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Why We Do What We Do

You know, I got to thinking that perhaps this is a horrid time to do this to you.  Instead of giving you an uplifting, inspirational, pre-Easter review, I’m giving you a why-do-you-do-what-you-do kind of piece, and that might ruffle a few feathers.  If so, feel free to ignore this post.  You won’t hurt my feelings.

So, here it is, as promised–a further look at the book Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer.

A couple of days ago, I posted a smattering of quotes from the book to whet your appetite, and received some interesting responses.  Let me reiterate, we all have rituals that we perform every day.  [And by rituals, I’m referring to two kinds, as defined by dictionary.com.  “An established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite” or “Any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner.”]  Some are necessary, like brushing our teeth and eating our meals.  Some are medicating, like drinking several cups of coffee or running on a treadmill.  Some are comforting, like praying or meditating.  Some are addictive, like bouncing a basketball a certain number of times before a free throw or twirling the ends of our hair when we’re nervous.  Rituals are a part of us.  I don’t think anyone can claim not to be affected by them.

Religious rituals, however, are interesting beasts.  They’re oftentimes beautiful.  They require order and detail (i.e. the priest dons special robes, uses special agents, blesses the crowd in a precise manner)…and they’re touted as transformative.  Whether or not it’s true, of course, is a matter of opinion.  Well, she seems different or I feel transported or It’s as though God spoke directly to me.

What’s fascinating about Boyer’s explanation of how we’ve acquired religion and how it’s stuck in our minds (over all these millennia) is his focus on how our mind actually works.  Many behavioral evolutionists believe that we carry some sort of “religion gene,” in the sense that we’re more likely to survive and thrive if we carry it.  It’s to our advantage to believe; that’s why we do.

Boyer takes a different approach.  He claims that the way we formulate our opinions is, in a large part, unconscious.  I’m explaining it very simply here, but here’s, in part, an example.  [All fuzziness is my fault.  You’ll have to read the book to fill in the gaps.]

Read the following possible tenets of religious belief, using your intuition.  Why do you think all of them are horrible candidates for a religious system?  [These are Boyer’s.]

1. Some people get old and then one day they stop breathing and die and that’s that.
2. If you drop this special ritual object it will fall downward until it hits the ground.
3. The souls of dead people cannot go through walls because walls are solid.
4. Dead men do not talk (or walk).
5. There is only one God!  He is omniscient but powerless.  He cannot do anything or have any effect on what goes on in the world.
6. The gods are watching us and they notice everything we do!  But they forget everything instantaneously.
7. Some people can see the future but they then forget it immediately.
8. Some people can predict future events, though only about thirty seconds in advance.
9. There is only one God!  However, He has no way of finding out what goes on in the world.
10. This statue is special because it vanishes whenever someone thinks about it.
11. There is only one God!  He is omnipotent.  But He exists only on Wednesdays.
12. The spirits will punish you if you do what they want.
13. This statue is special because you see it here but actually it’s everywhere in the world.

Something seems defective in each one, does it not?  Perhaps the following are better candidates. [Numbering is Boyer’s.]

21. There is one God!  He knows everything we do.
22. Dead people’s souls wander about and sometimes visit people.
23. When people die, their souls sometimes come back in another body.
24. Some people are dead but keep walking around.  They cannot talk any more, and they are not aware of what they are doing.
25. Some people sometimes faint and start talking in a funny way.  That’s because God is talking “through” them.
26. We worship this woman because she was the only one ever to conceive a child without having sex.
27. We pray to this statue because it listens to our prayers and helps us get what we want.

Of course, he admits to cheating here, because there is some familiarity here.  Let’s try again.  [Again, the numbering system is Boyer’s.]

31. Some people suddenly disappear when they are really thirsty.
32. There are invisible people around who only drink cologne.  If someone suddenly goes into a fit and screams for cologne, it is because their body is being controlled by one of these invisible people.
33. Some people have an invisible organ in their stomachs.  That organ flies away at night when they’re asleep.  It attacks people and drinks their blood.
34. This wristwatch is special and will chime when it detects that your enemies are plotting against you.
35. Some ebony trees can recall conversations people hold in their shade.
36. This mountain over there (this one, not that one) eats food and digests it.  We give it food sacrifices every now and then, to make sure it stays in good health.
37. The river over there is our guardian.  It will flow upstream if it finds out that people have committed incest.
38. The forest protects us.  It gives us game if we sing to it.

