Religion is adaptive; religion is not

By Razib Khan | October 23, 2008 9:58 pm

John Wilkins points me to a piece by Pascal Boyer,* Being human: Religion: Bound to believe?:

So is religion an adaptation or a by-product of our evolution? Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than ‘religion’ in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times. For the time being, the data support a more modest conclusion: religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.

If there is one thing you can say for philosophy, the discipline imposes a clarity and precision in terminology. The philosophical fixation on method might mean that progress, however you measure it, is slow. But, it will also minimize confusion to the greatest extent possible (though I would offer that the material which modern philosophy often focuses on is well nigh intractable without presuppositions which are not universal). Other fields do not focus so much on methodology, and this causes problems.
Boyer, as a cognitive anthropologist, has a “mind-centric” perspective. His discussion of religion necessarily begins at the first building block, the atomic unit if you will, of religious phenomena. His work regularly acknowledges the ubiquity of institutional religion, but its focus is on the cognitive foundations of religious cognition. I believe this causes a problem for the modern reader, especially intellectual types who might read works which attempt to scientifically analyze human phenomena which a “normal” person would never consider examining in such a manner. Many who are interested in this topic may very well be the types for whom religion as a mental experience is most alien. For them, religion is first and foremost an institutional phenomenon girded by a set of belief axioms.
Cognitive anthropologists make a point emphasizing the implicit subconscious element of cognition (arguably, most cognition is subconscious), but after a lifetime of conceiving of religion as a formal institutional structure which promulgates a set of beliefs, a minimalist and thin psychological model is I think relatively difficult to internalize for many. This is why I think assertions such as “religion will always be with us” should be taken with a grain of salt. Religion understood as a set of intuitions which predisposes humans to naturally accept the existence of supernatural entities seems to be an emergent feature of human cognition. It sits at the intersection of normal human mental skills such as Theory of Mind and Social Intelligence. Religion understood as the institutional and belief-oriented framework which takes supernatural phenomena as a presupposition is a different creature altogether, and may not be so inevitable.
This is where a little cross-cultural history is worthwhile. In the West there is a rough model with proceeds from diffuse paganism, to the more crystallized forms of Christianity, to a world which has experienced the Enlightenment where the monopoly of the One True Religion has been broken. But there are other paths not taken. Consider East Asia, where institutional religion has traditionally been a much weaker force. In China, South Korea and Japan the commanding heights of political power had only a weak association with any religious tradition, and so rather than monopoly there was a default pluralism. The exception to this when religions are perceived to suborn public order or began to rival the political center in power (in other words, religious persecutions in East Asia have had explicitly political prior conditions, not theological ones). With the rise of Christianity in places like Korea a more explicit confessionalization has now become normative, but even to this day the power of institutional religion remains weak.
All this is not to say that East Asia is an abode of materialist rationalism. On the one hand, its elite culture has often leaned in this direction, but astrology, geomancy and other occult practices are widespread. In other words, Boyers’ model holds insofar as despite the lack of close affiliation to institutional religions a generalized supernaturalism remains common. The key is that supernaturalism is not posterior to religion, it is prior. Recurrent aspects of religion such as ritual, community-building, doctrine and millenarianism are often found in political movements such as Marxism. But after all this is stripped away the core supernatural bias remains. Pascal Boyer to a great extent is actually talking about the inevitable persistence of supernaturalism, not religion.
* Boyers’ Religion Explained is highly readable.

  • georgesdelatour

    Hi Razib
    I don’t agree that in Japan “the commanding heights of political power had only a weak association with any religious tradition”. Compare State Shinto ( with Anglicanism after Henry VIII nationalized the English church. Japan’s fusion of religion and politics was arguably the more intense. Henry VIII took over the Pope’s role as head of the church; he would never have dared take over the role of God. But the Japanese Emperor was considered a God – according to the doctrine of Arahitogami (
    In China the Emperor was considered the Son Of Heaven ( Khmer and Javanese kings were also considered Divine. Finally, North Korea has managed to combine dynastic divinity with Marxism. Kim Il-Sung, dead for 14 years, is nonetheless, constitutionally, the “Eternal President” (

