Re: Why we believe (was: fishing with the seventh seal)

Date: Sat Jul 08 2000 - 14:45:13 MDT

This thread leads me to repost something I sent to the list back in January:

The recent discussion of theism prompts me to dust off a theory that has been
germinating in my head for some time about the human animal's seemingly
hard-wired propensity to find the action of supernatural beings in nature and
to accept such explanations so readily.

Consider that primates are innately social beings and that primate societies
are inherently hierarchical. Our ancestors followed a path of radically
successful evolution in the area of social organization; so much so that we
could be quite correct to say that the human brain is an organ specialized to
the task of organizing social behavior among humans. Our brains are
exquisitely adapted to perceiving and interpreting the signaling of intention
in others of our kind. We see this in the innate propensity of people to
"see faces" in everything from cloud formations to the pattern of the grain
of wood. Even the least intelligent humans are quite adept at discerning
facial expressions and discerning minute variations in the shape of human
faces as a cue to individual identity. Likewise the auditory apparatus of
the human brain is highly sensitive to detecting human vocal output and
interpreting its meaning and emotional tone.

All of this evolved mechanism seems aimed at facilitating the activity of
humans in social groups, and is built on a pre-existing suite of capabilities
that is already very highly refined in the general primate stock from which
our species evolved. Observing even the most "primitive" of our ancestors
(for instance, my little lemur companions), one sees intelligence devoted in
large measure to the perception and interpretation of fine gradations of
social behavior, especially of detecting and predicting INTENTION.
Individual members of primate species are highly rewarded in the reproduction
process for the ability to create and maintain accurate models of social

These internal cognitive models of social intention are, among our particular
evolutionary antecedents, highly hierarchical. Primates seem to devote a
large proportion of their physical and mental energy to establishing, sorting
out and maintaining a pecking order. Being good at figuring out the social
hierarchy of one's companions was one of the primary determinants of
reproductive success of every single one of the ancestors of every single
human being alive today. Thus the recurring theme in our art, literature and
myth of conflict over the social appropriateness of would-be mating partners,
a subject that seems to be of never-ending interest to human beings.

In sum, there seems to be a hard-wired structure to our cognitive apparatus
to see the intentional action of others of our kind and to interpret that
action in terms of social hierarchy. That all "primitive" religions are
animistic, therefore, shouldn't surprise us. Seeing the action of
intentional actors in natural phenomena is simply what we are programmed by
evolution to perceive. Ranking the hierarchical position of real or imagined
intentional actors is likewise the natural pathway of thought in our brains.

Perceiving that anthropomorphic gods are the cause of any dynamic activity we
perceive in the world around us is therefore the most natural outcome of our
brain's response to that activity. Sensing a hierarchical relationship to
those perceived beings is likewise the most probable response to that
perception of anthropomorphic gods. Reverence toward such imagined actors
is, furthermore, the result of our innate social characteristics - Successful
primates are ones who respond to social hierarchies correctly (although note
that "correct" responses can be quite varied: Thus a suave, i.e. socially
adept, trickster may be perceived as more reproductively attractive than a
potential mate who responds to dominant individuals in a simple submissive
way, viz. James Bond).

Furthermore, this theory would explain much of the emotional reaction that
humans have to challenges to religious constructs current in their particular
social group. Heresy, apostasy and atheism elicit the same emotional
reaction that all challenges to the existing hierarchical ordering of a
primate group causes. Observe the behavior of any primate troop when a
challenge occurs in the hierarchy: All members of the group become agitated
when, for instance, a member defies the current "alpha" in some way, because
a challenge to any part of the existing hierarchy sets off a whole cascade of
re-ordering throughout the troop, and may ultimately threaten the survival of
the whole group. The higher in the hierarchy the challenge takes place, the
more re-ordering is necessary and the greater the threat to the group, since
there is a downward spiral of challenges to "legitimacy" as a result. In
fact, in general, ANY behavior involving high-status group members attracts
the attention of most of the members of the troop, since any interaction with
high-status members potentially effects the social relationships of ALL of
the members. Thus , primates are naturally drawn to observe and judge the
social surroundings of high-status members of their group (explaining in
large part our fascination with celebrity, as well as our seemingly innate
attention to the ritual propitiation of imagined "alphas" of the spiritual

I'm sure this idea has been put forward by someone else before. It seems
like a patently obvious explanation for what appears to be the universal,
instinctive religious activity of our kind.

      Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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