The HPedia: Agency

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Agency is a characteristic distinguishing most naturalistic views of deity from other views.  Generally speaking, naturalistic views do not attribute independent causal agency to deities; other views may.

Pascal Boyer writes:

Agency is that set of characteristics by which we infer the existence and action of an agent; that is, a living (or lifelike) entity whose behavior indicates that it has intentions and can act upon them. Agents are purposeful, and purposeful (i.e., teleological) action is the hallmark of agency.

Note the emphasis on intention and purpose.  There are plenty of causes in nature, but not all causes are cases of purposeful intention.

So, in other words, naturalistic deities generally do not act with purposeful intention.  Within the narrative of a myth, they might be portrayed as such, but this is typically understood as metaphor, poetry, etc., crafted by human intention.

A significant exception may be cases where living creatures such as animals or humans are deified, as in naturalistic pantheism which views nature and all entities within it as divine.

Robert McCauley observes that the general direction of science throughout history has been toward decreasing attribution of agency to phenomena, though we still refer to agents in psychology, economics, sociology, and a few other fields.

A common postulate in the Cognitive Science of Religion is that our brains are equipped with hyperactive agency detection devices (HADD), the evolutionary fitness value of which is evident: it is better to err in assuming a predator in each movement of grass than to assume no predator when there is one.  Errors of the former type matter little, but even a single mistake of the latter type is deadly.  Thus, evolution would select for hyperactive detection of agents.  The consequence for religion is, of course, that we are predisposed to perceive agents everywhere, in every storm or dry spell, whether or not they are really present.

See also “Deity” and “HADD.”

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