New Paper: In Defense of the Extraordinary in Religious Belief

Read it here: In Defense of the Extraordinary in Religious Belief

So this is a paper I wrote for Ron Mallon’s Culture and Evolution seminar. I’m really happy with how the paper turned out, and I believe this is the direction I want to go for my future dissertation project. The paper is really a response to some of Pascal Boyer’s claims about the importance of extraordinary religious experience in explaining the origins and cultural success of religious belief. For example, Boyer says:

Even if prophets were the main source of new religious information, that information would still require ordinary nonprophets’ minds to turn it into some particular form of religion…This is why we will probably not understand the diffusion of religion by studying exceptional people, but we may well have a better grasp of religion in general, including that of prophets and other virtuosos, by considering how it is derived from ordinary cognitive capacities. (Boyer, 2001, pp. 310-311)

This is a standard thing to say in the evolutionary origins of religion literature. Most psychologists who are trying to explain religious belief do so in terms of the operation of various ordinary cognitive mechanisms like the Agency Detection Device or our theory of mind capacities. The basic idea then is that we don’t need to posit any sort of “special” religious mechanism that serves as the generator of religious belief. According to what I am calling the Standard Cognitive Model (SCM) of religious belief, religious thoughts are really not that different from any other kind of cognitive operation. Crucially,  the SCM is committed to the idea that the order of explanation is that you explain both religion in general as well as extraordinary experience in terms of the ordinary, and not the other way around.

It’s this emphasis on the “ordinary” that I am arguing against in the paper. My argument is basically this: we cannot use contemporary ratios of ordinary to extraordinary experience as a mirror of what that ratio might have been like in ancient times. Borrowing heavily from Jaynesian theory, I provide several lines of evidence for thinking that what we now consider extraordinary might have actually been quite ordinary in ancient times. If this is right, then we don’t need to think about extraordinary experience as being the exclusive domain of “religious specialists”, as Boyer is prone to think. Instead, we can think about extraordinary experiences such as hearing the voice of a god or demigod talk to you as being quite ordinary.

In the paper, I look at contemporary research on both the incidence of auditory hallucination in children and the factors that lead to the persistence of such hallucinations. What the research shows is that the best predictor of persistence of voice hearing in children is whether they assign the voices to external sources. And prior to the recent invention of the concept of “hallucination”, all ancient voice hearers (like Socrates) would have automatically interpreted their experience in terms of being a communication from an external agent, namely, a god or demigod. Since such attributions are the key predictors of persistence, we can now imagine a society where upwards of 25% or more of adults are actively experiencing auditory hallucinations and interpreting them as being messages from gods or demigods. Accordingly, would we want to still say that “extraordinary experience” is  still exceptional and the exclusive domain of religious specialists?

If this is at all historically accurate, then it looks like we can reverse the explanatory arrow of the SCM. Rather than extraordinary experiences being on the sidelines in determining the cultural success of religion, the familiar experience of auditory hallucination and the shared cultural narratives for interpreting such experiences would have played a much greater role in the spread of religion than the SCM allows. To respond to Boyer then, we can say that perhaps the reason why the “insights” of holy persons were widely accepted is because the ordinary population was already quite familiar with what-it-is-like to hear the voice of a god or demigod commanding you to do something.


1 Comment

Filed under Psychology, Theology

One response to “New Paper: In Defense of the Extraordinary in Religious Belief

  1. I would agree with that. The problem many have with Jaynes theory is that he takes ancient people literally at their word. Probably most modern people can’t imagine that ancient people actually meant what they said and actually experienced what they claimed.

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