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Explaining Witchcraft: Response to ‘Witchcraft in Slovenia’

In her interview, Mirjam Mencej discusses her fascinating research into witchcraft in rural Slovenia. She conducted field work in Eastern Slovenia into people’s beliefs on witchcraft. Though restricted to rural areas in Eastern Slovenia, she claims belief in witchcraft is very much alive. She distinguishes traditional witchcraft sharply from modern neo-pagan witchcraft like you find in Wicca. In traditional witchcraft a witch is above all a person (usually a woman) who does harm by using supernatural forces.

According to Mencej, people believe that all witches to share malevolent agency. Nonetheless, various types of witches can be distinguished. A first type is the ‘neighborhood witch’. Neighborhood witches are believed to cause misfortune to their neighbors. They are often invoked to explain diseases or other misfortunes. A second kind is the ‘village witch’. These are witches who are recognized by certain physical characteristics like ugliness or limping. Someone can also be classified as village witch because of her reputation. Reputation can be inherited from one’s parents or result from having certain character traits. A third type is the ‘night witch’. These witches are believed to appear in the form of flickering lights and make people lose their orientation at night. Unlike neighborhood witches, they do not cause economic damage but are also responsible for misfortunes, namely leading people astray. People discuss different types of witches under different discourses yet they are often talked about as similar.

Mencej also discusses a fourth group, the ‘unwitchers’. These are not witches themselves but provide services to counteract witchcraft. They nihilate the witches’ malevolent forces by giving instructions. They also aid in the identification of witches. According to Mencej, they are no unwitchers anymore. They lost much of their clientele in the late 1970’s and have since died of old age.

Mencej suggestsbelief in witchcraft has a mainly explanatory function. For example, witchcraft can serve as an explanation for why misfortune befalls people or why they get lost at night. Belief in witchcraft is also a valuable source of justification. Mencej gives the example of a young man who was unable to get a job. Rather than attributing this to emotional malefunction, his unemployment was attributed to witchcraft. This allowed the young man to avoid the social stigma that often comes with being diagnosed with emotional dysfunction. For his parents an explanation in terms of witchcraft avoided blame for bad parenting. Witchcraft is also useful as an explanation for why workers refuse to work late at night or to instruct children to be careful.

At first glance Mencej’s explanatory account fits well with what she says about the evolution of witchcraft belief since the 1970’s. We already noted that unwitchers did not attract clientele anymore and disappeared. Mencej notes that since that 1970’s public discourse about witchcraft became more difficult (although private discourse survived). She connects this to societal evolution in Slovenia. Since the 1970’s, people in Slovenia got easier access to water, electricity, television and the like. Since then, belief in witchcraft appears to have lost much of its force. Although she does not make it explicit, Mencej suggests that societal evolution eroded the explanatory function of witchcraft. Witchcraft had to compete with new or alternative explanations. With technological advance came information about how misfortunes arise through natural means. This likely eroded belief in witchcraft.

Near the end of the interview, Mencej makes another suggestion that challenges her story of societal evolution. Rather than diminishing as a result of societal evolution, witchcraft may instead have simply changed She notes that although unwitchers have disappeared, people sometimes resort to new-age therapies to undo harm by witchcraft. In new-age therapies, the source of harm is often not located in an external witch but in the bewitched person herself. New-age therapists urge people to look for ‘the witch within themselves’ rather than undoing harm done by external witches. This suggests that witchcraft does not disappear because of societal change but evolves with it. Mencej attributes the change to a shift in focus from communal identity toward individual responsibility , which characterizes many contemporary neo-liberal societies.

Mencej’s explanatory account is certainly a useful paradigm for studying traditional witchcraft. Some points she touches on, however, suggest there is more going on at a deeper level, namely that of the human mind. In his landmark book ‘Religion Explained’[i] Pascal Boyer argued that explanatory accounts of religion put the cart before the horse. Often belief in God or gods is seen as an explanation for natural phenomena, for example for earthquakes or smaller misfortunes. Boyer argues that this account evades the question why gods are considered good explanations for these phenomena. To answer this question we need to look deeper, namely at the human cognitive apparatus. A closer look could reveal why people tend to refer to gods as explanations for natural phenomena.

Boyer’s insight can be applied to traditional witchcraft belief. The question can be asked why malevolent activity by witches is considered a good explanation for misfortune. Mencej’s suggestion near the end that witchcraft belief does not disappear but evolves also suggests that witchcraft belief goes deeper than its explanatory function. When people are confronted with rival explanations in contemporary times, their witchcraft beliefs do not seem to disappear but their beliefs are adapted. This strongly suggests that there is more to witchcraft belief than its apparent explanatory function.

Boyer made suggestions why belief in gods comes easily.[ii] To my knowledge, no suggestions have been made why belief in witchcraft comes easily. Underlying the belief might be a belief in continuity between human will and nature; that is a belief that humans can influence the natural world with their will. Famous experiments like the Heider-Simmel experiment suggest that humans tend to see artifacts as minded.[iii] There is also evidence that humans are inclined to see nature as a living organism.[iv] This does not get us to the continuity belief yet. For this more research is definitely needed.

Probing a deeper, cognitive level of witchcraft belief probably fell beyond Mencej’s scope of research. Given the recent explosion in cognitive theories of religious belief the lack of interest in witchcraft belief is remarkable. I suggested that some of the paradigms in the cognitive study of religion could be applied to the study of witchcraft. These will be additions to Mencej’s research rather than challenges.

References

[i] Boyer, Pascal. Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. No. 170. Basic books, 2001.

[ii] He argued that one reason why belief in gods comes easily is because they violate some ontological expectations and hence are more memorable.

[iii] Heider, Fritz, and Marianne Simmel. “An experimental study of apparent behavior.” The American Journal of Psychology 57.2 (1944): 243-259.

Heide rand Simmel showed a short video of two triangles moving around to subjects and asked the mto describe what they sawy afterwards. Many described the video by referring to the triangles as minded. For example, they said that the one triangle was trying to get the attention of the other or that they were in love.

