first without saying which ones are used in some part of the world, and which ones he made up. It was clear, even to me, which were which. The allowable forms of the supernatural seem to be constrained. Or perhaps the brain has a predisposition to accept only certain types of belief.

So what types of ideas are amenable to absorption?

First, let's ask: What is culture? What is a group of people? It has long been the sense among anthropologists that the divisions that people use in phrases like ‘Chinese culture’, ‘American culture’, etc. are really political statements. It seems that the behaviour of business people worldwide is more similar, than, say, those who call themselves Yoruba, or American. When it is said that the American culture is competitive, the idea of competitiveness is inside the head of the individual, there is no external force propelling them to be competitive. The idea has been implanted by those around the individual as he grows up.

There has been an attempt to explain cultural development as the transmission of ‘memes’ on the analogy of genes. However, this is rather misleading. The idea of a meme only goes so far. The main difference is that genes really do replicate, and it is exceptional, and accidental, for them to be modified by mutation. However, ideas are understood by any new mind that comes across it by the mind reconstructing it, using its existing experience and knowledge. The mind does a lot of work to perform this replication, and so some ideas are more easily transmitted than others, and some mutate wildly. An example is the notion of the ‘selfish gene’, which Richard Dawkins first proposed to explain the way genes will propagate if they are useful to the organism and give it some advantage, almost as though the gene has a will and can behave selfishly. But the phrase quickly came to be thought of as a gene that conveys selfishness on its owners. The meme was not successfully transmitted in this case, and it could only happen that way if minds develop their own representations of the idea.

So there is some structure to the way all minds think, and it is similar in all people. What might that be?

Consider this tale:

In a quiet, prosperous suburb, a dapper old gentleman with a hat comes out of a back door of a house and walks across the lawn. He is carrying a big screwdriver and a crowbar, which he puts in his trousers’ side-pockets. He looks around a few times and then proceeds along the pavement. Not far from there, a child is playing with his huge Labrador that he keeps on the leash. All of a sudden, the dog starts at the sight of a cat in the next garden and gives a sudden pull that makes the leash snap out of the child’s hand. The dog dashes after its prey, charges across the pavement and knocks over the old man who trips up and falls flat on his face, his hat rolling in the gutter. The man yells in pain as the screwdriver has sprung out of his pocket and badly cut his arm. The man picks himself up and limps away, massaging his bloodied hand, leaving his hat in the gutter. You were not the only witness of all this; a police officer was patrolling the neighbourhood. She picks up the hat, runs after the gentle-man, puts her hand on his shoulder and goes ‘Hey, wait!’ As the man turns he recoils in visible shock at the sight of the police officer, looks around as if trying to find an escape route and finally says: ‘All right, all right. It’s a fair cop.’ From his pockets he extracts a handful of rings and necklaces and hands them over to the bemused police officer. [PB]

A lot of assumptions were made by you when you heard the tale; and a lot of inferences were made automatically by your mind without you being aware of them. You would have constructed what was going on in each of the minds of the characters in the story, including the animals. These assumptions and inferences are made by what are known as inference systems. Here is how some of them were used:

The intuitive physics system understands how the interaction of objects takes place, and some of the effects. So when a dog jerks a leash, the child may not be strong enough to hold it, and when two things collide, they do not go through one another.

Physical causation is found in the fact that the man fell as a result of the dog's charging into him. The man fell because the dog hit him, and is interpreted as causation.

Goal-directed motion is found in the behaviour of the dog when it chased the cat. The interpretation is that the dog intended to catch the cat. Animals have some form of desire that makes them move in a particular way.

The brain also managed to keep track of all the players in the scene, who was doing what when and how they linked together.

The properties of tools and their use were also understood. You would guess what a crowbar and screwdriver would be used for, and that a screwdriver might hurt someone if they were jabbed with it.

And also, most importantly, the understanding of mental attitudes and the intentions, both in the way the police officer ran after the man with his hat, and the way the man misinterpreted that action; and of course in the way that you, as a witness, understood all this from the description. There seems to be an intuitive psychology system.

