In Chapter Five, “Religion, the Early Days,” of Breaking the Spell (see previous posts Sept.-Nov. 2013), Daniel Dennett continues to speculate on how religion could have evolved from what he calls the “intentional stance” of early humans. According to Dennett, our ancestors developed an instinctive attribution of agency to “anything complicated that moves” as a survival mechanism. This instinct, he suggests, over developed into a “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device,” which in turn led to the population of “imaginary agents” (things, animals, and people with special powers). This hypothesis can explain, not only superstitions, divination, shamanic healers, but also early religions such as animism, totemism, animal deities, etc. (see Nov. 2013 post).
Regardless of whether this is true, it’s a fascinating idea that does make a certain sense. We also seem to have evolved as a species that is intent on understanding and controlling the world around us. Not only do we seek explanations for phenomena we don’t understand, but we also seek explanations that are beneficial.
In the case of superstitions, if a repeated act on our part results in either a good or bad outcome more times than not, we may infer a cause and effect relationship. We repeat the acts that have had a good outcome and avoid those that haven’t. If our beneficent act doesn't work on occasion, it must be because we aren’t always doing it right or with the right attitude. Psychological studies have shown that there is a kind of placebo effect to certain superstitions. The athlete develops a ritualistic behavior before a game in order to ensure a good performance. His or her belief in the efficacy of the act (or the “lucky charm”) actually does build confidence that contributes to enhanced performance.
Similarly, as Dennett states, our belief in the healing power of some agent serves as a kind of “health insurance.” Our belief in the efficacy of the agent actually contributes to our healing.
Or take prayer. How many of us, in a moment of panic, will utter a prayer to the universe, even if we don’t necessarily believe in a supernatural being who hears us? Yet it can have a beneficial comforting effect, or reassure us that in a situation over which we have no control, at least we’ve done something! I know atheists and agnostics who practice prayer, because they benefit from listening to themselves, akin perhaps to keeping a diary or journal.
Another tactic is to use divination, coin tosses, a roll of the dice, astrology, Tarot cards, fortune telling, or some other fictive device to help us make decisions. I’ve done this myself. Can’t make up my mind? Toss a coin. If I’m disappointed in the outcome, then I take the opposite course. It’s a way to determine my gut feeling when my mind is muddled.
The anthropologist and scholar of myth Claude Levi-Strauss theorizes that mythology serves to resolve contradictions we encounter in human experience, or at least create the illusion of resolution. Confronted with phenomena we don’t understand we seek, not only an explanation, but an explanation that is psychologically and emotionally satisfying.
In Dennett’s terms, having attributed agency to “something complicated that moves” how do we explain it when the agent ceases to move and appears to lose its agency, in other words, when it dies? Where does its animating spirit go? The contradiction between life and death is no doubt the most overwhelming of all and perhaps the one that gives mythology, religion, and the arts their most enduring power.
The universal cycle of myth from creation to apocalypse to resurrection reassures us of life continually reemerging from death, surely as Spring follows Winter. Religion offers the promise of our survival in spiritual form. And the arts externalize the deepest dimensions of our lived experience, enabling us to enjoy the illusion of resolution, or, in some cases, to resign ourselves to our fate.
Agnosticism requires us to live with ambiguities and uncertainties, whether we hold out hope for the existence of an unseen spiritual reality or not. Atheism requires us to accept the absence of such a reality. Those who hold these beliefs take refuge in their conviction that they are not deceiving themselves, though, for all they KNOW, they may be missing something.
But for many, perhaps most, of us, neither of those alternatives can provide that psychologically and emotionally satisfying explanation for the mysteries of the universe, and certainly not for that ultimate contradiction between life and death.
Such is the enduring power and appeal of religion.
And even the non-believers may find themselves benefiting from the placebo effect of harmless superstitions, faith in medical treatments, the practice of prayer, decision-making tricks, or that suspension of disbelief, which brings them to real tears in the presence of a powerful fictive illusion. And do we really want to break those spells?
One wonders if Daniel Dennett has ever experienced the actual life enhancement, restoration, healing effect, or transformation that follows from the fabrications, deceptions, and “imaginary agents” of great art, music, or literature. And does he really want to break those spells?