Evolution of Religion

Further research by Barrett and Nyhof (2001) and Boyer and Ramble (2001) extended this idea, demonstrating in both sets of experiments that human beings are more likely to remember counter-intuitive phenomena, even over time amounts of up 3 months, compared to bizarre or ordinary phenomena. In addition, by testing people in different countries (the USA, France, Gabon and Nepal) they showed that this effect was universal: in every culture studied, counterintuitive stories were remembered most. Based on this tendency for counterfactual phenomena to stick in the human mind and their potential to spread due to their attractiveness, we can relate it back the universal similarities between the religions of different cultures and to the belief in deities. Due to the attractiveness of counterintuitive events we can predict that certain stories will arise in each culture. These stories will contain counterfactual information and spread easily over the culture due to their attractiveness. This could serve as the backbone for myths, the belief in a deity or more general notions or beliefs. Interesting enough, we can also predict that all these stories will have certain general, universal features in common. These stories won’t be bizarre, or lack counterfactual information, as such stories are not attractive to people. As for the belief in deities, is it important to know that deities up until recently have all had human-like traits: they were basically super-powered humans. Deities therefore correspond perfectly to the idea of a counterfactual phenomenon: they are creatures with amazing powers, beyond those of humans, but can still be understood as an entity in a closely related ontological category. How deities are exactly viewed and categorized will be discussed in the next section.

If cows could worship…

This section will work the ideas presented above into a proposal on the category of deities. Such a proposal would explain why certain features can be found in every religious belief that involves a god. According to the aforementioned research, one can make various predictions about universal properties of myths. First of all, people are in need of intentional agents. Intentional agents cause changes in people’s environment, based on people’s needs and desires.

Second, due to their nature, intentional agents are clearly sentient beings. They are not as wild as animals, and they clearly seem to have conscious thoughts. So what would resemble an intentional agent most? Another highly sentient being. In many traditions, therefore, these intentional agents resemble the one species all cultures agree on as being truly sentient: humans.

Third, the above-mentioned differences should function at a counter-intuitive level, but not be at a bizarre level. Sure, let a deity crush a mountain between his fingertips, but at least let its mind function in the way humans do! In many myths, one can therefore see deities in ferocious battles, make passionate love to one another, give birth to the most beautiful children, and get lost in the world around them. The intentional agent, however, can be communicated to and be addressed, can respond to requests and can even accept gifts, to which he or she will respond accordingly – by rewarding you with favors. In every little detail, these deities act as human beings with the exception of their great powers. The claim that comic book heroes (who are often humans with supernatural powers) are the gods of the present day and that comics function as recorded myths might not be so far from the truth after all. That is, the same cognitive systems that created deities, myths and legends and caused their stories to be spread, could also be at work in the creation of superheroes and explain their immense popularity in most present-day cultures.

Case Study: Eheieh - the remarkable exception?

The original gods that men worshipped were clearly such super-powered humans. Only relatively recently did a tradition emerge that broke with this approach to deities. It was the first approach to a god as an all-seeing, all-powerful entity, perfect beyond perfection and too brilliant to behold: the God that rose from the Jewish traditions and was adopted by Christians and Muslims. Barrett and Keil (1996) note and acknowledge that the god from the Jews, Christians and Muslims has one unique feature compared to any other deity before: God is beyond recognition and categorization. All three of the Abrahamistic traditions have placed this agent on such a massive scale of power and perfection (often stating that humans are imperfect compared to this deity) that comprehension of the deity is absolutely impossible. This raises the question how such a deity still became so popular. After all, its traits are clearly of bizarre proportions when compared to the classic gods.

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