Is religion anthropomorphism?

Connor Wood

Emperor Moth

The verdict is in: we are our brains, roughly speaking. That is, according to modern neuroscience and cognitive science, our personalities, dreams, and experiences are all products of intensely complex interactions of the neurons in our craniums. You can disagree or agree with this claim, but nearly all experts who study the brain and mind are convinced of it. When it comes to things spiritual, the cognitive science of religion (CSR) is a field that tries to understand religious beliefs from within this naturalistic framework. And recently, one of the founding thinkers in CSR outlined a central claim in the field: religion is essentially about anthropomorphism, or the tendency for our brains to see persons in the world around us.

You’ve probably had an experience like this one: you’re walking down a dark street and you hear a noise behind you. Nervously, you turn your head to look over your shoulder, thinking it might be a denizen of the night who means to do you harm. But there’s no one there – the street is empty. Or this: you’re letting your mind wander one lazy afternoon at home, looking at nothing in particular, when you realize that the design of your living-room carpet has an old man’s face in it, bearded and wrinkle-browed – and he’s looking right at you.

These types of experiences, in which we erroneously perceive human-like beings in the environment around us, are universals. Everyone, regardless of culture, gender, or historical era, is vulnerable to these perceptual mistakes. And of course, every culture has some form of religion or belief in spiritual beings. Stewart Guthrie, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Fordham University and one of the de facto founders of the cognitive science of religion, famously put these two universals together in a theory of religion published in 1993 as the book Faces in the Clouds. In it, Guthrie argued that religious beliefs fundamentally arise from humans’ ubiquitous tendency to overestimate the amount of agency in the world.

I happened to be presenting alongside Guthrie at a recent, and extremely rewarding, conference in Boston (plug: two fellow researchers covered the conference in a nice blog post at This View of Life). I was inspired to relay Guthrie’s recent insights into religion’s cognitive foundations to readers, in part because Science On Religion tends to emphasize the Durkheimian, or group-oriented, aspects of religion. This gives me a lot of leeway to tackle subjects I find interesting (such as the fiery debates between kin and group selection theories), but it leaves out big swathes of what’s going on elsewhere in the scientific study of religion. Guthrie’s well-developed theories are an excellent complement to this blog’s usual focus on religion’s group-bonding effects.

Guthrie lays out his argument for how our evolved minds generate religion in seven clear steps. First, he points out that perceiving is interpretive. That is, we don’t experience raw sense data without attempting to make sense of it. You hear a noise, and immediately your brain is trying to figure out what caused it: a gunshot? A firecracker? A backfiring car? Second, the way that we make sense of raw sense data is by comparing it with cognitive models. For instance, we hear a low, rumbling noise near our ears, and immediately interpret that sensation as coming from our cat, who is purring (awww). We do this automatically; the instant we become aware of a perception, we’re already automatically searching for models that might explain it.

Third, we’re fine-tuned to interpret sensations based on our survival interests. For example, from a survival perspective it’s in our interest to know whether there’s a spider crawling up our leg. So if we feel a tickle on our ankle, we’re more likely, at least in the heat of the moment, to interpret that sensation as matching the model of “spider” than the model of “loose thread tickling my skin.” Think of the smoke detector in your home: your smoke detector is calibrated to be over-sensitive to hints of smoke (at least it is in my house, where we experience near-weekly aggravating episodes of shrieking false alarms), because a smoke detector calibrated the other way – one that was under-sensitive to signs of smoke – would be worse than useless. In other words, avoiding false negatives is worth occasional false positives when it comes to matters of survival.

Guthrie cites our tendency to see faces and face-like patterns everywhere as an example of interpreting sense data in ways that are relevant to survival. For early humans – as well as modern ones – the most important elements in the environment have tended to be other humans. Other humans are where we get our resources, knowledge, care, affection, vital information, and most other goods. They’re also the sources of most significant threats: physical aggression, social ostracism, bullying, and competition. So it makes sense for our brains to be finely tuned to over-perceive human agents in our environment.

