Communicating with your favorite God or gods, forest spirit, or Jinn - easy. Postulating that the entire universe is held together by theorizing the process of quantum entanglement, informed from a personal commitment to philosophical a priories, which are based on measurements of the physical properties of said universe – harder.

About this episode

Communicating with your favorite God or gods, forest spirit, or Jinn – easy. Postulating that the entire universe is held together by theorizing the process of quantum entanglement, informed from a personal commitment to philosophical a priories, which are based on measurements of the physical properties of said universe – harder. Introduction aside: ‘religion is natural and science is not’, at least according to philosopher and cognitive scientist of religion Dr. Robert N. McCauley. In this view, ‘popular religion’ (i.e. attributing agency to inanimate objects, belief in spirits, belief in the supernatural – not to be confused with creating ‘theologies’ or ‘catechisms’) typically arises naturally from human cognitive faculties. ‘Naturally’, meaning at an early age in the course of normal human development, requiring little-to-no encouragement or support from the environment, and with likely origins stretching far back into our evolutionary history. However, science often proceeds rather counter-intuitively (Feyerabend, 1993) and requires practice (i.e. learning and repetition), as well as institutions to support its proliferation and credibility (e.g. universities and agencies such as the National Science Foundation). Your average 8 year old might hold a belief in what McCauley and Lawson term as a “culturally postulated superhuman agent” (2002) such as a god, Jinn or the Tooth Fairy, but they are unlikely to be donning a white lab coat and analyzing the output from a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine.
RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the 'religion is natural, science is not' thesis.
RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the ‘religion is natural, science is not’ thesis.
In Robert McCauley’s interview with Thomas Coleman for the RSP on why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, McCauley begins by presenting a “new twist” in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion by exploring, and comparing, each concept from a cognitive standpoint taking into account the thought processes required to support both religion and science. He gives a brief outline of a dual process model of cognition (e.g. thinking fast vs. thinking slow) drawing an important distinction between two forms of ‘fast thinking’, labeled as “practiced naturalness” and “maturational naturalness”. The former arises only after some type of cultural instruction, arriving late in our evolutionary past and may require a special artifact (e.g. being taught to ride a bike requires a bike!), while the latter arises ‘easily’ in the course of human development, is evolutionarily old and the only special artifact required is the mind (e.g. by age 3 the majority of children in the world are walking). In exploring precisely ‘what’s in a name’ McCauley clarifies how he uses the terms “religion” and “science” stating that maturationally natural processes are required for religion, whereas, practiced naturalness is required for science. In closing, he addresses an important question. If ‘religious cognition’ is natural, what does this mean for people who lack a belief in God? McCauley offers up one possible avenue of explanation, putting forth the idea that variations may occur in an individual’s Theory Of Mind, or, the degree to which one can perceive the mental states of other conspecifics, thus affecting that person’s ability to mentally represent a super natural agent by giving it ontological veridicality. 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.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against method. London: Verso.
  • Mccauley, R. N. & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing ritual to mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

This episode has not been transcribed yet. 

Consider a donation to pay for the cost of editing a transcript?

Related Resources

Conference report: “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies”

Response

A conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland on the “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies” Conference, which had an important and timely mission to identify innovative research approaches as well as broad political and social scopes of action to address religious plurality.
Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

Response

"If I had to choose I would say my favourite thing about these conferences was seeing young and vibrant postgraduate students presenting their craft. I was continuously impressed and excited by the high quality scholarship, ideas, and conversations presented and stimulated by my peers." To open the 2012 conference for the European Association for the Study of Religions (in conjunction with the International Association for the History of Religion)...
American Religion, a New Journal for the Discipline and an Opportunity to Reimagine How We Theorize

Response

The "capacious model" proposed by editors Sarah Imhoff and Cooper Harriss for the new journal American Religion "could set this journal apart from standard approaches to the study of American religion," writes Andrea R. Jain in this response to RSP Episode 323.

Responses to this episode

The Contextuality of Naturalness: Science and Religion in Language and Life

Perhaps it is not religious thinking that is natural, but the deeply rooted religious trends in our society and cultures that shape our thinking from our birth to death. Dr. Robert McCauley endeavors to provide at least one answer to the profoundly interesting question, “How do science and religion differ?” He delivers an answer through the lens of cognitive science, ....

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

The Changing Nature of Religion

Podcast

In the 1960s, most sociologists consciously or unconsciously bought into idea of the 'death of god' - religion became effectively invisible to academia. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, a number of events - most notably the 'Satanic Verses' controversy - dramatically increased the 'visibility' of religion: it became a political problem. Now, in the 21st century, ...
NSRN Annual Lecture 2012 – Matthew Engelke: In spite of Christianity

Podcast

What do we talk about when we talk about religion? What do we recognize as essential and specific to any given faith, and why? In this lecture, I address these questions by drawing on fieldwork among humanists in Britain, paying particular attention to humanism’s relation to Christianity.
Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast

Sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and "problematic" topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general?
The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, ...
Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

Podcast

Professor Peter Harrison discusses the false historical assumptions behind the current perception that "science" and "religion" have always been in conflict. Providing a wide-ranging historical overview, Harrison begins with the early interplay between religious institutions and scientific activity, ...
Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Violence and the Media

Podcast

Discussions of religion in the media nowadays frequently revolve around issues of violence and social unrest. Religions and media can become collaborators in promoting peace and opening negotiations; at the same time the media can become host to extremist narratives which may incite violence. Does the media have a responsibility to promote peace?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).