All of these interpretations were done by the brain in its many systems that operate autonomously, and give the results to the conscious part. If you doubt that, then think about how the visual system works. The eye transfers images to a system that picks out the objects in the scene. Another part seems to analyse motion to see what is moving where. A further system takes this input and creates an association with remembered articles, so that you know a dog when you see one; and so on. You become aware of these things only after the subsystems have reported their findings, as is shown by experiments analysing the way various parts of the brain light up when certain tasks are done.

The psychology system is one of the most important, and enables us to put ourselves into others’ places. This is a trait that appears around the age of four years. A well-known test is to show a child a puppet stage with two boxes, X and Y. Puppet A comes on and puts a ball in box X. Then puppet B comes and moves it from X to Y. When A comes back, the question is where will A look for the ball? Earlier than four years, the child expects A to look in Y, because that is where it is. But after the age of four, the child correctly interprets the situation, and is able to say X ‘because that is where he thinks it is’. In fact, this can be used as a test for autism in infants -- they do not see that each actor has an internal representation of the world.

Every baby has a very sophisticated piece of equipment in its brain right from the start. They intuitively look at faces and recognise them as faces, spending longer looking at that type of object than others. They can also imitate facial gestures, which means that they can associate visual input with motor control of their faces, without a mirror! The key element here is that most of the abilities we have are already fully formed when they appear during our development. The brain is not an empty box, which has to be completely filled, but merely modified slightly with actual experience.

If we look at this from an evolutionary point of view, then there are systems adapted specially to handling danger, like predators, poisonous plants, etc. We are able to deal with these things efficiently because that is the way we are defined by our genetic inheritance. But since we evolved among small groups searching for food and avoiding dangerous animals, we are adapted to doing that through our use of communication, tool creation and planning. We grew up among small social groups forming local coalitions when needed. Our introduction to agriculture, urban living, and scientific knowledge are very recent and it is not surprising we have difficulty with living in these circumstances.

The inference systems we have can be highly targeted systems. For example, there seems to be one such system that deals with possible dangers associated with food. Children initially accept whatever their caregivers provide without question, but soon they become very conservative, and are loath to try new things. In addition to this, everyone avoids items that are contaminated with faeces, or rotting meat. The contagion system involved here has certain assumptions built in. It assumes that even limited contact transfers the whole risk, which in the light of our current knowledge of disease is valid. It also assumes that any contact with sources of pollution will transmit it, and this aversive reaction is very strong for ingestion. This system needs very little triggering when a child is growing up -- they learn fast.

But the system that really matters to this discussion is the one that deals with social interactions. One facet of this area is gossip, which is everywhere revelled in but despised. Why? Because it tells of information about other people, infor-mation that one might find useful when dealing with them, and so it centres on topics such as status, resources and sex.

We also manage social exchange remarkably astutely. It seems perfectly natural to gain a benefit (share a meal) in exchange for a certain cost (bring a bottle), and if the bottle is not up to the standard of the meal, then it is felt on both sides of the exchange. But the crucial thing is to evaluate how much trust one can put in another's words and actions. Social exchange could not otherwise take place. So we are adapted to sifting, analysing and evaluating any hints that we can pick up from the interactions around us. All of this is automatic and done subconsciously. How often have you said: ‘I don't like that person’, but been unable to put a finger on a good reason immediately?

Another common feature of human behaviour is the desire to form groups, or coalitions. These happen spontaneously.. Coalitions are a special form of association. You and I may wish our street cleaned, but this common goal does not form a coalition. There is something else involved. They seem to have other conditions attached to them.

