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Animism and Cognitive Science

June 20, 2009

Many cognitive science approaches to religion start out by noting that humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize impersonal forces. This is called animism. The implication is that human belief in gods and goddesses comes from this animist tendency inherent in human cognition. This point is a key feature of books like Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

I think these cognitive scientists are right: humans probably do have a tendency to attribute agency where none exists, and this might help to explain human beliefs in invisible supernatural beings.

But this is not a very good place to start a theory of religion, because it hardly explains anything at all. A theory of animism won’t help explain why the crusades happened, or why some Muslim women choose to wear the burka when they’re not required to do so, or why evangelicals are opposed to gay rights. Sociological theories about how human groups mark, maintain, negotiate, and renegotiate their social identities and social borders might help understand these things, but a theory of animism won’t.

Here’s an analogy. It might be interesting to find out how Henry Ford made his first combustible engine. But that knowledge won’t shed any light on why NASCAR appeals to low-income white Americans, why my cousins argue over whether Fords or Chevys are better, or why GM had to file for bankruptcy.

To their credit, Boyer and Dennett don’t stop at animism—there is much more to their theories of religion. However, I still think they give far more attention to animism than is useful.

Why might they do so? Probably because they want to build up the following sorts of associations:

animism : cognitive error :: all religion : cognitive error

This chain of associations is a non sequitur, and, in any case, there are much more sophisticated ways of criticizing religious traditions than this.

By the way, it’s pretty clear that Chevys are far superior to Fords:

FORD=Found On Road Dead

FORD=Fix Or Repair Daily

Camaro Celebration

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