Last week I described some recent cognitive research on the (rather unfortunate) naturalness of creationist reasoning. Another important body of work in the “cognitive science of religion” concerns how religious ideas are transmitted between generations. And the name Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist from Washington University of Saint Louis, is rightfully synonymous with this well-known research.
Boyer’s detailed model provides something of a more nuanced version of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s view of religion being an ideological parasite that worms into the minds of unwitting hosts (i.e., gullible children) and inoculates them against all forms of secular reason. In Boyer's book Religion Explained, he lays out a very elegant scientific model that shows how the evolved human mind is especially vulnerable to religious concepts because they exploit our everyday, mundane, run-of-the-mill thought processes. What makes a particular concept “religious” or supernatural, says Boyer, is its counterintuitiveness—the extent to which it violates our innate assumptions about basic aspects of the natural world.
Take the spirit of Elijah, for example, who one evening every Spring between 1978 to 1983 sprinted invisibly through my house in Virginia and downed a glass of Manischewitz wine. That’s what I was led to believe by my parents anyway, who theatrically acted out this popular Passover ritual in which—once everyone at the Seder has dipped their hardboiled eggs in the Israelite’s tears and stuffed themselves sufficiently with Matzo ball soup and Gefilte fish—the youngest child at the table is instructed to go to the front door and invite Elijah inside. While the child’s standing there with the door open, his mouth agape and the hair on the back of his neck bristling, the spirit of Elijah sweeps through the house, tosses back a glass of wine at the Seder table, and then whisks away to the next Jewish home. (In reality, the father traditionally drinks the wine while the child is standing at the door and the empty glass is exhibited as evidence of Elijah’s passing through.)
Boyer would say that much of the reason I was so affected by the Elijah ritual is that the concept of a spirit who slips through walls and drinks from a glass with invisible lips violated my intuitive understanding of what a human being is and what a human being does. These counterintuitive aspects of Elijah, then, get us latter-born Jews to really perk up our ears when our parents tell us about this mysterious character.
Boyer sometimes uses the term ‘sticky’ to describe religious concepts. They’re especially hard to shake, he says, because they’re continually grabbing our attention by virtue of the fact that they challenge our innate understanding of the humdrum world. In Elijah’s case, it’s being a person and therefore having a mind that works like any person’s mind. That is to say, you didn’t have to be told that Elijah has a mind basically like ours; you just inferred that he’s got human thoughts, interests, and desires rather than, say, those of a red squirrel. Yet, then again, he’s not exactly like us after all because he’s also an invisible person. And that grabs our attention and makes him especially memorable.
With Boyer’s catalogue of supernatural ideas, just about any religious concept you can conjure up has this same basic formula: take a run-of-the-mill bit of the everyday and add a flash of color in the form of a contradiction in terms. It’s the reason my six-year-old Catholic nephew (it’s a long story) very passionately described for me recently—while whistling inadvertently through the gap that used to be his two front teeth—how Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Yet when I asked him who Jesus was, he couldn’t exactly say. Blowing off your own biological death isn’t exactly doable, and thus the Christian concept of resurrection is fabulous fodder for enticing over to the good Lord those little ones who’ve only just grasped the fact that death is irreversible.
The beauty of Boyer’s model is that it can account for otherwise mind-boggling cross-cultural variation in religious concepts. His counterintuitiveness formula explains why thousands of people flocked recently to a home in Bangalore city to witness what many hailed as a miracle. It seems a small marble statue of the 19th century Indian saint Shirdi Sai Baba fluttered its lashes during a routine cleaning and decided to spring open its left eye to have a peak at the world. Boyer’s model can also explain the Lord Ganesha phenomenon that occurred a few months prior to the blinking Baba case, just a stone’s throw away on the map in Mumbai. Statues of this elephant-headed deity, who happens to be the Hindu patron of sciences among other things, started slurping milk from spoons offered by religious devotees. What possessed the very first person to raise a tablespoon of milk to a piece of stone carved into the shape of an elephant’s trunk we may never know, but like the one-eyed Sai Baba these thirsty Lord Ganesha statues really got people talking.
The reason such religious statues garner our attention, argues Boyer, is that we have an inborn concept of what makes an inanimate object an inanimate object. Moving on its own accord, seeing, and having biological functions just aren’t on that list. So when word gets out that a lifeless artifact has breached natural law—bleeding paintings, crying figurines, blinking statues—the news spreads like wildfire, propagating myths, sparking debate, and renewing faith.
There are a few important caveats, however. First, in order for a concept to function properly as a religious concept, and thus to migrate successfully between minds, it must be “minimally” counterintuitive. That is to say, it can’t be so effortful that we can’t wrap our heads around it, such as an invisible tree that changes colors sometimes on Wednesdays, always Fridays and never Tuesdays, except every other week. These concepts are so cognitively taxing that they flicker out while we’re still scratching our heads over them, failing to ever register in the community mindset. For real staying power, a religious concept has to be comprehensible at the very least. It’s not that a thirsty chunk of ivory makes particularly good sense or is logical, but we can easily understand what a religious devotee means when they tell us about one.
Another caveat to Boyer’s formula is that not all minimally counterintuitive concepts are religious or supernatural. Rather, most such concepts, such as the idea of a skateboarding rodent named Stuart who dresses in cardigan sweaters, or a high school senior with spinnerets embedded in his wrists for expelling spider web silk, are clearly in the realm of fantasy. Unlike gods and spirits, these things are not generally believed by people to really and truly exist. Most studies in this area suggest that, when pressed, even young children can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.