Guthrie’s fourth step is that, in his words, “perceptual uncertainty is chronic.” That is, it’s hard to always know for certain what we’re seeing or experiencing, and even harder to know what might be causing that experience; our senses are unreliable, and our ability to tell causal stories about the world even more so. This unreliability, combined with our human-oriented social brains, leads us to err on the side of perceiving events as having been caused by humans or human-like agents: the leaves didn’t move because of the wind, but because someone moved them.

Tree bark face

Source: Rgbstock.com

Fifth, we’re led to perceive agency in our environment by formal characteristics – such as eyespots and body shape – as well as by the behavior of things. This explains why we’re so apt to see faces everywhere: lots of natural patterns in nature boast formal similarities to faces, such as two spots laterally aligned above a third spot in the bark of a tree (see right, as if you haven’t already looked). But, Guthrie stresses, it’s actually behavioral cues that awaken our agency-senses the quickest. For example, seeing rocks move in the California desert suggests to many people that somehow the rocks are being moved by conscious agents – or are moving themselves.

Sixth, plenty of research over the past decades has suggested that humans are intuitive mind/body dualists, sensing at a gut level that our minds are somehow separate from, and independent of, our bodies. Guthrie’s not talking here about metaphysical, Cartesian-style dualism; instead, he’s referencing our general tendency to feel that emotions, inner states, dreams, and so forth belong to our “minds,” while physical sensations and actions belong to our bodies. This mind-body dualism allows us to perceive minds in places where there are no bodies: for example, in wind that blows our hats off, or in the gurgling of water in a stream.

Finally, our minds are constantly making the anthropomorphic equivalent of Pascal’s wager: “betting” that it’s most worthwhile to use models of human agency in interpreting perceptions. If we’re wrong, we don’t lose much: a moment of distraction. But if we’re wrong in the other direction, we stand to lose a lot: we could get ambushed, killed, or excluded from social relationships. So when choosing which models to apply to our perceptual experience, we tend to err on the side of choosing the model labeled “human mind.”

Guthrie’s model, when added up, presents a picture of humans as intelligent, socially aware animals whose evolutionary history has pressured us to be hyperalert to signals of agency and intelligence in our environment. Since we’re intuitive dualists, this intelligence doesn’t always have to be connected to a body, which means our minds are free to detect agency in the shapes of clouds, in meaningful coincidences, and in experiences we interpret as answered prayers. Together, these proclivities lay the cognitive foundation for the universal human tendency to believe in gods and spirits – the core of religion, according to most cognitive scientists of religion.

An interesting consequence of Guthrie’s theory – which in the years since 1993 has become almost universally accepted among CSR researchers – is that it may help explain why there’s such an overlap between the autism spectrum and irreligion. People with autism-spectrum disorders are generally less socially oriented than neurotypicals, and tend to be poor with social cues, body language, and imagining others’ mental states. Such people are also often less interested in imaginative play or storytelling as children than their peers. Together, these traits make it unsurprising that autistics tend to anthropomorphize less than neurotypicals.

On the other hand, many autistics are high systemizers, showing interest in impersonal systems with regular, predictable features. Interestingly, there’s evidence to suggest that the networks of the brain that underlie systemizing thought are distinct from, and may even inhibit, those that drive social cognition. Guthrie points out that the brain’s so-called “default mode network” is likely oriented toward social events and relationships. The fact that dozens of brain-imaging studies have found this network to light up when subjects had no tasks to attend to implies that, whenever humans aren’t actively engaged in a focused task, they tend to revert to daydreaming about what matters most: other humans. (Anecdotal corroboration: this is certainly true for me, for example when I win my recent arguments in the shower.)

So if some people tend to be higher systemizers, and to use social cognition less than most folks, then according to Guthrie’s theory you’d expect such people to be less likely to anthropomorphize, and therefore be less religious than average.* And, in fact, this is exactly what studies have found: people on the autism spectrum tend to be less religious than normal.

