November 12, 2010

Religion as a spandrel

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , , , at 11:20 pm by Jeremy

This section of my chapter, “The Rise of Mythic Consciousness”, examines the emerging view held by cognitive anthropologists of religion as a “spandrel” or a superfluous by-product of the structure of the human mind.  While this view yields some compelling results, I suggest that in fact religion, as a product of mythic consciousness, is a natural and inevitable result of the workings of the prefrontal cortex.  The chapter is taken from the book I’m writing entitled Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.


Religion as a spandrel

Evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin once kicked off a deservedly famous paper by describing the great central dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.  There are beautiful mosaics covering not just the central circles of the dome but also the arches holding it up, along with the triangular spaces formed where two arches meet each other at right angles.  These spaces are called spandrels, and Gould and Lewontin used them to illustrate a hugely influential evolutionary theory.  A spandrel doesn’t, by itself, serve any purpose.  It simply exists as an architectural by-product of the arches which of course serve a crucial purpose, holding up the dome.  But if someone looked at the beautifully decorated spandrels without knowing anything about architecture, they would see them as an integral part of the architectural design.  The living world, Gould and Lewontin argued, is full of evolutionary spandrels, features or functions that seem to have evolved for a specific purpose but which, on closer evaluation, turn out to have been a superfluous by-product of something else.[1]

A spandrel in St. Mark's Cathedral, Venice: is religion another spandrel?

For some cognitive anthropologists, religion is a spandrel.  To understand how religion evolved, they believe that you need to look, not just at religion itself, but at some of the key cognitive functions of the modern human mind, and what you find is that religion developed as a by-product or side-effect of those functions.  “Religion ensues,” writes Scott Atran, “from the ordinary workings of the human mind as it deals with emotionally compelling problems of human existence, such as birth, aging, death, unforeseen calamities, and love.”[2] It’s a “converging by-product of several cognitive and emotional mechanisms that evolved for mundane adaptive tasks.”[3]

These cognitive mechanisms are ones that we’re already familiar with from what we know about the workings of the pfc.  They include the all-important theory of mind,  along with our ability for thinking about people even though they’re distant from us in space and time, known as “displacement,” as well as our power to hold “counterfactuals” in our mind: things that we can consider even though we know them not to be true, such as “if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated…”[4] Without attempting a complete review of how these cognitive mechanisms engendered religion, we’ll examine some of the more important examples to get an idea for how the process is seen to work.

One of the most widespread aspects of religious thought worldwide and throughout history is the belief that a spirit exists separately from a body.  In order to see how this might relate to the pfc, consider the underlying process that leads to our capability for displacement.  As young infants, we quickly learn that people can apparently disappear and then reappear, sometimes minutes, hours or even days later.  A realization that consequently occurs to us is the continued existence of that person even while she has disappeared.  This continued existence of someone who’s left our immediate vicinity soon becomes an essential ingredient of our social intelligence, allowing us to think, for example, about what the other person would feel or think if they were there.  It is a relatively simple step for the same practice of displacement to apply to the thoughts and feelings of a dead person.  In one study showing our “natural disposition toward afterlife beliefs,” some kindergarten-age children were presented with a puppet show, where an anthropomorphized mouse was killed and eaten by an alligator.  When the children were asked about the biological aspects of the dead mouse, such as whether he still needed to eat or relieve himself, they were clear that this was no longer the case.  Yet when they were asked whether the dead mouse was still thinking or feeling, most children answered yes.  These beliefs could not be attributed to cultural indoctrination, because when older children were asked the same questions, they were less likely to attribute continued thoughts and feelings to the dead mouse.  These results led the researchers to suggest that the belief that a dead person still exists in some form may actually be our “default cognitive stance,” part of our “intuitive pattern of reasoning.”[5]

This makes even more sense when we remember, as noted in Chapter 2, that the same part of the pfc – the medial prefrontal cortex – is activated when we think about others and when we exercise self-awareness to think about ourselves.[6] As a result of our self-awareness, we tend to “feel our ‘self’ to be the owner of the body, but we are not the same as our bodies.”[7]*  It doesn’t take too much of a mental leap to view others in the same way, and therefore assume that when their bodies die, their “selves” continue to exist, especially since we can still think about them, talk about them, and imagine what they would be feeling about something.  As one researcher puts it, “social-intelligence systems do not ‘shut off’ with death; indeed most people still have thoughts and feelings about the recently dead.”[8] Given our social intelligence as the source of our unique cognition, it’s much easier for our minds to think of someone still existing but not being there in person, than it is to conceive of them ceasing to exist altogether.

