I’ve been reading a lot about “modules” lately. Many people postulate a language module; I haven’t heard of any who postulate a religion module. The one useful point I have seen made by cognitive psychology about the objects of religious belief is that, whether in non-Western cultures or in our own, they contain elements that are “unnatural,” counter-intuitive, while at the same time obeying universal psychological intuitions about how minds work. (See Pascal Boyer, “Cognitive constraints on cultural representations: Natural ontologies and religious ideas,” in Mapping the mind, ed. Lawrence Hirschfeld and Susan Gelman, Cambridge UP, 1994.) Whatever modular thinking’s other virtues, it restores some measure of common sense about human universality, allowing us to trust instead of apologizing for our “Western” intuitions. (Not to speak of the fact that, whatever its intentions, admiring the “naturalness” of religious beliefs in other cultures resuscitates Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s notion of “pre-logical” primitive mentality.)

No doubt Durkheim’s sacred-profane opposition presents the “unnaturalness” of religion more elegantly and with a far more cogent explanation of its communal function than Boyer’s idea that “certain combinations of intuitive [i.e., anthropomorphic psychology] and counterintuitive [i.e., supernatural physical existence] claims constitute a cognitive optimum” (406). Yet the insistence on the universal counter-intuitiveness of religious belief is a step in the right direction, one particularly welcome given the far more critical eye cast on universals of human behavior in our era as compared with that of Durkheim.


Boyer’s example is the Fang belief in ghosts or bekong. The Fang ghost is presumed to have a mind like ours but in addition is gifted with qualities such as non-mortality (the bekong are, roughly speaking, the souls of the dead) immateriality, invisibility, the capacity of instantaneous displacement, and most significantly, the power to inflict illness on those guilty of the violation of ritual prohibitions (398). The ghosts are anything but “natural” beings; their unnaturalness is inseparable from their cultural significance.

The cognitive psychologist sees the unnaturalness of beings gifted with superhuman attributes, but fails to derive from this a theory of the “unnatural” that includes language or even the sacred in Durkheim’s terms. Instead, he focuses on the “cultural survival” (406) of religious ideas, not for the community that practices them, but in and for themselves. This is very close to Dawkins’ notion of the meme or cultural fragment that survives by reproducing itself in the members of a culture; “unnatural” ideas survive because the cognitive dissonance they generate makes them harder to forget than common-sense ideas.

Boyer is well aware that only a few such “unnatural” ideas become the dominant representations of an entire community:

In any cultural environment, indefinitely many religious representations are constantly created and communicated. Only some of them, however, have the potential to support both imaginative scenarios and intuitive inferences. These are the ones that combine a rich intuitive base, with all its inferential potential, and a limited series of violations of intuitive theories, which are attention-demanding. Because of these characteristics, such assumptions are more likely than other assumptions to be easily acquired, memorized, and transmitted. It should not be surprising, therefore, that they constitute the most recurrent aspects of religious systems. (407)

Yet this near-tautological language tells us nothing about how religious ideas are generated and how they function. Nor is the solution to be found through examining the ideas in themselves. The survival of religious ideas is inseparable from that of the human communities that generate them–in the first place, from that of the human species that alone can formulate ideas in language.Rousseau’s brilliant intuition that in the earliest language men would be called “giants,” and even the common Enlightenment idea (most often associated with Vico) that the earliest language was poetry rather than prose, still have much to teach those who think they can generalize about our “representations” without concerning themselves with why we create representations in the first place.

It is not enough, however, to point out in the language of the history of ideas the weaknesses of such contributions as this to the scientific study of religion. For the emergence of these analyses is precisely a sign that the old metaphysics that still dominates theoretical discussion in the humanities and the softer social sciences is reaching the end of its usefulness. As I suggested in Chronicle201, the most useful or “dialectical” alternative to the biological model of the human in the light of the cognitive-evolutionary critique of the “Standard Social Science Model” (SSSM) is a humanistic, that is, a generative, anthropology. The “two cultures” may become more likely to listen to each other as the intellectual buffer of a culture- but not event-based anthropology becomes increasingly less available. For whether or not mental modularity is the answer, the cognitivist critique of the conception of cultures as arbitrary and irreducible absolutes can at best be deflected, not refuted.


