Diets and deities

Posted on August 4, 2010


While working on the book I was struck by what feels like an enlightening comparison between what we eat and what we believe. People’s diets are usually determined by three different kinds of considerations. The first is purely physiological – certain substances are necessary for the proper functioning of human bodies while others are toxic. All things being equal we will tend to to eat more of the former. The second is cultural – given the broad range of foods that people could eat people beloning to any particular cultural will tend to eat a particular sub-set of those, prepared in a particular set of ways. Finally, for people to eat any particular food it has to be available – thus, geography or logistics also plays a role. The three kinds of considerations are not independent. If the variety of available foodstuffs is very limited, people will simpy eat what is available so cultural and physiological conderations will play a lesser role in determining diet. However, if people have access to a great diversity of foodstuffs, what they eat will depend much more greatly upon what they find appetising.

What is the relevance to cognitive science of religion? As I have argued in various posts, one of the main characteristics of religion/magic that I see is that such beliefs are protected against investigation. To look at it from the other direction, protecting beliefs against investigation means that a very large variety remains potentially available to humans, not having been ‘culled’ by investigation. This allows cultural and cognitive considerations to determine which of those beliefs come to espouse – just as is the case with choice of food in times of plenty. Science, of course, goes to the other extreme, trying to strictly delimit what concepts and beliefs remains plausible enough for people to seriously consider – thereby aiming to ensure that the beliefs are determined by external considerations and not by human predilections.

In How the Mind Works Pinker talks about the way that magic hyperstimulates our senses and uses the phrase “auditory cheesecake” to make his point. Given the comparison I have made it is possible to call religious and magical beliefs cognitive/cultural cheesecake – they are the beliefs that people come to have due simply to their attractiveness to our cultural and cognitive systems, given a plentiful supply of beliefs that have not been rendered unpalatable by investigation.