“Belief in God: Why People Believe, and Why They Don’t”

Mercier, Brett, Stephanie R. Kramer, and Azim F. Shariff. “Belief in God: Why People Believe, and Why They Don’t.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 27, no. 4 (August 2018): 263–68. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418754491.

In “Belief in God: Why People Believe, and Why They Don’t,” Mercier discusses how the 21st century has brought a new understanding to religion’s origin and maintenance using a psychological and sociological view. Specifically, Mercier points out how humans were not always religious, there was once a time when the brain wasn’t even capable of such thought, so he examines when and why the switch to religion occurred. Furthermore, Mercier uses an extensive list of his other’s studies, his own studies, and his own inferences to determine the ultimate and proximate causes of religion’s beginning and lasting values.

Looking at the entirety of primate history, humans have just recently achieved their “modern minds.” Reaching this extent of evolution, of extreme cognitive complexity and advancement, humans shifted out of smaller tribes, usually between 100-200 people, to societies with much larger populations. A reason for this was because of humanities newly discovered ability for agriculture instead of hunting and gathering. Agriculture was a drastically more efficient way to collect food which in turn could support much larger populations. These much larger populations began to form as they were much more beneficial and productive than smaller individual tribes. Soon, societies became so big that humans belonging to these new and massive societies became anonymous. In previous societies, if someone were to cheat or exploit others, they would be identifiable and punished by the group. However, in anonymous societies it became exceptionally easy to take advantage and cheat others. Thus, religion was born. Religion being introduced and enforced lead to much greater societal stability and drastically reduced the amount of “cheaters” in new societies. When nobody else could punish someone for hurting the large society, “God(s)” would take on the responsibility. This is also known as the “ultimate cause” for religion (A.K.A. the real reason). Contrarily, the proximate cause for religion was to give reason and purpose to that which was “unknown” stemming from human’s hyper-sensitivity. Human’s hyper-sensitivity is a built in defense mechanism which assigns fear to a situation that is unknown, even if it isn’t really fear-worthy. Further, as humans became more cognitively advanced they found reasons for things happening (i.e. If I heat this wood it will burn because its flammable). However, humans couldn’t explain their purpose or genuine reason for being alive and how they should act. This “unknown” turned into fear, because of human’s hyper sensitive nature, and caused societal unrest. The proximate cause for religion suggests that religion was introduced to solve this fearful “unknown” and restore stability to newly forming societies.

Personally, I find sociological theories like this one to be extremely necessary in the study of religious art history. Mercier does an exceptional job outlining the fundamental building blocks for how religion was introduced to society, and for why it has lasted so long. Although this article doesn’t discuss any particular piece of artwork, or any artwork for that matter, it gives the background and reasoning for why we have religion, a subject that is likely unmatched by anything else in artistic representation.

Author: Ryan Mach

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