Most of the supernatural qualities of the Fang ghosts, as of all religious beings are, as I have pointed out on many occasions, those of the linguistic sign. Signs too are non-mortal, immaterial (as types), rapidly transmitted. But in addition to the transcendent status of the sign with relation to its worldly referents, the supernatural also expresses the transcendent status of the sacred being in relation to its worshipers. The first relation is formal; it may be described in a geometrical metaphor as a “vertical” supplement to the “horizontal” world of appetite. The second relation is ethical; interactions among humans are mediated by sacred interdiction, and both the rules of practical ethics that govern societies and the model of reciprocity that founds our moral intuition derive from it.

What then of religion, the traditional guardian of the notion of the event-based nature of the human? If GA, as a rigorous form of anthropological thought, stands on the humanistic side of the frontier between the humanities and the sciences, it cannot be said to be situated between religion and something else. The individual religions are not likely to experience a need for the minimal shared core that originary thinking provides until their own mutual dialogue has advanced far beyond its current “interfaith” level. Rather than being in dialogue with religion, I see GA rather as the (unelected) representative of religion to the scientific community. Here once more we follow in the footsteps of Durkheim, with the difference that the cognitive value of religion in originary thinking does not begin with the unexplained dichotomy of sacred and profane but with a motivating event. As a result, our “science of religion,” unlike that of Durkheim, is able to integrate the core intuition of religion itself. Durkheim writes about religious classification as (still) a nineteenth-century anthropologist analyzing the religion of “primitives” and (already) a structuralist modeling a human world without events. Durkheim claims that religion is the source of science, but he relies for the scientific status of his own discourse on the metaphysical foreclosure of the event and of the ostensive utterance-form associated with it. The central intellectual task of GA, if it can be described in one sentence, is to demystify this separation by articulating it in anthropological terms.

Everyone talks about the human need for stories; it is not yet generally understood that the need for stories is a need for events. Events are what stories are made up of. By postulating an originary event, GA does not create a new myth but rather makes clear the minimal presupposition of human culture that thrives on events. Events cannot derive imperceptibly from non-events; there must be a “first” event because events by definition are noticed. Different cultures there certainly are, but they all share the same eventfulness and are therefore most parsimoniously derived, lacking evidence to the contrary, from a single originary scene. (Pace some critics of GA, a multiplicity of originary scenes would by no means disconfirm the originary hypothesis, but merely complicate its historical articulation: did the originary communities born in the diverse scenes combine? Were the descendents of all but one such community eventually eliminated–in which case there would be only one originary scene for us?…)

How then should we explain the “cognitive optimum” that Boyer finds in the Fang ghost stories? The counter-intuitive element that makes these and all religious tales memorable is not explicable simply as a story-telling device; it is an imaginative means of representing the transcendental basis of storytelling itself. But the transcendental does not emerge from thin air. For the sacred object to become the source of the Being or signified that stands behind the sign, it must be destroyed in the sparagmos. The birth of the sign as told in the originary story is consequent on the death and transfiguration of the object that was the originary center of desire, the death and transfiguration that lies at the root of sacrificial myths and of those stories that prolong and interpret them. It is not by chance that the Fang “ghosts” originate as the souls of the dead.

What generates the “cognitive optimum,” the balance between ordinary human psychology and the transcendence of human physical limitations is not some undefined “limited series of violations” but the tension between the vulnerability of the originary object-referent to the violence of human desire and the persistence of its peace-bringing significant Being–life after death. The supernatural is bound to be “attention-demanding” because it reproduces the very source of human attention to the sign. This is a lesson that cognitive science can learn from Generative Anthropology.