[iv] Kelemen, Deborah, and Evelyn Rosset. “The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition 111.1 (2009): 138-143.

 

Could Empathy Encourage Hyperactive Authority Detection?

Misplaced Faith? an interview with Professor Luke Galen, inspires some interesting speculations that I’ll offer in response.  First, the mention of gender differences in the context of individual differences in the “sensus divinitatis” and agency detection is potentially important.  Several factors that may help explain gender differences in religiousness are currently under investigation (e.g., discrimination in patriarchal societies).  My first idea builds on the gender difference in empathy.  The androgen testosterone inhibits empathy, and feminine roles and norms emphasize empathy, so I wonder if the resultant gender difference could explain part of the difference that makes women more religious than men on average.

This builds on the hyperactive agency detection theory that came up in this interview.  This theory argues that people apply the theory of mind – the attribution of independent minds and motives to other living beings – in an overzealous way, sometimes mischaracterizing inanimate objects as living beings and attributing actions and desires to them.  I usually think of hyperactive agency detection as the self-protective assumption that a predator is the source of every bump in the night, at least until proven otherwise.  The striving for control over otherwise-uncontrollable events like natural disasters, incurable diseases, and difficult or complex challenges (e.g., war, gambling) may also lead to superstitious attempts to manipulate supernatural forces like luck or appeal to supernatural powers that might tip the outcome in one’s favor if appeased.  Even birds have been said to act superstitious under variable interval reinforcement schedules.

Yet other mechanisms may partially mediate effects of hyperactive agency detection on supernatural beliefs, such as the (innate?) motive to align with and internalize the goals of one’s (para-)social superiors.  As with emotion detection, more empathic or emotionally intelligent individuals may perceive the ingroup’s motives more easily and automatically, possibly even to the point of overdetecting more motives or motivational complexity than the group actually possesses.  In this general scenario, a highly empathic person wouldn’t have to overdetect the presence of agents, but might overestimate their activity or desire to act.  This hypothesis could begin to explain differences between deists (who believe in passive creator gods) and believers in gods that intervene actively.

As social animals, humans not only try to understand the motives and emotions of others, but also learn from them.  People construct sets of behaviors and infer laws through social learning from other agents, particularly ingroup members of higher authority like parents and presidents.  If the agents are absent or illusory, those behaviors and laws could take on a proto-religious significance for lack of direct feedback or operant shaping, especially if observant behaviors are still reinforced less directly by satisfaction of needs for control or affiliation, or by the approval of lesser superiors like older siblings or local authorities.

If greater empathy or emotional intelligence give individuals more opportunities to learn (and overlearn) from each other, then perhaps entire cultures could be shaped to serve society’s best guesses about what its highest authority figure desires.  To apply the prospect of overlearning via empathy to theistic cognition in general, I see god(s) in this role of highest ingroup authority.  If gods serve to explain uncontrollable events, it is probably natural to assume they are more knowledgeable and powerful than us.  Other characteristics like authoritarian submission or just world belief could incline people to identify with such a knowledgeable power – essentially applying theory of mind to the natural universe.  If by identifying with such an ultimate power, one could convince others of some borrowed knowledge or power, then one could attract subordinates, creating a social hierarchy while posing as a mere middleman.

Social networks have mediated the parasocial power of distant, famous leaders throughout human history, which includes many cases of deified monarchs.  Maybe this is not too short a span to have evolutionary implications, such that real lords have sensitized us (culturally, if not biologically) to their ability to project power and command servitude without personal presence.  Regardless of the origins of our personalities and social mechanisms, authority structures in modern society may take advantage of empathy, authoritarianism, and just world belief.  If so, religious authority structures are surely no exception.  Empathy might mediate reciprocal effects between gender and religiousness, and for that matter, authoritarian submission could mediate bonds between religiousness and conservatism, which relates to authoritarianism and just world belief.

These mechanisms may explain benevolent and parental aspects of traditional god images.  Since parents are the original objects of social learning and authoritarian submission, parental schemata might accommodate god(s) by emphasizing power and absence.  Other characteristics might carry over from parental schemata, such as nurturant intent and various anthropomorphisms.  The moniker “our heavenly father” makes this blending of schemata explicit, as does belief that god(s) could beget human children (e.g., Jesus, ancestors of monarchs).  Furthermore, referring to god(s) as “lord” may reinforce the general anthropomorphization of god(s) and the believability of monarchs’ hereditary divinity claims.  It would be difficult to discern whether the popularization of religion has anthropomorphized god images over time or whether god images began as anthropomorphic and helped to popularize religion.  Again, regardless of origins, reciprocal causation is plausible in modernity.

In light of the many predispositions that might influence perceptions of god(s), it seems strange to argue, as some cognitive scientists of religion (CSR) have, that a sensus divinitatis could offer any positive information about the existence of god(s).  Did a god create us, and especially our social superiors, in “his” image, along with the impulses to detect him?  Or did people create god(s) in the images of themselves, their parents, and their ingroup leaders, using no more than the same cognitive architecture that has served many essential, secular purposes throughout humanity’s existence?

As I’m sure has been said before, identifying the cognitive architecture that explains perceptions of birds doesn’t independently provide any more proof than disproof of birds’ existence.  Supportive evidence is needed, and gods would require a lot more scaffolding to support.  Granted, prominent CSR theories may refer to a more vague higher power than most religions – this resembles ietsism (Dutch for “somethingism”) more than it resembles the Abrahamic faiths that contextualize most of CSR – but frankly, I suspect this is a compromise with the heterogeneity of god representations across world religions, which is difficult for even Eurocentrists to overlook.  If it is important to also acknowledge the possibility of independent evidence that would support the existence of god(s), or to acknowledge that all empirical evidence as we know it is mediated by human perception, then arguably it is important to revisit epistemology in general.  In my opinion, this overextends the scope of manageably focused, productive conversation, as does bringing the matter of god’s actual non/existence into the discussion of any psychological predisposition toward theism.  These related topics all warrant independent study.

