Religion has its roots in metaphor?

Sunghir is a 22,00 year old site where someone was buried in clothes made from thousands of beads, along with huge mammoth ivory spears

Sunghir is a 22,00 year old site where someone was buried in clothes made from thousands of beads, along with huge mammoth ivory spears

Our ancestors were burying their dead with food and symbolic items over 100,000 years ago; strongly suggesting that they believed in some sort of life after death. In the last 10,000 years religion seems to have undergone a sort of revolution. Farming drove the development of large complex societies, and these groups seem to have begun believing in deities that gave rules and commandments. Perhaps because in these large groups it became increasingly important that everyone follow the rules and a supernatural motivation for doing so became very beneficial to society. Sure enough, studies have show that exposing people to these rule-giving religious ideas makes them more likely to behave.

Understanding how these moral-giving gods arose is important; given that these beliefs continue to influence our society. But how did religion get off the ground in the first place? What was it 100,000 years ago that pushed our ancestors towards a belief in the supernatural? This is a topic that has had dozens (if not hundreds) of papers written about it; making it difficult for me to summarise for you lovely people. But throughout all this argument and debate, one key idea seems to have risen to the top: our sense of agency.

Humans have the ability to attribute thoughts, beliefs, desires and emotions to others. This isn’t unique to us, but we are really good at it (in fact, we’re the best in the world). Children develop the ability to attribute agency to others between the age of 3 – 5; and the super-sense of agency often goes a bit overboard and they also begin attributing agency to other things. Things like storms, toys and plants are believed to have goals, desires and beliefs1. They even begin thinking that dead things have agency, perhaps explaining why our ancestors began to bury their dead2.

Perhaps most importantly, they start having this over-active sense of agency even if they have no religious or supernatural education3. It seems to be an innate trait that children naturally develop; so it’s easy to see how it could give rise to religious thought in prehistoric societies if left unchecked. But is this enough? Most argue no, and there are a bunch of other characteristics people believe are needed for religion to arise.

One particularly interesting one is that religious concepts need to be a certain kind of counter-intuitive. Ideas which break our expectations (like a talking donkey) elicit a particular electrical reaction in our brains that can be measured with EEG (you know, when they put electrodes on someone’s head). Interestingly, religious ideas which break our expectations the same way elicit less of a reaction. Someone saying “then she gave birth to a house” is going to confuse our brain more than “then she gave birth to the world”4.

An paper published earlier this year argues that this is because these religious ideas are so impossible we wind up viewing them metaphorically. Even if we wind up thinking of them as literally true (young earthers, I’m looking at you), this metaphorical aspect means they still seem less counter-intuitive than a comparable belief you try and take literally right from the get go. So whilst our hyper-active sense of agency could give rise to supernatural beliefs, they’ll only survive if they’re crazy enough to not seem literal straight away, but aren’t too crazy they break all our expectations. Ideas which can walk this tightrope will wind up being incredibly successful, and these religions can last for thousands of years4.

Perhaps this information is useful for any atheists out there, looking for another way to argue against religion. Dispense with as much vaguery and metaphor as possible, really hone in the literal, real world implications that these beliefs result in. Try and remove their metaphorical shielding that acts as a literal shields for their beliefs; really hold their feet to the fire over the literal aspects of their beliefs. Don’t let them get away with such vagaries as “God is love.” Perhaps you can tip their counter-intuitive meter over the edge.

But before everyone goes running off to start a religious flame war in the nearest forum; it is worth noting these ideas are mostly speculative. Sure, the EEG does show there is something special about the counter-intuitive properties of religious thought, but the interpretation that this special-ness is that they’re viewed as metaphors is complete speculation by the authors. Which is great for me as it means I get to squeeze a few more posts on the topic. There’s no final answer yet! That said, this idea that religious beliefs are metaphorical doesn’t seem particularly….counter-intuitive.


  1.  Kelemen, D. (2004). Are children “intuitive theists”? Reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychological Science15(5), 295-301.
  2. Bering, J.M. 2002Intuitive conceptions of dead agents’ minds: the natural foundations of afterlife beliefs as a phenomenological boundaryJ. Cogn. Cult. 2263308.
  3. Bering, J.M. 2002Intuitive conceptions of dead agents’ minds: the natural foundations of afterlife beliefs as a phenomenological boundaryJ. Cogn. Cult. 2263308.
  4. Fondevila, S., & Martín‐Loeches, M. (2013). Cognitive mechanisms for the evolution of religious thought. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,1299(1), 84-90.

14 thoughts on “Religion has its roots in metaphor?

  1. Understanding other members of the group is a vital skill for intelligent apes. No wonder we are hard wired to accept explanations in terms of agency and intent. An extreme case is the “Intelligent Design” fallacy, which, once having invoked the intent of the designer, sees no need for further discussion of ways and means.