But is anthropomorphization all of what religion’s about? Personally, I’m skeptical – there’s too much evidence that religion intrudes into other territories, including emotion regulation, morality, social organization, and experiences of transcendence. However, many of these other spheres of religion are also inextricable from sociality, which in turn is driven by the same neural circuitry that underlies anthropomorphization. And the fact remains that individualism and low levels of interest in personal relationships are two of the best predictors of religious nonbelief. So Guthrie’s theory may not be all-encompassing, but it certainly sheds light on many of the basic features of the religious landscape. Religion may not be exclusively social. It may not be solely our brains’ tendency to anthropomorphize reality. But there is something deeply social and anthropomorphic about much of what we call “religion,” and Guthrie’s lifetime of work forces us to take that fact seriously.

_______

* Note that I’ve once again brought the discussion back to the social aspects of religion, despite saying at the beginning that Guthrie’s work was a nice opportunity to switch over to an individualistic, cognitive take on the subject. I swear, this isn’t what I intended to do when I set out to write this essay. I guess what they say is true: if you’ve got a hammer, every problem does, in fact, look suspiciously like a nail.

  • Jim

    Thanks for sharing this discussion. Interesting topic.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Religion is a complex syndrome and not a real entity, in my opinion. So any generalization is bound to be wrong.

    Certainly anthropomorphism and hyper-pattern recognition play a big role in many types of religiosity. Tribal-bonding, behavior-manipulations play into other aspects. Superstitious magic and mental-dualism play large roles. And fears of death, hope for meaning and many other cognitive states fill in much more.

    I’d be surprized if Gutherie said, as you imply he did that “anthropomorphization is all of what religion’s about. Do you really think he’d agree to that? I think he’d acknowledge all the things I mentioned.

  • GCBill

    I really enjoyed this post, and was thrilled to see Paul Bloom’s work linked!

  • stanz2reason

    Nice job Connor. I enjoyed the article quite a bit.

  • amanimal

    Thanks Connor, for both this excellent piece and the link to the SSSR meeting write-up. I’ve not read ‘Faces in the Clouds’ thinking it to be somewhat dated(that and there are so many books I’d like to read – have to choose somehow), but you have me questioning that rationale.

    For anyone interested:

    ‘A Cognitive Theory of Religion’, Guthrie 1980
    http://www.academia.edu/209728/A_Cognitive_Theory_of_Religion

    … and his contribution to ‘The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques’, 2007:

    ‘Spiritual Beings: A Darwinian, Cognitive Account’, Guthrie 2007
    http://www.academia.edu/698642/Spiritual_Beings_A_Darwinian_Cognitive_Account

    Will you be writing up your work on status, ritual synchrony, and cooperation here at some point in the future?

    • connorwood

      Thanks for the posted links, amanimal. Yes, I will be writing up my own work here in the future; right now we’re in piloting stage and the data is looking interesting, but we’ll need another few months of data collection before we have something worthwhile (read: statistically significant with appreciable effect sizes). Thanks for asking!

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    I actually do have (and have read), Guthrie’s 1993 book “Faces in the Clouds. Again, Conner, you typify Guthrie as saying:

    “anthropomorphization is all of what religion’s about”

    So I decided to explore his book quick to explore this huge claim:

    Here is one that sounds similar to your claim:

    “…all religion is a kind of anthropomorphism. pg vii”

    “Many writers, beginning at least with the early Greeks, have said religion anthropomorphizes. A recurrent quip inverts Genesis: man makes God in his own image. Yet most people see anthropomorphism as a superficial aspect of religion, not central to it.” [as I feel it is] pg 3

    “No widely shared definition of religion exists, even within any one disciple. … Those theories that do identify something, such as animism or anthropomorphism, as universal in religious thought have trouble explaining why it occurs. ” pg 5

    “A few religions have parallel systems without deities, as in demythologized Christianity and in some Buddhist philosophies, but these systems are ethical, philosophical, or psychological, not religious.” pg 7

    So we can see, that Guthrie gets around his broad claim, as many generalizers do, by declaring religions which don’t fit the generalization as non-religious. Odd.

