How Monsters are like Religion

I have the luxury of spending the summer working on my research rather than teaching. As great as that is, it means I spend my days submerged in a world that is not mine; hours upon hours of reading Rushdoony and Barton, watching Glenn Beck, and visiting church-organized tea party events. So I relish the intellectual escape on the weekends listening to a couple of my favorite public radio shows, one of which is PRI’s To the Best of Our Knowledge.

Monsters were the topic last weekend, and, after discussions of three great monster books and lots of monster music, host Jim Fleming closed the show by inviting listeners to write in with their own explanation for the enduring appeal of monsters. I know, I know: the monster joke is too easy.

But as I pondered this question, it struck me that the cognitive appeal of monsters is not unlike the cognitive appeal of religion. Each posits a realm of reality just slightly outside our empirical reality. Far enough away from us to be fascinating (and to foster evolutionarily positive functions) but close enough to be comprehensible, and therefore memorable. In the field known as Cognitive Studies in Religion, that brings together evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and religious studies, this is referred to as being “minimally counterintuitive.” You can read about this idea in Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained.

Evolutionarily speaking, imagination (whether it is literary, scientific, or religious) gives us the ability to process experiences we haven’t even had. This helps us develop cognitive skills, perhaps the most important being the ability to make (or find, depending on your viewpoint) meaning and order — before we actually need it.

It was a constructive reminder of the (at least sometimes) positive function of religion.

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