Religion requires imagination

Why are so many humans religious? Some evolutionary psychologists (like Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool) have argued that it evolved, possibly via group-level selection, as a way of increasing reproductive fitness by promoting co-operation. Other, like Dawkins, argue that it’s an evolutionarily neutral by-product of brain functions that evolved for other purposes.

At a conference last September Maurice Bloch, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, has taken an archaeological perspective and made a strong argument for the by-product theory (the proceedings of the conference have just been published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B – so it’s bona fide news, OK!).

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. (ABC News)

Basically, Bloch’s idea is that once humans developed the power to imagine others in ‘transcendental roles’, it transformed the nature of human society – and brought religion along with it. Renfrew et al, in their commentary, say:

The transcendental social element requires the ability to identify and interact with each other not in terms of how people appear to the senses at any particular moment but as if they were something else: astronomers, magicians, priests or transcendental beings. According to Bloch, it is in those transcendental roles where the fundamental difference between human and, for instance, chimpanzee sociability lies. Moreover, the fundamental operation that underpins and makes possible this transcendental element of human sociality and by extension the phenomenon of religion is the capacity for imagination. Thus, it is only through understanding the neurological evidence for the development of this capacity and of its social implications that we will account for religious-like phenomena.

Once this is in place, the extension to imaginary roles of dead people and gods is inevitable:

“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.” (ABC News)

This is why, according to Bloch, “religion is nothing special but is central”:

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. (New Scientist)

It’s not likely to be a full explanation – it seems likely that a theory of mind is also required to imagine the existence of supernatural agents.

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. (New Scientist)

But the basic conclusion remains – religion need not serve any useful function to have evolved. It could just be a by-product of our power to imagine.

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