That being said, another point raised in the podcast deserves at least tangential recognition.  The involvement of the temporal lobe in religious/spiritual cognition is fascinating, because the temporal lobe plays integrative roles for the semantic interpretation of sights, words, and feelings.  This overlap of structures and functions would seem to suit the confabulation of complex constructs in general.  In particular, the temporoparietal junction (TPJ as Galen refers to it) serves several functions relevant to theism, including moral judgment, agency detection, differentiation of others from the self, and out-of-body experiences (the last probably being more a matter of dysfunction).  While hardly disproving the existence of god(s), the capacity of these brain structures to intuitively overdetect moral authorities that transcend the self and corporeality itself certainly calls these popular god concepts into question.  In other words, regardless of the non/existence of god(s), it seems quite plausible that we have made several assumptions about the nature of god(s) that suit our neurological inclinations.

Finally, and further beyond the scope of evidence, I had a small difference of interpretation regarding artificially induced involuntary movement and the overattribution of control to oneself.  Without knowing the data independently of Galen’s description, I can only say that his description seems to suit the counterargument: that people have some capacity to underdetect external agents, even as they might override routine self-control.  If personal control is antithetical to divine control, it seems worth acknowledging in fairness if these experiments would suggest that the illusion of self-control could obscure external control.  Yet by the same token, one might need to reconsider infamous legal defenses like “the devil made me do it”.  The overattribution of self-control would also support biological reductionist arguments against free will, which is another important component of many popular religious belief systems.  It could be quite a conundrum if the same brain mechanism held contradictory implications for the potential validity of a religion (i.e., if the sensus divinitatis exists, but free will doesn’t, or vice versa, given religious claims that both exist), but this would be a theological conundrum, and probably not much of a problem for psychology.

Reliability and Religion: A response to Misplaced Faith?

Professor Galen’s podcast is refreshing in many ways. Claiming that recent scientific theories about religious belief are neutral has been the orthodox position in both philosophy and science for some time now. Galen questions the validity of this position. I will first formulate what I take Galen’s position to be and then offer some critical remarks.

I take Galen to argue that religious belief is unreliably formed. His point mirrors claims made by philosophers of religion who claim that recent theories of religious belief support the claim that these beliefs are reliably formed. The meaning of unreliability is widely discussed in philosophy. It is usually predicated of belief-forming mechanisms and means that the mechanism produces many false beliefs. Because they produce many false beliefs, beliefs produced by unreliable mechanisms cannot be considered rational.

In the discussion over recent scientific theories about religious belief, unreliability claims see the (potential) unreliability of religious mechanisms as following from their evolutionary history. The mechanisms at the root of religious beliefs are claimed to be the way they are as a result of evolutionary processes like natural selection. Since natural selection selects for traits that increase fitness and cares little about truth, the mechanisms are unlikely to be aimed at truth. Some authors have concluded to unreliability in this way.[i]

Galen’s argument for unreliability is different. He claims that there is independent evidence that the mechanisms at the root of religious belief produce many false beliefs. The evidence he offers is threefold.

  • First cognitive science shows that there are important individual differences in religious mechanisms. It is well established that, on average, women are more religious than men. People with a more analytic style of thinking also seem to be less likely to form religious beliefs. Tanya Luhrmann’s absorption theory, finally, states that some people are more gifted to form religious beliefs.
  • Second some mechanisms that contribute to forming religious beliefs have been connected with the production of false beliefs. Luhrmann’s absorption was connected to falsely detecting agency. Higher religiosity was correlated with blending of ontological categories.
  • Finally, (and this is the strongest evidence according to Galen) religious beliefs are malleable. When people encounter counterevidence for their beliefs they are inclined to double down on those beliefs rather than revising them. People suffering from social deficits are also found to be more likely to have religious beliefs. furthermore, manipulations of the brain can give rise to misattributions of agency; for example to attribution to a supernatural agent.

Galen claims scientific theories can lead to metaphysical conclusions. I think his argument is better understood as epistemological. From a claim of unreliability no strong metaphysical claims about what exists can be drawn. When a religious belief is produced by an unreliable mechanism, the object of that belief (in this case God or another supernatural being) can still exist. I believe Galen’s argument can be reformulated and summarized as follows:

  • There is strong evidence that religious beliefs are unreliably produced.
  • Beliefs that are unreliably produced are not rational.
  • Therefore, religious beliefs are not rational.

The argument is logically valid as the conclusion follows from the premises. The second premise is widely assumed in recent epistemology but is not obvious. A minority position states that rationality of beliefs is a function of how well they cohere with other beliefs. In this case religious beliefs can be considered rational because they cohere well with beliefs about order in the universe and beliefs about a supernatural origin of morality. Another minority position is pragmatic and states that beliefs are rational if they work, that is if they allow an individual to better make sense of her environment. In both cases, whether the belief in question is unreliably produced or not is (largely) irrelevant.

Denying premise 2 may seem implausible but in many cases we do tend to deny it. In the podcast the interviewer noted that many political beliefs are formed by similar unreliable mechanisms as religious beliefs are. These beliefs are sometimes claimed to be rational in virtue of their coherence with other beliefs or in virtue of their pragmatic use.

Nonetheless, the second premise is widely accepted. Therefore the crux of Galen’s argument is in premise 1. Galen’s first group of evidence is not really evidence for unreliability. Contrary to what Galen claims, I believe the strongest evidence for the premise are the second group of reasons. Mechanisms that are like other known unreliable mechanisms or that have been connected to the production of false beliefs are likely unreliable. The third group of reasons say more about what people do with their beliefs  than how they form their beliefs. Doubling down on religious beliefs when confronted with counterevidence presupposes that the individual already had a religious belief on forehand. Claiming that social deficit increases religious belief is also hard without presupposing that some belief was already there. Compensating lack of social interactions by interacting with an invisible, divine, being is easier if the individual already has some prior belief. Without it, jumping to beliefs in invisible beings seems a long jump. Misattributing agency also comes a lot easier if the individual already has some idea about the agent to whom actions can be attributed.

Concluding,  I agree with Galen that there is evidence for unreliability but disagree over what evidence is the strongest. His arguments are also rooted in a particular position in epistemology, and may need some refinement.  However, Galen has raised an interesting argument for the unreliability of mechanisms involved in religious cognition and as he rightly points out, CSR cannot be taken as completely irrelevant for the status of religious beliefs.

