Why Do Humans Practice Religion? April 27, 2008

Why Do Humans Practice Religion?

According to anthropologist Maurice Bloch of the London School of Economics: “Humans alone practice religion because they’re the only creatures to have evolved imagination.”

This is difference from the popular argument that religion evolved to promote social bonding.

… he argues that first, we had to evolve the necessary brain architecture to imagine things and beings that don’t physically exist, and the possibility that people somehow live on after they’ve died.

Once we’d done that, we had access to a form of social interaction unavailable to any other creatures on the planet. Uniquely, humans could use what Bloch calls the “transcendental social” to unify with groups, such as nations and clans, or even with imaginary groups such as the dead. The transcendental social also allows humans to follow the idealised codes of conduct associated with religion.

Modern-day religions still embrace this idea of communities bound with the living and the dead, such as the Christian notion of followers being “one body with Christ”, or the Islamic “Ummah” uniting Muslims.

Bloch’s paper appears in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, an abstract of which can be found here.

(Thanks to Lexi for the link!)

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Darryl

    We couldn’t have religions without imagination, but it’s a necessary element, not the cause. Also, I think the jury’s still out on whether we’re the only species with imaginative capacities. Do chimps imagine? If it can be shown that any other species imagines in the abstract, and does not have a religion, then this theory is blown.

  • Cade

    I agree with Darryl. I think it’s just too simple an answer to be the whole story, and it’s really difficult to determine causation. Perhaps our ancestors already evolved religion for another reason, and that jump-started evolution on our capacity to imagine.

    I also think that ‘imagination’ is a sort of vague term. Maurice Bloch seems to define it as being able to think of “things and beings that don’t physically exist.” But I would think that many animals have at least some form of that. Hell, Chimps may even be able to do simple math for goodness sake. That would require some sort of abstract ‘imagination’.

  • Humans can imagine religion, but only John Lennon could write Imagine.

    (I agree with the two post above. This answer is too simple. We can detect the subject matter that dogs are dreaming about in their subconscious. Surely, other animals can imagine.)

  • Claire

    I’m with Darryl, too – I think imagination is a necessary but not sufficient condition. It probably has more to do with whatever it is that causes people to want to know why things happen, to the point where if they don’t know, they are as likely as not to make something up.

    Check out snopes.com for about a zillion examples – it’s chock full of stuff people have made up, from canola oil causing mad cow disease to aspartame causing every other malady that afflicts humanity. Don’t even get me started on vaccinations causing autism….

    People just don’t like it when they don’t know why things happen and too many of them tend to accept any reason they are given.

    Skepticism – it’s a good thing.

  • Again, I agree with Daryl and the other commenters thus far. I think the fact the humans have highly developed problem-solving skills may have something to do with it. We see a problem (no meaning to life, or whatever you want to call it) and come up with possible solutions.

    Other animals on earth have some problem-solving skills. Could make one wonder if they’ll eventually create religion too…

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    I have maintained for a long time that religion is an agricultural bi-product (With the exception of some basic shamanistic things). Those who could do things like predict the seasons and weather had a place of importance that became a position of power. They then began to control who got to learn the knowledge for the next generation and priesthoods were born.

    Obviously this is an over simplification but religion more preys upon imagination than builds upon it.

  • Adrian

    I think it’s necessary but not sufficient to have imagination. Chimps may or may not have imagination, but they demonstrably lack the ability to take what they privately imagine and share it with others.

    What humans have is the ability to talk, share ideas, transmit rituals and belief between people and between generations. Without this, imaginary beliefs must remain with the individual and the dogmatic structure necessary for a religion cannot evolve.

  • mikespeir

    I don’t see the ideas as incompatible. Surely, we wouldn’t have invented religion without imagination. But for religion to have persisted as long as it has required that it have some practical application, such as contributing to social bonding.

  • Darryl

    Chimps may or may not have imagination, but they demonstrably lack the ability to take what they privately imagine and share it with others.

    I don’t think we can be sure of this. I understand that chimps are smarter than apes, and apes have been trained in the use of language (a system of symbolic representation), have invented neologisms with the language, and have taught their young the language.

  • Adrian


    I understand that chimps are smarter than apes, and apes have been trained in the use of language (a system of symbolic representation), have invented neologisms with the language, and have taught their young the language.

    “Ape” is a term referring to a number of different species, including the gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, and yes, chimps and humans . It would be more helpful if you would refer to the species directly when talking about research so we can check. (And so, as a nit, chimps aren’t smarter than apes; they are an ape.)

    While there have been claims that apes (including chimps) have developed new words or learned language, the results have been poor. Many of the claims have been exaggerated and confirmation bias seems to be very strong. What looks like stringing words together in an original configuration could be just random words and associations. At best, the number of words that chimps have mastered has been very small, and no modern ape (apart from us) has ever been able to communicate the depth required to pass along the concepts required for a religion.

    It gets worse. Even if we assume that some apes can be taught sign language or to use a touch-pad to communicate, we’ve seen virtually nothing like this in the wild. The closest that I’m aware of is calls which differentiate between some predators or to say that danger is over. The concepts required to communicate a religion are many orders of magnitude larger than anything we’ve seen outside of humans.

  • Darryl

    Adrian, my point was simply that the jury is still out and that there is no reason to make unequivocal assertions as you have done.

  • Adrian

    When the data is in and it is good, then equivocal statements aren’t honest, in my opinion.

    While the current research may leave some uncertainty over whether chimps use 5-10 different “words” or calls in the wild, and are capable of 100 or 300 words with training, I think it’s pretty clear that the concepts and tenses necessary to convey a religion have been definitively ruled out.

    Since the data is available, then we should respect it and follow it, rather than trying for some false equivocation. Remain open to new evidence as always, but accept the evidence we have right now. Whether we like it or not.

  • Darryl

    I’m skeptical. The research is ongoing. And, by the way, the point was not language or imagination among other species sufficient for religion as we know it, but imagination in other species, whether or not they express anything similar to what we think of as religion, or imaginative explanations for reality.

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    “Chimps may or may not have imagination, but they demonstrably lack the ability to take what they privately imagine and share it with others.”

    Absolutely, I remember sitting in many anthropology classes and lectures listening to people with advanced degrees going on and on about how close chimps and bonobos are to humans and wanting to stand up and shout, ‘show me one building built by an ape, one book written, one piece of art.’
    I extend great hope to the non-human primates but to do anything other that let the evidience speak for itself is wishing, and wishing is not science.

  • David D.G.

    Humans alone practice religion because they’re still trying to get it right.

    ~David D.G.

  • Cathy

    I’ve heard the theory that religion usually arises from avoidance of the reality of death and as an attempt to explain the unknown. You know, things like we don’t know why the sun rises so there must be a dude up there with a chariot (haha some greeks actually believed that once upon a time)? There’s also heaven, nirvana, reincarnation, etc.

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