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«1. Introduction The purpose of this paper is to examine recent advances in the evolutionary psychology of religion, and to explore how this research ...»

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J B

Common sense holds there are distinctive religions, an intuition that informs most

scholarship and teaching in religious studies and the social sciences, but the intuition is somewhat misleading. In spite of apparent religious difference, recent psychological inquiry suggests that religion emerges from a single panhuman psychological design that strongly constrains variation. There is some variation in the religiosity of individuals and groups, but not the variation of “traditions”. This paper uses recent research in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion to explore some basic properties of the mental architecture that generates human religiosity, including features that enhance the illusion of religious difference.

Key words: behavioural ecology, biology, costly signalling, evolutionary psychology, game theory, healing, linguistics, prisoner’s dilemma, morality, religion.

1. Introduction The purpose of this paper is to examine recent advances in the evolutionary psychology of religion, and to explore how this research revises standard accounts of religion and religious variation.2 For example, whereas ordinary language (and first year world religions courses) carve out particular doctrines and practices as belonging to distinctive religious kinds—Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, California New Age, Satanism and so on—it seems these labels do not describe aspects of the natural world (they do not reflect the kinds of nature.) Instead, panhuman psychological architecture generates only limited, but strategically important, variation in the religiosity of individuals and groups.

Religion is thus like language—for linguistic inquiry has revealed that 1 Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Candace Alcorta and Rich Sosis for excellent comments on an earlier draft.

2 By “religion” and its cognates I will mean, beliefs and practices relative to supernatural beings, places, and powers: “gods” “spirits” and “heavens” and the like.

The theoretical motivation for this use of “supernatural” as a distinctive psychological kind comes from Boyer’s work, discussed below (Boyer and Ramble 2001).

Often I use “religiosity” to capture this intention. I am therefore interested in religion as a psychological phenomenon, a dimension of how many think and act.

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2005 Method & Theory in the Study of Religion Also available online – www.brill.nl 17, 71-100   variation in human languages is limited to superficial aspects, which conceal a universal biological design. I examine the similarities between language and religion in the first section below. I then describe some important aspects of the psychological design that equips us for religious thought and practice, and show how this design emerges from genotypic resources that produce religiosity within narrow parameters.

Though cultural environments play a role in an agent’s particular brand of religiosity, acquisition events do not explain the intricately structured understandings and motivations that emerge through religious cognition. I show how the psychological faculties that subtly prompt and guide religiosity are designed to promote biological success in the ancestral world. I conclude that in spite of striking apparent variation, core aspects of religiosity remain invariant. From the vantage point of cognitive architecture, it appears that there is only one human religion with minor but strategically important variation in its conventional expressions.

Let me first address the objection that my thesis—the idea that there is one human religion with variation at the margins—relies on an ambiguity in the similarity relation. Notice our judgment of similarity is always interest relative. Depending on our purposes, we may correctly judge that oranges and apples are both similar and different. Oranges are similar to apples when compared to black holes, but different when compared to tangerines. Black and white are distinct colours, yet both are colours, so in this respect similar. But this does not entail that there is “only one human colour with variation at the margins”, or “essentially one human fruit”. It seems plausible to say that religions are both similar and different depending on what we take to be the relevant comparison classes, and the practical specifications we use in judgement. Moreover it seems fruitful to discard the idea that “all religions are essentially the same” as too crude and reductive to have explanatory value. For it is unclear how we could ever gain by lumping the products of culture into gigantic categories that way. (Compare: “All games are the same;” “All marriages are the same” “All science is the same”.) I do not deny the legitimacy of using concepts of distinctive “religions” in making pragmatic sense of religious beliefs, institutions, and practices. One can truthfully (and helpfully) say, “Indonesia is largely Islamic” but not, “Indonesia is largely Hari-Krishna”. The Taliban’s religiosity differs from feminist Earth goddess religiosity; for example, the Taliban aren’t feminists. Generalising: there are undeniable differences among agents in religious labelling and doctrinal, moral, and ritual con    73 ventions. And there are local differences in the intensity of religious commitments, and in the uses to which religious ideologies are put.

Most scholars of religion labour amid these peculiarities of convention and circumstance, with illuminating results. I see nothing in the evolutionary psychology of religion that challenges this interest.

Yet there is new understanding to be gained from an evolutionary perspective that views religion as a panhuman capacity. We will see how the psychological architecture that supports religious commitment and practice is largely invariant across culture and era. And this architecture reliably produces functionally similar expressions and commitments, irrespective of labelling and convention. Though religiosity is always framed by local settings and histories, we will see that that “religion” is no more a “product of culture” than jealousy or friendship.

We can talk meaningfully of the distinctive religiosity of Indonesians, the Taliban, and Earth worshipers while still appreciating that variation is strongly bound and directed by a common psychological design.

The trail of this universal design runs over all religious products. The fact that this design is a common human possession that we share through biological endowment is a scientific discovery, not word play.

I seek to explore aspects of this discovery below. As a way to understanding the issues, consider language.