Endnotes

[i] Though they are a minority position, some unreliability claims have been made. Examples of this approach are: Wilkins, J. S. and P. E. Griffiths (2012). Evolutionary Debunking Arguments in Three Domains. A New Science of Religion. G. W. Dawes and J. Maclaurin. London, Routledge: 133-146 and Goodnick, L. (2016). “A De Jure Criticism of Theism.” Open Theology 2(1).

‘Religion is Natural and Science is Not’

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.

Religion as Anthropomorphism

As of the late 1950’s, radical ‘Behaviorism’ was beginning to decline in lieu of cognitive-behavioral approaches. The mind was no longer a ‘black box’ that prevented us from looking inside, nor was it a ‘blank slate’ shaped solely by ones environment. Largely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’, and a foundation laid by Alan Turing that conceived of the brain as analogous to a computer, anthropology slowly shifted from an interpretive hermeneutic endeavor, to one aimed at identifying culturally reoccurring patterns of behavior and thought (i.e. universals), and providing an explanation for these universals. This explanation was rooted not in culture itself, but within the mind.

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

It was only a matter of time before a cognitive approach was applied to religion. While cognitive anthropologists such as Dan Sperber (1975) set the tone for such an approach, Dr. Stewart Guthrie was the first to offer up a “comprehensive cognitive theory of religion” (Xygalatas, 2012). In 1980 Guthrie published his seminal paper titled A Cognitive Theory of Religion. In 1993 he greatly expanded upon his earlier work and published the book Faces In The Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion further supporting “religion as anthropomorphism” (p. 177). Standing on the shoulders of giants, Guthrie’s “new theory of religion” peeked above the clouds ushering in a shift from purely descriptive levels of analysis applied to religion, to ones that also provided explanations for religion.

In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, 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. After discussing some current support for his theory, he presents the purview of scholarship on anthropomorphism stretching back to 500 BCE. Guthrie argues for anthropomorphism as ‘the core of religious experience’ synthesizing prior thought from Spinoza and Hume and applying an evolutionary perspective situated on the concept of ‘game theory’. He draws important distinctions between anthropomorphism and Justin Barrett’s Hyper Active Agent Detection Device (HADD), a concept built from Guthrie’s theory, and departs discussing the complexities involved in understanding and researching the human tendency to attribute agency to the world around them.

See the face on Mars?

See the face on Mars?

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

  • Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Guthrie, S. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion [and comments and reply]. Current            Anthropology, pp. 181–203.
  • Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing. Lurking behind such statements is the premise that purposes are given by an agentic mind. Thus, this kind of teleological reasoning indicates an underlying belief in some being that intends objects in the natural world to serve some purpose. Similarly, in studying why adults and children both struggle to reach a scientifically-accurate understanding of evolution, Margaret Evans (2000) has found that, regardless of religious and educational background, children tend to develop towards creationist explanations for the origins of organisms up until about 10 years of age, only after which does background seem to influence these beliefs. These and a host of other biases (e.g., Jesse Bering’s simulation constraint hypothesis; see Bering & Bjorklund, 2004) seem like good candidates for precursors to religious thought in adults. The exact form that religious thought takes, of course, depends on the culture in which a person lives.

Cognitive scientists of religion are not just interested in how religious ideas originate in development but also in how such ideas work within adults’ minds. Geertz points out his own research, which suggests that at least some forms of religious thought are neurologically similar to non-religious thought. Such findings are compatible with the dominant theory in the cognitive science of religion—that religious concepts are constrained by the cognitive architecture of the human mind. Pascal Boyer (2001) has advanced the theory that humans have an innate ontology, a set of basic categories onto which all of our concepts are mapped. This ontology includes categories like human, animal, plant, and natural object, and each is associated with a set of properties. We attribute psychological, biological, and physical properties to humans, for example, whereas natural objects possess physical properties but not biological or psychological ones. Supernatural concepts are those concepts that violate the normal, intuitive properties of these categories. Thus, the concept ghost is based on the human category, but deviates from it by not possessing biological properties (i.e., ghosts do not need to eat, sleep, or perform the normal biological functions of humans). Experimental research by cognitive scientists such as Geertz and Justin Barrett has started to confirm that there are many similarities in how people reason about humans and supernatural agents. In a particularly clever set of studies, Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) found that, under cognitive load, participants seemed not to account for the counterintuitive properties of God. Instead, they reasoned that the supernatural deity would have to obey the normal laws of physics, despite explicitly believing that God need not follow such laws. For example, when asked to retell a story about God’s saving a drowning boy, participants who believed that God does not follow the normal rules of space and time inserted the detail that God finished answering a prayer somewhere else in the world before he began saving the boy, despite this detail’s not being in the original story. Like Geertz’s research, this suggests that human thinking about God and other supernatural agents is very similar to thinking about other humans.

One of the most active ongoing debates within the field involve the origins of religious thought, not just in individuals, but in humans as a species, and especially whether religious thought was selected for in the course of evolution. Many researchers, including Dominic Johnson, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan, adhere to some form of the supernatural punishment hypothesis (see, for example, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011)—the idea that the threat of punishment from morally concerned supernatural agents helped humans increase cooperation and live in larger societies—though there are several version of this hypothesis and not everyone buys into it. This debate is exploding within the field and driving much new research into when and how religious thinking inspires cooperation.

Although cognitive scientists have begun proposing answers to questions about religious thinking, the field is quite young and there is still much to be studied. As the cognitive science of religion matures, there will no doubt be creative and exciting approaches to the current debates and to questions that are only beginning to arise in the field, such as how thinking about malevolent agents differs from thinking about benevolent ones. It is an exciting time for the study of religious cognition.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Erika Salomon is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. She occasionally blogs about religious cognition at A Theory of Mind.

References:

Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 217-233.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. London: William Heinneman.

Evans, E. M. (2000). The Emergence of Beliefs about the Origins of Species in School-Age Children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 221–254.

