Earlier posts in this series:
Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-12)
Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-13)
Where Does Morality Come From? — a fifth mental tool (2020-07-18)
In a one on one conversation his views were very similar to mine. . . . I was saying to him, There are times I go around the world and I will do things that are utterly irrational. I’ll knock on wood for good luck. I’ll speak to my dead father: I know that he’s not really there. I’ll pray to god on occasion if I think that I can use that backup. Not because I think that there’s some bearded individual in the sky; it’s just a behavioural tendency that I find to be comforting and useful. And I said this to Richard. And he said, I totally get it. . . . In fact, I don’t like to sleep in a house that has a reputation for being haunted. . . . For me it was such a beautiful human moment where we were just like being human beings. And he said, We’re both sinners. And I agreed. We are both sinners in that sense, because we know how the world works, we know this doesn’t make any sense, and yes it’s still part of somehow how we behave in the world.
When our respective mental tools work together we might conclude that amazing things can happen. Our Agency Detector, we might say, like to take the hand of our Theory of Mind in order to intuit the agency’s intention. Does that agent coming in our direction want to kill and eat us? But what about when we experience unexpected fortune or misfortune? As social animals we are very attuned to social consequences of what we do or fail to do. We know there are rewards for conforming to social expectations, rewards for even doing more than is normally expected to profit our social group, and punishments for acting against the interests of our society. If we suddenly find ourselves confronted with an unexpected reward or disaster we like to have an explanation for the change in our fortune. Focus on some examples before continuing.
Sudden death, famine, crop-failure: if we cannot understand the sudden event in terms of our basic (naive) non-reflective grasp of physics and biology then we readily turn to seek some agency or social blow-back to explain what has happened.
Extraordinary luck in life, hunting, crop yield, social favours: ditto.
We have seen how easy it is to imagine the existence of “minimally counterintuitive” agents like spirits or gods, persons without bodies, yet who, like any other person, are interested in social and personal relationships and behaviours. And being without bodies, they are invisible. And being invisible, they can intrude and make themselves aware of behaviours that are hidden from the rest of us. They know what people do in secret. And as persons without bodies that are also moral agents, with an intuitive morality like the rest of us (and as covered in recent posts). They have an interest in punishing and rewarding us.
Gods enter the story because of having particular sorts of minimally counterintuitive properties. Many have unusual powers or invisibility that would allow them to bring about the fortune or misfortune without being directly detected. Perhaps more importantly, their invisibility or super-knowledge gives them strategic information about what people do in secret. Hence, the gods could be acting to punish or reward moral failings that no human could know about. In this way, fortune or misfortune can be easily understood as the action of an agent, motivated by moral concerns. These moral concerns, too, are cross-culturally recurrent because of another mental tool: Intuitive Morality (Boyer, 2001). (Barrett 193)
Further on Intuitive Morality:
Intuitive Morality generates non-reflective beliefs about what constitutes moral behavior. One author has suggested that from an early age, children appear intuitively to differentiate between moral codes and social conventions (Turiel, 1998– link is to earlier post discussing Turiel). Though the precise catalog of moral intuitions is a matter of continued empirical research and debate, it appears as though individuals and groups converge upon general rules of behavior that typically frown on murder, adultery, theft, deception, treachery, and cowardice, especially as directed toward one’s own group. These moral intuitions may have a different quality to people than mere regularities of behavior or useful guidelines that might be amended at a later date. Rather, people regard them as immutable (Boyer, 2001; Lewis, 1947 [there is no explanation for this citation in the work I am using]; see also Katz, 2000 for suggested evolutionary origins of morality).
Gods fill a major explanatory niche
Couple with Intuitive Morality otherwise inexplicable fortune or misfortune, and an important explanatory niche arises that gods fill naturally. By working in concert with these non-reflective beliefs, god concepts gain reflective plausibility. The more non-reflective beliefs that converge upon a candidate reflective belief, in this case the belief that gods exist and act, the more likely it is to become reflectively believed. (194)
Agency After Death
Sometimes our mental tools find themselves in conflict with one another. Our naive biology device tells us clearly that anyone who has died no longer can live, no longer needs food, no longer can be part of one’s life in a real sense. But our understanding of minds is not necessarily tied to our raw understanding of biology. I have hyper-linked the studies or discussions of the studies cited in the following:
But children’s understanding of minds allows and even encourages the idea that mental functions continue after death (Bering, 2002; Bering, Hernandez-Blasi, Bjorklund, 2005). Data from children and adults in different cultural settings suggest that two of our mental tools. Naive Biology and Theory of Mind, offer conflicting non-reflective beliefs concerning death—perhaps especially the death of a loved one (Bering, 2002, Boyer, 2001)
When we think about what others are thinking we usually do so in an abstract sense. We can think about their mental states, their intentions, quite apart from their actual bodies. It is not difficult to imagine how beliefs in ancestor-ghosts might arise, and how their values, wishes, might be called upon to explain unexpected tragedies or good-fortune in our lives.
I’ll give this series a break for a little while but do hope to return to continue Barrett’s explanation for “why people believe in particular divine attributes”. Why is it that we believe gods with super-knowledge, super-powers, down through the generations?
Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.