Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’


Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

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