Each member must behave in a way that enhances the benefit to all.
The individual member does not necessarily receive any benefit from helping them.
Each member expects similar behaviour from the other members.
The costs and benefits are distributed among all members. So if you are always helping X, and receiving help from Y, this is an acceptable balance.
The group is mentally endowed with particular charac-teristics, so all members are treated at that level equally. In this way, we assign all members of other groups to common categories and treat them the same way.
Reactions to how a member of another group behaves are directed to the group. So if a militant attacks you, you feel justified in attacking another member of the militant group.
Groups are represented as ‘big agents’. For example, you may say ‘Labour is doing this’, but in fact only individuals can actually do anything. Parties per se are not agents in the physical sense.
Each member is very concerned with others’ loyalty. Defection is punished severely.
Why supernatural beings?

The anthropologist Roger Keesing records his time with the Kwaio in the Solomon Islands, who believe that they can communicate with and receive information from one or more of their ancestors, which they call adalo. Their method of handling setbacks in life, like disease or drought, is to divine which ancestor may be unhappy with the way the living behave, and then take the appropriate action, whether it be a sacrifice or some other ritual. But they distinguish between ailments that are merely mishaps, like old age ailments, or those which succumb to Western medicine, and those which do not, perhaps psychosomatic in nature. It is only the latter which they will consider suitable for treatment by placating the adalo.

You might think that having long-term relations with an invisible person would be a sign of incipient madness, but this is simply not true. Psychologist Marjorie Taylor estimated that about half of the children she worked with had an invisible companion, and it starts remarkably early, about three years of age, and goes on to ten. It appears that they are used as sounding boards for other approaches to problems that are to be examined - a sort of play that hones the skills of understanding others' motives and actions.

When the Kwaio are tackled on how they regard these ‘spirits’, there are different and inconsistent descriptions, but nevertheless they are considered to have a very real effect on the lives of the living. In other words, the spirits they think about are those which matter to them. This is a very general characteristic of religious notions except in the Western tradition, where doctrine seems to prevail over individual experience and usage.

The supernatural is also taken to be an agent with the power to do something. But this is a normal consequence of the way our brains extract information from the environment. We see faces in clouds, because the subconscious inference systems are always examining all input to find the patterns that they are suited to find, in as many places as possible. The technical term for this is ‘over-detection’. In the same way, we will find an agent behind an activity if it appears to match the type of motion or behaviour that we associate with an agent. Since the most complex object we know is a person, then complex patterns are likely to be interpreted as the result of a person making it so; and hence the assignment of person-like characteristics to the supernatural, and persons have motives and cause other actions in our world model, so these other agents will too.

But there is a crucial difference. In social interaction, we assume that the other parties do not have perfect information, and that you may know something they do not, and vice versa. However, when interacting with a supernatural agent, the assumption is that the other party knows everything, that it has full access to all relevant information, in particular about what you, yourself, are thinking and planning. To my mind, this would be the defining attribute of one’s personal God. It will also govern how you behave if you think that there is someone looking over your shoulder all the time.

A corollary to this though is that it becomes very important for you to know what sort of full-access agent I have in order to judge how I might behave in a given circumstance. This is what drives the interest in other people's beliefs.

Of course, this leads on to the next question: Why do religious people allow the supernatural to have such an effect on their behaviour? And the answer to this is not so obvious as at first appears. Two common explanations are:

Morality is given by the supernatural, and if people obey these precepts things will run smoothly; so people abide by the rules.
Accidents may happen, people want to know why, and gods and spirits give an explanation.
Both of these are probably false. Religion does not support morality, but the innate sense of justice is supported by religion. Religion does not support misfortune, but the way it is used to explain misfortune makes religion easier to acquire.

There seem to be two models that refer to our expression of morality -- the moral-reasoning and moral-feeling models. If we ask about how people reasoned and what they thought, there is a mixture of these two forces in their actions. The reasoning model expects principles to be applied, but yet in most particular situations, they seem to be too vague for clear decisions. And the moral-feeling model then kicks in and a decision is made on the basis of doing something because it might make you proud of doing the right thing, or guilty at harming someone. So it may be that the written principles are a cultural artefact that arises from the in-built sense people have. But these moral feelings and emotions are extremely complex, they are not like fear that is required to avoid predators.

