Evolving Thoughts

Religion and imagination

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIn 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.


  1. #1 Brian English
    May 6, 2008

    Put up the text of your talk on line if you please. :)

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    May 6, 2008

    Alas, I can’t. For two reasons:

    1. I wing this each time I give it, using the Keynote slides to trigger associations, and

    2. If I did, then the next time I had to give a talk on religion I’d be forced to write something new, which is work, and we do not like work.

  3. #3 Ben
    May 6, 2008

    Perhaps you could put up a recording of the talk, then, if available? Or at least a post giving the gist of your idea of the “division of things to be accounted for” in theories of religion?

  4. #4 Chris K
    May 6, 2008

    I’m a student studying biology and also a Christian, and I’ve been investigating a lot lately into the origin of life and how I as a scientist can still have faith in God. I’ve read a couple books, and I’ve been reading some blogs online lately too. I used to think that atheistic scientists just dismissed the idea of God all together but I’ve come to realize that it is an active inquiry in which there are many minds doing actual scientific research in order to determine if there is something more to this life. I’m really wanting to study the origin of life further, does anybody know any good books or links to other good websites or blogs devoted to the religion vs. science debate?

  5. #5 decrepitoldfool
    May 6, 2008

    Chris K, I would recommend The Varieties Of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan.

  6. #6 James McGrath
    May 8, 2008

    I received an e-mail from someone who got to my blog from PZ’s, and accused me of having “faith” in evolution and failing to understand blah blah blah. I’d like to invite any scientists interested in giving this individual with little understanding of biology and the study thereof a good workover. I’ve posted his e-mail on my blog at http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2008/05/scientists-responses-solicited.html

    Your responses would be most welcome, if you have the time and inclination!

  7. #7 paiwan
    May 9, 2008

    Chris K,

    I think that this blog has good information and is a good place to learn. You can go reading the archives relating to science and religion and their repective epistemologies.

    You can post your questions and comments and learn from responses, good learning, IMHO.

  8. #8 Thony C.
    May 9, 2008

    Chris K,
    a good starting point is The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia Ed. Gary B. Ferngren. It has a total of 103 short well written and highly informative articles on about every aspect of the subject you could think of and each one written by ann acknowledged expert in the field. Each article has an extensive bibliography that will take you further and deeper into the given topic. One small problem it costs $206 at Amazon (reduced from $260!) so borrow it from the library 😉

  9. #9 Crudely Wrott
    May 10, 2008

    FWIW, the origin of religion may well lie in the means by which our early ancestors disciplined their children.

    Imagine a scene some tens of thousands of years ago. It is dusk and the small band had just settled in around the remnants of the cooking fire which they had banked with rocks to slow the rate of burning. Bellies full of meat and chins glistening with fat, the men and women settle into more comfortable positions while the young ones gather to one side playing with sticks and giggling. A dimming sun throws the lengthening shadows of the farthest ridges across the broad river valley they have called home since spring. To the south a growing thunderstorm is gathering.

    The adults speak among themselves of the high quality of the meal, the good conditions of the hunt and prospect of rain while the children’s games become more animated and boisterous. There is an occasional rebuke from some of the mothers and one of men has thrown a pebble at a particularly loud boy. Despite the irritation, there is an atmosphere of content as the growing shadow encompasses the camp. Someone belches.

    The thunderstorm has approached rapidly. A gust of refreshingly cool air brings a creaking grown from the pines and then a sudden bolt of lightning strikes an outcrop of iron-rich rock not a hundred meters distant. Simultaneously a bursting knot in the fire sends a shower of sparks in the direction of the children. Shrieking and beating at their smoldering hair they rush to their respective parents for shelter. The hammer of thunder shakes all from their recumbent comfort.

    A breathless moment passes. A young man laughs nervously just as fearful sobs erupt from the younger children. Several men reach for crude spears and spring to their feet while the women gather the children close. All gaze apprehensively at the southern sky.

    Later, after several of the mothers had spoken quietly among themselves, they gathered the children together and spoke solemnly to them.

    “Grown ups said to play quietly. You did not listen and were loud. You bothered us. We told you to be respectful but you would not be respectful. Then the storm threw its fire down. It burned you children. It scared you, didn’t it””

    The children nodded as one.

    “When you are told to be quiet, or to do anything else, you must do it. If you don’t, the storm will come. Adults can call the storm. Children, do as you are told.”

    From such humble beginnings . . .

  10. #10 Pete Dunkelberg
    May 18, 2008

    Chris K, I don’t know why you are joining the topics of OOL (origin of life) and “science vs religion”. Are you imposing a test for God? However you might like this new blog: http://idexposed.wordpress.com/
    and you might not like Sandwalk http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/

  11. #11 Pete Dunkelberg
    May 18, 2008

    That’s a strange link for _Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings_.
    Try http://www.amazon.com/Re-Engineering-Philosophy-Limited-Beings-Approximations/dp/0674015452/

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