Abstract for Explaining Religion in Bristol

Posted on August 11, 2010


It is only a few weeks till the Bristol meeting. The talk I plan to give there is a much improved version of the talk I gave in Aarhus. It will, in effect, run through much of what I plan to explain in the central three chapters of my book. So, I will be moving through the argument at a breakneck pace – not something that I would try with any group that was not already very much aware of the work in cognitive science of religion. The abstract gives some idea of the complexity of the argumentation, I suspect:

Dual inheritance explains the distinction between magic and religion as well as their regular co-occurrence

According to the dual inheritance model, religion should be understood as based upon cognitive byproducts that have been coopted through cultural evolution for prosocial functions. This invites comparison with other supernatural beliefs/practices that arise due to the same cognitive mechanisms but which have not been similarly coopted. This difference, I argue, lies behind the magic/religion distinction. Identifying the distinction in terms of the intended effects of magical and religious practices, I show that the key is to tie the non-cognitive functionality of religious beliefs to the lower epistemic availability of the purported effects of the related practices. While both magical and religious beliefs are largely protected from investigation –  which allows cognitive and cultural factors to determine their content – the purported, mundane effects of magical practices are potentially investigable where the social and methodological contexts allow it. Religious practices do not face this problem, however, as their purported effects are supernatural. This means the functions of religious beliefs can play a more central role in stabilising them. The trade-off is that belief in supernatural entities appears to be primarily motivated by ‘evidence’ of their influence upon the mundane, which includes type I errors (such as are produced by the HADD) as well as credibility enhancing displays. This helps to explain why supernatural traditions are magico-religious complexes, with purely religious traditions being unattractive to most believers.