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CSR Session 3: The Evolution of Religion

Panel Chair: Dimitris Xygalatas | Tuesday, August 25, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

John Teehan

Empathy, Empathy, Religion, and Social Evolution: A Cognitive Model

That religion played a decisive role in the development of complex, large scale societies has significant support within CSR. Belief in “Big Gods” that enforce a group’s moral code circumvents the need for direct observation of behavior and so extends moral status to even anonymous members of the group. This model, however, has been criticized for failing to accord with the historical record. “Big Gods” arise too late to explain the expansion of society. Furthermore, most gods described in the ethnographic record are morally indifferent: some source other than religion is needed to explain social expansion. However, both this standard model and its critique fail to give proper consideration to the proximate mechanisms of moral behavior, i.e. the empathetic systems of the brain. These systems underlie the basic elements of moral behavior, and studies show they are modulated by indications of in-group/out-group status. Signals of in-group status, e.g. participation in rituals, trigger the neurological mechanisms for pro-social behavior—independent of the moral interests of a god. Morally indifferent gods are not morally irrelevant gods, as long as they are existentially relevant, i.e., they may respond to human actions in a way that imposes costs on the group. Conformity to behavioral norms that protect the group from such costs signals group membership, priming a suite of empathetic responses that constitute moral concern, even for otherwise anonymous individuals (and such signals need not be costly). This empathetic system allows even minimally involved gods to contribute to the expansion of the group, and paves the way for Big Gods.

Andreas Nordin

Reputation in cognitive and evolutionary understanding of supernatural agent concepts

The aim of this presentation is to discuss religious morality from the perspective of supernatural agent conceptualization and reputation monitoring. Honour, glory and reputation are cultural beliefs transmitted by the support of local institutional arrangements, evolved cognitive proclivities such as reputation monitoring and signalling related to a sense of morality, cooperative trust and punishment. In cognitive and evolutionary accounts of religion “adaptivist” and “by-product” theories, reputation is an important although seemingly given primitive. “Adaptivist” points out that supernatural punishment supports commitment enhancement and promotes intra-group competition, especially in the absence of reputational pressure. “By-product” theories such as the “standard model“ reason that the relevance of supernatural agent morality is part of a cognitive machinery devoted to social interaction entailing reputation monitoring. From the perspective of altruist and mutualist models of human cooperation and morality, reputation implies different functions and, by consequence, divergent importance in “adaptivist” and “by-product” theories. By comparing altruist and mutualist accounts, the latter (“partner choice” strategies) will be adopted to complement the modelling of the social cognitive machinery that underpins the moral relevance of supernatural agent concepts. An argument will explicate the proposal that reputation is close at hand in supernatural agent cognition since it presupposes “strategic information” and “full-access agents”; further reputation is likely to have a central position in the cognition of religious morality according to mutualistic theories; and finally, the preoccupation with reputation is likely to be a key element of relevance for moral supernatural agent cognition and religious group commitment.

Max Hennig, Willem W. A. Sleegers, Wieteke Nieuwboer, Kai-Qin Chan, Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Michiel van Elk, & Hein T. van Schie

Detecting Agency in a Threatening World. An Empirical Investigation of Hyperactive Agency Detection in Human Perception and its Relationship with Religiosity

Four studies were conducted to investigate the theoretical proposition by scholars in the cognitive science of religion that human belief in supernatural agents is associated with hyperactive detection of agency. Participants of all studies inspected snowy pictures consisting of black and white visual noise and provided descriptions of the patterns they perceived. Results of all studies support the assumption that agency detection is hyperactive with participants reporting more agents than non-agents. Agency detection was not found to be influenced by religious priming (study 1), or to be related to religious belief (study 1 – 4) and concepts such as spiritual transcendence or anthropomorphism (study 2 – 3). Manipulation of threat through music (study 3) or an upcoming math exam in a naturalistic setting (study 4) decreased the number of perceived objects but did not increase the number of perceived agents. These results confirm the general hypothesis that threat biases perception toward the detection of agency. However, rather than enhancing the detection of agents, the bias on perception appears to be caused by a reduction in the detection of objects. In conclusion, our findings (1) support the existence of hyperactive agency detection in perception, (2) confirm the idea that threat biases perception toward detection of agency, and (3) confirm recent findings that the influence of religiosity on agency detection is predominantly expressed on the level of intentionality rather than in perception.


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