Chapter Three

The Face in the Tree

EVE’S DAY BEGINS EARLY—far earlier than Adam’s. Before the sun rises and the forest floor is flooded with light, she will rouse her children and lead them into the woods to check the traps she set the night before. While the children climb the trees to gather fruits and nuts and any birds’ eggs they may find in abandoned nests, Eve will club and collect her captured prey. Afterward, the family will wade knee-deep in the nearby river for crabs and mollusks and anything else edible they can find in the water. They may get lucky and come across a fallen beast, its body decomposed and stripped of meat by the birds of prey. No matter. They will collect the bones, break them, and scoop out the marrow to bring back to camp.

Through these actions, Eve and her children provide the bulk of the family’s food. It may take a week for Adam to chase down a bison. Eve can bring that much food home every few days. After all, there is as much fat and protein in a pound of nuts as there is in a pound of meat—and nuts do not fight back. Our Paleolithic ancestors were primarily hunters, but what kept them alive was scavenging and foraging—and that was primarily the work of women and children.

Now imagine that as Eve and her children begin to trudge back to camp in the early morning darkness, she suddenly sees, out of the corner of her eye, a face staring back at her through the trees. She freezes. Her muscles stiffen. Her blood vessels constrict. Her heart rate accelerates. Adrenaline floods her body. She is ready to pounce or flee.

Then she looks again and realizes that what she thought was a face was actually knots on the trunk of a tree. Her muscles relax. Her heart rate drops. She lets out her breath and continues on her journey through the woods.

Cognitive theorists have a term for what Eve just experienced. They call it her Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, or HADD. This is a biological process that arose deep in our evolutionary past, all the way back in the days when hominids were still stooped and hairy. In its simplest terms, HADD leads us to detect human agency, and hence a human cause, behind any unexplained event: a distant sound in the woods, a flash of light in the sky, a tendril of fog slithering along the ground. HADD explains why we assume every bump in the night is caused by someone doing the bumping.

Our innate willingness to attribute human agency to natural phenomena can have clear evolutionary advantages. What if it hadn’t been a tree that Eve saw? What if it had been a bear? Isn’t it better to err on the side of caution? There is no harm in mistaking a tree for a predator, but there certainly would be in mistaking a predator for a tree. Better to guess wrong than to be eaten.

It is obvious, in the above example, how HADD could promote Eve’s survival. Yet according to a group of cognitive scientists who study religion, what Eve experienced in those dark woods is more than just an involuntary reaction to a potential threat. It is the basis for our belief in God: the true evolutionary origin of the religious impulse.

The cognitive science of religion begins with a simple premise: Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon. The religious impulse, in other words, is ultimately a function of complex electrochemical reactions in the brain. Of course, this fact on its own is not a compelling observation, and it certainly does not diminish or delegitimize the religious impulse. Every impulse—every impulse without exception—is generated by complex electrochemical reactions in the brain. Why would the religious impulse be any different? Knowing the neural mechanics of the religious impulse does not undermine the legitimacy of religious belief any more than knowing the chemical process of romantic attraction makes the feeling any less real or the object of our affection any less worthy. As Michael J. Murray, one of the leading thinkers in the field, notes, “The mere fact that we have beliefs that spring from mental tools selected for by natural selection is, all by itself, totally irrelevant to the justification of the beliefs that spring from them.”1

Nevertheless, if it is true that religion is a neurological phenomenon, then perhaps we should be searching for the origins of the religious impulse where that impulse actually resides: in the brain.

LET US RETURN for a moment to Eve’s tree. In the dim light of early morning, Eve’s cognitive bias toward agency convinced her, if only for an instant, that the tree was a predator. But imagine that Eve comes back to the tree later that day and, while inching closer to it, realizes to her astonishment that the tree trunk does in fact look as if it has a face. This is where another of her cognitive processes, called Theory of Mind, takes over.

Theory of Mind is an executive function of the brain that is activated the moment we attain the ability to view and understand other people the way we view and understand ourselves: as separate and distinct individuals who feel the same basic feelings, who think the same kinds of thoughts, who have the same essence as we do. Theory of Mind not only obliges us to think of others in the same terms we use to think of ourselves. It encourages us to use ourselves as the primary model for how we conceive of everyone else.

Think about it: If the only consciousness I’m aware of is my own, then I have no choice but to use myself as the model for my understanding of the universe. My perception of the internal states of other human beings is based on my own internal state.

