Lecture Five: Why Do We Believe? A Human Imagination and the Emergence of Belief Systems

Professor Fuentes delivered his fifth lecture earlier this evening. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Dr Sarah Lane Ritchie and Dr Aku Visala will offer their initial reflections. Ritchie is currently a Research Fellow in Science and Theology at the University of St Andrews and Visala is currently an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy of Religion and Research Fellow of the Finnish Academy at the University of Helsinki, Finland. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Fuentes’ rescheduled fifth lecture was held at New College earlier this evening and he attempted to pack a lot of material into a short amount of time. In this lecture he began to take a closer look at the “human imagination and the emergence of belief systems” where the religious capacity of the human niche was a main focus. As he pointed out early on (with the evolutionary time-span in mind), “Religion, as we know it, is very, very recent, and we are not.” However, deeply held faith and devotion to religious belief are centrally significant for billions of humans today “and the capacity to be religious is found in all of humanity,” so Fuentes went on to assert that there must be some evolutionary relevance. After having engaged briefly with the anthropologist Roy Rappaport, the sociologist Robert Bellah, and the sociologist Merlin Donald Fuentes went on to state, “I propose that there are multiple lines of evidence suggesting that the capacity to be religious, emerged in concert with the capacity for belief over our evolutionary history and that religions, as we now recognize them, only very recently became a fixture of human identity.” In this sense religious beliefs are much older than “formal religious systems, structures and institutions.”

At the outset Fuentes also briefly clarified what he was not aiming to do in this lecture (or indeed in this series as a whole). As he stated, “it is not about questioning broadly construed truth claims of any specific religious tradition, or trying to identify some Urreligion that gave birth to all, or even a subset, of the contemporary ones.” He is, and has been, interested in unpacking “why we believe and the ways in which we do” and specifically in this lecture with the question “why are we humans religious and why are religions themselves so central to the human experience?

Fuentes then moved on to make two central terminological clarifications for this lecture. He clarified how he was using the term “religious” (which he borrowed from Clifford Geertz) as distinct from, but related to, the term “religion” (which he borrowed from Émile Durkheim). In the case of “religious” Fuentes explained that he takes this term “to mean the use of one’s capacity for belief in the context of becoming with particular perceptual, experiential and agential practices, involving the transcendent, that act to establish powerful, persuasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that may be but are not necessarily tied to specific formal doctrines, practices, texts, or institutions.” In the case of “religion” he explained that that he takes this term to mean “the formal coalition of religious beliefs and practices (rituals) and the material symbols and structured institutions that unite them into a single community via specific theological doctrine and ritual.” Fuentes mentioned that this distinction might not be satisfactory to all (especially for those coming from different disciplines who are inclined to ask slightly different questions), but he went on to show how this was a “necessary methodological practice for an effective evolutionary analysis.” He went on to speak in some depth about the relative youth of what we understand as the formal world religions today (stemming back to approximately 8,000 years ago), but pointed out that the human religious capacity goes back much further than that.


In order to begin unpacking this religious capacity Fuentes spent some time discussing the “history of the evidence for meaning-making” and belief. He brought up many examples from the caves at Altamir, Lascaux, and Leang Timpuseng to the cathedral in Toledo, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the ruins at Borobudur and Prambanan in Java. As he stated, “the caves and temples and monumental architecture offer concrete material evidence for human belief systems.” Given that all these examples are still relatively recent in our human history Fuentes stated that some might think that our capacity for belief systems also emerged relatively recently. Fuentes, however, rejected this assumption. As he stated, “as an evolutionary scientist I know that it is not possible that at some point 50,000 or 30,000 or 10,000 or even 2,000 years ago a single shift, be it evolutionary or revelatory, changed everything, and the world was made anew.” The available data, he went on to state, refutes this. In stating this, however, Fuentes was not saying “that major shifts and changes and innovations did not occur at these points, but it is to say that those changes are necessarily rooted in patterns and processes of the bodies, behaviors and minds that came before them.” As he clarified,  “belief systems did not appear wholly de novo.”

