"The most common of all follies," wrote H. L. Mencken, "is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind." In culture after culture, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts, saints, fairies, angels, demons, cherubim, djinns, devils, and gods. According to polls, more than a quarter of today's Americans believe in witches, almost half believe in ghosts, half believe in the devil, half believe that the book of Genesis is literally true, sixty-nine percent believe in angels, eighty-seven percent believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, and ninety-six percent believe in a God or universal spirit. How does religion fit into a mind that one might have thought was designed to reject the palpably not true? The common answer—that people take comfort in the thought of a benevolent shepherd, a universal plan, or an afterlife-is unsatisfying, because it only raises the question of why a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false. A freezing person finds no comfort in believing he is warm; a person face-to-face with a lion is not put at ease by the conviction that it is a rabbit.
What is religion? Like the psychology of the arts, the psychology of religion has been muddied by scholars' attempts to exalt it while understanding it. Religion cannot be equated with our higher, spiritual, humane, ethical yearnings (though it sometimes overlaps with them). The Bible contains instructions for genocide, rape, and the destruction of families, and even the Ten Commandments, read in context, prohibit murder, lying, and theft only within the tribe, not against outsiders. Religions have given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers, abortion-clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their sons so they can be happily reunited in heaven. As Blaise Pascal wrote, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."
Religion is not a single topic. What we call religion in the modern West is an alternative culture of laws and customs that survived alongside those of the nation-state because of accidents of European history. Religions, like other cultures, have produced great art, philosophy, and law, but their customs, like those of other cultures, often serve the interests of the people who promulgate them. Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to people who are about to become ancestors. As one's days dwindle, life begins to shift from an iterative prisoner's dilemma, in which defection can be punished and cooperation rewarded, to a one-shot prisoner's dilemma, in which enforcement is impossible. If you can convince your children that your soul will live on and watch over their affairs, they are less emboldened to defect while you are alive. Food taboos keep members of the tribe from becoming intimate with outsiders. Rites of passage demarcate the people who are entitled to the privileges of social categories (fetus or family member, child or adult, single or married) so as to preempt endless haggling over gray areas. Painful initiations weed out anyone who wants the benefits of membership without being committed to paying the costs. Witches are often mothers-in-law and other inconvenient people. Shamans and priests are Wizards of Oz who use special effects, from sleight-of-hand and ventriloquism to sumptuous temples and cathedrals, to convince others that they are privy to forces of power and wonder.
Let's focus on the truly distinctive part of the psychology of religion. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict first pointed out the common thread of religious practice in all cultures: religion is a technique for success. Ambrose Bierce defined to pray as "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy." People everywhere beseech gods and spirits for recovery from illness, for success in love or on the battlefield, and for good weather. Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success—medicines, strategies, courtship, and, in the case of the weather, nothing.
What kind of mind would do something as useless as inventing ghosts and bribing them for good weather? How does that fit into the idea that reasoning comes from a system of modules designed to figure out how the world works? The anthropologists Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber have shown that it fits rather well. First, nonliterate peoples are not psychotic hallucinators who are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. They know there is a humdrum world of people and objects driven by the usual laws, and find the ghosts and spirits of their belief system to be terrifying and fascinating precisely because they violate their own ordinary intuitions about the world.
Second, the spirits, talismans, seers, and other sacred entities are never invented out of whole cloth. People take a construct from one of the cognitive modules of Chapter 5—an object, person, animal, natural substance, or artifact—and cross out a property or write in a new one, letting the construct keep the rest of its standard-issue traits. A tool or weapon or substance will be granted some extra causal power but otherwise is expected to behave as it did before. It lives at one place at one time, is unable to pass through solid objects, and so on. A spirit is stipulated to be exempt from one or more of the laws of biology (growing, aging, dying), physics (solidity, visibility, causation by contact), or psychology (thoughts and desires are known only through behavior). But otherwise the spirit is recognizable as a kind of person or animal. Spirits see and hear, have a memory, have beliefs and desires, act on conditions that they believe will bring about a desired effect, make decisions, and issue threats and bargains. When the elders spread religious beliefs, they never bother to spell out these defaults. No one ever says, "If the spirits promise us good weather in exchange for a sacrifice, and they know we want good weather, they predict that we will make the sacrifice." They don't have to, because they know that the minds of the pupils will automatically supply these beliefs from their tacit knowledge of psychology. Believers also avoid working out the strange logical consequences of these piecemeal revisions of ordinary things. They don't pause to wonder why a God who knows our intentions has to listen to our prayers, or how a God can both see into the future and care about how we choose to act. Compared to the mind-bending ideas of modern science, religious beliefs are notable for their lack of imagination (God is a jealous man; heaven and hell are places; souls are people who have sprouted wings). That is because religious concepts are human concepts with a few emendations that make them wondrous and a longer list of standard traits that make them sensible to our ordinary ways of knowing.
But where do people get the emendations? Even when all else has failed, why would they waste time spinning ideas and practices that are useless, even harmful? Why don't they accept that human knowledge and power have limits and conserve their thoughts for domains in which they can do some good? I have alluded to one possibility: the demand for miracles creates a market that would-be priests compete in, and they can succeed by exploiting people's dependence on experts. I let the dentist drill my teeth and the surgeon cut into my body even though I cannot possibly verify for myself the assumptions they use to justify those mutilations. That same trust would have made me submit to medical quackery a century ago and to a witch doctor's charms millennia ago. Of course, witch doctors must have some track record or they would lose all credibility, and they do blend their hocus-pocus with genuine practical knowledge such as herbal remedies and predictions of events (for instance, the weather) that are more accurate than chance.
And beliefs about a world of spirits do not come from nowhere. They
are hypotheses intended to explain certain data that stymie our everyday
theories. Edward Tylor, an early anthropologist, noted that animistic
beliefs are grounded in universal experiences. When people dream, their
body stays in bed but some other part of them is up and about in the
world. The soul and the body also part company in the trance brought on
by an illness or a hallucinogen. Even when we are awake, we see shadows
and reflections in still water that seem to carry the essence of a person
without having mass, volume, or continuity in time and space. And in
death the body has lost some invisible force that animates it in life. One
theory that brings these facts together is that the soul wanders off when
we sleep, lurks in the shadows, looks back at us from the surface of a
pond, and leaves the body when we die. Modern science has come up
with a better theory of shadows and reflections. But how well does it do at
explaining the sentient self that dreams, imagines, and directs the body?
—Steven Pinker How the Mind Works pg. 554-558
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