The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion

Authors

  • Terrence Deacon University of California, Berkeley
  • Tyrone Cashman University of California, Berkeley

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.v3i4.490

Keywords:

emergence, symbolic capacity, origin of religion, evolutionary biology

Abstract

The scientific investigation of the human religious predisposition has recently been augmented by considering it from an evolutionary perspective. This approach has provided new insights but has also generated controversy because of its reductionist goals. Here we explore the religious predisposition in terms of its emergent characteristics, specifically those that we consider to be a consequence of the evolution of symbolic abilities. We argue that the evolution of symbolic capacity has resulted in three unprecedented modifications of hominid cognitive and emotional predispositions that are particularly relevant for explaining some of the more distinctive and enigmatic characteristics of religion: (1) a predisposition to understand worldly events and one’s own identity and place within the world in narrative terms; (2) a predisposition to conceive of the world as two-layered, so that some objects and events of mundane experience are like signs expressing meanings that concern a hidden and more fundamental level of existence; and (3) a capacity for what we describe as emergent emotional experiences that are of a higher-order than primary evolved emotions, and which are in turn the source of transcendent forms of experience—often considered to be the most exalted aspects of a spiritual life.

Author Biographies

Terrence Deacon, University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley

Tyrone Cashman, University of California, Berkeley

University of California, Berkeley

References

Aquinas, St Thomas. 1952a. Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate: Truth (3 vols.; Chicago: Henry Regnery Co.)

———. 1952b. Summa Theologica, in R.M. Hutchins (ed.), Great Books of the Western World, vol. 19 (London: Encyclopedia Britannica).

Atran, Scott. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press).

Barrett, David, George Kurian, and Todd Johnson. 2001. World Christian Encyclopedia (2 vols.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn).

Bateson, Gregory. 1979. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: Bantam Books).

Bering, Jesse. 2006. ‘The Folk Psychology of Souls’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29: 453–98. doi:10.1017/S0140525X06009101.

Blackmore, Susan. 1999. The Meme Machine (New York: Oxford University Press).

Boland, Vivian, OP. 1996. Ideas in God according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, Sources and Synthesis (Leiden: E.J. Brill).

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books).

Brodie, Richard. 1996. Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (Seattle: Integral Press).

———. 2004. Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (Seattle: Integral Press).

Chatwin, Bruce. 1987. The Songlines (New York: Penguin Books).

Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Sel_sh Gene (New York: Oxford University Press).

———. 2003. The Devil’s Chaplain (New York: Houghton Mif_in).

———. 2006. The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mif_in).

Deacon, Terrence W. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.).

———. 2006a. ‘The Aesthetic Faculty’, in M. Turner and S. Zeki (eds.), The Artful Mind (New York: Oxford University Press): 21-53.

———. 2006b. ‘Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel’s Hub’, in P. Clayton and P. Davies (eds.), The Re-Emergence of Emergence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press): 111-50.

Diamond, Jared. 2004. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking).

Durkheim, Émile. 1912 [2001]. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (trans. Carol Cosman; abridged with an Introduction and Notes by Mark S. Cladis; New York: Oxford University Press).

Eichenbaum, Howard. 2002. The Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press). doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195141740.001.0001.

———. 2008. Learning and Memory (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.).

Eliade, Mircea. 1978–85. A History of Religious Ideas (3 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1965. Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. 2003. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books).

Frazer, James George. 1890 [1929]. The Golden Bow: A Study in Magic and Religion (London: MacMillan).

Galilei, Galileo. 1615. ‘Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany’, Modern History Sourcebook. Online: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/galileotuscany.html (accessed 5 December 2009).

Goodenough, Ursula, and Terrence Deacon. 2003. ‘From Biology to Consciousness to Morality’, Zygon 38: 801-19. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2003.00540.x.

———. 2006. ‘The Sacred Emergence of Nature’, in P. Clayton and Z. Simpson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (New York: Oxford University Press): 853-71.

Harrison, Peter. 2007. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Isaacson, Walter. 2007. Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Koestler, Arthur. 1964. The Act of Creation (New York: Penguin Books).

Lynch, Aaron. 1998. Thought Contagion (New York: Basic Books).

Pals, Daniel L. 1996. Seven Theories of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press).

Preus, J. Samuel. 2000. Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud (New York: Oxford University Press).

Rappaport, Roy. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (New York: Cambridge University Press).

Sherman, Jeremy, and Terrence Deacon. 2007. ‘Teleology for the Perplexed: How Matter Began to Matter’, Zygon 42: 873-901. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2007.00878.x.

Sober, Elliott, and David Sloan Wilson. 1998. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unsel_sh Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Squire, Larry, and Daniel Schacter (eds.). 2003. Neuropsychology of Memory (New York: Guilford Press, 3rd edn).

Tremlin, Todd. 2006. Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press).

Tylor, Edward B. 1958 [1873, 1871]. The Origins of Culture and Religion in Primitive Culture (vols. I and II of the 1873 edn of Primitive Culture; New York: Harper & Brothers).

Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Wright, Robert. 2009. The Evolution of God (London: Little, Brown & Co.).

Downloads

Published

2010-02-08

How to Cite

Deacon, T., & Cashman, T. (2010). The Role of Symbolic Capacity in the Origins of Religion. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 3(4), 490–517. https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.v3i4.490

Section

Articles