    But as I said in my previous quote, there is no general agreed definition of religion exactly because it does not exist but is a fuzzy, rather recent Western invented abstractions — its nature shows when generalization are attempted and fail.

    So, to soften Guthries’ point, in light of his stated caveats, I’d say he’d agree with “Anthropomorphism is a huge part of the phenomena of religion”. And from what I can tell from your article you agree with that and I am guessing Guthrie would to.

    I think understanding this fuzzy use of the word “religion” with out real narrow agreed use, will always lead us to problems.

    So unlike, amanimal, I see no reason to question any rationale. Though you made a good summary of many points, you used it to make a point about Guthrie and his theory that is not helpful. IMHO

    • amanimal

      Hi Sabio, if I correctly understand your criticism I’m inclined to agree. The way I read Guthrie he’s saying that all religion *starts* with anthropomorphism, an uncontroversial concept that goes back at least as far as Sir Edward Tylor and expressed by Marvin Harris in ‘Our Kind’ as follows:

      “… the basis of all that is distinctly religious in human thought is animism, the belief that humans share the world with a population of extraordinary, extracorporeal, and mostly invisible beings, ranging from souls and ghosts to saints and fairies, angels, and cherubim, demons, jinni, devils, and gods.”

      Connor, I believe, interprets Guthrie as saying that all religion starts *and ends* with anthropomorphism, at least that’s how I read:

      “But is anthropomorphization all of what religion’s about?”

      I think that what it amounts to is Conner throwing a bone to believers saying in effect that ‘no, we haven’t explained religion away, but you do need to consider Guthrie’s work’. I’m more inclined to agree with Justin Barrett in that you can view the findings of the CSoR from at least two distinctly different perspectives:

      1) The cognitive science of religion explains why believers believe thus ‘explaining it away’.

      … or …

      2) God designed our mental architecture and functioning so that believers would be able to ‘know’ him.

      … and, as Barrett was quoted on the results of the 3 year ‘Cognition, Religion and Theology Project’:

      “This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact.”

      I also think that applies to the entire field as well. One of the questions the cognitive science of religion seeks to answer is why people believe in supernatural agents – not whether or not they actually exist.

      So I’m inclined to doubt that anyone with Guthrie’s credentials would make the kind of sweeping categorical statement as implied by Connor above, though I could very well be wrong as I’ve not read ‘Faces …’.

      To me it seems as though there’s a very good reason that believers believe, but that’s another discussion.

      A final note to clarify – the only rationale I’m questioning is how I decide what book to read next :)

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        Hi amanimal,

        Superbly stated. I totally agree. “Throwing believers a bone…” is a great phrase. And it is something I often sense with Connor. It horribly distracts from what may have been otherwise interesting posts but instead, it often feels like his main purpose where he sets up the post with some degree of scholastic sympathy but then puts down felt detractors with poor strawman arguments. Call me a cynic. But I am always waiting to be surprised by a post that does not do this.

        As for a next book — why not try the Mahabharata!
        ;-)

        • amanimal

          Thanks Sabio, though I might have phrased it differently had it not been so late. Perceived reductionism is off-putting to many and can be especially problematic in the study of religion and I see concern for that informing Connor’s writing. There’s a good editorial on it, ‘Reductionism in the scientific study of religion’, in:

          ‘Religion, Brain & Behavior’, Volume 1, Issue 3, 2011
          http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rrbb20/1/3#.UrzAGPRDvaY

          … you do need to register and the open access only lasts a few more days.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            I’ll take a look at that reductionism paper. I registered.
            Funny, though, “reductionism” is a good word in my book as a technique though it is used pejoratively by religious folks — immediately tipping their hand.

          • connorwood

            Actually, open access will continue until February 28th, 2014. Read as much as you can!

          • amanimal

            Thanks Connor – good news!

