How to spot a religion

How to spot a religion September 17, 2008

One of the many difficulties with studying religion is deciding what, exactly, religion is. Rather like Justice Potter’s verdict on pornography, it’s hard to define but “I know it when I see it”.

In a book just out, two anthropologists from the US have suggested that religion is best identified by behaviour, rather than speculating about the supernatural beliefs of adherents (The Supernatural and Natural Selection: the Evolution of Religion).

The press release quotes them as saying:

“Instead of studying religion by trying to measure unidentifiable beliefs in the supernatural, we looked at identifiable and observable behavior – the behavior of people communicating acceptance of supernatural claims,” said Craig T. Palmer, associate professor of anthropology in the MU College of Arts and Science. “We noticed that communicating acceptance of a supernatural claim tends to promote cooperative social relationships. This communication demonstrates a willingness to accept, without skepticism, the influence of the speaker in a way similar to a child’s acceptance of the influence of a parent.”

Now this is interesting in light of modelling studies which suggest that the only way religion can evolve is if communicating ‘unverifiable statements’ acts as a marker of a useful trait (see Green beards maybe made us religious ). What Palmer seems to suggest is that it’s not making statements about unreality that indicates survival fitness, but rather the acceptance of them. Perhaps demonstrating that you are the trusting type, by believing what you are told without asking difficult questions, helped to build communities in the early days of human evolution.

Palmer’s co-author, Lyle B. Steadman (emeritus professor of human evolution and social change at Arizona State University) makes another interesting observation:

“Almost every religion in the world, including all tribal religions, use family kinship terms such as father, mother, brother, sister and child for fellow members,” Steadman said. “They do this to encourage the kind of behavior found normally in families – where the most intense social relationships occur. Once people realize that observing the behavior of people communicating acceptance of supernatural claims is how we actually identify religious behavior and religion, we can then propose explanations and hypotheses to account for why people have engaged in religious behavior in all known cultures.”

Which supports the idea that the primary function of religion is to bind communities together. This, of course, is not a surprising conclusion. Emile Durkheim argued that the fundamental function of religion is social way back in 1912, after observing Australian Aborigines. And this in part explains the decline of religion in the modern world. Where we’ve found better ways of binding people into communities, the need for religion disappears.

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