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Candidate Number: B00810

Degree: BA Psychology & Philosophy

Module code & title: LE300 Undergraduate Dissertation

Title: ‘Religion Explained’: Contributions from Psychoanalysis and

Evolutionary Psychology

Word count: 8, 700 words

Heythrop College, University of London

May 2009
‘Religion Explained’: Contributions from Psychoanalysis and Evolutionary

Debate as to whether religious belief is a kind of psychological illusion has

been raging since the early years of the age of enlightenment. As the title
suggests, this essay shall lean heavily upon Boyer’s 2001 work, ‘Religion
Explained’, but with contributions from other sources, such as Feuerbach, Freud,
Pargament and Sorensen. Firstly, this essay shall discuss a small part of the
wealth of empirical evidence that supports the view of religion as a coping
mechanism, and then show how this is based in the psychoanalytic concepts of
wish-fulfilment and projection. This will lead into discussion of the prevalence of
agent-concepts in religions, through which a cognitive basis for the acquisition of
religious belief will be established in the form of evolved hyper-active agency
detection systems and default reasoning. More analysis of the detail of religious
concepts shall follow, producing a possible ‘template’ for religious belief of
minimally counter-intuitive concepts that produce a wealth of inferences. Focus
shall then be made on the method of religion, ritual, which this essay will explore
the idea of ritual as purely a construct of mis-activated cognitive capacities,
limitations in naive sociology and blind belief in the charisma of early religious
figures. Finally, a speculative personal hypothesis of religious development
consisting of three stages shall be postulated, on the basis of the transmission
factors that all successful religions experience and observations of the current
direction the religiosity of the world is taking. Through this, this essay shall
examine the idea that the ‘trappings’ of religion, ritual, is mistaken, but that the
decision to believe is too subjective and idiosyncratic to be conclusively argued
against as an illusion.

The cognitive basis for the desire to believe:

The cliché that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’ is supported by a great
deal of empirical evidence that show religion to be ‘often intimately involved in
life’s most stressful moments’, suggesting that in many cases religious belief is
used as a coping mechanism (Pargament, 1997; pp. 218). Coping is defined by
Pargament as ‘the search for significance in the face of stressful life situations’,
which can include external or internal crises as well as transition events
(Pargament, 1997; pp. 217). When significance is threatened by such negative
events, either of two coping mechanisms can be implemented, conservational or
transformational (Pargament, 1997). As the terms suggest, a conservational
coping style involves acceptance of the event and integration into existing belief
structure, whilst a transformational coping style involves the abandonment of the
existing belief structure in favour of new belief system into which the event can
be integrated. The most commonly implemented style is conservational as
people are understandably reluctant to turn their back on their core beliefs.
Indeed, many religious people go to great lengths to conserve their faith, for
example the Amish who keep themselves separate from modern society in order
to preserve their ‘distinctive dress, language and way of life’ (Pargament, 1997;
pp. 127). On the other hand, extremely negative events can cause even a deeply
religious person to lose their faith altogether, for example a soldier who goes to

war to protect freedom and democracy only to become totally disillusioned by
the terrible events he encounters (Pargament, 1997); in such a case all sense of
significance may be lost, and new sources of significance must be found.
However, once new sources are found coping style generally becomes
conservational again in order to protect the newfound significance (Pargament,
1997). These two mechanisms thus act as ‘complimentary, interdependent
processes that help guide and sustain the person throughout the life span’
(Pargament, 1997; pp. 217).
A study by Shrimali and Broota in 1987 showed that a group of patients in
India who were about to undergo major surgery reported higher levels of anxiety
and belief in god than another group who were about to undergo fairly minor
surgery and a control group. It was also found that after the major procedures
both anxiety levels and belief in god fell to the same level as in the minor and
control groups. Pargament argues that whilst family members and friends may
come and go, god can be an ‘everpresent partner’ (1997; pp. 220) providing
constant support to the anxious mind. Here it is important to note that anxiety
and belief levels changed in tandem with each other, suggesting that higher
levels of belief did not lead to lower levels of anxiety, but merely made the
anxiety easier to bear.
But it is not only god that can provide support; there are also a huge
number of religious institutions and individuals associated with the sacred that
can also be turned to in times of crisis. Indeed, there are many people who would
rather go to their priest in times of stress than other human and health service
systems; furthermore, there is generally much less stigma associated with the
seeking of religious aid rather than, for example, psychiatric care (Chalfant at al.,
1990). Other studies have shown church attendance to be linked to reduced
alienation, more frequent higher quality social interaction as well as better
compliance with treatment in African-American chronic dialysis patients (O'Brien,
1982), as well as less trouble sleeping for terminally ill cancer patients who
received support from their church (Gibbs & Achterberg-Lawlis, 1978). In short,
there is a huge wealth of evidence that shows that religious support is highly
beneficial during times of stress and hardship. All of this evidence goes some
way to support the idea that religious belief is a useful coping mechanism, and
further that it is often used during times of crisis by people who are normally
There have been several studies that have supported the beneficial effects
of confession, both religious and atheist, showing that ritual purification can also
serve as a mechanism for coping with guilt (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). Rituals
such as the Catholic confession are well designed to produce feelings of tension
during explications of sins and character flaws and release through the
acceptance and forgiveness of the priest. Interestingly, a study performed by
Lilliston and Klein in 1989 showed that people who believed that their actual
selves were very different from the people they wanted to be were more likely to
use religion as a coping mechanism. They concluded that times of crisis made
people with a large actual-desired discrepancy try to adhere more closely to the
guidance of their religion, further suggesting that religion is often used as a
method of coping with our own shortcomings.

