Theologically Incorrect

Foremost, I want to commend Dr. Claire White on her research on the cognitive science of reincarnation beliefs. Examining how humans cognitively recognize agents based on the continuity of certain attributes is an ingenious way to explore the criteria people intuitively construct for the continuity of agents across lifetimes. It solves the difficult problem of operationalizing belief in reincarnation to make it available for scientific study. While I applaud the project and its initial hypothesis, some of the methodology seems to reflect an incomplete understanding of the religious doctrine it is attempting to link with fundamental cognitive processes.

Dr. White identifies the continuity of physical traits and memories as telltales by which the continuity of an agent between lives is typically identified. From her research, Dr. White shows that if participants are asked how they would determine someone is a deceased’s reincarnation, they overwhelmingly would look for shared physical characteristics (e.g. a birth mark) between the two, as well as shared memories, e.g. the reincarnation retaining a memory of an experience of the deceased. Dr. White then attempts to show that mental and physical continuity are actually intuitive cognitive processes that help us identify agents in the world, and so they, in turn, inform how we conceptualize reincarnation. She makes this case through a notion of theological incorrectness. The notion of theological incorrectness is a well-established tool in the cognitive science of religion literature which helps to differentiate intuitive (i.e. innate) cognitive processes from culturally learned beliefs. The idea is that when someone is asked to reason about a theological concept (what Dr. White in the interview calls a “reason task”), they are likely to use intuitive cognitive notions about the world even if those notions diverge from the indoctrinated theology that the person otherwise claims to believe. Appealing to the presence of theologically incorrect intuitions in individual reasoning about theological concepts shows that something other than just a cultural construct is operative in that reasoning, pointing to more fundamental cognitive structures.

The use of theological incorrectness as a criterion for the operation of an intuitive cognitive mechanism thus depends on the existence of a divergence between the reasoning of the participant and the formal theological reasoning of the tradition to which they belong. If there is no divergence, it is just as likely that the participant is reasoning from a culturally constructed concept as from some intuitive cognitive structure.

But, I don’t think Dr. White has shown that continuity of memory or physical traits as criteria for reincarnation does actually diverge from the theological system. In the case of Buddhism, she cites the Dalai Lama who is recognized as a reincarnation by remembering objects from his past life. She says this criteria is theologically incorrect from the perspective of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. If the self is impermanent, how could someone carry a memory from one life to the next? The doctrine of no-self, however, does not just govern the transition between lifetimes. All Buddhist schools argue that a person changes from moment to moment, endlessly, and thus has no stable self. If memory continuity between lifetimes is problematic for the doctrine of no-self, then so is memory within one life, let alone between. However, there is no reason to think this is the case. The Buddhist doctrine of no-self is actually none too different than the cognitive science (CS) view of self. CS rejects the notion of a permanent homunculus pulling the strings inside the brain. The experience of a self is made of functioning neural components processing ever changing electro-chemical signals. This is sufficiently a no-self conception in the Buddhist sense. If CS can have a no-self view and explain memory, there is no reason to assume a priori that memory continuity is inconsistent with a Buddhist standpoint of no-self. In fact, I would argue, all Buddhist systems have thorough analyses about how memories are transferred between lives despite there being no-self. To say that memory transfer is theologically incorrect just demonstrates not being acquainted with the theology.

Physical trait continuity also is not theologically incorrect. White argues that in the reincarnationist doctrine, the mind or soul inhabits a new form when it reincarnates. If it is something non-corporeal that reincarnates, why is there any physical continuity? This first assumes that reincarnation doctrine is essentially mind-body dualist, which, at least in Buddhism, is a much more complicated debate. But, even if we grant a type of dualism, the assumption that physical continuity is theologically incorrect completely dismisses the doctrine of karma, which is indispensible in most Eastern reincarnationist doctrines. Karma is not only thought to be carried in the mind or soul between lives; it is also instrumental in physically forming the reincarnate body. Physical continuity is thus not theologically problematic. There is nothing grossly physical that reincarnates, but the mind or soul carries propensities from the past life that necessitate one’s physical form in the next.