Kelemen, D. (1999). Function, goals and intention: children’s teleological reasoning about objects. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 461–468.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85–96. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.556990

Podcasts

Explaining Witchcraft: Response to ‘Witchcraft in Slovenia’

In her interview, Mirjam Mencej discusses her fascinating research into witchcraft in rural Slovenia. She conducted field work in Eastern Slovenia into people’s beliefs on witchcraft. Though restricted to rural areas in Eastern Slovenia, she claims belief in witchcraft is very much alive. She distinguishes traditional witchcraft sharply from modern neo-pagan witchcraft like you find in Wicca. In traditional witchcraft a witch is above all a person (usually a woman) who does harm by using supernatural forces.

According to Mencej, people believe that all witches to share malevolent agency. Nonetheless, various types of witches can be distinguished. A first type is the ‘neighborhood witch’. Neighborhood witches are believed to cause misfortune to their neighbors. They are often invoked to explain diseases or other misfortunes. A second kind is the ‘village witch’. These are witches who are recognized by certain physical characteristics like ugliness or limping. Someone can also be classified as village witch because of her reputation. Reputation can be inherited from one’s parents or result from having certain character traits. A third type is the ‘night witch’. These witches are believed to appear in the form of flickering lights and make people lose their orientation at night. Unlike neighborhood witches, they do not cause economic damage but are also responsible for misfortunes, namely leading people astray. People discuss different types of witches under different discourses yet they are often talked about as similar.

Mencej also discusses a fourth group, the ‘unwitchers’. These are not witches themselves but provide services to counteract witchcraft. They nihilate the witches’ malevolent forces by giving instructions. They also aid in the identification of witches. According to Mencej, they are no unwitchers anymore. They lost much of their clientele in the late 1970’s and have since died of old age.

Mencej suggestsbelief in witchcraft has a mainly explanatory function. For example, witchcraft can serve as an explanation for why misfortune befalls people or why they get lost at night. Belief in witchcraft is also a valuable source of justification. Mencej gives the example of a young man who was unable to get a job. Rather than attributing this to emotional malefunction, his unemployment was attributed to witchcraft. This allowed the young man to avoid the social stigma that often comes with being diagnosed with emotional dysfunction. For his parents an explanation in terms of witchcraft avoided blame for bad parenting. Witchcraft is also useful as an explanation for why workers refuse to work late at night or to instruct children to be careful.

At first glance Mencej’s explanatory account fits well with what she says about the evolution of witchcraft belief since the 1970’s. We already noted that unwitchers did not attract clientele anymore and disappeared. Mencej notes that since that 1970’s public discourse about witchcraft became more difficult (although private discourse survived). She connects this to societal evolution in Slovenia. Since the 1970’s, people in Slovenia got easier access to water, electricity, television and the like. Since then, belief in witchcraft appears to have lost much of its force. Although she does not make it explicit, Mencej suggests that societal evolution eroded the explanatory function of witchcraft. Witchcraft had to compete with new or alternative explanations. With technological advance came information about how misfortunes arise through natural means. This likely eroded belief in witchcraft.

Near the end of the interview, Mencej makes another suggestion that challenges her story of societal evolution. Rather than diminishing as a result of societal evolution, witchcraft may instead have simply changed She notes that although unwitchers have disappeared, people sometimes resort to new-age therapies to undo harm by witchcraft. In new-age therapies, the source of harm is often not located in an external witch but in the bewitched person herself. New-age therapists urge people to look for ‘the witch within themselves’ rather than undoing harm done by external witches. This suggests that witchcraft does not disappear because of societal change but evolves with it. Mencej attributes the change to a shift in focus from communal identity toward individual responsibility , which characterizes many contemporary neo-liberal societies.

Mencej’s explanatory account is certainly a useful paradigm for studying traditional witchcraft. Some points she touches on, however, suggest there is more going on at a deeper level, namely that of the human mind. In his landmark book ‘Religion Explained’[i] Pascal Boyer argued that explanatory accounts of religion put the cart before the horse. Often belief in God or gods is seen as an explanation for natural phenomena, for example for earthquakes or smaller misfortunes. Boyer argues that this account evades the question why gods are considered good explanations for these phenomena. To answer this question we need to look deeper, namely at the human cognitive apparatus. A closer look could reveal why people tend to refer to gods as explanations for natural phenomena.

Boyer’s insight can be applied to traditional witchcraft belief. The question can be asked why malevolent activity by witches is considered a good explanation for misfortune. Mencej’s suggestion near the end that witchcraft belief does not disappear but evolves also suggests that witchcraft belief goes deeper than its explanatory function. When people are confronted with rival explanations in contemporary times, their witchcraft beliefs do not seem to disappear but their beliefs are adapted. This strongly suggests that there is more to witchcraft belief than its apparent explanatory function.

Boyer made suggestions why belief in gods comes easily.[ii] To my knowledge, no suggestions have been made why belief in witchcraft comes easily. Underlying the belief might be a belief in continuity between human will and nature; that is a belief that humans can influence the natural world with their will. Famous experiments like the Heider-Simmel experiment suggest that humans tend to see artifacts as minded.[iii] There is also evidence that humans are inclined to see nature as a living organism.[iv] This does not get us to the continuity belief yet. For this more research is definitely needed.

Probing a deeper, cognitive level of witchcraft belief probably fell beyond Mencej’s scope of research. Given the recent explosion in cognitive theories of religious belief the lack of interest in witchcraft belief is remarkable. I suggested that some of the paradigms in the cognitive study of religion could be applied to the study of witchcraft. These will be additions to Mencej’s research rather than challenges.

References

[i] Boyer, Pascal. Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. No. 170. Basic books, 2001.

[ii] He argued that one reason why belief in gods comes easily is because they violate some ontological expectations and hence are more memorable.

[iii] Heider, Fritz, and Marianne Simmel. “An experimental study of apparent behavior.” The American Journal of Psychology 57.2 (1944): 243-259.

Heide rand Simmel showed a short video of two triangles moving around to subjects and asked the mto describe what they sawy afterwards. Many described the video by referring to the triangles as minded. For example, they said that the one triangle was trying to get the attention of the other or that they were in love.