2. Apparent Linguistic Variation and Folk Externalism

On the face of it, there appear to be numerous and different languages, “English,” “Japanese,” “Swahili,” “Greek,” “Hindi,” and others. That

they differ is made vivid when conversation partners do not share one:

the tourist of China, lacking Chinese, falls on hard times. Even the same language varies over time. A speaker of Chaucer’s English could not communicate with a contemporary speaker of London’s English, though an unbroken chain of only twenty-odd generations of communicating English speakers separates them. 14,000 years from now no one will speak our English. Our distant successors will look on our speech as the Chinese look on the English-only tourist, incomprehensibly.

Pronunciations of words vary. Germans say, “rot” to mean “red,” not intending the “rot” of “rotten wood”. French speakers use “raison” to denote “correct” instead of that black dried fruit; they say “anniversaire” to mean “birthday,” instead of “anniversary” and “blanc” to mean “white” not “black” [see (Harman 1998)].

Grammars also vary. English displays relatively stable word order   regularity, with adjectives typically preceding nouns that they modify, and subjects usually preceding transitive verbs, and (though less frequently) intransitive verbs. Yet differences among languages in this respect seem quite extreme. Aboriginal speakers of the Australian language Warlpiri use case markers to convey grammatical relations and noun modification. In certain Native American languages, there are few noun phrases within clauses, and grammatical relations are expressed by attaching strings of agreement affixes onto verbs (Pinker and Bloom 1990). More basic differences include rules governing the designation of subject and object, either by word order, as in English and Japanese, or by case, as in German, Latin and Czechoslovakian (Pinker 1999)—a bane to those of us who study these languages as adults. Lots of apparent differences here.

We observe that children learn the language of those around them.

An African born in Toronto utters English sentences ending with “eh?” instead of some African language. Language seems to be something children pick up from their surroundings.

Call linguistic externalism the view that explains linguistic competence as structured through local acquisition events. Many theoretical versions of linguistic externalism are possible. I’m interested in the version that most closely approximates our common sense view that language has something to do with acquiring an artefact called “language” from

a community or culture. Folk linguistic externalism undertakes something like the following commitments:

1. Languages are public tools for communication shared by members of different linguistic communities.3

2. There are different languages.

3. These communal tools are acquired through learning. Roughly, something “external”—a language—is internalised by individuals in the course of development through cultural exposure.4 Each of these assumptions turns out to be false. Noticing why will help us to see where folk externalism about religion goes wrong.

3 For example “French” is the tool used by communities in France, Corsica, Quebec, parts of Switzerland, West Africa and elsewhere (expensive restaurants, certain Cajun precincts, among poseurs, and so forth).

4 For an example of this view, see (Dummett 1986).

    75

3. I-language Consider linguistic difference. While pronunciations vary, grammatical variation is tightly constrained. It is not the case that grammatical differences of the kind that distinguish English from French or Cherokee are rigid. English speakers can invert subject-predicate word orders, for example: “The instructor was driven to drink by the student’s passive sentences”. In fact, English speakers do sometimes employ case markers, for example, “’s” for possession as in: “the student’s passive sentences”.

We can produce ergative constructions, replacing “the bottle broke” for “I broke the bottle”. Moreover, there are converse orderings of Englishlike constructs in apparently grammatically distinct languages [For discussion see (Pinker and Bloom 1990)].

Focusing on the grammatical component more closely we find invariant principles of sentence formation children never learn. Take a descriptive generalization called the coordinate structure constraint. This

constraint exposes fundamental differences in structure between sentences of the following form:

1.) Mary saw Peter with Paul.

2.) Mary saw Peter and Paul.

In English, questions can be formed by inserting a question word at

the head of the sentence, followed by an auxiliary verb. Hence:

1.) Whom did Mary see Peter with?

However this transformation doesn’t work when the question word is

conjoined with another noun phrase, as in:

2.) Whom did Mary see Peter and?

Children never explicitly learn the coordinate structure constraint, nor do they ever say, “Whom did Mary see Peter and?” because the constraint is hard-wired.

Internal knowledge extends beyond the construction of sentences to the meanings of words (as opposed to their pronunciations). Word meanings possess extremely complicated relational properties that we never learn. Chomsky illustrates this point through the following examples.

Take “house” in the sentence “Peter is near the house”. Notice the implication is that Peter is outside, not standing near the inside wall.

So it is with “car,” “airplane,” or even an impossible object like “rectangular sphere”: we assume the same for “Peter is standing near the rectangular sphere” (i.e. near the exterior surface). Similarly, when we   say “Peter painted the house red” the default assumption is that he did something to the outside, not the inside. If Peter cleans the house, however, the default assumption is that he rearranges objects on the inside.

We conceive of “house” therefore as an exterior surface with internal spaces, both of which have complex properties. Chomsky notes that “home” has different implicit properties. If I have shifted my house from New York to Moscow, I have moved a massive wooden object.

Notice I convey a different understanding when I say that I have shifted my “home” from New York to Moscow. “Home” has both a concrete and


aspect. Exploring “home” further we note its abstract properties differ from those of “book,” which is also concrete and abstract but in different ways. You and I can simultaneously read the same book even if we live at opposite ends of the planet, but you and I cannot simultaneously live in the same house or home at opposite ends of the planet (Chomsky 2000: 31-37, 62-66).5 Not just grammar, then, but substantial semantic components of the psychological systems that produce language remain invariant. Strikingly, it appears that we all think from the same mental dictionary, with variation limited largely to conventions of pronunciation, how we say “black” “home” “Moscow” and other words.

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