Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.
A profound suggestion! Is being predisposed to belief in the supernatural a default mode for our brains? Do biological spandrels (like blood being red, a feature with a evolution-neutral value) serve as grist for such a system?
For those of us that hold rationalism in higher esteem than spiritualism, it's somewhat unpleasant to think of ourselves as recovering alcoholics - we need to be on constant guard of our reasonable sobriety lest we relapse into the allure of magical thinking and emotional comfort. Still, to me this is no different than any other high moral code we abide by or emotion we keep under check as to what is necessary or proper. Why should belief be any different than the willpower one needs to keep to a diet or maintain a budget?
We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in “Tragic Sense of Life.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.”
I can't say I've ever heard death put so nicely before.
The article is a bit lengthy but well worth the read if this kind of stuff tingles your belief-default brain. Atran's most recent book, In Gods We Trust, is worth the additional effort.