The cultural buck stops somewhere: the origin of supernatural belief and the role of agency detection

(Commentary on “Seeking the Supernatural: The Interactive Religious Experience Model” by Neil Van Leeuwen & Michiel van Elk, target paper for Religion, Brain & Behavior by )
When I was a kid I used to pray in front of a glow-in-the-dark statue of the Virgin Mary. To “enhance” my telepathic connection with the Mother of God, I would rapidly flick the light switch of my room on and off, in the hope of eliciting some sort of anomalous visual experience (to no avail). As Van Leeuwen and van Elk would put it, I had absorbed “general beliefs” about the Mother of God from my parents and teachers, and I had even received a material “prop” (from my grandmother), but no-one had instructed me about the light switch. I was “actively seeking” personal experiences of the supernatural in a more or less creative fashion, in order to support my general beliefs.

Anecdotes aside, I applaud Van Leeuwen and van Elk’s interactive model of religious belief, which clearly moves the debate forward. In particular, they have put the distinction between general beliefs and “self-centered” personal beliefs to good use in clarifying the role of agency detection abilities in supernatural belief. In moving away from the traditional model of the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), however, they somewhat overstate their case, and they unnecessarily downplay the causal role of agency detection in two ways.

The first weakness of Van Leeuwen and van Elk’s paper is their cursory treatment of the origin of religious beliefs. They provide convincing evidence that, if we want to explain why a contemporary individual is religious or not, his or her cultural environment is a much better predictor than a propensity for agency detection. But cultural learning cannot explain how religious beliefs originate – it merely explains how they are perpetuatedonce they have emerged somewhere. We may never know exactly how a religious tradition started (i.e., how the first individuals acquired their beliefs), but by definition, the answer to the origin question cannot be “cultural learning”. This would merely push back the question: where and how did the teachers acquire their belief?

A religious tradition is founded – knowingly or not – by religious innovators, who somehow “infect” others with their beliefs (Sperber, 1990; Dennett 2006). The point is that, even if we completely accept Van Leeuwen and van Elk’s argument about contemporary religious believers, we can still endorse what they dismiss as “overly simple versions” of HADD theory. As an example of such simple story-telling, they quote Haidt (2012, p. 317): “Our ability to believe in supernatural agents may well have begun as an accidental by-product of a hypersensitive agency detection device”. But this is perfectly compatible with Van Leeuwen and van Elk’s account. In a population of human beings, agency detection capacities sometimes misfire and trigger erroneous intuitions about the presence of agents, which sometimes develop into full-blown beliefs about the supernatural, which sometimes infect others and blossom into religious traditions. The fact that illusory agency detection only rarely results in supernatural belief, and is generally a lousy predictor of religious faith today, is true but irrelevant. Evolution is all about things that rarely happen, and so it is with cultural evolution.

In fact, it seems hard to believe that defenders of old-fashioned HADD ever doubted that religious beliefs are culturally transmitted, rather than being re-invented time and again through HADD or some other cognitive bias. When Van Leeuwen and van Elk rhetorically ask “Is it mere coincidence that so many people in Nahuatl culture across several centuries believed in a feathered snake god?”, I don’t think any anthropologist would be puzzled by this “coincidence”. In this respect, the authors seem to make a straw man of the traditional HADD account.

Van Leeuwen and van Elk underplay the role of agency detection in a second way, namely with regard to paranormal belief. In modern industrial societies, paranormal beliefs are mostly individualist fringe beliefs, which are not part of established traditions (Goode, 2000). People seem to acquire their paranormal beliefs mostly through personal experience (or vicarious reports of experience by others) rather than cultural education (Blackmore, 1984; Houran, Irwin & Lange, 2001), and they usually do not instruct their children in a paranormal gospel. As a result, the evidence of parental transmission of paranormal beliefs is weak (Irwin, 2009, p. 25), and in traditional religious families paranormal beliefs are actively discouraged and suppressed (Cohn, 1999). Irwin (2009, p. 118) even writes that “generally speaking … the only cultural input to the generation of the parapsychological belief is the mere name of the phenomenon (e.g. ‘telepathy’)”.

It would be surprising indeed if we did not see a larger influence of agency detection in the development of paranormal beliefs, compared to the religious domain. And indeed, paranormal believers are more inclined to illusory detection of patterns in noise (Blackmore & Moore, 1994; Brugger et al., 1993), as well as human faces (Riekki et al., 2013), and they perceive more intentionality in randomly moving geometric figures (Riekki, Lindeman & Raij, 2014). Van Elk (2013) himself found that paranormal belief, but not traditional religious belief, was strongly correlated with illusory detection of agents. But in their target article, Van Leeuwen and van Elk downplay the factor of  agency detection, noting that correlation does not imply causation: “it could be that having paranormal beliefs makes people more prone to reporting agency-like experiences”. So they conclude that the role of HADD is “small compared to other effects related to one’s cultural and social environment.”

Now it is true that the causal arrow probably runs both ways. If you already believe in haunted houses, say, this will make you even more susceptible to detecting illusory agency when hearing the shutters rattle at night. But is it plausible that belief in the paranormal makes one more prone to attributing intentionality in unrelated tasks, such as watching geometric figures on a screen, or detecting faces in visual noise? It seems more likely that the main causal arrow runs the other way, and Van Leeuwen and van Elk don’t need to deny this point to make their main case.

In short, I agree that cultural learning is the main determinant of general religious beliefs among contemporary individuals, but I think that agency detection looms larger in the more individualist and experience-oriented domain of paranormal belief. Also, we still need agency detection (and related biases) to explain the cultural origin of (general) religious beliefs. The cultural buck needs to stop somewhere.

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