What do you think?  We’re probably not aware of any societies who practice these things.  In fact, 33, 35, 36, and 38 are real belief systems.

Perhaps there’s a certain “mental recipe” that makes a solid (or at least believable) religious tradition.

“One possible explanation is that religious concepts invariably include some strange properties of imagined entities or agents.  Religious ontologies, in this view, surprise people by describing things and events they could not possibly encounter in actual experience.”

“Obviously, the main problem with (1), (2) and (4) is that they express something we all know.  They are just too ‘banal’ to start a religion.  Religious concepts are not usually so trite.  In contrast, (23) and (27) are surprising in the minimal sense that they describe processes and agencies that are not part of everyday experience….But this cannot be the solution.  There are two obvious, incurable problems with this ‘strangeness’ theory.  First it says that religious concepts are about objects and events we cannot actually experience.  But this flies in the face of the facts.  Mystics the world over can recount their many encounters with divine beings.  Also, in many cultures we find cases of possession.  Someone falls into a trance or some other strange state and starts to talk gibberish or says sensible things in a very strange voice.  Everyone around says that this strange behavior is caused by some god or spirit who is ‘possessing’ the person.  All these people seem to have a direct experience of what happens when a god or spirit is around….Second, if this account were true, religious concepts would be indefinitely variable.  This is because the domain of what is not part of everyday experience is in principle infinite….”

For example, (11) would not seem possible because gods and people are continuous, at least in our “experience.”

Boyer goes on to explain how we acquire information.  We have basic templates, such as ANIMAL, PLANT, TOOL, etc., that we fit new terms into.  For instance, let’s say I told you that there’s this plant called the platelator.  You’d immediately assume, even if you’ve never heard of it, that it “works” like most other plants.  Platelators come from other platelators.  They need water and sunlight.  They need minerals.  This helps you “grow” your database fairly rapidly.

“Immanuel Kant argued that the structure of ordinary concepts provides the backbone for apparently unconstrained flights of imagination….This applies to religious concepts as well.  Religious representations are particular combinations of mental representations that satisfy two conditions.  First, the religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories.  Second, they preserve other expectations.”

“Translated, this means: to build your representation of the new object, just go to your PLANT template, copy all the information that is true of plants (your default expectations about plants) and add a special ‘tag’ that says what is special about these particular plants.  This works in the same way for the other examples of religious concepts.  Here are the familiar ones (again the numbering is Boyer’s):

21. Omniscient God [PERSON] + special cognitive powers
22. Visiting ghosts [PERSON] + no material body
23. Reincarnation [PERSON] + no death + extra body available
24. Zombies [PERSON] + no cognitive functioning
25. Possessed people [PERSON] + no control of own utterances
26. Virgin birth [PERSON] + special biological feature
27. Listening statue [TOOL] + cognitive functions

See what’s happening?  We’re combining a “particular ontological category and a special characteristic.”  The latter contradicts some property in the ontological category.  “To sum up, religious concepts invariably include information that is counterintuitive relative to the category activated.”

Have I lost you?

Although this is a very simplified way of describing it, Boyer proceeds to take the following chapters to explain what he means, to flesh out this way of mind-acquiring.  It “implies that human minds are receptive not just to the concepts they actually have but also to many other possible concepts, provided they correspond to this model.”

He cites “cultural transmission” of information as vital, too.  We gladly fill in details when we’re not told everything.  Take ghosts, for example.  [And here Boyer refers to a people called the Fang, whom he mentions throughout the book.]  “You were probably told at some point that ghosts can walk through walls.  Similarly, the Fang are told that ghosts often appear in clearings in the forest, out of nowhere, and then disappear in the same counterintuitive way.  But neither you nor the Fang were ever told that ‘ghosts can see what happens when it happens’ or that ‘ghosts remember what has happened after it has happened.’  No one ever says that, because no one needs to say it.  These inferences that literally go without saying are spontaneously produced because our minds apply a default principle.”

And then there are all the things we hear from other people–what happened to them, their experiences.  We have to decide if their accounts are true or not.

Do you see how complicated it gets?  At least complicated enough not to feasibly deal with it in one blog post.

Okay, now that I’ve breezed past how we acquire information, and how it is possible that we’ve retained all these religious notions–true or false–let’s step back into the ritual arena.