Psychologist Eliot Turiel conducted some experiments with children using indirect methods to determine whether they knew the difference between violating a moral principle (beating someone) and a social convention (talking when the teacher asked for quiet), and found that even at the age of three these distinctions were understood. Older children with more awareness of the physical world easily distinguished between moral principle, and prudent rules (don't leave your notebook near the fire). They judge them according to consequences (i.e. the future), but consider social effects are specific to moral principles. As a child grows, the sense of morality is refined, so that it becomes clearer what constitutes a hurt in the local social environment. It is not as easy, as you may imagine, to assess this when knowledge is limited.

But there is one very important attribute of this moral feeling that makes it different from other social skills that a child acquires, viz. the breaking of a moral principle (say, stealing) is thought to depend only on the act itself, and not on who and when it is done. Stealing is wrong, period. This association never changes as the child grows up. Other skills do change as the child gets more experience and becomes more aware of what others feel.

Why should we have these innate judgements? Mankind is a co-operative species, and very successful. But in order to work together, we must avoid being ripped off by cheats, so we have emotions that reward good behaviour in a co-operative environment, and punish defection. Why does the anger we feel seeing a queue-jumper seem to greatly exceed the harm done by his actions? It may make the cheat feel guilty when confronted by those he has cheated. This is an evolutionary development that enables co-operation to take place.

Even if there is no one to detect the crime and you refrain from stealing something, you may feel some small amount of pride, which tips the balance in the direction of the upright thing to do. But religion plays on this by explaining it as the result of your reaction to a supernatural being that knows what you are doing. Or as Boyer puts it, ‘To some extent religious concepts are parasitic upon moral intuition’ [PB: 218].

What about death?

All religions have something to say about death, whether it is a soul continuing on forever, or returning again and again, or hanging around to interact with the living.

The inference systems in the brain identify certain characteristics of every object viewed and considered. In particular, it appears that a person is represented by three attributes: life, sentience and a body. If life is missing, they are a corpse; if sentience is missing, a zombie; and if the body is missing, a ghost. These components are talked about in different ways by different peoples, but they are always all present as identifiable parts.

When someone dies, the internal systems start giving conflicting signals to the conscious part of the mind. It looks like a person, but does not behave like one. A corpse is dangerous as it may contaminate the surroundings and must be got rid of quickly, and worse is when the person is a friend and recognised, then these conflicts can cause strong emotional reactions, because the internal representation of them is saying what they might be thinking and planning. It is not surprising that we have to manage this conflict in social interaction very carefully.

The notion of personality of someone is so ingrained and identifiable as part of the person, that it is not surprising that the brain tries to make up a reason why this is no longer around when the person dies. The world over these disembodied identities are turned into supernatural agents of one sort or another, and can be talked about with religious terminology.

Doctrines & violence

One thing about the world today is the display of extreme violence, which is attributed to a religious cause. This may always have been the case, but it is now brought to everyone's attention through the mass media, and the reason is trotted out continuously. What is going on?

The popular explanation often goes like this: People in a group tend to have similar notions of supernatural agents, and so local doctrine starts to bind them together more closely. The associated rituals keep them together and starts to give an edge to the idea that those who do not perform these same rituals do not have the true faith and are enemies. This is then worked up into serious hatred and action.

This is almost wholly wrong when viewed through anthropological eyes.

In practice, the way people think about their beliefs is more personal and particular than appears at first sight. The Buid of Mondoro in the Philippines, have no systematic doctrine of supernatural agents. Everyone assumes that the lai, that each person can call upon for help, have supernatural qualities, but that each person has different ideas of what they are; and no one thinks that the ability to commune with the lai in any way binds them into a wider community.

Other groups, this time in Indonesia, consider themselves part of multiple communities, like Islam or Hinduism and a local mystical Javanese sect without apparent conflict. So the idea of belonging to just one religion is problematic for these people.

In neither of these cases, is there a local doctrine. That requires a body of experts who refine it and build common religious understanding, and apparently under special circumstances. But why do we need religious specialists at all? The Buid do not.