Another important mechanism associated with religious methods of coping
is religious reframing, during which negative events are reconciled and
integrated into the existing belief system. Religious reframing can concern the
situation, the individual or the sacred. For the situation, studies have shown that
likelihood of viewing negative events as challenges or opportunities is a function
of strength of religious belief (Pargament et al., 1992; Wright et al. 1985),
perhaps because those with stronger faith are more convinced that their
suffering is part of a greater plan and their god will not push them beyond their
endurance (Pargament, 1997); essentially creating reason by an appeal to divine
forces where reason cannot be found. Reframing the individual refers to the
tendency of religious people to attribute negative events to the actions of people
rather than god, in doing so they can accept and integrate the evil in the world
whilst conserving their belief in a loving god, in turn allowing them to conserve
significance (Pargament, 1997). An opposite method with similar results is used
by members of the Hindu religion who believe current misfortunes to be a result
of immoral acts performed in previous lives (Pargament, 1997). Whilst at first
look this may seem a rather harsh method of coping, it allows the Hindus to view
misfortune as an opportunity to learn more about themselves and to atone for
their previous sins (Pargament, 1997). Finally, reframing the sacred generally
involves the idea of punitative god, one that has sent misfortune due to some
moral infraction. Such a reappraisal allows the individual to view the misfortune
as ‘deserved rather than something random or malicious’, allowing them to
preserve their belief in a just world (Pargament, 1997; pp. 224). Also, such a view
can provide comfort in that the individual can believe that by living in
accordance with their religion in the future will enable them to avoid further
Finally, William James was the first to observe that along with prolonged
negative events, a history of uneasiness and stress is an important factor in
religious conversion (1902), and there have been many studies since that have
provided empirical support for this observation (Pargament, 1997). Whilst not a
deterministic factor, as many people who report high levels of stress do not
convert, those that do convert also report a strong sense of 'personal futility' in
their dealings with stress (Pargament, 1997; pp. 228). This suggests that
conversion most often occurs when all other methods of coping have been
exhausted, supported by the common assertion of a new ‘sense of self’ after
conversion. Indeed, ‘giving up’ and ‘self-surrender’ (Pargament, 1997; pp. 228)
are common themes of religious conversion, further suggesting that religion is
often turned to by the psyche when events or personal attributes can no longer
be rationalised. The beneficial psychological effects of conversion are summed
up well by Pargament: ‘with self centeredness replaced by a new source of
significance and personal futility replaced by a new source of power, the religious
convert feels radically transformed, now able to pursue newfound goals with
newfound vigour’ (1997; pp. 228). Turning to a new god not only allows the
individual to feel that they have left their old selves behind them or moved on
from the event, essentially providing some kind of closure, but also provides a
new code and standard for living, backed by religious authority.

Whilst the wealth of studies that have been performed into very specific
instances makes it difficult to provide a fully coherent and exhaustative summary
of the ways in religion is used as a coping mechanism, this is not the purpose of
this section. Rather it is designed purely to provide strong support for the idea
that many people use religion as a coping mechanism. There are clearly many
cases in which religion has been used as a tool through which a believer can find
hope, purpose and significance. It is intuitively obvious how this reflects the
concept of wish-fulfilment, for without religion there is no real reason to believe
that our hopes will come true or that our lives have purpose or significance
beyond our own ascriptions. The concept of wish-fulfilment is most famously
used in psychoanalysis, a school of psychological thought almost synonymous
with its founding father, Freud. Although better known for his pioneering work on
the structure of consciousness and the pleasure principle, Freud also had a great
deal to say about religion, writing several works on the subject most notably
‘Totem and Taboo’ and ‘The Future of an Illusion’ that built on the ideas of
Feuerbach (Faber, 1976). Whilst the finer details of the psychoanalytic view of
religion are highly debateable, such as the validity of Freud’s view of the primal
horde or of the parallels between his psychosexual stages of development and
the development of religion, this essay shall only make use of the well-founded
concepts of wish fulfilment and projection, first applied to religion by Feuerbach
that were given a psychological foundation by Freud (Faber, 1976). Together,
these two phenomena give religion its power as a coping mechanism.
All religions have within them a moral code; indeed, in several cases this is
all that sets them apart from one another. Furthermore, a large proportion of
modern religious folk believe that living in accordance with their religion’s moral
code is worship enough, which has led to a sharp decline in ritual worship. This
shall be returned to later, but for now the point is simply that religious belief
fulfils a wish in defining a clear moral code in an otherwise morally ambiguous
world. This is clearly of great psychological benefit, the idea that there is no
guiding force of good in the world is a difficult concept to accept; it entails the
highly fearful premise that any justice in the world is merely accidental, that the
just rewards and punishments of our actions in the world may never come. Also,
if there is no god any distinction between good and evil becomes entirely
subjective and thus loses its significance. Parallel to this, the holding of religious
beliefs also allows the individual to believe that they have some control over the
things that happen to them, that living in accordance with their religion will
mean that less misfortune will befall them. Finally, the conception of a forgiving
god enables believers to assuage their guilt; one of the most important of Freud’s
discoveries was that all religions were centred around notions of guilt, a
discovery that formed the basis of ‘Totem and Taboo’ (Faber, 1976). All this
suggests that in many cases, if not all, religion is a form of wish fulfilment, it is a
construct of the subconscious mind that shields the conscious mind from highly
painful truths.
For example, our knowledge that we are weak, finite and morally
imperfect conflicts with our subconscious desires to be strong, infinite and
morally perfect. In order to shield us from these difficult realities, the
subconscious mind projects our desire for morality and control onto a deity,

