Oct 30 2008

RP) The Varieties of Religious Agents and Experiences

Published by at 10:01 pm under An Almighty Alpha

Faces and other human forms seem to pop out at us on all sides. . . . Voices murmur or whisper in wind and waves.
- S. Guthrie (16)

[N]ote that gods and spirits are not represented as having human features in general but as having minds, which is much more specific. People represent supernatural agents who perceive events, have thoughts and memories and intentions. But they do not always project onto these agents other human characteristics, such as having a body, eating food, living with family or gradually getting older.
- P. Boyer (17)

Perhaps more than seeing form in abstract stimuli, religious experiences rely on inferring the work of agents behind events. If, as you exit your garage, your hear something fall, you look back, half expecting to discover that an animal had snuck in. You find a shovel has fallen to the floor. Did a ghost do it? Or had you leaned it askew, moments before, and the force of gravity took awhile to win out over the friction of where the handle met the wall?

We can infer intentional behavior behind events, large scale and small, particularly if those events lack causality by some other obvious agent. Additionally, events that startle and confuse us tend to move us to suspect intention. Examples range from earthquakes and hurricanes to a mysterious draft felt wafting up the spine. We ask not, “how did that happen?” but “who did that?”

When people cannot connect an event to natural phenomena—which says more about our abilities than the universe – people tend to conjure up supernatural causal agents. In fact, the concept of supernatural agents intruding into our world is a cultural universal. (18) Furthermore, the “spectrum” of supernatural agents is quite large: from dead ancestors intruding invisibly into village life, to a “Timeless Benign Force” (19).

At least two things occur when we infer agency behind inexplicable phenomena. First, we feel something important is happening. Surely part of the feeling involves the anticipation that something more may happen. Is it over? Will things get worse? Am I in danger? Emotions and motivation are closely related, so with feelings of imminent further developments comes the urge to control those developments. But how do you control the invisible? An integral aspect of many religions are the rituals aimed at placating a hungry, perhaps predator-like agent with a food offering, or even a flesh sacrifice. Others include rituals and behavioral proscriptions and prayers for protecting oneself from demons and evil spirits (from bad “shit happening,” so to speak).

Philosophers failed to adequately explain religion when they generalize the qualities of the inferred agents. There is great variety among religions; as there is a great variety of types of agents a people may “see” in the workings of the world. That is why religious worship can include such things as both snakes and parent-figures.(20) And that is why I here focus on the Abrahamic religions. These most rely on the hierarchical and alliance-seeking instincts of the human ape. We are nothing if not a plastic species. In the case of the Jewish/Christian/Muslim deity, what is seen in the invisible, to a great degree, is not only one of our kind, but one most powerful. An alpha. (21)

For me, the keystone criterion for what differentiates religion from not-religion is the element of an intentional or at least quasi-intentional agent that a person emotionally responds to, whether the primary emotion is of fear, love, reverence or wonder. The element of intentionality is crucial—for it effectively evokes feelings in us, particularly when dressed in human form. While the form may get stripped away to an airy nothing in the mind of educated believers, some semblance of intention remains. In modern versions of monotheism, the one deity intends something. Personal gods intend to bless and punish individuals. In more abstract gods we find more ambiguous intentions, such as to guide creation, or to have at least intended its genesis, and/or to provide a meaning/purpose to life indistinct yet nonetheless moving.

Blessings, punishments, and a “spiritual” meaning to life is not random, put purposeful. There is intention behind these. Although perceived blessings and punishments come to people via the everyday 3-dimensional universe, how can one identify the intentional cause of these as well as the agency that infuses life with meaning? Like a bump in the night, when we can’t discern a sensible (according to our inference systems) cause of these, we may generate an imagined entity. Our propensity to detect agency will venture into an infrared zone, invisible to the naked eye, yet believed to emanate from a realm super-natural. Which is a realm fully inferred.


(16) Guthrie, S. E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, p. 62
(17) Boyer, P. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, Basic Books, New York, 2001, p.144
(18) Atran, S., In God’s We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 7
(19) Dennett, D., Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, New York, 2006p. 240
(20) Atran, S., 2002, p.15
(21) Of course, this is/was not always the case, even with the ancient peoples who created the beliefs and rituals that evolved into the many forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam we have today. It is likely that monotheistic worship is a refined version of polytheism. And in the Bible we can read tale after tale about the people straying from the one god to other gods. These other gods may have been more specialized—a god of fertility, a god of war, a god of livestock, etc.—and one can imagine why people might prefer a specialist deity vs. a generalist. Also, in that time and place many people had a god of their own, and frequently that god was the god of the place they lived. Some even identified, for example, a specific mountain that was the abode of their god. With Judaism came a breakthrough of sorts. Here was a mobile people who brought their god with them. Instead of a mountain, his “location” was identified with the Ark of the Covenant, which was transported from place to place.
(22) A related, noteworthy point is that dogma explaining the invisible frequently includes agents of good and evil. And why not? As Pascal Boyer has noted, “…the connection between misfortune and religion is salient the world over. This is one of the principal contexts in which people activate concepts of gods and spirits.” 2001, p. 169.
How can there be a great protector god when bad things happen? It’s simple, really. People can infer the word of different kinds of agents, and thus better explain what they experience. That is why the supernatural realm is frequently populated with agents adorned by halos and horns. Thus, “Vishnu is balanced by Siva; Christ by Satan.”
Guthrie, S. E. 1993, p.75

[This post first appeared here.]

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