At this point in his lecture Fuentes mentioned that “evolutionary questions about belief and belief systems have to involve data,” which consists of various material remains. He then went on to ask, “is there material evidence for anything like symbolic representation or structured systems of meaning making (religious or otherwise) in the deep past?” His answer was both yes and no. He went on to explain the processes of engaging with symbolic material evidence and some of its challenges. As he stated, “a symbol can only be accurately perceived and interpreted within a particular set of culturally accepted meanings, those under which it was created. Therefore, without access to the cultural context of the meaning-makers we cannot accurately know the meaning of the symbol.” However, he then spoke about another approach that avoids this difficulty. He spoke of his and Marc Kissel’s appropriation of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and his trichotomy of signs that does not rely on symbol (as a side note, Peirce is the only one of the three “classical pragmatists” who did not give a Gifford Lecture, both James and Dewey gave their lectures here at Edinburgh). Peirce’s trichotomy that Fuentes and Kissel draw on is not the “symbol, icon and index,” but his less well known “qualsign, sinsign and legisign” and for the purposes of this lecture it was the last term that Fuentes focused on, “which is a sign vehicle based on convention.” As he went on to explain further:

That is, if there are multiple examples of the same type of human created material item that conveys or contains and/or evokes similar or identical sensations, then we can say that it reflects a convention amongst the group or groups making them in that they intentionally are replicating the making of a material item with the same or similar characteristics, and thus likely, with the same intended impact. That the legisign did mean something to those who made it is evident via the repeated creation of items which evoke specific sensory responses, across space and time.


By using this approach Fuentes argued that the “presence of legisigns offers evidence of meaning making, whether symbolic or not,” and this legisign evidence further indicates and enables the possibility for various patterns of belief. He then went on to speak about the various evidence of legisigns in the material data that go back much further than our evidence for formal religious systems, structures, and institutions. Fuentes then moved on to more specifically ask how this development with its emerging patterns of belief relate to the religious and to religion.

He again made the point, after having illustrated it in detail, that “human religious belief systems did not simply appear out of thins air,” but that “they evolved.” At this point, about halfway through his lecture he devoted his time to more fully articulating “the ‘evolution’ of religion.”

In conversation with the anthropologist Roy Rappaport Fuentes made the point that the nature of religion and of religious belief cannot “truly be reduced to a suite of simply functional or adaptive terms.” In conversation with theologians Wesley Wildman and Wentzel van Huyssteen he pointed out that our understanding of religion, if it is to be adequate, must incorporate an understanding of its relationship to evolutionary processes and to the embodied human self. Fuentes, however, stated that “most current proposals for the evolution of religion” are unsatisfactory and he went on to engage with a number of these approaches (e.g. “Big God” arguments and various ritual-related arguments) and described a number of reasons why he ultimately found them to be inadequate.

In beginning to describe his own position concerning the evolution of religion Fuentes quoted Wentzel van Huyssteen summarizing his (Fuentes’) position:

Agustin Fuentes and I, in spite of our radically different disciplines, approaches and methodologies, completely agree that a necessary prelude to having religion is indeed the emergence of a human imagination and the embodiment of a quest for meaning as part and parcel of the distinctive human niche that has facilitated our flourishing as a species (van Huyssteen 2018).


Fuentes pointed out that he offers his own position on the evolution of religion “as a complement to the eloquent analyses of many scholars on this topic” and offers it as an “expansion on the evolutionary framework for religious belief.” He went on to describe his proposal in detail starting from approximately 1.5 million years ago with the creation and use of tools all the way up to approximately 8,000 years ago “when we see material evidence for the emergence of formal coalitions of religious beliefs and practices and the material symbols and structured institutions that unite them into a single community via specific theological doctrine and ritual.” In short he stated that he was convinced that “the capacity to be religious evolved and religions emerged as a facet, a pattern, and a key process of the human niche.”

Towards the end of his lecture Fuentes was quick to point out that “this does not offer an answer as to why any given religion has the particular faith practices and beliefs that make up its theology.” Nor does it rule out “the possibility that some form of transcendent revelation plays a role in the ‘why’ answer about the particular beliefs of religions.” As a scientist, he stated, he can only challenge assertions that contradict material facts. It is here that Fuentes refreshingly points toward the possibility of fruitful interdisciplinary discourse and inquiry.

Fuentes ended his lecture by stating that “meaning-making with the more-than the material, the transcendent, and thus an openness to revelation and discovery, however it is experienced, is a core part of the human niche and central to aspects of our evolutionary success,” however, “it also introduces horrible possibilities.” And with this he alluded to his forthcoming and final lecture where he would further develop these themes and connect them to the conclusions of the previous five.

