St Andrews is nicer anyway

Posted on February 3, 2009

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Received a reply from the Venice Summer School for Science and Religion. Their conclusion was that my “proposal does not fit well the direction the school plans to venture”. Given that I was going to argue that religious beliefs are basically exapted superstitions, I can’t say that I disagree. I would have been fairly surprised if the Templeton Foundation had proved willing to fund that way of ‘reconciling’ religion with science.

As it is, it looks like I’ll get to present the same ideas in St Andrews at the European Human Behaviour and Evolution conference. The audience ought to be more positively inclined to the ideas, as well, I suspect. I include the abstract below:

A little magic brings together Boyer and Wilson on religion

Pascal Boyer’s and David Sloan Wilson’s accounts of religion are seen as contradictory and competing. My aim is to show that they are complementary and, by supplementing each other’s shortcomings, give a much more complete picture of religion.

Boyer argues that religion is to be explained in terms of particular by-products of human cognitive development such as concepts that become memorable by being minimally counterintuitive. David Sloan Wilson, however, thinks that it is best understood as a group-level adaptation, his major focus being the ways religious institutions stimulate co-operation. The two accounts present very different aspects of religion and neither is very good at capturing what the other focuses upon. Clearly, these they could benefit from each other, yet, given how different they are, it might seem it would take magic to combine them. And, in a sense, that is precisely what is required.

The vital step is to recognise the cognitive by-products Boyer discusses as part of a larger group of superstitious beliefs, only some of which happen to be connected to religion. Superstitious beliefs are particularly appropriate for motivating religious practices due to their physiological plausibility and the functional flexibility afforded by their relative independence from empirical evidence. This leads to the thesis that religion has exapted superstition by taking up individual superstitions as well as by making use of the underlying mechanisms to help maintain group cohesion.

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