[iv] Kelemen, Deborah, and Evelyn Rosset. “The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition 111.1 (2009): 138-143.

 

Could Empathy Encourage Hyperactive Authority Detection?

Misplaced Faith? an interview with Professor Luke Galen, inspires some interesting speculations that I’ll offer in response.  First, the mention of gender differences in the context of individual differences in the “sensus divinitatis” and agency detection is potentially important.  Several factors that may help explain gender differences in religiousness are currently under investigation (e.g., discrimination in patriarchal societies).  My first idea builds on the gender difference in empathy.  The androgen testosterone inhibits empathy, and feminine roles and norms emphasize empathy, so I wonder if the resultant gender difference could explain part of the difference that makes women more religious than men on average.

This builds on the hyperactive agency detection theory that came up in this interview.  This theory argues that people apply the theory of mind – the attribution of independent minds and motives to other living beings – in an overzealous way, sometimes mischaracterizing inanimate objects as living beings and attributing actions and desires to them.  I usually think of hyperactive agency detection as the self-protective assumption that a predator is the source of every bump in the night, at least until proven otherwise.  The striving for control over otherwise-uncontrollable events like natural disasters, incurable diseases, and difficult or complex challenges (e.g., war, gambling) may also lead to superstitious attempts to manipulate supernatural forces like luck or appeal to supernatural powers that might tip the outcome in one’s favor if appeased.  Even birds have been said to act superstitious under variable interval reinforcement schedules.

Yet other mechanisms may partially mediate effects of hyperactive agency detection on supernatural beliefs, such as the (innate?) motive to align with and internalize the goals of one’s (para-)social superiors.  As with emotion detection, more empathic or emotionally intelligent individuals may perceive the ingroup’s motives more easily and automatically, possibly even to the point of overdetecting more motives or motivational complexity than the group actually possesses.  In this general scenario, a highly empathic person wouldn’t have to overdetect the presence of agents, but might overestimate their activity or desire to act.  This hypothesis could begin to explain differences between deists (who believe in passive creator gods) and believers in gods that intervene actively.

As social animals, humans not only try to understand the motives and emotions of others, but also learn from them.  People construct sets of behaviors and infer laws through social learning from other agents, particularly ingroup members of higher authority like parents and presidents.  If the agents are absent or illusory, those behaviors and laws could take on a proto-religious significance for lack of direct feedback or operant shaping, especially if observant behaviors are still reinforced less directly by satisfaction of needs for control or affiliation, or by the approval of lesser superiors like older siblings or local authorities.

If greater empathy or emotional intelligence give individuals more opportunities to learn (and overlearn) from each other, then perhaps entire cultures could be shaped to serve society’s best guesses about what its highest authority figure desires.  To apply the prospect of overlearning via empathy to theistic cognition in general, I see god(s) in this role of highest ingroup authority.  If gods serve to explain uncontrollable events, it is probably natural to assume they are more knowledgeable and powerful than us.  Other characteristics like authoritarian submission or just world belief could incline people to identify with such a knowledgeable power – essentially applying theory of mind to the natural universe.  If by identifying with such an ultimate power, one could convince others of some borrowed knowledge or power, then one could attract subordinates, creating a social hierarchy while posing as a mere middleman.

Social networks have mediated the parasocial power of distant, famous leaders throughout human history, which includes many cases of deified monarchs.  Maybe this is not too short a span to have evolutionary implications, such that real lords have sensitized us (culturally, if not biologically) to their ability to project power and command servitude without personal presence.  Regardless of the origins of our personalities and social mechanisms, authority structures in modern society may take advantage of empathy, authoritarianism, and just world belief.  If so, religious authority structures are surely no exception.  Empathy might mediate reciprocal effects between gender and religiousness, and for that matter, authoritarian submission could mediate bonds between religiousness and conservatism, which relates to authoritarianism and just world belief.

These mechanisms may explain benevolent and parental aspects of traditional god images.  Since parents are the original objects of social learning and authoritarian submission, parental schemata might accommodate god(s) by emphasizing power and absence.  Other characteristics might carry over from parental schemata, such as nurturant intent and various anthropomorphisms.  The moniker “our heavenly father” makes this blending of schemata explicit, as does belief that god(s) could beget human children (e.g., Jesus, ancestors of monarchs).  Furthermore, referring to god(s) as “lord” may reinforce the general anthropomorphization of god(s) and the believability of monarchs’ hereditary divinity claims.  It would be difficult to discern whether the popularization of religion has anthropomorphized god images over time or whether god images began as anthropomorphic and helped to popularize religion.  Again, regardless of origins, reciprocal causation is plausible in modernity.

In light of the many predispositions that might influence perceptions of god(s), it seems strange to argue, as some cognitive scientists of religion (CSR) have, that a sensus divinitatis could offer any positive information about the existence of god(s).  Did a god create us, and especially our social superiors, in “his” image, along with the impulses to detect him?  Or did people create god(s) in the images of themselves, their parents, and their ingroup leaders, using no more than the same cognitive architecture that has served many essential, secular purposes throughout humanity’s existence?

As I’m sure has been said before, identifying the cognitive architecture that explains perceptions of birds doesn’t independently provide any more proof than disproof of birds’ existence.  Supportive evidence is needed, and gods would require a lot more scaffolding to support.  Granted, prominent CSR theories may refer to a more vague higher power than most religions – this resembles ietsism (Dutch for “somethingism”) more than it resembles the Abrahamic faiths that contextualize most of CSR – but frankly, I suspect this is a compromise with the heterogeneity of god representations across world religions, which is difficult for even Eurocentrists to overlook.  If it is important to also acknowledge the possibility of independent evidence that would support the existence of god(s), or to acknowledge that all empirical evidence as we know it is mediated by human perception, then arguably it is important to revisit epistemology in general.  In my opinion, this overextends the scope of manageably focused, productive conversation, as does bringing the matter of god’s actual non/existence into the discussion of any psychological predisposition toward theism.  These related topics all warrant independent study.

