Mentalizing and Religion

A response to “Autism, Religion, and Imagination with Ingela Visuri”

by Hans van Egyhen

Cognitive Science of Religion has sometimes been criticized for lack of empirical support. Jonathan Jong (2014) went as far as claiming that some theories are ‘notoriously under-determined by data’.[1] While theories about the relation between mentalizing and religion have always had some support by evidence, the amount of empirical research has also been limited for a long time. Recently, the theory gained renewed attention following research with autistic subjects. Visuri’s research adds to this. Much work remains to be done to integrate the new research into a new and improved theory about mentalizing and religion. In what follows, I make some suggestions for how this can be done.

Mentalizing and reflective religiosity in Cognitive Science of Religion

The literature on the relation between autism and religiosity within Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) is ever growing. While earlier work suggested a strong correlation between lower level of religiosity and scoring higher on the autism spectrum (e.g. McCauley 2011), more recent work suggests that subjects scoring higher on the spectrum have a different form of religiosity instead (e.g. Ekblad and O’viedo 2017). Visuri’s research provides evidence for the recent claim. Both sides share the idea that autism is of interest for the study of religious belief. They differ as to why this is so. Visuri suggests that subjects scoring higher on the autism spectrum have a more reflective religiosity and use more reflective mentalizing. Her point raises many interesting questions, which I will explore below.

The discussion has implications for the relation between intuitive styles of thinking and religiosity. Nonreflective beliefs are roughly beliefs that are formed spontaneously without explicit reasoning. Nonreflective religious beliefs are quite vague and straightforward. Examples are “God is watching” or “Spirits are around.” Reflective beliefs, by contrast, are more elaborate and complex. Reflective beliefs’ require explicit reasoning.  Examples are “Vishnu descended in the form of a tortoise” or “Ancestor spirits require daily offerings.” Most CSR-scholars defend a rather strict dichotomy between nonreflective and reflective religious beliefs. [2] Robert McCauley argues that reflective religious beliefs are hard to form and keep up whereas intuitive religious beliefs are easy. Justin Barrett’s research showed that people easily fall back on intuitive religious beliefs under time pressure. He took this as evidence that reflective (theological) beliefs do not run very deep.

Most CSR-scholars classify beliefs resulting from mentalizing as nonreflective beliefs. They see them as beliefs that are formed easily and spontaneously without much reflection. They thus argue that these beliefs are far removed from reflective beliefs.

Updating the theoretical framework

Theories about mentalizing can be divided in two camps, Theory Theory and Simulation Theory. Theory Theory holds that people form beliefs about other people’s mental states by theorizing. They note outward behavior and come up with hypotheses about what the other person is thinking or feeling. These hypotheses can be revised if necessary. Often the whole process remains unconscious. The Simulation Theory states that beliefs about other people’s mental states result from simulating the situation the other person is in. This can happen through empathy (putting oneself in another’s shoes) or by activation of mirror neurons.

Visuri’s research strongly suggests that mentalizing when applied to religious belief is theoretical rather than simulated. The story mentioned in the podcast provides a good example. The subject narrates how he felt good when doing the morally right thing. He interpreted this feeling as a sign from God or from ‘something that agreed with what he did’. It appears as if the subject theorized over his experiences after moral acts and concluded that they were signs of some supernatural being. The subject is not simulating what “God would feel” before arriving at his beliefs.

Visuri’s research also suggests a dichotomy between reflective mentalizing and intuitive mentalizing. Subjects scoring higher on the spectrum appear to be more reflective when theorizing about God and his mental states. She suggests that more reflective mentalizing leads to different religious beliefs; they are, for example, more coherent.

Her research could prompt a reconceptualization of the relation between intuitive and reflective religious beliefs. It suggests that the dichotomy is much more fluid than assumed by CSR-scholars. Usually “reflection” is taken to mean explicit rational reasoning. The intuitive belief-forming process is seen as largely untouched by any reasoning.[3] Visuri’s results suggest that reasoning runs all the way down and can affect how mentalizing abilities form beliefs. She thereby suggests that some beliefs resulting from mentalizing will be much more like reflective beliefs. Apart from being more coherent, they might be more abstract and less anthropomorphic.

In summary, Visuri’s research raises all sorts of interesting questions. It prompts us to investigate how mentalizing actually works for religious beliefs. More importantly, it suggests that the dichotomy between nonreflective and reflective beliefs needs rethinking. Future research could show if nonreflective beliefs vary with how high subjects score on the autism spectrum and whether their nonreflective beliefs are held more firmly.



Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press: Walnut Creek.

Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors. Vintage: London.

Ekblad, Leif, and Lluis O’viedo. 2017. “Religious cognition among subjects with autism spectRum DisoRDeR (asD): Defective oR Different?”. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 14: 287-96.

McCauley, Robert N. 2011. Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

[1] The theories to which Jong refers are Justin Barrett’s (2004) hyperactive agency detection device and Pascal Boyer’s (2002) minimally counterintuitive concepts.

[2] I draw the term ‘nonreflective’ from Justin Barrett (2004). Others use the term ‘intuitive beliefs’ to refer to the same beliefs, but I use ‘nonreflective’ to avoid confusion here.

[3] This point reminds of the modularity of mind thesis. The thesis holds (among other things) that the operations of cognitive mechanisms, like those concerned with mentalizing, are not altered by outside information (like reasoning). Visuri’s research suggests that mentalizing mechanisms might not work in this isolation.

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