        • amanimal

          … oh, and thanks for the reading suggestion, though I’m leaning toward something more along the lines of Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and His Emissary’ :)

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            good luck on the divided brain dualism as a way to view history — sounds like problems right from the get go! :-)

    • Thursday1

      The things is, people have always had doubts about whether, for example, Theraveda Buddhism was a religion or not. Guthrie’s theory not only explains why we have no problem identifying animism, Islam, traditional Christianity etc. as religions, but also explains why we have doubts about Theraveda Buddhism etc.

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        “religion” is an artificial construct. We do not need to go out and discover what it is, but only watch the various ways people use the word.
        It is like many other abstractions, people get confused about this point.
        It is silly to say, “Religion is X” and then for everything that people normal call religion which doesn’t have X, you now declare them wrong. It is a common move.

        It is hilarious, for example to watch religious folks tell us why everyone else has religion but their faith is NOT a religion. Christians say Christianity is “a relationship with God” and thus different from all other religions and thus not a religion.

        People define religion as needing gods, but then when a religion doesn’t have a god, they say it is not a religion.

        You see, people forget that we made up the word — thus all the silliness.

        • Thursday1

          You’re just repeating yourself . . . and not very convincingly. If the common folk hadn’t turned the Buddha into a deity, we would never have thought to apply the word religion to Theraveda Buddhism. It would have been regarded simply as a philosophy, much like Stoicism.

          • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

            I think you are wrong about “the common folk” issue with Buddhism, but then, it is a long conversation, and I wouldn’t want to waste your or my time being more unconvincing.

    • connorwood

      It sounds like you’ve been reading Edward Said or Talal Asad. Personally, I’m not especially interested in excessively deconstructionist readings of the word “religion,” mostly because 1:) people who “problematize” the definition of religion usually, in my experience, have a different, more humanities-based research agenda than I do, and don’t understand my desire to simply study a certain cluster of phenomena regardless of what they decide I have to call it; and 2:) ALL language is inherently problematic, as Wittgenstein pointed out. We’re playing language games here, and anytime we use any words or concepts. Pointing at religion and saying “Oh! That’s an unclear concept!” isn’t saying anything that isn’t also true of concepts like “cat,” “tree,” “city,” and so forth (is a civet a cat? Is a juniper bush a tree? Is Monte Carlo, pop. 30,000, really a city?). The best way to go forward is to acknowledge that all concepts are unclear at the edges, that all language is the dynamic product of social construction, and to proceed with caution and humility anyway.

      I can’t speak for Guthrie, but my own sense is that his model really does centralize anthropomorphism very strongly. Does that mean certain phenomena get excluded from this research program? Yeah, it does. It doesn’t mean the program isn’t worthwhile. We can turn to another program or interpretive heuristic to examine other phenomena, like James’s personal transcendent experiences, which aren’t particularly anthropomorphic but which are often included within “religion” in popular usage.

      And in fact, I do not myself use anthropomorphism as the biggest lens through which to view or interpret religion. My biggest lens is that of cybernetics and complex regulative systems, which is why I bring up religion’s relationship to ecological dynamics so often.

      Finally, I don’t know what unhelpful point you’re saying I made about Guthrie’s work, so I can’t respond to that criticism.

      • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

        @ Connorwood,

        Not read either.

        Nor do I consider my approach “excessively deconstructionist”.

        It is exactly the gross (not careful, nor “humble”) generalizations of “scholars” about religion that reveal both agendas and bad methodology as opposed to those labeling cats or cities.

        Per chance, have you read, “The Invention of Japanese Religions” by Jason Josephson. (that was his 2012 book, he has a shorter earlier paper: Religion Compass, Vol 5 Issue 10, Oct 2011). Tony Swain’s book: “A Place for Strangers: Towards a history of Australian Aboriginal being” is another showing the limits of the category of “religion”. If you are curious of some of my hyper-deconstructivist readings.

        I don’t find people careful at all with the term ‘religion”. I often here people debate about “God” without defining what the heck they are talking about — again, way different from the “tree” issue you used to minimize my caution.