belief in which is supported by other cognitive facilities as will be discussed later.
In the case of non-theistic religions projection still occurs but onto some other
force, for example karma in Buddhism. Hence it can be argued in a succinct turn
of phrase that we are not made in god’s image, he is made in ours. Here it can
be clearly seen how religious belief can be argued to be a form of wish-fulfilment,
an attempt by the subconscious mind to shield us from certain difficult realities,
and this is the psychological basis for the desire for religion. It is important to
note here that Freud thought that if religion was wish fulfilment then it was
delusional (Faber, 1976), whilst Pargament believes that the usefulness of
religion as a coping mechanism makes it more likely to be true (Pargament,
1997). This highlights the point that religion is not necessarily false even if it can
be explained in psychological terms; a point that will be returned to later in this

The cognitive basis for the willingness to believe:

One of the most central features of any religion is that it contains some
sort of agent, a being that is able to act on the world in some way in accordance
with its beliefs and desires. Without an agent, a religious concept would be
empty, if a deity is either unable to act or has no beliefs or desires its existence
would be entirely trivial. Buddhism is one possible exception to this rule, but it
could be argued that the agency of Buddhist belief is founded in the power of
Karma. Thus, one of the core themes of religious beliefs is that there is a
supernatural agent at work behind the scenes, a being with knowledge of events
in the world and certain abilities to cause events in the world. Just like acquisition
of counter-intuitive concepts, widespread belief in such agents is arguably
caused by cognitive factors.
As a species, humans are endowed with a cognitive agency-detection
system that allows us to determine whether details in the world are ‘natural’ or
caused by some agent with a mind. Such a capacity has obvious evolutionary
advantage, if a being is unable to understand features of their environment as
evidence that some predator or prey is lurking around they would have great
difficulty avoiding being eaten or finding food, actions central to survival
(Guthrie, 1995). As such abilities are so important for survival, it is advantageous
for agency detection systems to be ‘hyper-active’ (Boyer, 2001; pp. 165); as to
occasionally not detect agents where there are some could be fatal, whilst the
occasional detection of agents where there are none will generally have little
consequence (Guthrie, 1995). The application of this point to religious concepts
is nicely supported by evidence from religions such as shamanism, where many
predatory metaphors are used such as hunting for souls or chasing away evil
spirits (Boyer, 2001).
Agency detection is necessarily an instant inference, due to its
evolutionary advantages the mind is disposed to assume the existence of an
agent, and only to abandon the assumption once a lack of agent is proven. There
is a nice parallel with the transition from religious beliefs to atheism here that
highlights the idea that a religious nature is the default human condition, one to
be disproved rather than proven. However, in any person’s religious life there will
be many instances when the required agency will not be detected, or may be

apparently detected along a complex chain of broad inferences. Either way what
makes religious beliefs so robust in the face of a lack of evidence is not clear.
A lack of direct evidence is often rightly used by sceptics as a strong
argument against god, to which the common, albeit counter-intuitive, reply is
simply that god moves in mysterious or unfathomable ways. From arguments
perspective, such a retort is very weak as it is necessarily based on a confession
that there is no evidence for god’s hand in the events under consideration.
However, it is very telling of the cognitive processes that can allow people to
have faith without evidence. In order to elucidate these processes, a conception
of strategic information must first be established. Strategic information in this
sense is defined by Boyer as ‘the subset of all the information currently available
(to a particular agent, about a particular situation) which activates the mental
systems that regulate social interaction’ (2001; pp. 173). The best example of
strategic information in this sense is gossip, although it is not information that is
necessarily used for any particular purpose, it is social information upon which
many rich inferences about other people can be easily made. Further, the
example also highlights the subjective nature of strategic information as it also
depends on the inferences of the individual’s representation rather than any
intrinsic qualities of the information itself; a certain piece of workplace gossip
may be ‘juicy’ to certain members of a social group, but trivial and uninteresting
to others.
Not only do humans represent strategic information, we also have the
ability to represent whether or not others have strategic information, a highly
useful and complex skill that is generally developed at around age three. It
requires the understanding that access to strategic information is limited or
‘imperfect’ and is extremely important for social interaction, with deficiencies in
this capacity resulting in pathologies such as autism (Boyer, 2001; pp. 175).
What is particularly interesting relevant to religion is that all deities are believed
to have full or ‘perfect’ access to strategic information; in other words they have
knowledge of every social action a person performs (Boyer, 2001). This means
that deities are believed to have access to a much greater amount of information
than people are, thus able to move in ways that are mysterious or unfathomable
to us. Perfect access to strategic information is a very important property of
successful religious concepts (Boyer, 2001). As mentioned above, religious
concepts without agents are empty, and a deity cannot have a relevant agency
without any strategic information. In a similar vein, agent concepts with perfect
access can provide a much greater wealth of inferences than those with
imperfect access (Boyer, 2001). Thus, deities with perfect access tend to be
more successful as religious concepts, not only because they are highly resilient
to apparently contrary evidence.