3 thoughts on “Lecture Five: Why Do We Believe? A Human Imagination and the Emergence of Belief Systems

  1. In his fifth Gifford Lecture, Agustín Fuentes highlights what he sees as the narrow focus of many contemporary evolutionary and cognitive accounts of religiosity. After reviewing some of the options on the table, including the big gods-theory of Ara Norenzayan, the supernatural punishment theory of Jesse Bering and Dominic Johnson and the by-product approaches of the cognitive science of religion, he concludes:

    “I don’t’ think that we can disregard the experience of the religious in favor of providing overarching structural and functional evolutionary explanations for religions or religiosity. The concepts that being “religious” is primarily a by-product of the complex human cognitive system, and/or that being religious is an adaptation to enhance human cooperation are too shallow as effective ways to think about religion, evolution and the human experience.”

    He offers a number of reasons for this. First, according to Fuentes, religiosity has deeper roots in human mind/brain than the by-productist would want to admit. Religious “meaning-making” is in this sense more continuous with other forms of meaning-making. Second, Fuentes suggest that religious institutions and rituals are quite recent. They cannot be explained in terms of their power to provide pro-social benefits, because they are predated by a number of different practices (such as rituals, language, roles and institutions) that already support human “hypersociality”.

    Fuentes proposes that rituals, institutions and shared dogmas are latecomers. What comes early is the human capacity for religious experience, the religious imagination. The neurobiological basis for this is in place long before any religious institutions emerge. Fuentes puts a lot of weight on the human capacity to be shaped and moved by religious experiences. His claim is quite contrary to many people in the cognitive-evolutionary study of religion. Their aim is, for the most part, is to bypass “the experience of the religious” just to make sure that their approach to religion is properly scientific. Fuentes, on the contrary, is rather more careful and leaves more space for the “experience of the folk”.

    It seems that Fuentes wants, at least to some extent, turn the tide in the evolutionary study of religion. Especially in the 19th century anthropology and study of religion, religious and spiritual experiences were taken as proxies for religion tout court. The ineffable nature of religious experience, the fear and mystery in front of the Holy, was supposed to give us the central theme for a general theory of religion. Rudolf Otto and William James, for instance, sought to understand religion as a whole through religious experience. This is sometimes dubbed as the “perennial” approach to religion.

    In the 21st century, the emergence of cognitive science of religion turned the tide against perennial approaches. If I am allowed to exaggerate a bit, the cognitive scientists pushed for a diametrically opposite view, according to which religious experience plays no significant role whatsoever. I call this the “no experience view”.

    I take it that this tendency is driven by assumptions of how the mind/brain works. The cognitive science of religion is mainly inspired by computational approaches to the mind and gene-centric approaches to human nature. On the stereotypically computational view, “experience” is a product of concepts and representations. Religious experiences therefore are products of conceptual schemes and representations. Once we have explained them in terms of cognitive processing, we have explained the experiences. This reverses the perennial direction of explanation: cognition comes first, experience only second.

    Somewhat surprisingly, Fuentes takes distance from the computational account and refers more to the literature on neurobiology than on cognitive mechanisms. I think this is a good move. The study of the human brain and its relationship to the cultural and symbolic dimension has seen a huge progress and paradigm changes in recent years. Computational models have fallen into disrepute (at least to some extent) and the focus is now on the complex interactions between the brain, body, world and experience. Brain is now viewed not (necessarily and completely) as a computational device but as a part of an embedded and embodied whole. New levels of neural plasticity up to the point where cultural practices are considered capable of directly affecting brain physiology and anatomy via forms of neural re-use.

    It is unfortunate that Fuentes does not offer us more details about what he means by religious experiences. If he wants to place religious experience in a central place in explaining the emergence of religiosity as well as religious institutions, he will have to solve a number of problems. Here are just three.

    The first problem has to do with the core of religious experience, or the possible lack of it. According to the perennial view, religious experience has a inner nature. Regardless of beliefs and practices, the basic phenomenal features of such experiences remain relatively stable. More recently, some neuroscientists have suggested that perhaps there is a specific neural mechanism for such experiences, or at least a specific pattern of neural activation. The problem is that we do not really have much in terms of evidence for such claims. As far as I know, there is no clear evidence for a brain mechanism for religious experience.