That being said, another point raised in the podcast deserves at least tangential recognition.  The involvement of the temporal lobe in religious/spiritual cognition is fascinating, because the temporal lobe plays integrative roles for the semantic interpretation of sights, words, and feelings.  This overlap of structures and functions would seem to suit the confabulation of complex constructs in general.  In particular, the temporoparietal junction (TPJ as Galen refers to it) serves several functions relevant to theism, including moral judgment, agency detection, differentiation of others from the self, and out-of-body experiences (the last probably being more a matter of dysfunction).  While hardly disproving the existence of god(s), the capacity of these brain structures to intuitively overdetect moral authorities that transcend the self and corporeality itself certainly calls these popular god concepts into question.  In other words, regardless of the non/existence of god(s), it seems quite plausible that we have made several assumptions about the nature of god(s) that suit our neurological inclinations.

Finally, and further beyond the scope of evidence, I had a small difference of interpretation regarding artificially induced involuntary movement and the overattribution of control to oneself.  Without knowing the data independently of Galen’s description, I can only say that his description seems to suit the counterargument: that people have some capacity to underdetect external agents, even as they might override routine self-control.  If personal control is antithetical to divine control, it seems worth acknowledging in fairness if these experiments would suggest that the illusion of self-control could obscure external control.  Yet by the same token, one might need to reconsider infamous legal defenses like “the devil made me do it”.  The overattribution of self-control would also support biological reductionist arguments against free will, which is another important component of many popular religious belief systems.  It could be quite a conundrum if the same brain mechanism held contradictory implications for the potential validity of a religion (i.e., if the sensus divinitatis exists, but free will doesn’t, or vice versa, given religious claims that both exist), but this would be a theological conundrum, and probably not much of a problem for psychology.

Reliability and Religion: A response to Misplaced Faith?

Professor Galen’s podcast is refreshing in many ways. Claiming that recent scientific theories about religious belief are neutral has been the orthodox position in both philosophy and science for some time now. Galen questions the validity of this position. I will first formulate what I take Galen’s position to be and then offer some critical remarks.

I take Galen to argue that religious belief is unreliably formed. His point mirrors claims made by philosophers of religion who claim that recent theories of religious belief support the claim that these beliefs are reliably formed. The meaning of unreliability is widely discussed in philosophy. It is usually predicated of belief-forming mechanisms and means that the mechanism produces many false beliefs. Because they produce many false beliefs, beliefs produced by unreliable mechanisms cannot be considered rational.

In the discussion over recent scientific theories about religious belief, unreliability claims see the (potential) unreliability of religious mechanisms as following from their evolutionary history. The mechanisms at the root of religious beliefs are claimed to be the way they are as a result of evolutionary processes like natural selection. Since natural selection selects for traits that increase fitness and cares little about truth, the mechanisms are unlikely to be aimed at truth. Some authors have concluded to unreliability in this way.[i]

Galen’s argument for unreliability is different. He claims that there is independent evidence that the mechanisms at the root of religious belief produce many false beliefs. The evidence he offers is threefold.

  • First cognitive science shows that there are important individual differences in religious mechanisms. It is well established that, on average, women are more religious than men. People with a more analytic style of thinking also seem to be less likely to form religious beliefs. Tanya Luhrmann’s absorption theory, finally, states that some people are more gifted to form religious beliefs.
  • Second some mechanisms that contribute to forming religious beliefs have been connected with the production of false beliefs. Luhrmann’s absorption was connected to falsely detecting agency. Higher religiosity was correlated with blending of ontological categories.
  • Finally, (and this is the strongest evidence according to Galen) religious beliefs are malleable. When people encounter counterevidence for their beliefs they are inclined to double down on those beliefs rather than revising them. People suffering from social deficits are also found to be more likely to have religious beliefs. furthermore, manipulations of the brain can give rise to misattributions of agency; for example to attribution to a supernatural agent.

Galen claims scientific theories can lead to metaphysical conclusions. I think his argument is better understood as epistemological. From a claim of unreliability no strong metaphysical claims about what exists can be drawn. When a religious belief is produced by an unreliable mechanism, the object of that belief (in this case God or another supernatural being) can still exist. I believe Galen’s argument can be reformulated and summarized as follows:

  • There is strong evidence that religious beliefs are unreliably produced.
  • Beliefs that are unreliably produced are not rational.
  • Therefore, religious beliefs are not rational.

The argument is logically valid as the conclusion follows from the premises. The second premise is widely assumed in recent epistemology but is not obvious. A minority position states that rationality of beliefs is a function of how well they cohere with other beliefs. In this case religious beliefs can be considered rational because they cohere well with beliefs about order in the universe and beliefs about a supernatural origin of morality. Another minority position is pragmatic and states that beliefs are rational if they work, that is if they allow an individual to better make sense of her environment. In both cases, whether the belief in question is unreliably produced or not is (largely) irrelevant.

Denying premise 2 may seem implausible but in many cases we do tend to deny it. In the podcast the interviewer noted that many political beliefs are formed by similar unreliable mechanisms as religious beliefs are. These beliefs are sometimes claimed to be rational in virtue of their coherence with other beliefs or in virtue of their pragmatic use.

Nonetheless, the second premise is widely accepted. Therefore the crux of Galen’s argument is in premise 1. Galen’s first group of evidence is not really evidence for unreliability. Contrary to what Galen claims, I believe the strongest evidence for the premise are the second group of reasons. Mechanisms that are like other known unreliable mechanisms or that have been connected to the production of false beliefs are likely unreliable. The third group of reasons say more about what people do with their beliefs  than how they form their beliefs. Doubling down on religious beliefs when confronted with counterevidence presupposes that the individual already had a religious belief on forehand. Claiming that social deficit increases religious belief is also hard without presupposing that some belief was already there. Compensating lack of social interactions by interacting with an invisible, divine, being is easier if the individual already has some prior belief. Without it, jumping to beliefs in invisible beings seems a long jump. Misattributing agency also comes a lot easier if the individual already has some idea about the agent to whom actions can be attributed.