If neither of these concepts, physical or mental continuity, are theologically incorrect, it’s hard to make the case that they are borne out of some more fundamental agent-recognition cognitive structures. Because of the research design, I am even more suspect that the convergence Dr. White has shown is the result of a shared conceptual understanding of reincarnation rather than some intuitive structure. Dr. White said that she asked participants to reason about “reincarnation” without any religious language, so as not to prime their answers. “Reincarnation,” even in another guise, however, is already a religious concept, so I’m unclear how this isn’t already a sort of priming. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that each of the three studies she mentions are drawing on groups that have similar religious notions of “reincarnation.” The U.K. has had long cultural exchange with India, Jains themselves have conceptions of reincarnation drawn from an Upanishadic Indian milieu, and the American New Age draws largely on the Theosophists, who themselves also developed their religiosity out of this milieu. The convergence on continuity of memory and physical traits as criteria for reincarnation could be as much explained by a shared Indian notion of reincarnation than by some fundamental cognitive process. These studies do not demonstrate a true cross-cultural slice.

Lastly, Dr. White presents her upcoming research problem: why is it that upper class whites have adopted the notion of reincarnation but with a positive valence? She argues that in traditional reincarnationist doctrine, rebirth is to be escaped, not embraced. This question again shows an incomplete understanding of these traditions. In Buddhism, for example, it was only the very elite, probably a very small minority of monks, that were concerned with escaping rebirth. The vast majority of Buddhists are focused on what’s called the “lower scope,” attaining a better rebirth. The irony here is that White is trying to identify a cultural difference between American whites and traditional reincarnationist where there may actually be a shared cognitive structure, perhaps an intuition that the mind continues after death. Whereas earlier I argued that she is confusing cultural structures for cognitive ones, here she may be doing the reverse.

In sum, I think a lot of these problems could be rectified with a more thorough understanding of the theological positions about the phenomena under investigation. We cannot hope to identify theological incorrectness with an incomplete understanding of theology itself. Even if participants profess a different theology “on the ground” than the party line, investigating the relationship between the professed theology and its source requires a deep understanding of theology in general. Perhaps this demonstrates a good opportunity for collaborative research toward consilience. Just as the humanities can broaden understanding in their domain through the inclusion of cognitive science, the cognitive scientist has much to gain in collaborating with the religious studies scholar who has thoroughly investigated the doctrinal level of the phenomena under investigation.

Not Just Any Body Will Do!

Dr. Claire White’s research addresses the religious topic of reincarnation that, although perhaps more adhered to by human cultures across time and space than the belief that we have only one earthly life followed by eternal reward or punishment, has received little serious scientific investigation—especially from the question through which Dr. White addresses it. That question is not whether reincarnation (or any other religious belief) is true, but rather “Why do some people have that belief?” It is this type of psychological question that is the hallmark of the cognitive science of religion (CSR).

The long-held assumption, made historically by both scholars and laymen, has been that religious beliefs are created and instilled through cultural transmission and indoctrination. In the past few decades, however, the newly emergent field of CSR has taken that assumption to task with numerous empirical experiments. Contrary to this long-held assumption, research into a wide variety of religious beliefs by CSR has found that many of those beliefs are held by us because they tap into and appeal to our natural cognitive biases. These cognitive biases predispose us to believe in gods, an afterlife, a moral universe, and creationism. Even though each religion addresses these topics in (sometimes very!) different ways, the findings suggest that what binds this great variation together are these underlying intuitions.

Like any human endeavour, however, science sometimes includes missteps.

White’s research, in conjunction with my own and others’, calls into question a theoretical assumption held by many CSR scholars that the body plays a negligible role in beliefs about supernatural agents (see here, here and here). According to such scholars, supernatural agents are represented by believers as disembodied beings, devoid of any bodily properties. This applies to gods as well as the afterliving deceased. Once a human dies, these researchers tell us, the only part of this deceased individual we intuitively represent as continuing is her mind. We no longer represent her as embodied in any way, let alone in any way connected with her previous earthly body. In contradistinction to this view with regard to the latter, both White and myself argue that the body still plays a vital role in representations of the afterliving deceased, and that this bodily representation is sufficiently corporeal and similar enough to allow for recognition and identification as “the same again” as well as continued social interaction.

As White rightly states in her interview, if there were ever a case in which the afterliving deceased’s previous earthly body should play no role whatsoever in her representation, recognition and identity, then it should be in the context of reincarnation. It is believed that the new physical body of the reincarnated individual shares no causal history, in the scientific sense, with her previous body. It could vary in race, sex, and innumerable other ways. Yet White’s empirical findings demonstrate that when trying to determine whether a reincarnated individual is the same again, we intuitively look for and at distinctive physical clues. If it were indeed the case that humans intuitively represented the afterliving deceased as disembodied minds, then there would be no reason, let alone an intuitive bias, to gauge the reincarnated individual’s identity based on her bodily attributes. Yet we do.