The cognitive basis of a template for religious concepts:

Now, having discussed some of the evidence for the existence of a
cognitive basis for the acquisition of religious belief, next we must consider what
sort of religious concepts are entailed by cognitive factors in order to find a
psychological basis for the sorts of religious concepts people hold. Firstly, the
structure of religious concepts must be considered. Religious concepts are

necessarily counter-intuitive in that they consist of a subject from an ontological
category, such as person, animal, plant, tool or inanimate object, as well as
certain violations to the intuitive criteria of the category (Boyer, 2001). For
example, there are a great many religions in the world that are centred around
the concept of ancestors; they consist of a subject from the ontological category
of person, and ontological violations such as being immaterial. These violations
must be ontological in order to be sufficiently interest-grabbing by providing a
rich source of paranormal inferences. Whilst kind-concepts violations are often
found in religion, the work of Stewart has shown that these are rarely constant
features within a religion, often differing over short periods and even within
groups (Stewart, 1991). The list of potential ontological violations that produce
workable religious concepts is quite small, consisting only of violations to
physical, biological or psychological properties (Boyer, 2001), for example, in the
case of the concept of ancestors the physical and biological aspects of the
ontological category of person are violated.
Whilst such observations are all well and good, the question remains as to
why the human mind is so receptive to counter-intuitive concepts in general. The
cognitive basis for counter-intuitive god concepts comes from the cognitive
phenomenon of ‘default reasoning’ (Boyer, 2001; pp. 85). Default reasoning
occurs when information such as the shape of pac-man is stored as ‘a circle with
a triangle removed’. Such a phrase does not correspond to any precise
geometrical shape, rather it is a conjunction of a precise shape with a violation in
the form of another shape. Computers are unable to recognise such shapes, at
least without a great deal of subtle programming, whereas the human mind is
able to create representations of pac-man without any great difficulty. Thus, the
human mind is highly receptive to counter-intuitive propositions as the ability to
use such concepts is much more cognitively efficient than, for example, storing
the shape of pac-man as a computer would.
The effects of default reasoning become more apparent in the light of the
fact that people often hold highly detailed representations on the basis of little
information (Boyer, 2001). For example, when people argue the existence of
ghosts, they will most probably postulate that there are spirits in the world that
can perform certain supernatural acts, such as being able to walk through walls.
It would be considered highly patronising for such individuals to also state that
these spirits have minds much like ours, that they can see, hear and remember
things in much the same way as we do, such information literally goes without
saying (Boyer, 2001). This is because default reasoning immediately ascribes
such abilities to the ghosts, unless it is explicitly stated to the contrary (Boyer,
2001). In such cases, the normal, non-violational aspects of the concept are
acquired through default reasoning via the ontological category of person. It is
only the counter-intuitive properties to the category that require explication.
The phenomenon of default reasoning also serves to clarify the nature that
the counter-intuitive violations can take. If the violations were too numerous or
complex to allow default reasoning to produce a wealth of interesting inferences,
the religious concept may become too complex to hold or transmit. Looking at
this the other way, default reasoning will be much more effective if a concept
has few violations that produce many interesting inferences. This will make the

