How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion

How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion

How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion

How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion

Synopsis

Recent findings in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology provide important insights to the processes which make religious beliefs and behaviors such efficient attractors in and across various cultural settings. The specific salience of religious ideas is based on the fact that they are counter-intuitive: they contradict our intuitive expectations of how entities normally behave. Counter-intuitive ideas are only produced by a mind capable of crossing the boundaries that separate such ontological domains as persons, living things, and solid objects. The evolution of such a mind has only taken place in the human species. How certain kinds of counter-intuitive ideas are selected for a religious use is discussed from varying angles. Cognitive considerations are thus related to the traditions of comparative religion. This publication has also been published in paperback, please click here for details."

Excerpt

I have to admit it that the title of this book may sound provocative; this is deliberately so. I want to make a strong claim that the mechanisms underlying religious thought and behavior are something that can be naturally explained, just like any other cultural and cognitive phenomena. I am also perfectly aware that many scholars studying religion want to argue that such explanations always fail because they cannot reach the essence of religion, which is ultimately a mystery, or that such explanations, although possible as such, yet are trivial because they reach only the surface level of religion, not "anything that is of interest" (Levine 1998: 42). In this latter type of view, all that is really important in religion — whatever that may be — is something that can only be reached by emphatic participation or by appreciative interpretive methods. (See McCutcheon 1997a&b.)

I disagree, of course. If what is known to us as 'religion' really conceals some inscrutable mystery, then it would be in vain to seek knowledge about that aspect of religion by any method, at least in a scientific context. A mystery is a mystery. If, on the other hand, we consider that it is important to study how people communicate about the idea of something being a mystery, there is no a priori reason why this should be beyond the reach of scientific methods. After all, we are dealing here with human thought and behavior. I also subscribe in principle to the idea of conceptual integration, i.e. the view that the various disciplines within the behavioral and social sciences should make themselves mutually consistent, and consistent also with what is known in the natural sciences. This view entails that there is a universal human nature, which, however, exists primarily at the level of evolved psychological mechanisms and not at the level of cultural behaviors. (Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow 1995; Tooby and Cosmides 1995.)

Secondly, those who say that an explanatory approach focusing on generalities of thought and action misses an important aspect of religion may well be right, but scholars should not be alarmed by this. Every explanation misses something which is in some way important for many people, and a "(l)ack of humanistic 'significance' or interest is often the price to pay for causal relevance" (Boyer 1994b: 295). No scientific explanation covers every aspect of the phenomenon explained. The range of phenomena that goes by the general name of . . .

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