The evidence produced by White vividly demonstrates this by the fact that one of the two most important features that one “implicitly” looks for and appeals to in order to recognize a reincarnated individual as the same again are distinctive physical characteristics. Since the individual’s new body shares no causal history—genetic or otherwise—with her previous body (again, in the scientific sense), there should be no implicit reason to expect there to be such specific physical clues of identity. Nevertheless, White’s evidence demonstrates that we still represent and appeal to physical clues in matters of recognizing a reincarnated individual as the same again.

White does not appeal to novel cognitive mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, as is vogue in CSR (and cognitive science as a whole). Instead White claims that this intuitive cognitive bias relies on the known mundane representational processes that we use every day to recognize those we encounter as the same again. We expect them to have a specific causal history which we implicitly track through both mental (i.e., autobiographical memories) and distinctive physical characteristics. Of course, the latter are far more easily tracked than the former (could you imagine how different our interactions would be if we had to establish every individual’s identity by first interrogating her about her memories?).

White is also to be commended for incorporating anthropological evidence in her research. This is something that should be done much more often in CSR. Too often, researchers produce results and theories in their laboratories that appear to share little in common with the religious practices they are attempting to illuminate empirically. They provide us with no bridge to get from their results and theory to religion writ large in human cultures. Even worse, sometimes their results and theories seem to fly in the face of religious beliefs and practices.

Again, take the claim that humans represent supernatural agents as disembodied. This is problematic in that supernatural agents (with very few exceptions) are starkly represented as embodied, not just in iconography but also in mythologies and religious texts, and in fact often with very specific and odd physical features. For instance, think about the pantheons of supernatural agents across such diverse cultures as in ancient Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, India and China. How could the supernatural agents in these cultures have been represented, let alone carried out their specific mythical exploits, if we believed (intuitively or otherwise) that they were disembodied? Reconciling the laboratory phenomenon of dualism with religious beliefs and practices begins to appear impossible.

To overcome the complaints of its critics, CSR needs to follow White’s lead. Not only must we diligently carry out cross-cultural experiments in the laboratory, but we also need to consult and remain faithful to the anthropological record of religion as it is believed and practiced. If the two appear incompatible, it is our experiments and theories that must be rethought. It is not as though we in CSR can authoritatively tell the religious faithful that they are worshipping all wrong!

Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors would likely have never taken root in anthropology and religious studies. (Strong claim warning!) Without moving these disciplines into an arena where their claims are subject to falsification, they would not be able to participate in modern scholarship and would have made little progress since their founding in the 19th century.[1]

It was during my time as an undergraduate student at the picture Admittedly, my first reaction to the theory was something along the lines of “so what, that’s fairly obvious”. That is until I started to supplement Guthrie’s ideas with those of Pascal Boyer (2001), in particular, his findings that “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (i.e. those concepts that violate our expectations of what should be) are more likely to be remembered. These two points combined go a long way toward explaining why religious concepts such as gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. are created and persist throughout human populations. It was at this point that I started to understand the elegance and true theoretical power of what Guthrie was moving towards: that due to the similarities of the human brain, which is an organ that functions similarly in humans cross-culturally, the mind is likely to produce patterns of belief and behavior in accordance with that functioning. Furthermore, this can be used as a foundation for creating an empirically viable cross-cultural study of contemporary and historical religious movements.

Shortly after that, I became very interested in a phenomena common to new religious movements: the deification of their leader as a god or sole proprietor of the divine. This phenomena (also known as apotheosis) can be observed in the leaders of many NRMs from Jim Jones of the People’s Temple/Jonestown (see Layton, 1999; Nelson, 2006; Reiterman, 1982), to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (see DiAngelo, 2007), to David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (see Newport, 2006; Tabor & Gallagher, 1997), to the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church (see Barker, 1984). This odd pattern held to many other religious groups in other cultures and historical periods (Lane, 2012); e.g. Early Christianity, Greco-Roman religion, many African initiated churches, and also NRMs in Asia such as Aum Shinrikyo. These patterns may be contextually unique, but similarities emerge when they are viewed at the level of human cognition, and Guthrie’s work largely set the framework for such an approach. After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions (Lane, 2013a) or UFO cults (Lane, 2013b) without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project.

Guthrie’s work is—in the religious studies world—standing on the shoulders of giants as he himself notes that the patterns that he describes are similar to those noticed by Spinoza, Hume, Tylor, and others from the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. Guthrie’s ultimate contribution is situating this already-observed pattern within an empirically viable theoretical paradigm: that of evolutionary psychology. His work—as he mentions—was even the theoretical motivation for the Hyperactive (or ‘Hypersensitive’) Agency Detection Device (HADD); a cognitive mechanism now well known to the cognitive science of religion (see Barrett, 2004).

