How Religions Captivate Human Minds

Like other animals' minds, human minds find some stimuli entrancing

Posted Jul 27, 2012

Cats Transfixed

Cat-lovers are familiar with the distinctive habits of their kitties. Many learn that not all of our stereotypes about cats are true about every member of the species—for example, although cats are generally regarded as aloof, many cat owners find that their feline friends often just happen to occupy the same space in the house that they do. Still, one behavior pattern is very nearly universal in cats, at least during their first few years of life. That is their inability to resist stalking and, eventually, attacking any small item that moves along the ground at medium distances or less in their field of vision. We buried our kitty, Scamp, with his gold cord, which never failed to transfix him, whenever we pulled it along the floor. It is easy enough to spot such susceptibilities in other animals and to explain them. Frogs leap to consume flying ball bearings for the same reasons cats will stalk a gold cord. These objects bear enough resemblances to their prey to trigger automatic predatory responses in these animals. What we are less likely to notice, however, are the stimuli that transfix the human animal.

Humans Transfixed

So far as I can tell from casual observation, one of the best candidates for a stimulus that rivets human minds is television. Now that television has invaded every waiting room in America, what is striking is its ability to attract the attention of everyone in the room. Almost all of the images on television are designed to fascinate us, but, typically, it takes nothing more than depictions of the interactions of social beings to engross us. Television has a double-barreled allure, at least. It exploits both our visual and our auditory susceptibilities, so that consciously resisting its visual magnetism by turning your back to it only manages one of its distractions. It does not suppress the compulsion to attend to and interpret the human voices it broadcasts. Linguistically competent humans are incapable of hearing distinguishable utterances in their language as mere sound.

What the captivating power of television speaks to, however, is not, I think, any predatory compulsions. Instead, it appeals to our social dispositions, which, at least in the comparatively safe environments we inhabit, trump those more basic urges connected with feeding. Humans who possess standard cognitive equipment are automatically interested in other human beings. This is why “people watching” is always a perfectly understandable way to pass the time.

Theory of Mind

Ascertaining what things in their environments are worthwhile to engage socially is one of the most fundamental problems infants must solve. Developmental research indicates that at four months infants are already clear about the distinguishing agents from other things in their environment.  Over the next few years young children acquire what has come to be known as “theory of mind.” 

Whether theory of mind is a single thing and whether it is even a theory are points of controversy, but that phrase has served to capture the collection of relevant cognitive accomplishments over which children gain command in the first few years of life. Those accomplishments concern such things as agent detection, attention to eye direction, joint attention, attributions of representational capacities, pointing, recognition of perspectives, and the attribution of false beliefs, among others.  Mastery of these skills allows humans to read others’ minds, and that skill enables us to negotiate the complex world of human affairs. Having a fairly good idea of what is going on in other people’s minds permits us to anticipate their actions and their reactions to what we say and do. That, in turns, facilitates smooth human relations and the establishment of positive relationships, coalitions, and social networks. 

The Gods Are Social Agents Too

One of the most basic insights of the cognitive science of religion is that religions the world over and throughout human history have reliably evolved so as to involve representations that engage humans’ mental machinery for dealing with the social world. After all, such matters enthrall human minds. The gods and, even more fundamentally, the ancestors are social agents too! On the basis of knowing that the gods are social actors, religious participants know straightaway that they have beliefs, intentions, feelings, preferences, loyalties, motivations, and all of the other states of mind that we recognize in ourselves and others. What this means is, first, that religious participants are instantly entitled to all of the inferences about social relations, which come as defaults with the development of theory of mind, and, second, that even the most naïve participants can reason about them effortlessly. Such knowledge need not be taught. We deploy the same folk psychology that we utilize in human commerce to understand, explain, and predict the gods’ states of mind and behaviors.