  • razib

    george, those are correct points, but i don’t think they rebut my general argument
    1) you know that i know enough about history and religion that i must know about state shinto and the chinese emperor’s relationship to heaven (tien), so my comment has to be framed with those priors in mind. so….
    2) first, my post does not deny the supernatural and sacral concepts do play a role in the cosmology of east asian peoples. on the contrary. rather, my contention is that east asian polities did not have a strict association between themselves and an institutional religion. i actually didn’t elaborate or clarify what i mean, so i’ll be more explicit here: east asian polities did not have exclusive associations with supernaturally rooted institutional religions which exist as independent power centers for long periods of time. lots of clarification and qualification there.
    3) state shinto was a relatively late development which emerged in the post-meiji era. its raison detre, along with the revived emperor cult, was to serve the ends of modernization and state integrity. this was not constantine accepting christianity and allowing the rise of the christian church counter-culture in parallel with roman civil society. state shinto was a creation of the japanese intellectual class of the late 19th century. additionally, it did not result in the exclusion of buddhism, christianity and folk beliefs from japan, or their marginalization. buddhism remained a vital component of japanese religiosity, and christians were influential at the elite levels (many women associated with the imperial family were christians). state shinto in many ways resembles the tokugawa relationship to buddhism. the tokugawa demanded that all japanese families register with a buddhist temple. this was not because they believed that buddhism was the one true religion, rather, it was a way to extirpate christianity. they did not want to extirpate christianity because they believed it was a false religion, they certainly did, but their primary and proximate concern was christianity’s relationship with foreign powers an the perception that it undermined the power of the tokugawa clan (christianity was associated with southern daimyos who challenged the nascent tokugawa ascendancy).
    3) i don’t know chinese, but i do know that heaven, tien, is a subtle concept which is not analogous to the personal god of western religions (shangdi, lord on high, comes closer). it is rather like dao or karma, it is more an impersonal essence or principle, than a god. additionally, the son of the heaven is not analogous to the divinity attributed to the japanese emperor. i believe it is more properly conceived as a metaphysical concept with serves to emphasize the role of the emperor as the mediator between man an the powers that be.
    4) chinese and japanese intellectuals, from confucians like xun zi and zhu xi, to scholars at the 18th century tokugawa court, are probably what we would today call agnostics. this is not to say that they would be naturalists or scientific materialists, but they exhibited a stance of great skepticism quite often to many supernatural claims (as the jesuits found out rather soon). this does not mean that they were rationalists in the james randi mode, xun zi himself justified rites to placate supernatural powers because he believed in the edifying aspects of these rituals.
    5) five general points
    first, east asian supernatural concepts are difficult to map onto west asian supernatural concepts
    second, on the massive/folk level theism was relatively common
    third, at the elite level extreme skepticism was not unknown among intellectuals, to an extent not seen in the west until the 19th century. in other words, while in the west aquinas might differentiate between the elite and the masses in terms of reason vs. faith in regards to their belief in christianity, in the east the elite may simply reject mass religion out of hand
    fourth, there were times when religious persecutions occurred, and particular religions gained ascendancy. but, one particular religion never attained monopoly status, and in fact, institutional religions might often suffer extreme reverse. so, buddhism was ascendant between 600-800 in china, daoism for a bit after 800, buddhism in korea before 1300, state shinto between 1900 an 1945, catholicism in kyushu around 1600, but these never resulted in a situation like scotland after 1550 when catholicism was replaced by and large by calvinism as the *national* church
    fifth, surveys of religious belief in east asia show relatively diverse and low levels of supernatural belief compared to other parts of the world. i’ve blogged this extensively, so i’m not going to repeat myself. i don’t think this is a modern artifact seeing as how east asian elites exhibited an inordinate level of religious skepticism compare to other civilizations in the pre-modern period.
    p.s. east asia to me equals china, japan, korea and to a lesser extent vietnam. the rest of southeast asia is irrelevant to my point, and i believe it to be very different culturally (stronger indian and later islamic influences).

  • georgesdelatour

    Thank you for that lengthy reply. Some random thoughts…
    Before Christianity the west was probably closer to the pluralism of the east. Many Greek philosophers, such as Epicurus, were at best Deists, and probably Atheists. The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi doesn’t seem so unimaginably different from the more skeptical currents in Greek thought.
    It’s been pointed out that the Hebrew Psalms 14 and 53 both begin with the line, “The fool says, in his heart, there is no God”. This means that even the theocratic Israelites must have known that some among their number were really dissimulating Atheists. Otherwise the line makes no sense. We only ever know what people find it prudent to say they believe. We don’t know what they really think. Even today, it’s possible some American politicians, at the most senior level, are only pretending to be Christians.
    The Protestant Reformation in England was very much about national self-government. Having subjects of the King able to petition a higher religious authority outside of the realm was tantamount to foreign interference in the affairs of England. Hence the Treasons Act of 1534. I wonder if Japanese fear of Catholicism was really so different from the English version. The Japanese didn’t have Regnans In Excelsis, the Armada or the Gunpowder Plot to deal with, but the fear that Catholic allegiance means foreign allegiance is understandable. The Vatican still has a row today with the government of China over this very point. The Chinese government appoints its own choice of bishops, refusing to accept the Vatican’s right to do so.

  • razib

    Having subjects of the King able to petition a higher religious authority outside of the realm was tantamount to foreign interference in the affairs of England.
    annulment. divorce. charles the holy roman emperor. IOW, don’t forget that the *personal* is the political too.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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