Guthrie’s work opens a “Pandora’s Box” to the scholar and student of religion. Not only does it act as a “gateway drug” for the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), it calls those interested in religion to begin to look at their subject through a different lens, one that is constrained by the empirical findings of psychology. Although “cognitive science” is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a dedication to understanding “information processing” generally and involves the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even history, CSR has mostly focused its efforts on empirical findings in psychology or utilizing the cognitive findings as an interpretive framework oftentimes focusing ultimately on semiotics or phenomenology. Ultimately, this rests shamelessly on theoretical commitments of epistemological positivism and scientific reduction, that is to say, the idea that we can actually know something and that observable phenomena can largely be reduced to their constituent parts (and that these parts can in turn act as objects of study). This is where you realize that inside of “Pandora’s Box” is Alice’s “rabbit hole”: if you reduce “religion”—as an evolutionary “spandrel” (a by-product that exists due to human evolution, but is not itself an adaptation)—can you reduce the cognitive mechanisms of your “spandrel” to the neuronal firings and neuro-transmitters of the brain? Can those interactions be reduced to the chemical reactions that govern the laws of biology? In one sense, these questions are easily answered with a practical statement: “no, we have neither the knowledge nor power (nor funding) to answer these questions in the foreseeable future”.

But, is there another answer to the overly-reductionist[2] tendencies of the empirical study of religion? I argue that there is. Guthrie places his theory solidly in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In the field of evolutionary studies, there are very strange things happening. For instance, the acceptance of complex and dynamic systems as commonplace often destroys the preconceived supremacy of linear thinking that is so ubiquitous in psychology. The idea that epigenetics is a very real force and that our experiences within our lifetime might affect the lives of our offspring, even to the genetic level, complicates the reductionist approach to anything operating within evolutionary studies.

Guthrie’s work, within an evolutionary approach, shows this point quite elegantly. The idea that we “anthropomorphize” signals in our environment involves three things: the raw input signal from the environment; the mental mechanisms that change the input signal (i.e. our “thinking” about the stimulus); and an output signal (such as the anthropomorphized representation in the mind). With this sort of system (operating in every human brain in a social group), even if the mechanism of perception were the same in each and every human brain (i.e. perfectly symmetrical), the fact that we experience different perceptions would allow for nearly infinite complexity by the time the cognitive system produces some output. This could be demonstrated by simply viewing something at a different angle, one which creates a face and one which doesn’t, as the “Martian face” on the cover of Guthrie’s book so brilliantly demonstrates (when light hits the mountain at a certain angle it looks like a face, but from other angles it does not).

This near-chaotic complexity may seem daunting, and rightly so, but scholars have already proposed theories of religious ritual systems that are compatible with both the broad theoretical claims of Guthrie (and directly utilize his work) but are also flexible enough to make predictions about the contextualized cultural forms that are observed in the historical, ethnographic, and now empirical records. While they have been viewed as competing but largely compatible theories, the work of Whitehouse on the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity (2000, 2002, 2004) and that of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley on ritual competence theory (Lawson & McCauley, 1990; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) both present structured arguments for the description and analysis of religious ritual systems that are amenable to the complexities of evolutionary perspectives (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Lane, 2011; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Turchin, Whitehouse, Francois, Slingerland, & Collard, 2012).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s work was critical to ushering in a new period of study for scholars of religion; one which embraces both the abstract similarities and patterns noticed by early scholars such as Eliade (1959) and Durkhiem (1912) as well as the contextualized complexity so staunchly defended by cultural anthropologists. Guthrie’s work is situated between the two, in a tradition joined by scholars looking to test predictions with data first popularized by Stark & Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion (1996) and being moved forward by research institutes such as the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and LEVYNA at Masaryk University, which push us into a brave new scientific world of supercomputers, big data, and a real understanding of the mind and what makes us human. It is this middle ground that also seems to be exciting droves of students to again take up the social sciences but in a way that is just as social as ever, but more scientific than its founders could have imagined.


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[1] Now that you’ve read the strong claim, a point of clarification: this is not to say that religious studies without any empirical focus is not useful. To the contrary, many of the theories produced by the history and philosophy of religions are very useful and have informed the empirical approach. I would suggest that the empirical and traditional forms of religious studies work together and that each is weaker without the other.

[2] I say “overly” because researchers who do brilliant scientific work might overlook how their findings contribute to an understanding of “religion” or reduce so far down that it doesn’t address anything about “religion” any more than it addresses any other human social phenomena.