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Review of `In Gods We Trust' by Scott Atran

Updated on January 22, 2017
Thomas Swan profile image

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.

In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Oxford University Press, 348 pp, October 2002, ISBN 0-19-514930-0

The front cover of `In Gods We Trust' illustrates man's desire and reverence for all things holy.
The front cover of `In Gods We Trust' illustrates man's desire and reverence for all things holy.
4 stars for `In Gods We Trust' by Scott Atran

In Gods we Trust is more than a review of the literature prior to its publication; it is an attempt at weaving together the manifold inchoate, disjointed studies or allusions to religious psychology that are adjudged to warrant further investigation. In this encyclopedic work, Scott Atran endeavors to discover the appeal of religion, a question that for him goes beyond clarifying how representations of religious concepts are readily transmitted between individuals. Instead he asks why our attitudes to those representations are characterized by commitment, belief and faith.

Although academics studying the cognitive science of religion have thoroughly researched the transmission of religious concepts, finding that minimally counter-intuitive information (such as stories about deities) is memorable when combined with intuitive information that may have social or moral relevance, Atran bluntly retorts “How does this distinguish fantasy from beliefs one is willing to die for?”. If counter-intuitive beings are memorable then why is Santa Claus not a god?

Authors such as Pascal Boyer and Jesse Bering had previously objected to one potential answer: `that we believe in comforting stories', by treating the proposition as a counter-argument for their theories of religious transmission through cognitive dispositions. Despite Atran’s work, the separate notions of transmissible and believable representations are still not realised by Bering and Boyer. What should be immediately evident when reading `In Gods we Trust' is Atran’s support for the cognitive science of religion, with the caveat that his question remains unanswered.

To provide an answer Atran revisits the argument for comforting belief, not as a way to dismiss our cognitive dispositions, but as a jigsaw piece that depends on them to create a fuller picture of the cross-cultural durability of religious belief. As Atran says in his book, “there are multiple elements in the naturally selected landscape that channel socially interacting cognitions and emotions into the production of religions”.

The author describes a diverse range of factors that are likely to contribute to religious belief. For example, our capacity for episodic memory has led humanity to consider the uncertain future beyond our control. Our disposition to ritualize religious behavior suggests a need to exert control over this uncertainty. Our costly commitment to these rituals indicates a motivation for social inclusion that is enhanced in authenticity by genuine emotional output. Our tendency for greater religiosity when faced with salient sensory information about our own mortality evinces a role for religion in controlling existential anxieties.

Scott Atran
Scott Atran

Feeding these anxieties are negative emotions such as depression, fear and stress; some of which are habitually created in religious ritual to emphasize its therapeutic control over them. This notion of control coheres well with the cognitive dispositions unearthed by Boyer and his cohorts. For example, humans possess an agency detection mechanism that is geared towards the observation of telic event structures (events that indicate a controlling force). Such a dependence on human emotion is an unintended but scathing attack on Boyer’s Religion Explained, a coetaneous work that readily dismissed the notion.

With a literary brush, Scott Atran paints a turbulent, mercurial, evolutionary landscape for religion on a canvas weaved from scientific evidence. However, like many creative outputs, `In Gods We Trust' appears to forget its audience, whatever that may truly be. The lengthy first chapter detailing the intricate workings of natural selection could do without the verbose sermon on the evolution of language that serves as no more than an example for a more general point. The author’s interest in linguistic anthropology ignores the average reader’s patience for such a large digression in a book about religion. Similar concerns could be raised about the author’s grievances with meme theory and group selection. Whole chapters need not be devoted to these theories, and furthermore, it is hard to separate what Atran supports or does not support about these theories, and exactly how this relates to the rest of the book.

Scott Atran discussing terrorism

One may be left slightly disappointed by In Gods We Trust. While the wealth of cited literature is admirable and the multifaceted approach is needed; in uniting these well researched spokes on the religious wheel, they become a blur when Atran attempts to set them in motion. Scientific language takes a back seat to effusive metaphor, with a summary that spawns more questions than answers. For example, the statement “In this way, both the conceptual and social-interaction ridges of our evolutionary landscape connect with the ridge of emotions” could offer more detail into the cause-effect relationships between these ridges when considering the passage of thought through them. Atran’s model ignores the question of what thought is and how it is altered in its journey through the ridges. For belief to prevail over fantasy the conceptual ridge requires input from the emotional ridge; it requires thoughts colored with emotion. While this is alluded to throughout the book, the process could be made clearer. Instead, the reader is left stranded in a metaphorical mountain range, which has little relevance outside the imagination of the author.

Perhaps, there is motive in this nebulosity. The cardinal significance of this work may be more as an eye-opener for an academic community who are not considering all the evidence and not asking the right questions when extending the reach of their findings into non-germane domains. For this polite reminder to be absorbed by the community, Atran avoids the contentious, far-flung claims of his emotivist predecessors, instead weaving a subtle web of links from a monstrous base of scientific evidence.

Undoubtedly then, the book’s purpose is to prompt further research into religious belief as something that is dependent on, not explained by, cognitive biases for transmission. His work may yet provide some influence in this regard if it has not already done so. Despite its shortcomings, Atran’s work is an achievement for its immense mobilization of sources, and its cross-disciplinary approach to the questions posed. I am already referring to it for the ideas and experimental results discussed within its pages and I would thoroughly recommend it to the casual reader and the academic alike, although, as previously expressed, both may find some focus for irritation.

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