Rosemary Joyce Ph.D.

What Makes Us Human

Belief in Anthropology

New ways of relating religion and science emerge.

Posted Apr 15, 2012

Anthropology, with its claim to examining the human experience holistically, shares a lot of intellectual territory with other social sciences and humanities disciplines. There is literally nothing about human existence, past or present, that is outside of our disciplinary focus.

But that said, there are a few topics that have received so much attention, and such specialized attention, in anthropology, that they can be characterized as central to our historical scope. Culture, that problematic concept, is one of those topics, as is kinship.

And then there is religion. The anthropological study of religion is as old as the field, and has been a rich source of insight into how human life has been organized. Indeed, some anthropologists would argue that religiosity is a core part of what makes us human.

So in a way, there is nothing newsworthy in an ethnographer studying religious belief. But there is definitely something new about how anthropologists are approaching this sensitive topic.

Take Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann as one example. In her recently released book, When God Talks Back, Luhrmann explores how prayer allows believers in an American evangelical church to hear the voice of god. While she disclaims a position on whether or not God exists, Luhrmann is clear that

"people did hear what they described as God's voice, and they sometimes heard that voice audibly."

Luhrmann, in ethnographic work, explored how believers cultivated the capacity to hear what others could not. Her work combined traditional ethnography with experiments that demonstrate real distinctions between those who used prayer to cultivate inner awareness, and others who did not:

"I found that the prayer practice did sharpen people's mental imagery.... It also increased the chance they would report an unusual sensory experience....Some of them reported feeling God touch their shoulder or speak with them or interact with them in a way they actually experienced with their senses."

This is far from classic approaches to religion, which could shade towards treating other people's beliefs as ways to rationalize an unknowable world of causation. There is something deeply respectful about Luhrmann's account of the people whose prayer lives she shared that makes me optimistic about my discipline, and about our ability to treat belief as something significant in human social worlds.

I experience similar optimism when reading the very different work of biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon, who is among a group of evolutionary specialists who see religious belief as an "emergent" property of early humanity. In an article published in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture in 2009, "The role of symbolic capacity in the origins of religion", Deacon, along with his collague Tyrone Cashman, criticize evolutionary accounts of religion for their failure to treat seriously "the transformational experiences and ultimate meaning that religious ideas and practices provide to their believers".

They argue that religious belief is rooted in

"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."

It is that third topic that they consider to have been under-emphasized in previous work. "Emergent emotional experiences" have much in common with the kind of inner cultivation that Luhrmann describes. Deacon and Cashman identify as "emergent emotional experiences" in human evolution

"the most distinctive core religious experiences, such as awe, reverence, a sense of the sacred, transcendence of self, certain mystical experiences, and so on. All of these experiences are highly prized by humans, and are considered values in themselves. For this reason they are likely to be among the most powerful factors contributing to the flourishing and propagation of religious traditions.

These experiences... emerge out of the unique capacity of symbolization to imagine the juxtaposition and fusion of ideas and experiences outside of normal experience and, in the process, to induce otherwise mutually exclusive emotions to become simultaneously experienced.... they lack direct antecedents to experiences had by nonhuman species, or even by our pre-symbolic ancestors, though the component emotions are available to most mammals in some form or other.... we humans spend a great deal of our time seeking, encouraging, and cultivating these emergent experiences."

While expressed in a different language, both Deacon and Luhrmann take belief as something fundamentally human, real and consequential, not open to reduction, not a "byproduct" of something else, but a productive force in itself: something to believe in.

More Posts