Religion and the Imagination – Cue a John Lennon Song


According to an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, the very process that John Lennon suggested we use to put religion and other human institutions out our minds might very well be the reason we have religion to begin with.

Imagination, says Maurice Bloch [New Scientist], is what sets humans apart from other animal species. Unlike even our closest relatives, chimpanzees, humans have the unique ability to imagine things that do not exist.

It seems like common sense when you think about it: art, theater, cinema, music, and language it self are each derived from the human imagination. The suggestion that religion is a product of human imagination isn’t necessarily a new one. Modern popularizers of the atheist movement have suggested as links to religion and imagination, though perhaps not as explicit as Bloch.

Daniel Dennett, in Breaking The Spell, tells us that language makes it possible for us to, “remind ourselves of things not currently present to our senses, to dwell on topics that would otherwise be elusive” as we consider our ancestors or other absent and dead people. This is what Bloch refers to as the “transcendental social,” comprised of a group with members one may have never met (clan members, ancestors, gods, deities, etc.).

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, writes, “[c]onstructing models is something the human brain is very good at. When we are asleep it is called dreaming; when we are awake we call it imagination […]”

V.S. Rmachandran, a prominent neuroscientist, describes many ways in which the human brain uses imagination to cope with damage to cognitive abilities of the brain after traumas or injuries. He includes an entire chapter on a syndrome known as anasognosia in which patients who suffer from strokes or brain injuries that result in paralysis of a limb construct elaborate and imaginative denials of their paralysis to the point that they actually believe an otherwise paralyzed arm is perfectly normal and sometimes even stronger than the non-paralyzed arm!

Perhaps the same neurological and cognitive functions that inspired the pages of Rama’s Phantoms in the Brain are related to the neural architecture Bloch believes was developed in humans some 40-50,000 years ago. This is the period of the Upper Palaeological Revolution in which lithic technologies and art “suddenly exploded in sophistication” and where funerary artifacts, rock and cave paintings begin, and stone tools take on new styles that allow for more advanced and diverse uses.

In my studies of the Neanderthal to human switch in Europe, where the dominant species of residence changed from Neanderthals to humans, I’ve often considered that it may have been the willingness of humans to believe and imagine which gave them a competitive edge over Neanderthals. If Neanderthals had a diminished capacity to utilize their imaginations, they would have been less likely to develop or adapt to changing climates or environments. They would have been less likely to migrate and spread out except to put space between rival clans or groups. Humans, on the other hand, are naturally curious and imagine every sort of possibility, giving rise to in-groups and out-groups and a natural drive to explore and migrate, perhaps seeking “the good life” in the next valley, and quickly adapting to conditions ranging from desert to arctic using their imaginaitions.

Given that humanity has had thousands of gods and religions in recorded history alone, it isn’t hard at all to imagine that they are each the result of, well, imagination.

Books mentioned:

Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. London: Bantam.

Dennett, D. C. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. London: Viking.

Ramachandran, V., and Sandra Blakeslee, (1998). Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. New York: Morrow


  1. it may have been the willingness of humans to believe and imagine which gave them a competitive edge over Neanderthals.

    This is an interesting hypothesis, and I know I’ve read articles before regarding why the sudden explosion in art and so happened and what it meant. The tricky thing I would imagine is proving it.

  2. Interesting post – You’re right, this “Upper Paleolithic Revolution” model is not a new idea. A number of people, including notably Richard Klein, have been arguing for a ‘sudden explosion’ in behavioral capacities ca. 50-40ky. The link to potential psychological pathways to this have been explored in great depth by Tom Wynn and Fred Coolidge in recent years. My main concern with all of this is that it relies on a somewhat outdated view of the archaeological record. Present evidence suggests human (and Neanderthal) behavior was much more dynamic (especially towards the end of the Middle Paleolithic) than had previously been assumed based on our synthetic knowledge of the archaeological record up to the 1980’s or so. Discoveries since them have done much, in my view at least, to do away with the concept of a ‘behavioral revolution’ coinciding with the beginning of the Upper Paleolitlhic.

  3. I agree with Julian. Tthe change, we now realise, was exaggerated. And if the change happened “ca. 50-40ky” are Australian Aborigines not modern humans? Seems they were in Oz by 50,000 years ago, if not earlier. Of course we all realise it’s possible to prove anything if we selectively ignore enough evidence. Creationists do it all the time. Many theories of human evolution have been formed by ignoring Australia.

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