concept much easier to integrate into existing knowledge structures, and
therefore more convincing for the believer. Thus, many religious concepts are
convincing as they fit well into existing knowledge structures despite ontological
violations, which are accepted due to their compatibility with the human
cognitive capacity for default reasoning. Successful concepts produce a wealth of
interesting inferences that override intuition by shifting cognitive focus.
However, this template for religious concepts appears not to fit with many
of the god concepts found in the major religions of today. For example,
Christians would argue that god is able to perform more than one act at a time.
This belief forms a part of their theological conception of god, which is most
likely stored in the form of ‘explicit sentence like propositions’ (Boyer, 2001; pp.
103), such as ‘god is able to perform many acts at the same time’. However,
studies performed by Barrett have shown that although Christians may hold this
theological view, their ‘spontaneous view’ of god is quite different (Barrett,
1996). Barrett had his participants read stories that implicitly described one or
other of the Christian god’s supernatural abilities, one of which described god
performing two acts in the world at the same time. Now, as the human mind is
unable to store a text word for word if it is longer than a few sentences, the
participants would have created memory traces of the main themes within the
prose and of how they are connected. Thus, when later asked to recall the story
some of the finer details of the story that appeared unimportant may be
distorted, reflecting more how the participant perceived the occurrences of the
story than the story itself. Barrett found that most of the participants reported
that god first performed one of the acts and ‘then went on’ to perform the other,
strongly suggesting that the participants did not actually perceive god as being
able to perform many acts at the same time. Boyer marks the distinction by
arguing that within the religious mind there is both an official theological concept
and an implicit spontaneous concept; the latter of which tends to fit the
framework outlined above, stored in the form of ‘direct instructions to intuitive
psychology’ rather than explicit propositions (Boyer, 2001; pp. 103).

The cognitive basis of ritual:

Having discussed the cognitive basis for the desire to believe, the
willingness to believe and the cognitive basis for the concepts believed in, the
cognitive basis for the method of religion, ritual, must be considered. Just like
religion in general, rituals can be split into two main types, imaginistic and
doctrinal (Whitehouse, 2004). Moreover, just like religion in general, imaginistic
rituals tend to produce great emotional intensity and tend to be a feature of
immature religions, whilst doctrinal rituals tend to produce less emotional
intensity and tend to feature in more mature religious practice (Whitehouse,
2004). However, it is unclear exactly how and why ritualistic practices can come
to have religious significance they do despite the lack of any apparent
connection between the ritualistic acts and their expected outcomes. Further, it
is also unclear how such tenuous links can be transmitted over time without
adequate explanation, if any at all, of the supposed underlying processes.
For example (Boyer, 2001), before performing a sacrifice to the goddess
Chandli in India, the goat must be taken to her temple to have it purified by a

Brahman. The Brahman first pours consecrated water on the goat’s body whilst
praying to the goddess. He then presents flowers, incense, rice and water to the
animal, worshipping it and whispering prayers into its ears, whilst at the same
time worshipping a sacred sword. Another follower then uses the sword to
remove the goat’s head in one stroke, which is then taken and offered to Chandli.
The rest of the body is taken away by the worshippers to share with friends and
It is clear that participants in such rituals believe them to have a great
deal of intrinsic meaning, but it is not clear what this meaning could be. Perhaps
the participants would argue that they grasp or express some important
message about themselves and their relationships to their gods and community
through such rituals (Boyer, 2001). However, there appears to be no message
inherent in the ritual described above, the ‘dialogue’ of worship not only appears
very one-way but also has no directly perceivable effects.
Boyer argues that rituals are actually designed to reduce the amount of
information transmitted (2001), supporting his argument by citing the work of
Bloch (pp. 266) who pointed out that most ritualistic language is either archaic or
formulaic, meaning either that no one really knows what it means or that the
words are the same as every previous ritual. Roman Catholicism is a perfect
example of such a phenomenon; not only were all their rituals are prescribed and
performed in Latin until relatively recently, but they also reacted very strongly
when the Protestants first attempted to perform their religious rituals and
translate the Bible into the vernacular. The combination of rigid prescriptions for
action and lack of connection between the acts and outcomes of rituals turns
them into events that actually convey very little meaning than other instances of
social interaction (Boyer, 2001). Boyer goes on to argue that, within doctrinal
constraints, any meaning associated with such rituals is tantamount to free
association due to the lack of information transmission and the rigidity of ritual;
he argues that this is the only way to fully explain how religious meaning can be
gleaned from ritual with no apparent justification.
Furthermore, as argued by Rappaport, even if some meaning was
conveyed through ritual it would not be enough to explain why the information
must be conveyed in the way dictated by the ritual (Boyer, 2001; pp. 267). Even
once the meaning of a ritual is established we are only left with a message that
could be conveyed with greater clarity via some other method. For example,
during Christian marriage ceremonies, the bride is led to the altar by her father
who then takes his seat. It can easily be argued that the meaning of such a ritual
is to symbolise the transmission of authority over his daughter to the groom, but
there is nothing intrinsic to this meaning that dictates that the ritual must be
carried out in that exact manner. Thus, the problem of why rituals are performed
in the way they are remains even if the meaning is established.
Because ritual is found in almost all religions, it is clear that there must be
some sort of psychological basis for them (Boyer, 2001). It is not clear how ritual
could provide any sort of evolutionary advantage. Perhaps they create a greater
sense of community which may create a stronger society that is more likely to
survive; however, evolution ‘creates mental organisation that makes people
behave in particular ways’ rather than specific behaviours and the use of rituals