  • Collin237

    In the wide sense, anthropomorphism isn’t restricted to religion. The concept of laws of physics, upon which all technology is based, is also anthropomorphism. There seems to be a tendency unique to White European culture, to exclude from religion anything that is scientifically proven. If modern science had been dominated by another culture, the theories commonly (incorrectly) conflated with atheism might instead be tenets of worship.

    Anthropomorphism has led us down blind alleys, but ultimately it leads to correct ideas.

    And concerning your starting paragraph, the fact that a brain is composed entirely of matter doesn’t mean minds don’t exist. Rather, it means that, in a way we don’t yet understand, a mind is a physical field, strictly confined within a brain. The mystics who use the existence of minds as an excuse to assign mental attributes to the formal non-locality of modern physics have it exactly backwards. It is the complete impossibility of mentally influencing anything outside one’s own brain that disproves the rule of everything being non-local.

    • James

      Can you provide an example of non-White European cultures including within religion anything that is scientifically proven? Science is science, regardless of our culture or ethnicity; if you’re going to assert something to the contrary, as you did here, I’d appreciate a specific example of what you mean.

      • Collin237

        Quoting from Connor Wood:
        “The humble Itza elders would claim they were only doing what the spirits
        wanted. But from the standpoint of a Western environmental scientist,
        the spirits wanted some pretty ecologically responsible – and
        unnervingly well-informed – things.”

        How could they have arrived at this knowledge, except by discovering it scientifically?

        • James

          A whole plethora of now-extinct megafauna once thrived in the Americas before the first humans arrived; soon after, they all became extinct. I’d say the Itza, or more accurately their ancestors, learned from experience what works and what doesn’t. Which is the essence of the scientific method, regardless of what we may choose to call it. Unsustainable harvesting of natural resources results in objectively bad outcomes. Simple as that. What I don’t see here is evidence that spirituality somehow goes hand-in-hand with scientific knowledge.

          • connorwood

            James, my argument in the article Collin237 cited was that spiritual and religious traditions often encode adaptive ecological and behavioral information. Read the article here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/11/russell-brand-is-wrong-about-western-religions/#more-943

            I’ve been involved in a debate with a colleague about this idea for the past month or so, and he’s sent me papers showing that there’s a lot of evidence that even intact indigenous cultures are terrible for their local ecologies. So it’s possible that religions are non-functional in this sense. But I doubt it; my bet is that religious traditions often encode behaviors and knowledge about ecologies and environments that would be too complex to transmit discursively. The fact that sometimes religions fail to motivate ecologically sound behavior is no more evidence against their usefulness than the fact that antelope sometimes get caught by cheetahs disproves the adaptive function of the antelope’s speed.

            The point is that the “science/spirituality” dichotomy you’re positing here doesn’t make sense for most world cultures. Useful information tends to get discovered, either consciously or unconsciously, and then integrated into already-existing religious frameworks – where it becomes part of the natural, ingrained “habitus” (the unreflective “way things are done”) of the culture.

    • connorwood

      > the fact that a brain is composed entirely of matter doesn’t mean minds don’t exist

      I didn’t suggest this; I was reporting the consensus among cognitive scientists and neuroscientists that the mind is utterly dependent on the brain.

      > in a way we don’t yet understand

      That is an understatement, with all due respect to neuroscientists.

  • R Vogel

    I wonder has anyone, Guthrie or others, speculated on the evolutionary utility of human beings’ seeming intuitive mind/body dualism? Making the assumption of agency seems straight forward enough as an evolutionarily valuable bias, but what purpose does dualism offer?

    • amanimal

      ‘R’, you might find this interesting:

      ‘The folk psychology of souls’, Bering 2006
      http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/pdfs/Bering%20(2006)%20in%20BBS.pdf

      You might also search “paul bloom dualism”.

      • R Vogel

        Thanks for the info – spend some time digging into this over the weekend

      • R Vogel

        So I read the Bering paper, and several different things online by and about Paul Bloom’s work, but both seem more interested in speaking of the implications of this intuitive dualism rather than the origin. Belief in the supernatural may be the result of a hyperactive agency detection device or an adaptive device, but in order to make the leap to supernatural agents dualism is a precondition. Why would human beings uniquely have developed this intuition?

