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Religion as an optical illusion

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm currently reading Scott Atran's book "In Gods We Trust", and it has suggested to me that the formation of religious beliefs has something in common with the generation of optical illusions.

For example, it has been noted since antiquity that when the Moon is seen close to the horizon it looks bigger than when it is higher in the sky, although the angle subtended at the eye is of course the same in both cases. Although there is still uncertainty about how this illusion is produced, we at least know that it is due to the way in which the brain processes visual information. The same applies to other kinds of visual illusion.

Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, among others, think that belief in invisible entities such as gods, spirits, and demons is produced by the same normal brain/mind mechanisms that generate ordinary beliefs. Atran suggests that there is an "agent detection module" that evolved to permit our ancestors to respond to threats from animals or other humans. In the Pleistocene it would have been better to mistake a non-threat for a real threat than the reverse, so it operates on a hair trigger.

This module would thus also respond to apparent threats from inanimate sources, leading to the perception of voices in the wind or in streams, faces in clouds, and so on. From there it would not be a big step to conceive of totally invisible but nonetheless real entities that could exert an influence (often hostile) on human beings.

If this ideas is right, as I think it may be, one could think of relgious beliefs as analogous to optical illusions - a sort of belief illusion.


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