is not nearly consistent enough to warrant such an assertion (Boyer, 2001; pp.
268). Boyer argues that perhaps the answer is unclear because it is not a ‘unique
capacity or propensity’ (pp. 269) of the human mind that causes ritual, but
rather a group of ‘salient cognitive gadgets’ (pp. 269) made up of several
separate capacities, each with a specific function unrelated to religion, that
together produce a propensity for ritual as a by-product.
In support of his argument, Boyer identifies three aspects of ritual that
appear in almost all successfully transmitted rituals (2001; pp. 270). They are
‘sense of urgency’, ‘social effects’ and ‘supernatural participation’.
Boyer argues that the sense of urgency felt during ritualistic acts is a
result of over activation of the contagion system in the brain (2001). The
contagion system specifically deals with undetectable contaminants; it is the
system in the brain that provides us with the intuition not to eat rotting meat or
to avoid excrement and so on. The system produces feelings of disgust or fear
without needing to directly identify the potential dangers. Ritualistic practices
contain many acts that would cause the contagion system to be activated, most
notably the focus on cleansing, certain conditions for or complete avoidance of
contact, the marking off of areas as sacred and so on. Such practices persuade
our subconscious minds that there is some dangerous contaminant that can be
avoided by adherence to the ritual, and causes worshippers to look upon the
violation of ritualistic rules as something disgusting or to be feared, even without
any clear conception of why.
There are a great many religious rituals associated with changes in social
status, examples include births, marriages and rites of passage (Boyer, 2001). In
such cases, it is of extreme importance that the rest of the social group is
informed of the changes. In the case of births, the social group must be informed
that they have a new member that will require looking after and integration into
the group; in the case of marriages, the social group must be informed that there
is a new sexual-economic partnership that will affect the society by removing
potential mates and possibilities for economic coalition. Why these social effects
are generally marked with religious rituals can be explained by an appeal to the
limitations of ‘naive sociology’. The term ‘naive sociology’ describes our
understanding of social groups and relations as the combination of the intuitions
we hold due to our social-mind systems and the concepts we use to define social
categories (Boyer, 2001). The concept of social-mind systems is best described
as our tendency to personify social groups with many members as wanting
something or believing something as a whole, whilst social categories can be
groups such as potential mates or family members.
The ascription of social-mind systems is a useful yet flawed tool; it is
useful to think of a group of people that want the same thing as a single abstract
organism, but in reality they are clearly individuals. For example, if the members
of a particular village have fought against another village for longer than any of
them can remember, they will all hold the intuition that they do not fight
because of something to do with themselves, but rather because of some
political factor that transcends the current population. However, such a concept
is too complex for naive sociology to explain so it is expressed in other ways, for
example the villagers may claim that they fight because the blood of their

ancestors runs in their veins. In terms of marriage, the villagers will all have the
intuition that the union has consequences for the rest of village, but will most
likely lack the concepts to describe fully why this is the case. The performance of
rituals gives an abstract foundation and explication of these intuitions that can
be easily understood.
The presence of a deity at such rituals is clearly optional, many non-
religious marriage rituals are conducted along very similar lines to religious
versions, and many non-religious people choose to perform a religious ceremony
whilst clearly not convinced of the presence of a god. However, the flaws in
ascriptions of social-mind systems give such explanations an obvious parallel
with religious ideas, namely that there is no direct perceivable link between the
hidden causes and their effects. This creates an ‘opening for gods or spirits’
(Boyer, 2001; pp. 293), as the gap between cause and effect can be filled with
pretty much any representation people choose. The performance of a marriage
ritual provides abstract foundation and explication of the intuitions surround the
social change, the effects, whilst a representation of a god or spirit can be used
not only to provide the cause but also to explain away the sense of urgency
created by the ritual.
Whilst it is clear worshippers may perform rituals to, for example, become
closer to or to please their deity, these are explanations of why they worship and
not explanations of why they worship through ritual. Instead, these three aspects
of ritual can be used to explain why religious rituals are so commonplace as
methods of worship, at least in very general terms. However, the question
remains as to how such rituals came about in the first place; who designed them,
why they did so and, perhaps most importantly, why people chose to follow them
in particular.
Sorensen argues well in his 2002 that in order to establish or change a
ritual, the protagonist must have some ‘charismatic proclivity’ (pp. 170) that
appears to give them authority. Such charismatic authority comes from intrinsic
qualities of the protagonist themselves, unlike the traditional and legal-rational
authority conferred on religious officers based on the constitutive rules
surrounding their position (Sorensen, 2005). These intrinsic qualities cause
potential followers to believe that the protagonist has some sort of direct link
with ‘superempirical agency and powers deriving from this connection’
(Sorensen, 2005; pp. 169). These powers allow protagonists to transcend these
constitutive rules and thus ‘abolish existing practices and establish new ones
with divine sanction’ (Sorensen, 2005; pp.169).
There are two main factors that lead to the ascription of charismatic
proclivity (Sorensen, 2005). Firstly, perceptual features, such as clothing or
behaviour, act as ‘iconic signs’ (pp. 171) that mark out religious persons from lay
people. Secondly, these same features can be interpreted as ‘outward
manifestations’ (pp. 171) of some religious nature essential to those in religious
authority. These two factors enforce one another and serve to set religious
figures apart from and above the lay people in religious matters. Because they
combine many of these perceptual features into a single communal act, rituals
are the primary means to producing an apparent superempirical connection and

