Notes from How Religion Evolved by Robin Dunbar

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How Religion Evolved, And Why it Endures

Robin Dunbar


Page 10 @ 01 April 2023 05:34:09 PM

A more drastic attempt was made to suppress religion and replace it with state atheism in post-revolutionary Russia. Church property was confiscated, believers harassed and religion ridiculed. Later, in Communist China, religion was outlawed, the possession of religious texts criminalized, mosques and historic Buddhist monasteries bulldozed, religious minorities harassed or forced into ‘re-education’ centres, and their clergy imprisoned. Yet, despite these determined onslaughts, religious belief and religious institutions survived, often underground. As soon as the restrictions were lifted, religion bounced back. Why are people so predisposed to be religious?

Historically speaking, this never works.

CHAPTER 1: How to Study Religion

Page 16 @ 02 April 2023 05:59:03 PM

The word Easter as used in the Roman (as opposed to Greek Orthodox) tradition, for example, derives from the Old English Eostre, the month dedicated to the Germanic goddess of that name – herself an ancient Indo-European goddess of dawn who, given the spring date associated with her, may well have been a fertility goddess.

Page 21 @ 02 April 2023 07:55:26 PM

Biologists commonly differentiate between four different kinds of questions that we can ask. These are known as Tinbergen’s Four Whys in reference to the fact that the ethologist Niko Tinbergen spelled them out in a seminal paper in 1963. Though they were originally formulated as four different ‘Why’ questions (just as a child keeps asking ‘… but why?’), they are perhaps better thought of as questions about why, what, how, and when: what is the function or purpose of a trait (the ‘why’ question), what mechanism allows it to produce that effect, how does the trait develop in the organism during the process of ontogeny (the process whereby the fertilized egg develops eventually into an adult – a combination of inherited genes, learning and the environment it develops in), and when in its history did a species acquire the trait?

CHAPTER 2: The Mystical Stance

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The mystical stance seems to emerge out of two separate, but related psychological components. One is a need to believe in a spiritual dimension to human life. This may well derive from a deep-seated reluctance to believe that death really is death, the end of life and being. The other has to do with altered states of consciousness, both those induced by trance and those that arise from accidents of experience (such as epileptic fits) or the use of mind-altering drugs.

Page 27 @ 03 April 2023 10:31:24 PM

The experience of trance also bears a close similarity to those that occur during near-death experiences. Indeed, near-death experiences often lead to ‘born again’ religious conversions. An analysis of over two hundred cases of near-death experience found that these were often associated with a suite of psychological states of mind, including a sense of invulnerability, a feeling of special importance or destiny, a belief in having received a special favour from God or fate, and a strengthened belief in a continued existence after death.10 Raymond Prince referred to this as the ‘omnipotence maneuver’.11 We feel empowered to take on the world, undaunted by the worst it can throw at us. Invariably, this is accompanied by a desperate need to persuade others of this extraordinary new knowledge we have acquired.

Page 28 @ 03 April 2023 10:37:45 PM

In most cases, these benign spirit-guides are good ancestors – who no doubt have a vested evolutionary interest in ensuring that their relative gets back to the real world where they can continue with the evolutionary business of producing descendants for them!


CHAPTER 3: Why Believing Might Be Good for You

Page 35 @ 04 April 2023 12:17:38 PM

Over the last century or so, a number of scholars have made suggestions. Broadly speaking, these boil down to five general themes: religion as a form of primitive science, religion as a form of medical intervention, religion as an enforcer of cooperation, religion as a mechanism of political oppression (in the words of Karl Marx, the opium of the people), and religion as a mechanism for community bonding. Each has its ardent defenders and each looks plausible on the grounds articulated by their respective protagonists.

Page 38 @ 04 April 2023 01:06:18 PM

So far, then, contrary to the claims often made, at least in the evolutionary literature, there is clear evidence that being actively religious does provide benefits at the personal level that are likely to have a direct effect on individuals’ evolutionary fitness. The evidence is probably stronger for the direct effects of religion on health than for indirect effects that come through interventions by a shaman healer or saint. Whether or not it works in the way religion claims it does is, of course, neither here nor there. The only question is whether it works, even if this is via a placebo effect.

CHAPTER 4: Communities and Congregations

Page 65 @ 12 April 2023 09:12:42 PM

The core of the social brain hypothesis is a simple linear relationship between the typical social group size of a species and the size of its brain – or, more strictly, the size of its neocortex. The neocortex (literally, ‘new cortex’) is the part of the brain that supports all the clever thinking that we do. It has evolved out of all proportion to the size of the rest of the brain in the primate lineage. In mammals as a whole, it occupies 10–40 per cent of brain volume, but in primates it begins at 50 per cent and rises to 80 per cent in humans. This relationship between neocortex size and group size in primates allows us to estimate the equivalent ‘natural’ group size for humans: it is simply a matter of plugging human neocortex size into the equation for the monkeys and apes, and then reading off the corresponding group size. The group size for humans predicted by this equation is 150, to the nearest round number.

