Functional Origins of Religious Concepts: Ontological and Strategic Selection in Evolved Minds [*]
Boyer, Pascal, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Culturally successful religious concepts are the outcome of selective processes that make some concepts more likely than others to be easily acquired, stored and transmitted. Among the constructs of human imagination, some connect to intuitive ontological principles in such a way that they constitute a small catalogue of culturally successful supernatural concepts. Experimental and anthropological evidence confirm the salience and transmission potential of this catalogue. Among these supernatural concepts, cognitive capacities for social Interaction introduce a further selection. As a result, some concepts of supernatural agents are connected to morality, group identity, ritual and emotion. These typical 'religious' supernatural agents are tacitly presumed to have access to information that is crucial to social interaction, an assumption that boosts their spread in human groups.
What is the origin of religious concepts? How come we can find concepts of supernatural agency more or less the world over, with important recurrent features? This lecture is a 'progress report', an account of how these previously intractable questions are now a matter of empirical, indeed experimental enquiry. What brought about this remarkable change is substantial progress in our understanding of how human minds work. This allows a naturalistic account of cultural representations  that describes how evolved conceptual dispositions make humans likely to acquire certain concepts more easily than others.
Cultural transmission, like other forms of human communication, does not consist in 'downloading' concepts from one mind to another. It requires inferential processes, whereby people attend to cues in other people's behaviour, infer their communicative intentions and build concepts on the basis of what they inferred (Sperber 1996; Tomasello, Kruger & Ratner 1993). As a result, people constantly create variants of other people's representations. To call some representations 'cultural' is to point to a relative similarity between representations held by members of a particular group. The similarity suggests that some concepts are selected in the transmission process, against a whole variety of variants that are forgotten, discarded and modified.
Obviously, an indefinite variety of factors contribute to the stability and recurrence of any particular set of representations in a historical context. However, the aggregation of many individual acquisition processes 'washes out' such local factors. In the long run and in the comparison of many different human groups, local factors cancel each other out. What we find as recurrent features, over time and between groups, are concepts that, all else being equal, tend to resist distortion better than others. The aggregated result of individual acquisition and communication episodes channels cultures along particular paths, with the result that some concepts are both relatively stable within a group and recurrent among different groups.
In the domain of religious concepts, two different selection processes reduce the domain of culturally fit concepts.
First, not all products of human imagination are equally fit for widespread transmission. Although there are no obvious limits to human imagination, we find that in most human groups supernatural notions (including religious concepts but also folklore, superstition, fiction and fantasy) tend to centre around a small catalogue with recurrent features. This is because human minds are equipped with an intuitive ontology, a set of expectations about the kinds of things to be found in the world. Among the indefinitely many concepts individuals can imagine and combine, some connect with this ontology in a particular way. As a result, they stand better chances than other concepts of spreading in a relatively preserved form.
Second, not all culturally fit supernatural concepts are of equal social importance. …