What’s surprising about Theory of Mind, however, is that it also compels me to perceive nonhumans who exhibit human traits in the same way that I perceive humans. So, for instance, if I am confronted by a bipedal entity with what looks like a head and a face, I think, “This being looks like me.” If it looks like me, Theory of Mind leads me to think it must be like me. And so, instinctively, I ascribe my human thoughts and emotions to the human-looking thing.2

This is the reason why children treat certain toys as alive, possessing personality and will. Give a small child a model car and she will perceive the headlights as eyes and the grille as a mouth. She will automatically play with it as though it were a living thing and not a hunk of molded plastic. Even as she is consciously aware of the distinction between animate and inanimate, living and nonliving, she will nevertheless attribute life to the toy. She will give it agency.3

And here we get to the cognitive connection that, according to some theorists, links Theory of Mind, HADD, and the origins of the religious impulse.

We know that essential to Eve’s consciousness of herself is the belief that she has a soul, and that her soul is separate from her body. Her body is present and tangible; her soul is invisible and immaterial. Put aside for a moment how Eve came up with this idea. What’s important is that because Eve believes she has a soul separate from her body, Theory of Mind leads her to believe that everyone else must have one as well. But because Theory of Mind makes Eve prone to view nonhumans who exhibit human traits in the same way she views actual humans, she is just as likely to attribute a soul to certain inanimate things. Put another way, if the tree has a “face,” as Eve does, it must, like Eve, also have a “soul.”

Just as a child does with a toy car, Eve imparts agency and intention to the tree—consciously and in the cold light of day. She gives the tree a spirit. Perhaps she takes out a flint knife and accentuates the face in the trunk. She does not draw the face. As with the images in the cave, Eve merely releases the face that she perceives is already there. She transforms the tree into a totem: an object of worship. She may bring it offerings. She may even start praying to it for help in netting her prey. Thus religion is born, albeit by accident.

It’s not really a religion, however, until Eve’s beliefs are adopted by her community. It’s one thing for Eve to develop a personal religious experience with the tree based on her own unique observation. It’s something else to convince others to share her experience. HADD and Theory of Mind may explain how a specific religious belief can arise. But they do not explain how such a belief can then be successfully transmitted from believer to believer, culture to culture, century to century. Why do some religious beliefs—for instance, belief in a god who controls the beasts of the wild—survive and spread from generation to generation, while others are abandoned and forgotten?

The answer may once again lie with the brain. According to the cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer, our brains allow only certain types of beliefs to “stick.” His research shows that we are more likely to absorb, retain, and share an idea if that idea is slightly anomalous. If an idea violates one or two basic, intuitive assumptions about a thing, it has a far stronger chance of being recalled and transmitted.4

Say Eve takes Adam back to her tree and shows him the face she carved into it (or, rather, released from it). Eve’s Theory of Mind has endowed the tree with a soul like hers, giving her a unique spiritual connection to it. But for Adam to adopt Eve’s experience of the tree and spread it to others—for the tree to be memorable and worth believing in—it needs some minimally counterintuitive physical or psychological property that breaches the boundaries of what Adam understands to be the tree’s basic template. Put another way, the tree needs one or two attributes that violate, in some small way, the ontological category “tree.”5

Perhaps Eve tells Adam not only that the tree has a face but that, late one night while visiting it, she thought she heard the tree speak. By violating just one of the natural attributes Adam expects from a tree—It speaks!—Eve has now made it more likely that Adam will remember her story and pass it on, even if he himself did not hear the tree speak. If, however, Eve violates too many of the tree’s known properties—It speaks! And it walks around! And it can become invisible!—the concept becomes too difficult for Adam to conceptualize and therefore less likely for him to believe in and transmit to others. To make Eve’s experience of the tree something her entire community can accept as its own requires her to make only a slight alteration to the tree’s nature—one that is simple, easy to comprehend, easy to transmit, and, most important, useful.

This last point bears repeating. Whatever slight alteration Eve applies to her sacred tree must, above all else, render it more useful than it would be in its natural state. A tree that becomes invisible or walks around is not useful. A tree that speaks, however, could be supremely useful. It could communicate to Eve and her kin information about the nonmaterial world. It could answer questions, provide vital knowledge about the past, even prophesy the future.

If Eve tells Adam that her tree has the ability to speak, Adam would be more likely to find the anomalous tree useful. He would be more likely to believe in it himself. He would be more likely to tell members of their community about it, and they, too, would be more likely to find it useful and worth believing in. Together Adam and Eve might construct an entire mythology around the talking tree, along with accompanying rituals that spread to their group. These myths and rituals could then spread to other communities who might also find the idea of a talking tree to be useful and who might, as a consequence, adopt and adapt the concept to their own particular cultures.

Thus we have the Greek historian Herodotus writing in the fifth century B.C.E. about the sacred forest of Dedona, whose trees spoke with human voices and had the gift of prophecy. Five hundred years later, the ancient Persian epic Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, tells of an encounter that took place between Alexander the Great and a talking tree that predicts Alexander’s untimely death. “Neither your mother, nor your family, nor the veiled women of your land will see your face again,” the tree tells the young world conqueror.

