In a piece reported on in New Scientist, Maurice Bloch has proposed another basis for religion: imagination. Because we can project ourselves and imagine the “transcendental” relation in social and personal relationships, we can imagine that there are agents not visible or present, he claims. The paper is also a good historical review of theories of religion, and makes the point that “religion” is not well defined as a topic of investigation of explanation.
Like many others, Bloch infers that religion is a byproduct of things that were evolutionarily adaptive, such as cognitive skills. His critics also think there are other aspects of evolved psychology that apply here, like “theory of mind”, or the ability to infer that others have minds like our own, which underwrites the tendency to see agency in natural processes:
Chris Frith of University College London, a co-organiser of a “Sapient Mind” meeting in Cambridge last September, thinks Bloch is right, but that “theory of mind” ? the ability to recognise that other people or creatures exist, and think for themselves ? might be as important as evolution of imagination.
“As soon as you have theory of mind, you have the possibility of deceiving others, or being deceived,” he says. This, in turn, generates a sense of fairness and unfairness, which could lead to moral codes and the possibility of an unseen “enforcer” – God ? who can see and punish all wrong-doers.
A recent paper [pdf] by Shariff and Norenzayan claims that humans who believe they are being watched in their social transactions are (marginally) more likely to cooperate rather than cheat; another argument is made by Barbara King, that religion derives from the faculty of empathy that social apes must have. There are a plethora of explanations of “religion”.
But it seems to me that we need to be more careful in our choice of explananda. These different explanations explain different things. A principled division of things to be accounted for would resolve much confusion. As it happens, I’m proposing just that in a talk I’m giving at Sydney Uni Philosophy Department tomorrow at 3 – if you are in town, come by and hear me.