    • Hard wired not just to accept such explanations, but develop our own. As the research revealed, children will just start attributing agency to things of their own accord. That said, there hasn’t been much cross-cultural research done on the topic. I suspect we might see similar things if we looked at different cultures, but we don’t know that for sure.

  2. What does being asked, “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” do to our brain? Or watching Cosmos? Or seeing magic tricks even if we know they are a trick? What is a sense of wonder anyway and why do we like it so much?

  3. “Perhaps this information is useful for any atheists out there, looking for another way to argue against religion. Dispense with as much vaguery and metaphor as possible, really hone in the literal, real world implications that these beliefs result in.”

    My preferred method, and one I perform relentlessly, particularly from a position of archaeological evidence. Theist hate it. I mean, seriously, they hate it and genuinely come across as being more than just uncomfortable dealing with facts.

    Great article.

    • I think it’s telling that there is such a reaction to the more literal aspects of religion. Look at how that American judge was treated when he talked about the devil; or how many of the more liberal believers view young earthers. When people start making specific claims about reality, rather than vague metaphors, suddenly many become very uncomfortable with the issue

  4. We like to think that knowledge is some kind of a link to the truth of the world but that’s just part of the deal. Some of it’s other functions have much more practical significance.

    Entertainment: People love knowing stuff. In this sense, knowing stuff is part of sexual selection. It demonstrates an agile mind, it is sexy. We love to collect factoids and repeat them to each other to display our mental prowess. Particularly on first dates. Obviously there is a point at which beliefs become weird, dangerous and unsexy but there is a fair bit of room for play.

    Group identification. Being willing to trot out the beliefs of your groups really demonstrates commitment, (and this is kinda weird) especially in the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Like believing in a benign god when half the village has just been wiped out by a tsunami. Wow! There’s a great essay on this phenomena that I’d recommend (Google: vox politics makes us stupid) which discusses this in relation to politics but it applies equally well to religion.

    Certainty, closure and protection: We are equipped with brains that constantly invent and consider possible futures, many of which are extremely negative, and are stressful to behold. One of the functions of religion is to reduce this stress. Despite the obvious evidence that an awful number of beings are brought into existence then destroyed in fairly unpleasant ways most religions claim that a benign and powerful identity is active in the world. Various psychological tests show this kind of result, eg, the religious are more able to bear physical pain. So there is an epistemological trade-off between stress and cognitive dissonance.

    Practical utility: Most religious beliefs have little consequence. It doesn’t really matter in practice whether God is a man, a woman, a fire-breathing monster, or a large talking turnip. Religions don’t generally teach that you can withstand the impact of a charging buffalo. Those that take up these kind of lines in a big way tend to get wiped out.

    Another thing about religious ideas is that they have a kind of rationality, albeit limited. We have brains that are wired to think in terms of cause and effect so we need to answer the big question like where does everything come from, and we do this by choosing from the best available explanation. Obviously “the bloke up the track made it” won’t work and believing the sort of things that cosmologists believe these days would be totally useless (and weird) for primitive people. You need something pretty rad and edgy to get the required output.

    Life after death is another case of limited rationality. We are similarly equipped with brain systems that allow us to think about things that aren’t in our immediate presence. We look after our family members like they are there when they aren’t. Humans do this all the time but so also, to a lesser extent, do apes and rabbits. Nemotode worms and fish don’t. It’s a highly adaptive system as it allows sophisticated flexible forms of group cooperation. This brain system will continue to operate after death of one of your “virtual entities”, there is no magic off switch. To put it slightly differently, our relatives and friends are on one hand living physical entities but in another way they are emotionally-laden “narratives” in our head. The second form does not require the first. So it is, in a funny way, rational to assume that if someone is apparently dead but you can still intuit them like before then they must have gone somewhere. And even though I am a complete materialist atheist, that’s how I think of my own family members and friends who are dead: Their narrative is still present in me and elsewhere, it’s just unfortunate that they are no longer physically around to enlarge and extend to it.

    So are religious ideas viewed metaphorically? These days you would kind of have to go metaphoric or develop a kind of hopefully limited insanity; if you work through just about religious idea you find it is basically incompatible with physics and biology. Ten thousand years ago? I’m not so sure. Given the level of knowledge of physics, biology, and human psychological mechanisms at the time it might have been a lot more reasonable to accept them as literally true. When asked why the sun no longer warms us at night, what works: The fusion of hydrogen into helium continues to generate immense heat but the sun is now around the other side of our spherical planet and will be observed again tomorrow. Or: The hot sun man goes to eat and rest in his dark cave, so come to my hut ladies and we will do the wild rumbabumba dance to ensure he sleeps well and returns happy and invigorated tomorrow. The second option, I think. I’m not sure you could pull it off these days, though I’d have to say some things fairly close to it still seem to work at times.

    • It’s difficult to figure out how people thousands of years ago thought. This argument for metaphor is based around the idea that humans have an innate understanding/ability to create metaphors. If it’s something that we can’t readily conceptualise, something so far out the norm, our brain defaults to viewing it metaphorically. Even if we later go on to believe it is literally true, the fact it was originally viewed through a metaphorical lens means it doesn’t seem as absurd on the face; making us more likely to accept it in the long run.