Obviously, rituals are serious things to many people.  They bring about peace and goodwill; they offer up camaraderie and community.  They are lovely and meaningful.  There are a plethora of kinds. And they provide something that we can’t get elsewhere.  [And Terri, I’m like you.  I’ve seriously considered some sort of “woman-initiation ritual celebration” for Liliana, where she’s surrounded by strong women who can say “welcome” along with me.  I have several years to plan it!]

It doesn’t mean rituals are wrong.  It just means they exist for a reason, whatever that reason may be.  Are we cognizant of what that reason might be, and if so, are we comfortable that it might be for social reasons alone?

Boyer goes on to explain what formulates a religion and who we set up as our leaders (and why) and how our “separateness” or groupishness (my word) immediately eliminates everyone else.

As uncomfortable as it may sound, we all know that religion is a mercenary and political enterprise.  “The fact that religious groups are so involved in political intrigue and manage to find a political niche in most places with centralized authority is very familiar to all of us, so familiar indeed that we may forget that it is a special characteristic of such groups.  For instance, castes of craftsmen also try to garner some political support and lend their weight to various political factions, but they are not usually as important as groups of religious scholars.  This is not because the goods and services provided by craftsmen are less indispensable or important.  In fact the reason may be exactly the opposite.  Since the services of literate religious groups are dispensable, the religious schools that do not yield some measure of political leverage are very likely to end up as marginal sects, a process that has happened repeatedly in history.  So priests and other religious specialists are not necessarily central to large-scale political  organization.  But the ones that do not manage to garner some political  leverage fall by the wayside. (Incidentally, this is why it is both largely true and somewhat misleading to construe religion as the ally of the  oppressors, as an institution that invariably supports centralized political power and offers supernatural justifications for the established order.  This is true in the sense that many successful religious guilds were successful precisely because they adopted this strategy.  But it is misleading  in the sense that organized religious guilds of this kind are not the whole  of religion.  Indeed, they choose this strategy precisely because the competition is constant and in fact highly successful too.)”

Here’s Boyer on the history of Christianity:

“The history of early Christianity also includes many difficult conflicts between the competing claims of a still fragile Church with considerable political backing and a host of local cults that somehow deviate from the doctrine.  In the case of  Christianity, the great difficulty at first was to decide exactly what the doctrine was.  The essentials of the doctrine did not originate in a scholarly group but were those of a messianic, revolutionary movement, a loose federation of groups with not entirely compatible interpretations of not entirely similar accounts of the Revelation.  When  the movement did become an organized religious guild with great political leverage, this created a series of complex struggles between political factions that identified themselves in terms of these different interpretations of revelation and morality.  Hence the long succession of Councils supposed to establish, once and for all, coherent foundations for the doctrine and therefore to determine who was in and who  was out.”

And although Boyer has many interesting conclusions, I’ll end with this one:

“It is tempting to think that people acquired religious thoughts because they somehow made their minds more flexible and open.  But the evidence gathered by anthropologists, archaeologists and psychologists   suggests a slightly different vision.  Human minds did not  become vulnerable to just any odd kind of supernatural beliefs.  On the contrary, because they had many sophisticated inference systems, they  became vulnerable to a very restricted set of supernatural concepts: the ones that jointly activate inference systems for agency, predation, death, morality, social exchange, etc.  Only a small range of concepts are such that they reach this aggregate relevance, which is why religion has common features the world over.”

Oh, and one frustration of his:

“I call this a frustration because religion is portrayed here as a mere consequence or side effect of having the brains we have, which does not strike one as particularly dramatic.  But religion is dramatic, it is central to many people’s existence, it is involved in highly emotional experience, it may lead people to murder or self-sacrifice.  We would  like the explanation of dramatic things to be equally dramatic.  For  similar reasons, people who are shocked or repulsed by religion would like to find the single source of what is for them such egregious error, the crossroads at which so many human minds take the wrong turn, as it were.  But the truth is that there is no such single point, because many different cognitive processes conspire to make religious concepts convincing.”

I realize this is a HUGE topic to take on in one day, but hopefully, these kernels of opinion (or conjecture) will cause you to think.  Why do you do what you do?  Are your actions (or beliefs) actually accomplishing anything?  Must they accomplish something?  If they comfort, does the end justify the means?

What say you all?

And in the meantime, Devon, I’ve ordered the book you recommended in the comment section of Thursday’s post–The Loser Letters by Mary Eberstadt.  Since she is a humorist, she sounds slightly more entertaining and engaging than my above post.

Have a great weekend, y’all!

[Post image: Momote Shiki Japanese Archery Ritual]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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