Concluding,  I agree with Galen that there is evidence for unreliability but disagree over what evidence is the strongest. His arguments are also rooted in a particular position in epistemology, and may need some refinement.  However, Galen has raised an interesting argument for the unreliability of mechanisms involved in religious cognition and as he rightly points out, CSR cannot be taken as completely irrelevant for the status of religious beliefs.

Endnotes

[i] Though they are a minority position, some unreliability claims have been made. Examples of this approach are: Wilkins, J. S. and P. E. Griffiths (2012). Evolutionary Debunking Arguments in Three Domains. A New Science of Religion. G. W. Dawes and J. Maclaurin. London, Routledge: 133-146 and Goodnick, L. (2016). “A De Jure Criticism of Theism.” Open Theology 2(1).

‘Religion is Natural and Science is Not’

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.

Religion as Anthropomorphism

As of the late 1950’s, radical ‘Behaviorism’ was beginning to decline in lieu of cognitive-behavioral approaches. The mind was no longer a ‘black box’ that prevented us from looking inside, nor was it a ‘blank slate’ shaped solely by ones environment. Largely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’, and a foundation laid by Alan Turing that conceived of the brain as analogous to a computer, anthropology slowly shifted from an interpretive hermeneutic endeavor, to one aimed at identifying culturally reoccurring patterns of behavior and thought (i.e. universals), and providing an explanation for these universals. This explanation was rooted not in culture itself, but within the mind.

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

It was only a matter of time before a cognitive approach was applied to religion. While cognitive anthropologists such as Dan Sperber (1975) set the tone for such an approach, Dr. Stewart Guthrie was the first to offer up a “comprehensive cognitive theory of religion” (Xygalatas, 2012). In 1980 Guthrie published his seminal paper titled A Cognitive Theory of Religion. In 1993 he greatly expanded upon his earlier work and published the book Faces In The Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion further supporting “religion as anthropomorphism” (p. 177). Standing on the shoulders of giants, Guthrie’s “new theory of religion” peeked above the clouds ushering in a shift from purely descriptive levels of analysis applied to religion, to ones that also provided explanations for religion.

In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, 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. After discussing some current support for his theory, he presents the purview of scholarship on anthropomorphism stretching back to 500 BCE. Guthrie argues for anthropomorphism as ‘the core of religious experience’ synthesizing prior thought from Spinoza and Hume and applying an evolutionary perspective situated on the concept of ‘game theory’. He draws important distinctions between anthropomorphism and Justin Barrett’s Hyper Active Agent Detection Device (HADD), a concept built from Guthrie’s theory, and departs discussing the complexities involved in understanding and researching the human tendency to attribute agency to the world around them.

See the face on Mars?

See the face on Mars?

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

  • Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Guthrie, S. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion [and comments and reply]. Current            Anthropology, pp. 181–203.
  • Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing. Lurking behind such statements is the premise that purposes are given by an agentic mind. Thus, this kind of teleological reasoning indicates an underlying belief in some being that intends objects in the natural world to serve some purpose. Similarly, in studying why adults and children both struggle to reach a scientifically-accurate understanding of evolution, Margaret Evans (2000) has found that, regardless of religious and educational background, children tend to develop towards creationist explanations for the origins of organisms up until about 10 years of age, only after which does background seem to influence these beliefs. These and a host of other biases (e.g., Jesse Bering’s simulation constraint hypothesis; see Bering & Bjorklund, 2004) seem like good candidates for precursors to religious thought in adults. The exact form that religious thought takes, of course, depends on the culture in which a person lives.

Cognitive scientists of religion are not just interested in how religious ideas originate in development but also in how such ideas work within adults’ minds. Geertz points out his own research, which suggests that at least some forms of religious thought are neurologically similar to non-religious thought. Such findings are compatible with the dominant theory in the cognitive science of religion—that religious concepts are constrained by the cognitive architecture of the human mind. Pascal Boyer (2001) has advanced the theory that humans have an innate ontology, a set of basic categories onto which all of our concepts are mapped. This ontology includes categories like human, animal, plant, and natural object, and each is associated with a set of properties. We attribute psychological, biological, and physical properties to humans, for example, whereas natural objects possess physical properties but not biological or psychological ones. Supernatural concepts are those concepts that violate the normal, intuitive properties of these categories. Thus, the concept ghost is based on the human category, but deviates from it by not possessing biological properties (i.e., ghosts do not need to eat, sleep, or perform the normal biological functions of humans). Experimental research by cognitive scientists such as Geertz and Justin Barrett has started to confirm that there are many similarities in how people reason about humans and supernatural agents. In a particularly clever set of studies, Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) found that, under cognitive load, participants seemed not to account for the counterintuitive properties of God. Instead, they reasoned that the supernatural deity would have to obey the normal laws of physics, despite explicitly believing that God need not follow such laws. For example, when asked to retell a story about God’s saving a drowning boy, participants who believed that God does not follow the normal rules of space and time inserted the detail that God finished answering a prayer somewhere else in the world before he began saving the boy, despite this detail’s not being in the original story. Like Geertz’s research, this suggests that human thinking about God and other supernatural agents is very similar to thinking about other humans.

One of the most active ongoing debates within the field involve the origins of religious thought, not just in individuals, but in humans as a species, and especially whether religious thought was selected for in the course of evolution. Many researchers, including Dominic Johnson, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan, adhere to some form of the supernatural punishment hypothesis (see, for example, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011)—the idea that the threat of punishment from morally concerned supernatural agents helped humans increase cooperation and live in larger societies—though there are several version of this hypothesis and not everyone buys into it. This debate is exploding within the field and driving much new research into when and how religious thinking inspires cooperation.

Although cognitive scientists have begun proposing answers to questions about religious thinking, the field is quite young and there is still much to be studied. As the cognitive science of religion matures, there will no doubt be creative and exciting approaches to the current debates and to questions that are only beginning to arise in the field, such as how thinking about malevolent agents differs from thinking about benevolent ones. It is an exciting time for the study of religious cognition.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Erika Salomon is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. She occasionally blogs about religious cognition at A Theory of Mind.

References:

Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 217-233.

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