    Furthermore, there are some reasons to think that whether an experience with high emotional effects is religious or not is a matter of interpretation rather than anything else. The cognitive scientist could maintain that “religious experiences” are non-ordinary experiences interpreted in terms of religious concepts that elucidate strong emotions. In this sense, they are just experiences interpreted in the light of religious beliefs. Here the beliefs and their contents are the most important, not the strong emotions.

    So, the question is whether Fuentes wants to commit to a strong view of a (neurological) core of religious experience or go with the more computational view. If he goes with the latter, it is difficult to see, how religious experience could do the work he wants it to do. If he goes with the former, he would have to present more evidence for specifically religious neural structures.

    The second problem facing Fuentes and others who put religious experience at centre stage is this. It is all well and good to say that religious experiences make peoples’ life more meaningful but it seems that most people never have religious experiences. If we define religious experiences as non-ordinary experiences, say trance-like states or other “mystical” experiences, we will have to admit that most people never have them. According to perennial accounts of religion, like that of William James, religions stem from the experiences of sages and seers or “religious geniuses” like Jesus or Buddha. The great masses would then simply be impressed by the experiences of the geniuses and follow their insights.

    But the fact is, that geniuses and seers are very rare. Is Fuentes suggesting that such, non-ordinary experiences were more common in the past? Perhaps not. If by religious experience he refers to something more ordinary, say, a feeling of “there being something greater or transcendent”, it is difficult to see what role such experiences really play in our account of religiosity.

    The third problem is that it is sometimes difficult to see how experiences and communities are related. On the one hand, experiences are deeply personal and subjective. On the other hand, experiences and emotions are shaped and interpreted by shared practices and conceptual resources. In other words, religious experiences are experienced and shared in a community that provides both conceptual and interpretative resources in the forms of cultural traditions. Without conceptual resources (which are, I guess, language-like representations) it seems difficult to even make sense of experiences, not to mention religious experiences. To give more plausibility to the claim that religiosity in form of experience dates further back than institutions (perhaps even beliefs, as Fuentes seems to suggest), these links between community and experience should be spelled out more carefully.

    To conclude, I think Fuentes is right in emphasising the narrowness of some of the proposals in the cognitive-evolutionary study of religion. Given this, a multi-level approach to religiosity that includes experiences and neurobiology is warranted. We would do well to move beyond dichotomies like belief versus emotion and cognition versus experience. Here more contemporary accounts of the function of the mind/brain would help. However, accounts that seek to rehabilitate religious experiences face many theoretical and empirical challenges, as I suggested above. The benefit of established cognitive approaches, for instance, is that they can more clearly delineate their objects of study, even if this is rather narrow. Those seeking for a broader account that takes experiences into account have their work cut out for them.

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  2. Over the course of his last five lectures, Professor Fuentes has painted a compelling and persuasive picture of the evolution of human belief. Rather than portraying religious belief as an incidental by-product of our evolving cognitive capacities, or as a mere adaptation promoting social cohesion (and thereby our chances for group survival), Professor Fuentes has located the capacity for religious belief at the very heart of what it means to be human. He affirms anthropologist Roy Rapaport’s suggestion that “in the absence of what we, in a common sense way, call religion, humanity could not have emerged from its pre- or proto-human condition.” Fuentes, though, goes further than this affirmation that religion is integral to human evolution, and suggests that it is the capacity to be religious that is now worth examining: we cannot “disregard the experience of the religious in favour of providing overarching structural and functional evolutionary explanations for religions or religiosity.”

    At the heart of Professor Fuentes’ proposal is the insistence on the priority of the human capacity to be religious, over the development of religions themselves. In order for religious systems to evolve, “you’d need to have the religious experience already firmly as part of the human landscape.” Over the past several lectures, Fuentes described in remarkable detail the myriad ways in which the capacity for belief more generally evolved – this involved feedback dynamics in which neurobiological and physical changes were inherently intertwined with social relationships, the creative process, and “meaning making” more generally. The capacity for belief was a result of the “fecund set of physiological, behavioural and cognitive interfaces in the human niche.” And how did this capacity for belief become explicitly religious? Fuentes here offers a tantalizing description of the “glimmerings” of material evidence indicating early experiences of transcendence, and traces their slow, gradual evolution – an evolution that reveals the capacity to be religious as “a facet, a pattern, and a key process of the human niche.”

