What do God's mind and your mind have in common? A core tenet of cognitive science of religion (CSR) is that the folk-psychological ability to explain human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions – known as theory of mind (ToM) – is also a system that makes us receptive to belief in the supernatural.

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About this episode

Do you believe that unseen forces have the causal power to move physical objects and intervene in everyday human affairs? Of course you do. You are probably like most other humans alive today who effortlessly place great explanatory weight on these hidden forces. However, such unseen forces are not the local forest spirits, or gods in the sky, per se, but as Gervais (2013, p. 380) writes: “These entities are called minds”. Conversely, it just so happens that we attribute to the forest spirit, to the gods, and even to the Christian God (Barrett & Keil, 1996) for example, a mind that has the same conceptual limitations as our own (e.g. being limited in action by both time and space). A core tenet of cognitive science of religion (CSR) is that the folk-psychological ability to explain human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions – known as theory of mind (ToM) – is also a system that makes us receptive to belief in the supernatural (Banerjee & Bloom, 2013; Gervais, 2013). But why?

In his interview with Thomas Coleman, cultural and evolutionary psychologist Dr. Will Gervais talks about the role that ToM plays in explaining both belief, and nonbelief in supernatural agents. Gervais begins by discussing some of his prior research in the field, and draws salient the various phenomena that falls under the ability, he terms as “mind perception”. Further, he touches on how, and why ToM is an important construct in CSR for explaining god beliefs, and gives the listener insight into how unseen mental states can be measured.* In closing, Gervais answers important questions such as “Is ToM a religion specific system?” and even weighs in on the suggested autism-atheism connection prevalent in CSR.

A short video clip of Heider and Simmel’s classic 1944 experiment mentioned in the podcast can be found here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, rubber ducks, dandelion seeds, and more.

References

  • Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2013). Would Tarzan believe in God? Conditions for the emergence of religious belief. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 17(1), 7-8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.11.005
  • Barrett, J., & Keil, F. (1996). Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219-247. doi:10.1006/cogp.1996.0017
  • Gervais, W. (2013). Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains, and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 8(4), 380-394. doi:10.1177/1745691613489836

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