Putting Durkheim’s religion/magic distinction into the evolutionary context

Posted on July 9, 2007


Reading Wilson’s review of Dawkins made me think again about a possible way to distinguish religious as opposed to superstitious beliefs. Wilson writes:

By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centred on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups.

This recalls Durkheim’s distinction between religion and superstition on the basis that religion has a primarily social role, whereas superstition tends to be personal. What Vyse (in Believing in Magic, pp. 9-10) writes about this is interesting enough to quote at length:

Durkheim proposed a method for distinguishing between religion and magic based on the social function of each. He began by rejecting the common notion that religion and magic can be distinguished from other domains by their supernatural character […] As Durkheim pointed out, not all cultures distinguish between these two domains. […]

As an alternative to the natural/supernatural distinction, Durkheim suggested that within each culture, objects and activities can be separated into two categories: the “sacred” and the “profane”. Religion is made up of “beliefs”, statements about the nature of sacred things, and “rites”, rules of conduct with respect to sacred things. […]

According to this scheme, magical things are also sacred. They are placed in a higher category and give rise to beliefs and rites similar to those surrounding religious objects. But Durkheim believed that magic and religion fulfill different social functions: whereas religion serves the group, magic serves the individual. […]

Vyse states that Durkheim’s view was rejected by others because of the phenomenon of “profoundly religious experiences [which] often occur in solitude”. As he explains:

In many religions, believers periodically turn away from the group and engage in individual prayer or contemplation, and because these experiences can have a powerful effect on an individual’s religious faith, Durkheim’s critics asserted that these solitary experiences contradict the view that religion exists to serve society. Moreover, Durkheim’s theory does not move us toward an understanding of the psychology of superstition.

That last point is true enough but only until evolution is used to cast light on the issue, I think. Wilson gives the example of Jain ascetics who live by highly impractical rules but whose behaviour starts to make sense once we consider it in the context of group selection – “the food begging system of the asceticts functions as an important moral policing mechanism for the community”. Thus, it is possible to put forward the theory that religion is linked to group selection pressures while superstition is linked to individual selection pressures. In effect, Durkheim’s claim that religion and superstition have different social functions comes to be understood at the evolutionary level. This is important as it strengthens the position – the question of individual religious experience can be answered by showing how such experience has an evolutionary social function, just like that of the Jain begging system. What is important is that the religious phenomena are likely to have developed later than the superstitious phenomena and to have co-opted some of those phenomena, i.e. religious experience may be a cognitive by-product that became an exaptation utilised by religion which is group-selected for.