Specialists of any sort need to earn a living, and religious priests or scholars are no exception. But what they sell is the apparent ability to help in certain circumstances but for which they expect a fee. In other words, they form a guild, which needs to preserve its monopoly; and they use the usual commercial tricks to do that, they make their brand distinct, but each member of the guild gives the same service, they are easily recognised by some badge of office, and they belong to an organisation conveying exclusivity on the service. Having a written form of the doctrine makes it much more consistent across the globe; but has the effect too of preventing the use of local and particular cases in their deliberations - they must be general. Unfortunately for them though, there always are some local variations in defiance of the central authority.

One of the most famous studies into group dynamics [HT] clearly shows how easy it is to get a group of people arbitrarily chosen to act as a group and start to treat another arbitrarily chosen group as inferior. It only required that they undertake a task, any task, together. It seems we have an overwhelming desire to become a member of a group and to demonstrate loyalty to that group. We then quickly establish ideas, and emotions, about the other members of the group and their reliability. The concepts used in these descriptions is the same as is used when categorising different animals - they use the same inference systems; it would appear that ideas of social groups are in fact about coalitions. A good example is the blacksmiths in Africa who undertake the nasty jobs like handling the dead. These are then represented as a separate distinguishable group, and indeed that is the way they are talked about. However, it may be that because our intuitions are towards coalitional groups, that these are inherent coalitions, which because they are so stable socially, are thought of as essentially different. This in turn gives rise to assumptions about their personalities as a group attribute, not as individuals.

One consequence of this way of thinking is that one acts to maintain the ascendency of one's own coalition, and to imagine others as inferior. Racial stereotypes are an example of this desire of people to create their own reasons for why another group poses a danger to their own. This intuition is not normally admitted because it is often in conflict with other moral standards.

What happens in practice in religious groupings is that one can choose how closely one wishes to be identified with them. Either pay the taxes, and perform the basic rituals, but nothing else. Or be more involved and volunteer to do some work for them. Or take extreme action and be prepared to kill for the sake of the group.

Boyer’s explanation of the fanaticism that is seen is that it has all to do with the maintenance of the coherence of the religious group. In the modern world with such good communications, different ideas are easily spread and acquired by all. But this means that each person can now decide what their religion is, or at least can make changes to the fringes of it when compared to others in the local area; and can do so without paying a heavy price. From the coalition's point of view, then defection is not just possible, but likely if the price is low. As a consequence, the price of defection has to be raised. Fundamentalist sects take this task upon themselves and attack mostly their own co-religionists to try to keep them in line. A side effect is that they want to attack those outside influences that may lure their colleagues into defection. But this is not understood by them, it is an emotional reaction to the potential weakening of a coalition; it is rationalised by use of a doctrine.

Why belief?

People are convinced that their religious beliefs are in some sense special, and precede the judgements. Why should this be? Why are they different from the way we treat any work of fiction?

Boyer thinks that religious thoughts are special because they can be applied by many of our inference systems, making sense of many particular examples that are being considered by them. The richer the effects of a notion are, the more likely it is to be accepted. And religious notions seem to be incorporated in many social inferences that are being made continuously. This also explains why a person's religion is almost always the same as that of his surrounding when growing up - he seems to inherit it, and accept it because it explains in his own mind the behaviour (particularly rituals) of those in his surroundings, who are only behaving that way because of their own religious beliefs.

Religion, on this analysis, is just a reflection of the type of ideas that the brain is adapted to be vulnerable to when doing its normal work of keeping the organism alive. But that does not take away the psychological effects of those beliefs on those who hold them.

(I have not read Dean Hamer’s book The God Gene, but if the article in Time (29 Nov 2004) is anything to go on, the difference between him and Boyer is that Boyer says religion appeals to the way the brain actually works, but Hamer says that the brain itself demands a belief to be generated in some people, depending on the genetic makeup. Which is the cause, and which the effect?)

Is there a counter-argument?