thus the most effective way of conveying such charisma and religious authority
(Sorensen, 2005).
Revolutionary charismatic proclivity is necessarily unstable and involves a
high level of emotional arousal, for example the widespread iconoclasm of the
early protestant movement. Once the new practices have been established they
are unlikely to be able to produce such intense effects, and thus other less
emotionally arousing methods of conveyance of religious authority must be put
in place for the religion to survive. The establishment of rituals also causes
‘routinization’ of the charisma (Sorensen, 2005; pp. 169), allowing the initial
charisma of the protagonist to grow and be passed on to others making the new
religious practice more stable. As well as ritual actions and instruments,
routinization can occur through the creation of bureaucratic religious offices and
official doctrines (Sorensen, 2005).
In summary of this section, ritual is a central feature of any religion as it
allows the initial charisma of the protagonist religious figure to be entrenched in
religious practice, stabilising the religion and allowing it to grow beyond the
protagonist and their immediate followers. The natural tendency of the human
mind to follow and believe in ritual practices can be explained, for the most part,
by three psychological factors, the sense of urgency caused by activation of the
contagion system, the social effects of social events such as rites of passage,
and the supernatural participation that fills the position of apparent cause to the
rituals effect.

The transmission of religion & a hypothesis for three ‘stages of religiosity’:

Thus, having determined the cognitive basis for the desire and willingness
to believe, the cognitive basis for the concepts believed in and for the method of
religion, ritual, one final detail is left to discuss; the transmission of religion. For
any religion to survive it must be transmitted to new followers, be they new
converts or the children of current believers. If not then it would surely die out
with its founders. Thus, a successful religion requires transmission advantages,
certain traits that facilitate its spread (Boyer, 2001). Using Boyer's concept of
transmission advantages with the other points discussed above, the author
suggests that it is possible to argue that the path a religion takes from first
conception to maturity can be split into three stages, idiosyncratic belief,
‘primitive’ cultural belief and ‘developed’ cultural belief, each of which requires
different kinds of transmission advantages for the religion to continue to the next
level. This speculative hypothesis shall be discussed in the remainder of this
The advantages required for the first stage have already been discussed in
this essay, a combination of minimally-counter intuitive agent concepts and
charismatic founders. These are the factors that allow a fledgling religion to be
spread from the mind of the founder to the first group of followers. A perfect
example of this stage is Jesus, a charismatic figure who transmitted his beliefs to
his small band of disciples. Whilst it could be argued that his beliefs were not
strictly minimally counter-intuitive in the ways discussed above, they were not
vastly different from the existing Jewish beliefs. Furthermore, using the term
rather loosely, it could be argued that the new Christian beliefs were minimally

counter-intuitive to the Jewish beliefs, thereby building upon an already rich set
of inferences with the added benefit of an injection of charisma; perhaps a
subject for another essay. Thus, the first stage of transmission requires
theoretical transmission advantages, backed by charisma.
Once a few followers have been acquired, the religion can be considered
as a primitive culture, which therefore requires cultural transmission advantages.
Good examples of such advantages include religious war, such as crusade or
jihad, and the assimilation of local beliefs. Encouragement of aggression has
clear advantages for a religion at this stage as it allows for easy expansion and
conversion. The faith of the followers is founded on the charisma of the religious
figures at this stage, which would include marauding religious knights, and as
such they are unlikely to question the moral code presented to them. The
assimilation of local beliefs, for example the Christian propagation of pagan
festivals such as the winter solstice and the vernal equinox which facilitated the
spread of Christianity across England by simply renaming the gods already
worshipped; as mentioned above, the work of Stewart has shown such details to
be surprisingly easy to change. Thus, the second stage of transmission requires
cultural transmission advantages, backed by ritual.
Once a religion has been fully established, charisma becomes less
important and is replaced with theology, contributing to a ‘developed’ system of
religious belief. Faith is no longer based in the religious figures and method, but
rather in the considered belief in the religion itself. Consequently, the finer
details of the religious belief system come under theological debate. Such
debate allows believers to transcend the early transmission factors, no longer
are they enamoured by the charisma of their leader, willing to believe him
because of the reliance on default cognition, they now seek a rational basis for
their belief. Unfortunately, rational evidence is highly subjective and hard to
come by, meaning that the religion will experience many transmission
disadvantages, most notably cessation of ritual. Evidence for this can be found in
the general ‘religiosity’ of the world today, which seems to be evolving into two
main ideologies, atheism and spirituality.
For both parties, religious method or ritual really has only cultural
significance. For example Christmas, whilst clearly a modern Christian festival, is
mostly celebrated by people who see it only as a time for family, or even only as
a time for presents. Another example is marriage, for many religious people
marriage is one of the few rituals they perform, and as mentioned above there
are many non-religious people who have Christian weddings. Because such
rituals are a product of the limitations of our naive sociology rather than any
inherent religiosity, as our naïve sociology improves the gap between cause and
effect closes and the religious significance of these rituals will diminish, to be
replaced with purely cultural significance in both cases.
As cessation of strict ritual occurs, the considered theological belief of
religious folk centers on the moral code of their religion rather than the deities
involved. This is because once considered, it is hard to believe that a moral deity
would be offended if one of their followers were to live in perfect accordance with
the moral code because of their belief, but perhaps ate the wrong sort of meat a
few times, or perhaps did not attend church quite as many times as they should.

