Log in

No account? Create an account
New Scientist Article 
28th-Apr-2008 09:40 am
Child Abuse
Religion A Figment Of Human Imagination
Humans alone practice religion because they're the only creatures to have evolved imagination.

That's the argument of anthropologist Maurice Bloch of the London School of Economics. Bloch challenges the popular notion that religion evolved and spread because it promoted social bonding, as has been argued by some anthropologists.

Instead, he argues that first, we had to evolve the necessary brain architecture to imagine things and beings that don't physically exist, and the possibility that people somehow live on after they've died.

Once we'd done that, we had access to a form of social interaction unavailable to any other creatures on the planet. Uniquely, humans could use what Bloch calls the "transcendental social" to unify with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with imaginary groups such as the dead. The transcendental social also allows humans to follow the idealised codes of conduct associated with religion.

"What the transcendental social requires is the ability to live very largely in the imagination," Bloch writes.

"One can be a member of a transcendental group, or a nation, even though one never comes in contact with the other members of it," says Bloch. Moreover, the composition of such groups, "whether they are clans or nations, may equally include the living and the dead."

Modern-day religions still embrace this idea of communities bound with the living and the dead, such as the Christian notion of followers being "one body with Christ", or the Islamic "Ummah" uniting Muslims.

Stuck in the here and now
No animals, not even our nearest relatives the chimpanzees, can do this, argues Bloch. Instead, he says, they're restricted to the mundane and Machiavellian social interactions of everyday life, of sparring every day with contemporaries for status and resources.

And the reason is that they can't imagine beyond this immediate social circle, or backwards and forwards in time, in the same way that humans can.

Bloch believes our ancestors developed the necessary neural architecture to imagine before or around 40-50,000 years ago, at a time called the Upper Palaeological Revolution, the final sub-division of the Stone Age.

At around the same time, tools that had been monotonously primitive since the earliest examples appeared 100,000 years earlier suddenly exploded in sophistication, art began appearing on cave walls, and burials began to include artefacts, suggesting belief in an afterlife, and by implication the "transcendental social".

Once humans had crossed this divide, there was no going back.

"The transcendental network can, with no problem, include the dead, ancestors and gods, as well as living role holders and members of essentialised groups," writes Bloch. "Ancestors and gods are compatible with living elders or members of nations because all are equally mysterious invisible, in other words transcendental."

Nothing special
But Bloch argues that religion is only one manifestation of this unique ability to form bonds with non-existent or distant people or value-systems.

"Religious-like phenomena in general are an inseparable part of a key adaptation unique to modern humans, and this is the capacity to imagine other worlds, an adaptation that I argue is the very foundation of the sociality of modern human society."

"Once we realise this omnipresence of the imaginary in the everyday, nothing special is left to explain concerning religion," he says.

Chris Frith of University College London, a co-organiser of a "Sapient Mind" meeting in Cambridge last September, thinks Bloch is right, but that "theory of mind" – the ability to recognise that other people or creatures exist, and think for themselves – might be as important as evolution of imagination.

"As soon as you have theory of mind, you have the possibility of deceiving others, or being deceived," he says. This, in turn, generates a sense of fairness and unfairness, which could lead to moral codes and the possibility of an unseen "enforcer" - God – who can see and punish all wrong-doers.

"Once you have these additions of the imagination, maybe theories of God are inevitable," he says.

Journal reference:
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B , (DOI:10.1098/rstb.2008.0007)

The Human Brain - With one hundred billion nerve cells, the complexity is mind-boggling. Learn more in our cutting edge special report.
Human Evolution - Follow the incredible story in our comprehensive special report.

Related Articles More
28th-Apr-2008 02:20 pm (UTC)
These are excellent and exciting theories. I am inclined to believe a modified version of the theory of mind (ToM) argument. Supernatural explanations, including those of an imaginary religious figure - are often used as explanatory agents and as the sources of tangible causes and consequences in our environment. This is done in every culture known so far to anthropologists.

I am not so inclined to believe is is solely a matter of abstract group perception or social bonding. David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionist who argues along this vein and a lot of his writing is a joy to read (even though I don't agree with him a lot of the time). Ultimately, every religious practice, denomination, or philosophy centers on the individual's perception of cause and effect relationships to something unseen or not observable in the world. So I think the ultimate function of supernatural belief is not of group perception or social bonding, but that of the brain evolving advanced neural architecture to explain effects that have no tangible causes. The brain evolved to be irrational! How fucking cool is that?
28th-Apr-2008 03:58 pm (UTC) - ...how cool is that?
"The brain evolved to be irrational! How fucking cool is that?"

Very cool! I'd like to hear more on this. Where can I go for printed versions of these theories?
28th-Apr-2008 09:52 pm (UTC) - Re: ...how cool is that?
I'd recommend "Religion Explained" by Pascal Boyer. It is a wonderful, thought-provoking survey of the function of religion from an evolutionary/cognitive perspective. It's my favorite book on the subject.

There's also Daniel Dennet's book on Religion, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon." And there's Dawkin's "The God Delusion." Both are less on the theory and more on the polemic. Which I have no problem with. :)!
28th-Apr-2008 02:29 pm (UTC)
Nothing new to me. I think I was 15 the first time I said the Bible is just a story made up to explain the human condition.

Didn't have to study sociology to figure that much out.
28th-Apr-2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
I WANT to have a copy of this article.
29th-Apr-2008 03:24 am (UTC)
Very interesting - but while we are all on about such intellectual pursuits, have a look at an article I read today.

29th-Apr-2008 12:15 pm (UTC)
I am crying so hard from laughing so much...that is the funniest thing I think I've ever read in my entire life.
29th-Apr-2008 12:31 pm (UTC)
Funny like Night of the Living Dead Part 3 Rise of the Evangelicals? Or maybe laughing is helping your demons fly out? Never mind. If you have to explain a joke...etc.
29th-Apr-2008 03:12 pm (UTC)
I think I will answer all of the above.

I wonder if Mary Magdeline gives people diarrhea.
29th-Apr-2008 04:39 pm (UTC) - bwahahaha
You are awesome :)
29th-Apr-2008 11:23 pm (UTC) - Re: bwahahaha
Thanks! As are you!
This page was loaded Oct 23rd 2019, 6:39 pm GMT.