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.

Listen Now

This episode has not been transcribed yet. 

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

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.

 Fund the RSP while you shop! Use an Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com affiliate link whenever you make a purchase. There’s no additional cost to you, but every bit helps us stay on the air! 

We need your support!

Want to support us directly? Become a monthly Patron or consider giving us a one-time donation through PayPal

Related Resources

Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

Response

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.
Ariela Keysar on “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”

Podcast

'Belief' lies at the core of E.B. Tylor's canonical definition of religion as belief in 'spiritual beings'. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century the concept became unfashionable in the social sciences, with scholars from all parts of the world denouncing its centrality as a Western, Protestant bias which has limited application to other religions. Ariela Keysar disagrees...
Religion as Vestigial States

Podcast

. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, ...

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

Sex Scandals and Minoritized Religions

Podcast

What do Muslims, Mormons, and Satanists have in common? Megan Goodwin argues that for all three groups, sex scandals were used to paint religious groups as un-American and "bad" religion. Learn more about minoritization and its role in policing American identity in this week's episode.
Beyond Ecological Essentialism: Critical and Constructive Muslim Environmentalisms

Podcast

The diversity of Muslim environmentalisms shows the urgency of decolonizing Religious Studies and Environmental Humanities amid escalating global climate crises, says Prof. Anna Gade in this week's episode. Based on her decades of fieldwork in Indonesia, Dr. Gade sketches new intersections of religion and the environment that decenter conversations long dominated by Western ecological models.
Millennialism and Violence?

Podcast

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are groups like Heaven's Gate or the Branch Davidians typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media - and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of mllennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?
Religion as Anthropomorphism

Podcast

In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III for The Religious Studies Project, Guthrie begins by outlining what it means to ‘explain religion’. He defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman events” and gives an example of this as applied to auditory and visual phenomena throughout the interview.
Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 1

Podcast

Professor Ian Reader discusses his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’, which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained.
Religion and Feminism

Podcast

'Religion' and 'Feminism' are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about 'religion and feminism', about the academic study of 'religion and feminism', ...

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).