Gods – 5 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods)

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by Neil Godfrey

Earlier posts in this series:

Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-12)

Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-13)

Gods – 3 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods) (2020-07-14)

Gods – 4 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods) (2020-07-17)

Where Does Morality Come From? — a fifth mental tool (2020-07-18)

Another Interlude with Morality — Why Moral Beings Can Be Brutes (2020-07-19)


Brian Greene discusses a conversation he had with Richard Dawkins on our proclivity to be led “irrationally” by our “mental tools”:

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.

Brian Greene Shares His Surprising Take on Religion and Science 6:50 – 8:00

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, 1998link 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)

Further, is it not only a natural step from there to finding out ways to win the favour of those gods for oneself?

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.



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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Gods – 5 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods)”

    1. ? These posts are a synopsis of the cognitive explanation for religious-type thinking. I trust interested readers will consult the citations and follow up the details for themselves. Brian Greene’s discussion with Dawkins illustrates the cognitive explanation perfectly.

  1. Brian Greene describes me perfectly. I do the same things, even pray. I ask myself, “What am I doing?”, but it’s part of who I am. Whenever I buy a new house I always ask, “Did someone die in this house?” We all have superstitions but being aware of them keeps you from being completely irrational. At times I think my conscious self is just an observer and the real me, my subconscious, is someone I’m not really that familiar with. 🙂

    1. I do similar things. I sometimes talk to my dead father though I know he is not there and cannot hear. In the light of the cognitive explanation I can see why: while Dad was still alive I regularly had in mind what he would think of what I was doing when he was not around, or I would want to share something with him when he was not immediately present. So while he was alive I “knew” him even when he was not with me — so it is a small thing to continue those thoughts after he died.

  2. This series has been a huge eye-opener for me. It’s helped answer questions I’ve had pretty much all my life about why people believe. I didn’t appreciate how different my mental tools and framework were until this dive into how people detect and assign agency. I don’t have the normal tools and framework with which to approach agency detection, and I never knew that!

    I grew up next to a library, and from an early age I was fascinated with fantasy worlds; with the stories, rules, heroes, villains, cultures, etc., of those places. This extended from the historic Greek & Roman gods and the Egyptian and Norse pantheon all the way into 100% fantasy worlds. I grew up on what might be maximally counter-intuitive concepts, rather than minimal ones, but ones which were presented as 100% fantasy.

    When running into minimally counter-intuitive concepts, my first instinct has always been to look for elements of fantasy in them, as that is the logical other end of the spectrum for me. “What sorcery is this?!?”, is the placeholder for agency, a placeholder I know is just that. I didn’t realize until now how helpful of a tool that was, and how problematic it might be to not have it. I can temporarily assign agency to something I know is a placeholder, while I seek to understand whether or not that’s really agency, and what’s going on.

    In your example last time of forest spirits, I’m going to ask, “What kind?” Because I know of a good dozen or so across many genres of literature. And I’m not asking because I believe in any of them, but because I’m interested in knowing whether this is a traditional one or a new, novel one. And if I experience something on that forest path, I’m going to realize that, even though the belief is 99.999% likely to be wrong, they had a reason for that belief, and I’m going to try to figure out what is really going on. But between being told of the spirits and having an odd experience, I had a robust mental model of potential spirits to use as a placeholder for what I might encounter. Knowing full well that it was a placeholder.

    If you’re raised on only one pantheon, only one set of fictional stories, it’s either the agent you know of that best fits the bill, or a scary unknown. If forest spirits aren’t in your pantheon but the devil is, that wood is now evil, and your soul depends on avoiding it. But if you’ve got mind full of different agents, all fantasy, you can choose between sprites and pixies and satyrs and wisps and elves and gnomes and ents and nymphs and trolls and green dragons and whole lot of other things to be your placeholder agent. That is a mental crutch for agency, but “I know it’s not really elves, so what is it?” allows you to a freedom that “The devil cursed these woods” does not.

    That said, I can’t resist answering what happens when you die. You see, it depends. You will have vastly different outcomes if you’re a brave viking who died in battle or a cowardly one who died of illness or old age. If you’re a dwarf or an elf, you will have vastly different afterlives. If you have coins for the ferryman or if you don’t will make a world of difference. Likewise if you’ve accepted Jesus as your lord and savior, or if you drowned and qualified into one of the seven heavens. Or defaulted to spirit prison.

    If someone is visited by a ghost of a dearly departed, I do have to wonder if they packed them snacks and money for the ferryman. Because if they didn’t, that might be the reason for the visit.

    1. I’m glad you found something of interest in the series. I certainly enjoyed the discipline of focussing on some of my reading in a way to present it for anyone else for whom it is also new.

      I think you are addressing ideas that are culturally sharable among different groups. Yes, there is a social/cultural aspect to our beliefs and the deeper I got into the posts the more I realized how much I was omitting.

  3. The article on Barrett at Wikipedia says Barrett is an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” [and] “that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.” I suspect his chapter is written with Christianity in mind, and not necessarily applicable to other religions.

    I read Jennifer Larson’s “Greek Religion: A Cognitive Approach” (2016) earlier this year and found it very informative. You might like it, too, especially since the focus of the book speaks more to human anthropology in general than to monotheism.

    1. Yes, Barrett is a Christian (and that’s one reason I am addressing his particular argument — see my comment to austendw.) His work also appear to be highly respected in the field and is published along with leading names like those of Harvey Whitehouse, Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran…. I am in the process of drafting a followup post or two on his arguments for believing in God.

  4. Is “Why is it that we believe gods with super-knowledge, super-powers, down through the generations?” an actual question? If one believed that a god was a protector god, looking out for our best interests, wouldn’t you want a kick-ass god, one you can back up its claims? Does any boy who loves his father want to see him get his ass handed to him in a fight?

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