Besides naturally believing in spirits, little children also intuitively believe that everything exists for a purpose, a viewpoint known as teleology, and one that is inextricably intertwined with religious thought.  Psychologist Deborah Kelemen has conducted a number of studies of children’s beliefs with some intriguing results.  When American 7- and 8-year olds were asked why prehistoric rocks were pointy, they rejected physical explanations like “bits of stuff piled up for a long period of time” for teleological explanations such as “so that animals wouldn’t sit on them and smash them” or “so that animals could scratch on them when they got itchy.”  Similarly, the children explained that “clouds are for raining” and rejected more physical reasons even when told that adults explained them this way.  Similar results were found in British children, who are raised in a culture markedly less religious-oriented than that of the United States.  Kelemen explains these findings as “side effects of a socially intelligent mind that is naturally inclined to privilege intentional explanation and is, therefore, oriented toward explanations characterizing nature as an intentionally designed artifact.”[9]*

Pointy rocks: 7-year-olds think they have a teleological explanation

As we get older, we may accept other reasons for pointy rocks, but we can never really overcome the powerful drive in our minds to assign agency to inanimate objects and actions.  If we’re home alone on a dark, stormy night and we hear a door creaking open in the other room, our first reaction is fear that it might be an intruder, not that it’s just the wind blowing the door open.  We have, as Atran puts it, “a naturally selected cognitive mechanism for detecting agents – such as predators, protectors, and prey,” and this mechanism is “trip-wired to attribute agency to virtually any action that mimics the stimulus conditions of natural agents: faces on clouds, voices in the wind, shadow figures, the intentions of cars or computers, and so on.”[10] It’s clear how these “agency detector” systems have served a powerful evolutionary purpose: if it was in fact just the wind blowing the door, there’s no harm in making a mistake other than a brief surge of adrenaline; if however, it really was an intruder in your house but you assumed it was just the wind, the mistake you made could possibly cost you your life.

More generally, the heightened risk of not identifying when another person is the cause of something has led to our universal tendency towards rampant anthropomorphism.  Stewart Guthrie, author of a book aptly named Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, argues that “anthropomorphism may best be explained as the result of an attempt to see not what we want to see or what is easy to see, but what is important to see: what may affect us for better or worse.”  Because of our powerful anthropomorphic tendency, “we search everywhere, involuntarily and unknowingly, for human form and results of human action, and often seem to find them where they do not exist.”[11]

When our anthropomorphic tendency is applied to religious thought, what’s notable is that it’s the human mind, rather than any other aspect of humans, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods.  Anthropologist Pascal Boyer notes that “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind.”[12] This, of course, makes sense in light of the evolutionary development of theory of mind as a core underpinning of our social intelligence.[13] This is the first time that we see a dynamic (which we will see again later in this book) of the human mind imputing its own pfc-mediated capabilities into external constructs of its own creation.  In this case, it is the power of symbolic thought that is assigned to the gods, as Guthrie describes:

How religion differs from other anthropomorphism is that it attributes the most distinctive feature of humans, a capacity for language and related symbolism, to the world.  Gods are persons in large part because they have this capacity.  Gods may have other important features, such as emotions, forethought, or a moral sense, but these are made possible, and made known to humans, by symbolic action.[14]

The approach to understanding religion as a spandrel clearly yields some compelling results, and casts a spotlight on how the pfc’s evolved capabilities can lead to consequences far removed from the original evolutionary causes of its powers.   There are, it should be noted, other theories of the rise of religion which, while not contradictory to the spandrel approach, emphasize very different factors, such as the role of religion in maintaining social and moral cohesion in increasingly large and complex societies.  However, the spandrel explanation, attractive as it is, tends to lead to a conclusion that religious thought of some kind is a likely, but not an essential part of human cognition.  In Boyer’s words, it suggests “a picture of religion as a probable, although by no means inevitable by-product of the normal operation of human cognition.” [15]

In contrast to this view, I would propose that underlying the cognitive structure of religious thought is a mythic consciousness that is a natural and inevitable result of the workings of the pfc.  We saw in the previous chapter that what has been conventionally termed a “language instinct” is really a more fundamental “patterning instinct” of the pfc.[16] Similarly here, as we look for the underlying driver of religious thought, we will see that the pfc’s “patterning instinct” leads as inevitably to a mythic consciousness as it does to language itself.


[1] Gould, S. J., and Lewontin, R. C. (1979). “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Biological Sciences. City, pp. 581-598.

[2] Atran (2002) op. cit.

[3] Atran, S., and Norenzayan, A. (2004). “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27(6), 713-730.

[4] See Chapter 3, page 32 for a discussion of these abilities with respect to language.

[5] Bering, J. M. (2006). “The folk psychology of souls.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(5), 453-498.

[6] Chapter 2, page 20.

[7] Pyysiäinen, I., and Hauser, M. (2010). “The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 104-109, citing Bloom, P. (2004) Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes us Human, Basic Books.  This sense of a “self” distinct from the body  is discussed in more detail in Part II of this book.

[8] Boyer, P. (2003). “Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(3: March 2003), 119-124.

[9] Kelemen, D. (2004). “Are Children “Intuitive Theists”?: Reasoning About Purpose and Design in Nature.” Psychological Science, 15(5), 295-301; Kelemen, D., and Rosset, E. (2009). “The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition, 111, 138-143.  Her view is supported by Michael Tomasello who believes that “human causal understanding… evolved first in the social domain to comprehend others as intentional agents,” thus allowing our hominid ancestors to predict and explain the behavior of others in their social group.”  See Tomasello, M. (2000). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 23-5.

[10] Atran (2002) op. cit.

[11] Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, New York: Oxford University Press, 82-3, 187.  Italics in original.

[12] Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, New York: Basic Books, 144-5.  Italics in original.

[13] See Chapter 2, page 19.

[14] Guthrie, op. cit., 198.

[15] Boyer (2003) op. cit.

[16] Chapter 3, “The ‘language instinct'”, pages 38-40.