Three hundred years after that, Marco Polo wrote of coming across the Tree of the Sun and Moon in India, which had two trunks, one that spoke in the daytime with a male voice, the other at night with the voice of a woman. In the book of Genesis, the biblical patriarch Abraham twice encounters his god at oracular trees, once near Nablus at the Oak of Moreh (Genesis 12:6), and again in Hebron at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1). Throughout much of Europe, the concept of talking trees has for millennia been vital to Celtic and Druid spirituality, and it continues to be so among modern adherents of Druidry and neopaganism. There are even talking trees in The Wizard of Oz. And let us not forget the majestic Ents of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Thus, a slightly anomalous yet exceedingly useful concept that arose at some point in the distant past is transformed into a successful and widely transmitted belief able to penetrate countless cultures and civilizations, even as it maintains its original essence.6

A similar transmission process must have occurred with the Lord of Beasts. Ontological categories like “human” and “animal” carry with them certain clearly defined expectations. Simply violate one or two of those expectations in a minimally counterintuitive way (a human who communicates with animals), then make the new creation useful (a human-animal hybrid that provides us with the food we need to survive), and what you have is a belief durable enough to evolve from its origins as an ancient mental abstraction, to the Sorcerer some 18,000 years ago, to the book of Genesis some 2,500 years ago, all the way to neopagans today. In this way, a specific god is born and remains active in human culture through the millennia.

Ballachulish figure of a goddess carved from alder wood with quartzite pebbles for eyes, found in Inverness-shire, Scotland (c. 600  b.c.e. ) Copyright © National Museums of Scotland

Ballachulish figure of a goddess carved from alder wood with quartzite pebbles for eyes, found in Inverness-shire, Scotland (c. 600 B.C.E.)

Copyright © National Museums of Scotland

As we shall see, in the history of religion there is one particular anomaly—one minimally counterintuitive concept—that has outshone all others, resulting in what is unquestionably the single most successful, most memorable, most meaningful, most useful religious belief ever conceived of by human beings. That is the concept of the “god-man”—a human being who is slightly altered in some way, who exhibits heightened physical or mental abilities, who may be invisible, or in all places at all times, who knows the past and the future, who knows everything. A human being who is, in other words, a god. But that must wait for a later chapter in our story.7

For now, we are left with the intriguing theory, suggested by the cognitive science of religion, that human beings possess certain mental processes, developed through millions of years of evolution, that can, under the right circumstances, lead us to assign agency to inanimate objects, to endow those objects with a soul or spirit, and then to successfully transmit beliefs stemming from those objects to other cultures and other generations. It is a compelling explanation for the origin of the religious impulse—one that, unlike previous explanations, can be accounted for by natural selection.

There is, however, a problem.

As persuasive as the cognitive theory of religion may be, it fails to answer our initial question: Why does Eve think she has a soul in the first place? HADD may explain why Eve stops in her tracks when she sees the tree and why she thinks it has a face. Theory of Mind may explain why she would ascribe her own soul to the tree, giving it an animating spirit and transforming it into an object of worship that could then be passed on to her community. These cognitive processes have the ability to fortify and encourage already held belief systems. But they cannot, by themselves, create belief. For Eve to make the colossal leap from detecting agency to formulating religious belief requires that she be already predisposed to such thinking. Otherwise, she would simply assume she had encountered an interesting-looking tree and move on.8

After all, Eve’s default cognitive response to the tree is that it’s a tree. For her to override her initial, routine perception of the tree, Eve would need an equally plausible alternative explanation for it. But there are only two ways in which Eve could view a “supernatural” explanation as equally plausible: Either someone else would have to coerce her into believing the tree is more than just a tree (and where did that person conceive of the idea?), or she would have to form the belief on her own based on her essential knowledge of herself as an embodied soul. Either way, we are back where we began, with the problem that Edward Burnett Tylor homed in on two hundred years ago: Where did the idea of the soul come from?9

The truthful answer is that we don’t know. What seems clear, however, is that belief in the soul may be humanity’s first belief. Indeed, if the cognitive theory of religion is correct, belief in the soul is what led to belief in God. The origin of the religious impulse, in other words, is not rooted in our quest for meaning or our fear of the unknown. It is not born of our involuntary reactions to the natural world. It is not an accidental consequence of the complex workings of our brains. It is the result of something far more primal and difficult to explain: our ingrained, intuitive, and wholly experiential belief that we are, whatever else we are, embodied souls.

Our quest in the following chapters is neither to prove nor to disprove the existence of the soul (there is no proof either way). Rather, it is to demonstrate how this universal belief in the existence of the soul led to the concept of an active, engaged, divine presence that underlies all of creation; how that divine presence was gradually personalized, given names and backstories, endowed with human traits and emotions, and cast into a thousand different forms, each with its own personality and purpose; and how, after many years and with great difficulty, those forms gave way to the single divine personality we know today as God.

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