Abstract for IACSR meeting

Posted on February 27, 2012


This year’s meeting of the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion is going to take place at the end of June in Aarhus, Denmark. I’ll be giving a talk there which is basically outlining my overall approach. Many of those who will be there will have heard bits and pieces of it befo but I thought it worth presenting it to the meeting as the focus of the conference is on the interaction between cultural and genetic evolution. Here’s the abstract:

Religion as a magical ideology: a co-evolutionary account

Two types of evolutionary accounts of religion are currently most popular: cognitive byproduct and prosocial adaptation. While seemingly in conflict, they are actually complementary. In part this can be seen in the complementary blind spots they exhibit: proponents of the cognitive byproduct account typically think little of the difference between magic and religion while the prosocial account’s supporters sometimes think supernatural claims are inconsequential to religion.

Both types of evolutionary account actually explain broader phenomena than just religious traditions – the mechanisms explored by prosocial accounts also work in non-religious ideologies while cognitive byproducts do underlie non-religious supernatural beliefs and practices. This much is largely recognised by the proponents of the two accounts. What is not recognised is that much of what is special about religion results from the way it brings ideology together with magic. Understanding the how and why this occurs calls for a dual inheritance account.

The answer to the how question is suggested by the very different levels at which the two types of accounts work – cognitive byproducts are a part of our genetic inheritance, while the prosocial effects of religions are a cultural adaptation. This implies that, in religions, existing quirks of the human cognitive system have been recruited through a cultural evolutionary process to help motivate prosocial behaviour.

This leads to the why question. The effectiveness of ideologies, i.e. systems of beliefs whose function is to promote prosocial behaviour, is not connected to their truth. This means that they must retain plausibility while being protected against counterevidence. Religions, thanks to relying upon cognitive byproducts, are particularly adept at achieving this.