See also Religion, Language, Narrative and the Search for Meaning
This realization has prompted a lot of speculation about the origins of religion. Why do people in almost all societies seem to believe in the existence of invisible supernatural beings who may influence human life for good or ill and whom it is advisable to pray to or propitiate? And why have almost all societies developed rituals, sometimes very elaborate and demanding in nature, in connection with such beliefs? In spite of much speculation no generally agreed answers to such questions have emerged.
The same systems in the mind that we use to explain everyday occurrences such as a tennis ball breaking a window, he suggests, also generate belief in invisible beings and hidden influences on events. For Boyer there is no real difference between these two sorts of explanatory process. He develops this admittedly counter-intuitive argument at length, with abundant citation of anthropological evidence. An important part of his theory is that the explanatory processes themselves are not accessible to introspection, which is why the beliefs they give rise to are so persuasive. This is an interesting argument though I am not sure that it explains the phenomena fully. (See my review for more details.)
It has often been remarked that there are similarities in the religious ideas of cultures that are widely separated from one another geographically or in time. For Boyer these resemblances are explained by the fact that all human minds and brains function in much the same way. The psychologist C.G. Jung reached the same conclusion earlier from a different starting point when he formulated his theory of archetypes.
Some critics have dismissed Jung's archetypes as unscientific and metaphysical, and it is true that there are inconsistencies and obscurities in the way Jung himself described them. However, some modern Jungians, for example Anthony Stevens, have interpreted the idea in a biological sense (Stevens, 1990). Stevens regards the archetypes as inherited patterns of function analogous to instincts in animals. On this view archetypes could be thought of as psychological "instincts" that manifest themselves in behaviour and thought patterns.
The widespread devotion to the Virgin Mary in Catholic countries and within Orthodox Christianity can be seen as arising from the archetype of the Anima. Stevens's version of Jung's archetype theory implies that religion is hardwired in the brain. There are (presumably genetic) mechanisms which tend to give rise to religious experiences and ultimately beliefs.
A memeplex is a group of memes that cooperate to ensure their own survival. So the memes of Catholicism are supposed to include the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God, the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God, the Virgin Birth, the infallibility of the Pope, and so on.
One can understand why, in a post-Christian context, there should be this emphasis on belief. Belief has always been a central issue in Christianity. Wars have been fought over questions of belief and innumerable heretics have been tortured and burnt for holding what the authorities regarded as incorrect beliefs. Europeans and North Americans therefore tend to assume, as a matter of course, that belief is the fundamental issue in religion. Yet in other religions there has been less emphasis on adherence to particular beliefs. This is certainly true of Hinduism and Buddhism, and even in the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, there has been much less persecution of "heretics" than has been the case in Christianity.
The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages had statues and pictures illustrating events in the lives of Christ and the saints. For most people this was how they experienced religion: not as formal statements of belief but as stories. And even today, Catholics follow the story of the Passion in the sequence of the Stations of the Cross.
In fact, Christianity is more dependent on narrative than probably any other major religion. It is based on a story that begins with Genesis, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and bequeathed Original Sin to their descendants. The human race therefore stood in need of redemption, which occurred because God sent his son to earth to die as a sacrifice. This myth seems to have originated with Augustine, or at least to have attained its full formulation thanks to him. It's quite a story. Without it, Christianity as we have it today could not exist.
As religions develop they accumulate stories about the lives of their saints and prophets—more narratives. New religions typically also start from a narrative: Mormonism, for example, begins with the story of Joseph Smith's discovery of the golden tablets on which was inscribed the Book of Mormon. In almost all traditional societies the process of initiating young people into the mysteries of the tribes seems to have consisted largely in telling them stories about the deeds of tribal gods and ancestors.
Intellectual critics today tend to assume that all this narrative material is merely a concession to the uneducated masses, who are unable to understand the sophisticated concepts that are the real substance of religion. I think that this puts things the wrong way round. To understand the appeal of religions we should look first at the narratives in which they are expressed and only subsequently at the doctrinal beliefs that they give rise to.
If this idea is right, it follows that the occurrence of strange beliefs in religion has a ready explanation. Many people find it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. Writers of radio or television soap operators often report that people write to the fictional characters in the apparent belief that they are real. This is a trivial illustration of a basic human propensity, which is to project the stories we tell ourselves on the outer world. The human imagination has given rise to religious stories in which all kinds of miraculous and wonderful events occur. These are taken to be real, and give rise to beliefs which are then incorporated into the religions as factual statements.
See also Religion and Language