CHAPTER 5: Social Brain, Religious Mind

Page 77 @ 12 April 2023 10:12:52 PM

mentalizing is the ability to understand someone else’s intentions. The concept was originally proposed by the English philosopher of language Paul Grice, who in the 1950s suggested that much of the work in conversational exchanges was done by the listener rather than the speaker: the listener has to work out what the speaker is intending to mean, not least because the actual words uttered by the speaker are often ambiguous – we often find it difficult to express in words our inner feelings and emotions. This capacity is exemplified by the ability to use words like knowing, thinking, supposing, wondering, imagining, intending – known collectively to philosophers of language as intentional terms.

Page 81 @ 13 April 2023 09:20:01 PM

If I can graduate to third-order intentionality, I can believe that you think that there is some other world in which God exists. The important point here is not just that you have a belief about some physical fact (‘I believe the tree in front of me exists’) but that you have a belief about an invisible world that you have to be able to imagine. It’s a two-step process, involving two orders of intentionality. At this point, we now have what I would call a simple religious fact – a belief about the existence of a transcendal world, but not about the impact that world would have on us in our world. To be able to imagine that God also has an intentional mind, I have to be able to achieve a further order of intentionality. Once I can do that (with fourth-order intentionality), I can imagine that God has intentions that might affect our world. At this level, we have what I call personal religion. It is a personal belief that only the believer is committed to; when I think about your belief in this respect, however, I do not have to accept that it is true. Only with fifth-order intentionality is it possible to formulate a proposition about God’s intentional status that we can both sign up to. At this point, we are both committed to our belief in God’s intentions, and so we can have a genuinely communal religion. This seems to be a real Rubicon, or phase shift.

Page 81 @ 13 April 2023 09:20:24 PM

Intentionality level Possible statements of belief Form of religion
1st I believe that [rain is falling] not possible
2nd I believe that you think [rain is falling] not possible
3rd I believe that you think that God exists [in a transcendental world] religious fact
4th I believe that you think that God exists and intends to punish us personal religion
5th I believe that you think that we both know that God exists and intends to punish us communal religion

Table 1: Forms of religious belief that are made possible by different levels of intentionality.

Page 81 @ 12 April 2023 10:15:42 PM

Schizotypal thinking is the tendency to have unusual perceptual experiences (seeing ghosts or hearing voices) and disorganized thought processes, and has been explicitly linked to religiosity. In its extreme, clinical form it manifests as schizophrenia, a condition that often involves perceptual and mental-state misattribution – attributing your thoughts to others or their thoughts to you, or, in extreme cases, hearing God telling you what to do.

Page 82 @ 12 April 2023 10:16:34 PM

The results of this study suggest that mentalizing positively influences religiosity quite independently of agency detection and schizotypal thinking, both of which are extremely closely correlated. In fact, people who are predisposed to schizotypal thinking tend to have an unusually active hyperactive agency detection mechanism. This suggests that you can be religious either because you are prone to seeing visions or because you can reflect deeply on the mental states of God in his transcendental world. This is interesting because it suggests there might be two types of religious people who engage in two very different types of religion – reactive religion and reflective religion, or as I put it in Chapter 1, shamanic/immersive religion versus doctrinal religion.

CHAPTER 7: Religion in Prehistory

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In one such study, six religious traits were mapped across thirty-three contemporary hunter-gatherer societies distributed across southern Africa, South and East Asia, Australia and the Americas, and then the ancestral states of these traits reconstructed statistically. The six traits were: animistic beliefs, shamanism, ancestor worship, belief in an afterlife, belief in local gods who keep to their own domain, and belief in High Gods who interfere in human affairs (Moralizing High Gods). The study found that animism is likely to have been the oldest of these traits, being present, uniquely, in all the cultures in the sample, despite their wide geographical distribution. On the other hand, belief in an afterlife is by no means universal and, along with shamanism and ancestor worship, appears to form a suite of traits that evolved together later. In contrast, belief in High Gods seemed to be completely divorced from all the other traits (very few hunter-gatherers actually believe in High Gods); instead, it seems to be a trait exclusively associated with the rise of agriculture and pastoralism.

CHAPTER 8: A Crisis in the Neolithic

Page 133 @ 14 April 2023 12:56:58 AM

A Moralizing High God, of the kind found in many of the world religions, seems to represent a final stage of development that appears only when the civic units are very large.

CHAPTER 9: Cults, Sects and Charismatics

Page 141 @ 14 April 2023 11:36:15 AM

In a detailed examination of the relationship between religiosity and psychological characteristics, the psychiatrist and anthropologist Simon Dien has suggested that schizophrenia and religious experience draw on the same cognitive processes in the brain.

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