        • connorwood

          R Vogel, my sense is that Bloom, and possibly Bering, wouldn’t necessarily claim that mind/body dualism is an adaptation. Bloom especially seems to posit that our “folk dualism” is a side effect of other cognitive functions. You’re probably aware of the concept of a “spandrel” in evolutionary biology (via architecture): a necessary but non-functional byproduct of some other functional design.

          So that’s what Bloom, probably Bering, and definitely other researchers like Deborah Kelemen would say. If you wanted to give an adaptationist explanation for mind/body dualism, you might argue that religion is adaptive, and that since dualism is probably necessary for most forms of religion humans would have experienced selection pressure to evolve mind/body dualism. This seems like a convoluted and unlikely argument to me, though; my money is on the byproduct view.

          The point is, as Stephen Jay Gould spent most of his career trying to remind us, that not all or even most of biology is necessarily adaptive. A lot of it is byproducts, adaptively neutral, or the random result of genetic drift. Evolution is way messier than people give it credit for!

          • amanimal

            Thanks Connor!

          • R Vogel

            Is it relevant to ask a by-product of what? I agree that the argument that dualism evolved in order to make way for religion is strained at best even if religion is adaptive.

          • connorwood

            I think the usual claim is that mind/body dualism is largely the byproduct of our theory of mind; since we can imagine the mental states of others even when their bodies aren’t there, there’s a natural sense in which minds don’t necessarily seem to be connected with bodies for us. There’s also the sheer fact that death and corpses make it seem as if the agency and teleology we associate with others’ “minds” aren’t inherently the same thing as their bodies.

            Anyone else who has more insight, feel free to pipe up.

          • R Vogel

            Theory of mind seems to risk a chicken-and-egg problem, yeah? We can’t imagine minds without bodies unless we already have an intuitive dualism, can we? As a by-product of imagination, however, seems to hold some interesting consequences. Dualism would seem to be an act of imagination, and imagination is essential for higher order conceptual thinking, or would seem to be, which is the basis for a evolutionary superiority. Probably outkicking my coverage there a bit, but I like the direction that seems to indicate. Thanks for the thoughtful and enlightening responses.

        • amanimal

          ‘R’, the only adaptationist view on mind/body dualism I’ve come across is in Bruce Hood’s ‘SuperSense’ where he references Daniel Wegner’s ‘The Illusion of Conscious Will’ as proposing that dualism gives us a sense of authorship and ownership of our thoughts and actions.

          Beyond that see Connor’s excellent reply.

  • Thursday1

    Have you read Ara Narenzayan’s new book? He cites an article where teleology is strongly associated with religion. Teleological ethics, of course, puts purpose, which is a pretty clear intrusion of something mindlike into the cosmos at the centre of morality. This is one of the areas where religion is intertwined morality.

    • connorwood

      Thursday1, I read his book as soon as it was out. A good read! UBC-Vancouver, where Norenzayan is based, is the home of a number of researchers whose work I respect, particularly when it comes to the psychology of cognitive styles and religion. I think it’s pretty clear that the teleological bent of much of our social thinking (in which we’re trying to figure out others’ motives and goals) is a good natural fit with religious thinking. “The intrusion of something mind like into the cosmos” is a great way of putting it.

  • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

    Theology recapitulates teleology.

  • homunculus14

    This is interesting reading and contains valuable insights into the human tendency to see itself in everything, but in many ways it’s typical of scientific reductionism which examines a particular facet of a subject (in this instance, religion) and equates it with the totality of that subject. While Guthrie’s analysis may be applicable to folk religion, animism, and teleological understandings of divinity, it offers little compatibility with more intellectual or mystical forms of religion, such as philosophical Taoism, Vedanta, Sufism, Neoplatonism and Neoplatonic Christianity, or monastic Buddhism. Any scholar examining the phenomenon (psychology, sociology, theology) of religion with the breadth and depth it warrants would find much of use in CSR, but it remains a far cry from a fully satisfactory explanation.