Defining religion this way may look like no definition at all; after all, we all have brains that are liable to one sort of bias or another, and simply saying we therefore have our own biases in what we assume to be a valid explanation of anything, gives no sense of a reality that is independent of the individual, and that may be at the heart of one's beliefs.

Keith Ward (one time Regius. Professor of Divinity at Oxford University) in his book The Case for Religion[KW], shows he is clearly a man who has read some of these ideas, but is a firm religious believer. His is the first book I have seen from the believer's perspective who acknowledges that there are some people for whom the very idea of a spiritual reality is incomprehensible, people he calls real atheists [KW:17]. But even then he does not attempt to give examples or any other justification for a spiritual reality, and instead attacks the atheists as being extremists who wish to demolish all religions as delusions. He has not seen the intermediate possibility of simple lack of understanding, but acceptance that religion is indeed meaningful to those who believe. He does admit though that the phrase ‘spiritual reality’ is vague [KW:112], equating it to a belief in some thing or things with a purpose or set of values underlying the objective world.

My opinion is that there is a fine line between fiction and spiritual reality, both of which imply an application of one's powers of imagination. And yet many people seem not to apply those same powers to the way they perceive others, expecting the thought patterns to match their own.

However, Keith Ward's book gives a good explanation of a number of attempts to explain rationally religious belief. For example, he ascribes to Emile Durkheim the idea that God is simply the idea of the clan in which one finds oneself; an idea which is close to Boyer's ideas of religion being the result of an innate sense of belonging to a group. His reasoning is that as there are so many different societies, and the idea of God is so different in them, that they cannot all be correct, and so identifies the two notions with one another. Ward rejects this approach by pooh-poohing the idea of worshipping the group by asking how one could worship its individual members, either separately or jointly. What he has not done is explain what ‘worshipping’ means.

He sums up one section though by suggesting that religious experience underpins religious beliefs, and that they should be interpreted by a general conception of reality. But he also admits that how this is to be done is a question that continues to haunt religion.

There is an interesting section on the relevance of religion to morality, claiming, probably rightly, that religions have, as an important part of their teaching, a moral code - or how one manages one's social interactions. His historical perspective shows where the intrusion of facts started pulling down the literal interpretation of the Bible, and hence opened it to critical analysis. But when analysing the moral statements, it becomes ambiguous or confusing. So he reduces the problem, saying:

Once you look at the gospels closely, it becomes apparent that inherent in the teaching of Jesus from the first was a preparedness to put accepted rules in question, where they seem harmful to human dignity and flourishing. [...] Christian morality is based on the teaching of Jesus, but that teaching precisely questions all traditional rules to see whether they tend to human flourishing or not.

St Paul similarly writes that all the laws of Torah are summed up in the principle of loving your neighbour as yourself.

If that means to treat others fairly in all social dealings, then I suspect all religions would agree. If so, then why don't the religious teachers just say so? The concept of fairness seems to be innate, and even very young children are aware of it. Without it, trust cannot be garnered, and co-operation will fail. Religion seems to be overkill to manage something so simple, unless we can put it into a long-term evolutionary perspective, which is what Boyer and others are now trying to do.

Andy Pepperdine


[SB] Blackburn, S. Think (Oxford, 1999).

[PB] Boyer, P. Religion Explained (Vintage, 2002).

[RD] Dunbar, R. ‘What's God got to do with it?’ New Scientist (14 June 2003): 38

[JM] Macquarrie, J. Twentieth Century Religious Thought (1988).

[BM] Mooney, B. Devout Sceptics (Hodder & Stoughton, 2003).

[HT] Tajfel, H. ‘Experiments in inter-group discrimination,’ Scientific American (1970) vol 223: 96-102

[KW] Ward, K. The Case for Religion (One World, 2004).

Further reading

Cole, P. Philosophy of Religion (Hodder & Stoughton, 1999).

Dunbar, R. The Trouble with Science (Faber & Faber, 1995).

Grayling, AC. What is Good? (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003).

Mackay, C. Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds (1841) republished (Harrap,UK, 1956) see chapter on the crusades.