Applying the Science of Faith: The Cognitive Science of Religion and Christian Practice

By Edman, Laird R. O. | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Applying the Science of Faith: The Cognitive Science of Religion and Christian Practice


Edman, Laird R. O., Journal of Psychology and Christianity


Why do so many Christians believe things that are contrary to scripture or to the carefully delineated and often explicated precepts of basic Christian theology? Many professed Christians believe in ghosts, or in astrology, or even in reincarnation (Moore, 2005; Willard & Norenzayan, 2013). Christians often have wildly inaccurate conceptions of core theological principles such as the atonement, grace, or the Trinity. A pastor of an evangelical Christian church once lamented to me how one of the long-time pillars of the congregation, a man who had served for decades as president of the board, Sunday school teacher, and elder, once confessed that he assumed God would allow him into heaven because he hadn't done anything seriously wrong in his life, was probably as good as the next guy, and had tried his best. This man had most likely heard hundreds of sermons on grace and salvation and on Christ's death and resurrection. He probably knew John 3:16 by heart. But this man's "folk theology" was far from what he had heard for years in worship and Bible study. "Theologically incorrect" beliefs such as these appear to be ubiquitous in the church (Slone, 2004). One of the reasons may be the ordinary workings of human cognition.

Many of our non-reflective intuitions about God, or gods, ghosts, the afterlife, even divine plan and purpose, may arise from the ordinary operations of our cognitive architecture (Slone, 2004; Willard & Norenzayan, 2013). Understanding these operations as they relate to religious belief and practice is the task of a new arena of study that has developed over the past 20 years. This approach, the cognitive science of religion (CSR), uses the tools of developmental and cognitive psychology, anthropology, sociology of religion, philosophy, and comparative religion to examine what Justin Barrett (2013) calls "the basement of religion;" that is, the underlying and invisible cognitive structures and foundations upon which religious behavior and belief rest. While religious beliefs and behaviors occur only in the context of a specific culture-they take place within and are defined by particular social and cultural settings-CSR research focuses on the ordinary psychological processes that appear to be involved in and undergird these beliefs and behaviors across cultures. The first research in what later came to be called CSR emphasized explaining religious systems by appealing to these underlying common psychological processes, especially information-processing-processes that are usually labeled cognitive (Barrett, 2013).

These processes may help to explain some of the common misconceptions Christians have about their own faith and they may be useful for Christians as we engage in teaching, leading worship, and even in evangelism. CSR has a number of hypotheses about the ways and reasons humans find religious ritual so important, the tendencies we have to believe some theological concepts and struggle with others, and which ideas about God children appear to be primed to quickly understand and believe. Whereas theory and research in this area is by its very nature more general than specific and focused on religious observance across cultures and faiths rather than on the practices of any specific faith (Barrett, 2011; McCauley, 2011), this is an area of research and theory that has potential value in informing Christian worship and spiritual formation. Christian psychologists interested in the psychology of religion and in "giving psychology away" (Miller, 1969, p. 1071), particularly to the church, should consider CSR a useful new tool for understanding and enhancing the life of faith.

Embodied Selves

A central assumption in positing that CSR can inform Christian spiritual formation is that the human body matters. There is much written elsewhere about a good theology of the body (cf. Cortez, 2008; Powell & Lodahl, 1999). The idea that we are souls that are fully embodied is one that has strong scriptural support (e. …

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