To use a rather personal example as evidence, several Hindu friends of mine
have eaten beef in Argentina despite being otherwise observant of the Hindu
respect for cows; arguing that they would be missing out on an important aspect
of argentine culture and that their deity ‘would surely not mind’ a small number
of transgressions. Thus, the importance of the more exact details of religion also
diminishes during this third transition.
Consequently, the ‘trappings’ of religion caused by the psychological
factors outlined above are removed from religion due to their inherent
transmission disadvantages during this stage. What is left is the core of religious
belief, the belief in the agent concept, belief that there is some sort of force with
a moral code that governs the universe. This is the view of the spiritualist, which
has obvious parallels with the view of the atheist in that both believe that the
matter of the universe consists of energy, the ‘trappings’ of both are the same
whilst the core differs. The difference is that the religious believe this energy to
have some kind of consciousness, whereas the atheist believes this energy to be
random in the sense of being unguided by a consciousness in its interactions
within itself. Thus, the third stage of transmission is beset by cultural
transmission disadvantages, and consists of the refutation of charisma and ritual,
leading to either spirituality or atheism depending upon how the individual deals
with refutation.
This, the author tentatively postulates, is the final stage of religiosity into
which the world is currently moving. The transition began during the age of
enlightenment, during which people were first able to overcome cognitive biases
and theological debate began in earnest. The strength of this conception of the
phases of religiosity lies in its ready application to both the history of religion in
general and within each individual, to use an idea inherent in Freud’s discussions
of religion (Faber, 1976), the religion of society has developed in much the same
way as the religion of a child develops, first based upon the charisma of religion
and religious figures, then entrenched through ritual and finally truly considered,
allowing for a developed and coherent system of belief that transcends cognitive
biases. However, it is important to note that the linear progression suggested by
the model is not a necessary feature of all its applications. Fluid, even recursive,
movement in and out of phases is clearly possible, especially within individuals.
Whilst the atheist would readily argue that the spiritualist is still a victim of
hyper-active agency detection and wish fulfilment, study of the psychology of
religion cannot really be used to refute religion in its entirety. For if there were
some deity that created the world and the people within it, there is no reason to
suspect that they would not have created within us psychological tendencies for
religiosity. Consequently, arguments from psychology of religion can be used in
favour of the existence of a spiritualist version of god just as much as they can to
refute it. This is why the third stage is most likely the final stage. When
separated from the trappings of religion, whether or not there is some
consciousness guiding forces in the world simply cannot be shown through
argument, it can only be interpreted from argument. As such it is necessarily
idiosyncratic, a belief that may change often over the course of an individual’s
life, yet remains ever present in some form. Thus, whilst the psychological and
evolutionary factors may be used to explain the phenomenon of religion, such

explanation does not form a conclusive argument against religion itself as it can
be viably argued that ‘god moves in mysterious ways’.

Summary and conclusions:

There is a large amount of evidence that supports the common usage of
religion as a coping mechanism, which in turn supports the idea of religion as
wish-fulfilment and projection. Combined with hyper-active agency detection and
default reasoning systems this provides both a cognitive basis for the acquisition
of religious beliefs and for the types of belief prevalent in successful religions. As
argued by Boyer, the conception of religious belief as consisting of minimally
counter-intuitive ideas provides a solid template for successful religious beliefs
that is well supported by observation of religions successful in the world today.
For the method of religion, ritual, cognitive basis can be found in over-activation
of the contagion system and flawed naive psychology based in the charisma of
the early leaders within the religion. Overall, these factors form the basis of the
transmission advantages any new religion requires for successful spread. Once
successfully spread, religions come under theological debate, and the trivial and
arbitrary parts become transmission disadvantages. Thus, they are slowly
stripped away as believers start to consider the core of religion, their belief in
agent concepts, rather than merely accepting the existence of their god and
debating the method of worship. On a global scale, this process began during the
enlightenment. Once stripped of the trappings of belief, religious persons hold a
spiritualist belief where an agent concept with a moral code is used to provide
guidance and significance rather than strict method in everyday life. This core
does not experience transmission disadvantages as it is purely subjective and
idiosyncratic. Furthermore, the arguments outlined above, whilst useful for
showing the trappings of religion to be an illusion, are ineffective against the
core. Thus, this line of argument suggests that the religiosity of the world is
slowly evolving into one of two systems of belief that hold many parallels with
one another, atheism and spirituality. To conclude, it is possible to fully explain
the existence of religion in psychological terms, but such explanations can only
be used to streamline the phenomenon rather to than refute it.


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