  5. Might early burial customs be based on fear of death instead of a belief in the afterlife? The saying that we all die two deaths, one when our bodies give out and one when we are forgotten, may be part of the inspiration to create burial ceremonies. These fear-based ceremonies would predate belief in an afterlife.

    I see it like this: If a dead body is abandoned on the side of a migratory footpath, then there is nothing to anchor the event or the person in the memory of the young tribal children. The children do, however, remember the pomp and circumstance of important events. They therefore pin very early memories about the deceased to the experience of the funeral. Thus, the burial ceremony prolongs the time to the deceased’s second death.

    There is some evidence to support this fear-based idea in Native American belief systems. One custom from the Gwich’in tribe dictates that when preparing attire for the dead one should never do their best work, lest the deceased return and take the preparer to death. Note that the deceased is taking the preparer to death – not to an afterlife. Christianity later supplied an afterlife, a belief which many of the Gwich’in have adopted. Yet the traditional warning remains. The caution is based on the fear of death. Fear is instinctual. Faith in an afterlife is a tonic for the fear of death. Fear might have been the motivating factor in early burials.

    It’s easy to attribute agency (fear and faith) to our 100,000 year-old ancestors. 🙂

    Hey Jim – can you supply support for your statement:
    “We look after our family members like they are there when they aren’t. Humans do this all the time but so also, to a lesser extent, do apes and rabbits.”
    Specifically the apes and rabbits bit?

    • The Gwich’in belief certainly is interesting; and should serve as a reminder that we often take our own cultural expectations into discussion of religion. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a counter-example to the notion of burial as a good predictor of belief in the afterlife. After all; they’re still attributing agency to the deceased. They think they might come back and take them to death. Granted they don’t believe in the classic underworld/heaven/thing, but this attribution of agency is I think the critical component.

  6. Perhaps you can speak to the truth of the assertion: There has never been an atheist society in human history; all societies have some form of metaphysics.

    Assuming that is true, I’ve long wondered whether that’s due to something wired universally into our minds, or whether it’s due to an apprehension of something real (which we interpret through the lens of our own society — as Gandhi said, all religions have some error in them). If religion is a metaphor, perhaps it’s a metaphor for something real.

    There does seem an evolutionary advantage to religion in how it binds a group together and provides a moral framework. In the absence of some kind of holy writ, it’s challenging to define morality. It seems to require a fairly sophisticated intellectual ability to find a basis on which to define all humans as equal (when it seems pretty clear they are not equal in any physical way). It isn’t (AFAIK) until around the time of Kant that moral philosophy had a good go at trying to define an atheist moral framework, and I believe there still are no definite answers.

    Full disclosure: I’m a determined agnostic with deistic leanings. I wonder if our higher consciousness might be “special” in some sense, and I wonder about wonder. What is it that takes our breath away when we look up at the stars? Atheists claim there is no evidence at all of a metaphysics, but I wonder about our consciousness, our sense of wonder and the innate moral sense that many seem to have. Even Kant seems to have an element of, “Well, you just know (what’s right and what’s wrong).”

    • Many Western countries are becoming increasingly secularised, with some of the Scandanvian ones approaching >80% non-religious. However, non-religious is a vague term and deists, “spiritual but not religious” and others with some metaphysical view still get lumped in. As such whether that represents a culture dominated by people with metaphysical view is unknown. We need more fine grained work, trying to identify what people mean by “non-relgious” (there has been some preliminary work that suggests when pressed these people will default to claiming to be atheist/agnostic, but this is preliminary).

      If it was shown that these were groups without metaphysics then you’re right. This would probably be the first time in history that such a culture has existed. Every hunter-gatherer group has had some form of religion. The closest to lacking one a group has come is the Piraha people, who don’t believe in things they don’t directly experience. As such they have no gods, deities or other supernatural metaphysics. They do, however, still believe in spirits that inhabit the trees/rocks/animals/whatever; so even they still have some sort of metaphysics.

      • It’s definitely a complex topic that bears more exploration. Church attendance has been in decline in many places, but I do meet a lot of people who identify as “spiritual” (often having a very casual and unexamined personal metaphysics). Our technological world has some influence, I would think. Spiritual “miracles” are replaced by technological ones. I wonder, too, about how a society evolves its metaphysics. Certainly the roots of Scandinavian and northern European culture is strongly religious…. that members evolved away from this might differ from cultures that never had a metaphysics to begin with — never saw reality “that way.”

        I suppose someday we may find that universal part of our minds that demands of us that we create god(s). For many that may finally seal the deal, but I suppose others will still argue about how that part got there in the first place.

  7. Pingback: Useful delusions, interface theory of perception, and religion. | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

  8. Pingback: From realism to interfaces and rationality in evolutionary games | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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