    I find Fuentes’ narrative to be compelling and provocative, and it elicits two related questions in my mind. First, I am curious to know more about the capacity for distinctively religious belief as something more than the capacity for imagination, the capacity for belief more generally, and the capacity to experience transcendence. It is clear that Fuentes would want to include all three of these in his description of the human capacity to be religious – but it is perhaps unclear what makes this capacity explicitly religious. Is it the object of the religious belief that matters? Is it the evolution of concepts of supernatural beings or immaterial entities beyond sensory perception? I suspect not, as Fuentes is consistently clear about his distinction between the why and the what of religious belief. For him, it is not the content of the belief that is of particular interest here, but the very capacity itself. But what, then, is to distinguish religious belief from non-religious experiences of transcendence? One has only to attend a highly-anticipated rugby match or observe a mob of teenagers at a music festival to recognize that it is entirely possible to experience transcendence in a seemingly non-religious way.

    This is not so much a criticism, however, as a question that wonders about potentially exciting new ways to think about religious belief. Specifically, my second question has to do with how we might look to the past – to the embodied, evolved capacity for religious belief prior to the evolution of religious systems – as we think about the future of religious belief. Fuentes seems to suggest that “transcendent and possibly transformative experiences are at the core of individual believer’s experience of what it means to be ‘religious’” – that the experience of transcendence is integral, even necessary, for the development of religion as such. If this is the case, if the capacity for transcendent experience is part of our embodied, biological, cultural, evolutionary story, how might we think differently about the future of religious belief?

    It has been widely researched and reported that the West is experiencing something of a decline in religiosity and, yes, religious belief. It is also clear that religious systems are remarkably complex, socially involved, doctrinally intricate, and often extremely cerebral in practice and expression. It has long been common in theological circles to downplay – if not outright reject – any emphasis on religious experience as being, at best, insignificant or unnecessary for the development of a robust faith life. I wonder, though, if Professor Fuentes’ lecture might give us pause before assuming that we have moved on from our biological, evolutionary propensity to experience transcendence, to feel belief. I am particularly intrigued by one of Fuentes’ closing remarks: “Belief is a commitment. One that human beings evolved to make.” Is it possible that the evolutionary, embodied commitment of belief might entail an openness to transcendent experience as not only biologically, but theologically normative? These are tantalizing questions, and I am grateful to Professor Fuentes for provoking them.

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  3. I greatly appreciate Prof. Fuentes’ lecture and his various insights, both in his critical approach to recent attempts to explain religion, or at least to build convincing theories about its origins and evolution, and then in his proposal to focus on another direction more concerned with imagination and meaning making. This choice connects with other scholars trying to make sense of religion in a less reductive way by resorting to the ‘very human’ capacities that have often been neglected in cognitive and evolutionary approaches.

    This development is clearly a mark of progress, but inside a dialectic dynamic in the current scientific study of religion or in the attempt to provide naturalistic views. That point can be traced in the former two comments, by prof. Visala and by Sarah Ritchie. Namely that we cannot avoid some polarity or tension when dealing with religion, and hence we can often perceive opposed perspectives: personal experience and cultural framing; cognitive structure and meaning making; internal belief and external ritual behaviour; cognition and emotion… Perhaps the weird quantum world can help with some useful simile: as the nature of light can be seen as both particle and wave, or behaving sometimes as the first, and sometimes as wave, perhaps religion cannot be seen in a one-sided way, and stereoscopic views – considering two or more factors – could be required to better grasp what is going on.

    The quantum simile can be further exploited in the sense revealed in the uncertainty principle. As we can hardly get both a particle position and its momentum, we cannot get both a focus on internal experience, and one that is able to recognize believing contents and their external meaning. In any case, one dimension remits to the other; as does the personal experience to the cultural framework, or the imagination to fixing beliefs, and both to emotions.

    Prof. Fuentes helps immensely to provide a most needed balance in the scientific study of religion, setting in the centre stage aspects other theories have neglected, but we still need more multilevel theories and analysis able to reckon with the rich variety of factors involved in actual religion, and including symbolic capacities, language, sharing attitudes, rituals, social coordination, beliefs and their multiple roles… among many more. A rich repertoire of new theories and studies developed in recent years trying to better understand human specific traits (Tomasello, Deacon, Clark…) could turn out very useful for fresh attempts to deal with religion’s origins and early evolution. My expectation is that the scientific study of religion will progress in similar directions, and resorting to the best theories on supply, will help to throw light into a most intriguing human trait.


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