Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Are Positive Trait Attributions for the Deceased Caused by Fear of Supernatural Punishments?: A Triangulated Study by Content Analysis and Text Mining

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Are Positive Trait Attributions for the Deceased Caused by Fear of Supernatural Punishments?: A Triangulated Study by Content Analysis and Text Mining

Article excerpt

According to Bering's psychological theory of religion, belief in God is a form of psychological illusion. We are born with the innate idea that there is a spiritual realm in which the deceased continue to exercise their will and other cognitive functions. In an attempt to empirically substantiate this claim, Bering, McLeoad, and Shackelford (2005) conducted a content analysis of obituaries published in the New York Times. They found that kindness and morality-related attributes of the deceased appeared more frequently than other types of qualities. Bering and his team explained that these attributions were motivated by our fear of supernatural punishments. This finding was cited as evidence to support the notion that religion arises out of our natural disposition for transcendence. The current study replicated and extended the research of Bering and colleagues by using another sample obtained in the United Kingdom. Two types of mixed-method data analysis were utilized in this project: content analysis and text mining. In this study the datum suggests that the pattern of trait attributions for the dead is more likely to be cultural. In addition, neither Bering et al.'s (2005) nor the current study could affirm that fear of supernatural punishment was the motivation for people to give positive ratings of the dead. The naturalistic explanation was also found to be problematic at the theoretical level.

Why do we have religious beliefs? Cognitive psychologist Jesse Bering attempted to answer this question by adopting a naturalistic explanation. Specifically, according to Bering's psychological theories, we are born with the innate idea that there is a spiritual realm in which the deceased continue to exercise their will and other cognitive functions. The belief that things do not end with this life becomes the foundation of our moral order. Bering and his colleagues conducted a series of studies to support this claim, such as the experiment of puppet play (Bering, Blasi, & Bjorklund, 2005), the experiment of trait attributions by photos, the content analysis of obituaries, and the experiment of ghost story (Bering, McLeod, & Shackelford, 2005). This project replicated and extended the study of Bering et al.'s content analysis regarding the perceptions of dead agents. Findings indicate that explaining religion by natural instinct is questionable, and it is the conviction of the author that interpretation should not go beyond what the data entail.

Utilizing the framework of cognitive psychology and evolutionary psychology, Bering traced our tendency of believing in the supernatural to instinct. More specifically, even though events in the universe are random, we tend to find a pattern or purpose in these events. This tendency was developed among our ancestors throughout the history of evolution. Many people are helpless when facing unfortunate events, and use adaptive or coping mechanisms to optimize negative outcomes that are out of their control, such as putting their faith on an external agent (e.g., God) (Bering, 2003, 2012; Bering & Johnson, 2005). This inclination of seeing random events as designed for a purpose by God is known as "teleological reasoning" (Bering, 2006, p.453), an idea that resembles Kelemen and Rosset's (2009) notion of promiscuous teleology. Moreover, Bering (2002a) hypothesized that humans have a natural tendency to perceive cognitive systems as continuing to function after death, and this disposition might be the psychological foundation of religion. The underlying mechanism of this inclination is called the "theory of mind" (Bering, 2006, p.253), which is a research program that has been extensively studied by numerous psychologists (e.g. Avis & Harris, 1991; Flavell, Flavell, & Green, 1983; Gopnik & Astington, 1988; Richert & Barrett, 2005; Wigger, 2011; Wigger, Paxson, & Ryan, 2012). In this view, humans are said to be capable of attributing mental states to others even though these mental states are not directly observable. …

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