Cognitive science of religion is the study of religious thought and behavior from the perspective of the cognitive and evolutionary sciences. The field employs methods and theories from a very broad range of disciplines, including: cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive anthropology, artificial intelligence, neurotheology, developmental psychology, and archaeology. Scholars in this field seek to explain how human minds acquire, generate, and transmit religious thoughts, practices, and schemas by means of ordinary cognitive capacities.
Although religion has been the subject of serious scientific study since at least the late nineteenth century, the study of religion as a cognitive phenomenon is relatively recent. While it often relies upon earlier research within anthropology of religion and sociology of religion, cognitive science of religion considers the results of that work within the context of evolutionary and cognitive theories. As such, cognitive science of religion was only made possible by the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and the development, starting in the 1970s, of sociobiology and other approaches explaining human behaviour in evolutionary terms, especially evolutionary psychology.
While Dan Sperber foreshadowed cognitive science of religion in his 1975 book Rethinking Symbolism, the earliest research to fall within the scope of the discipline was published during the 1980s. Among this work, Stewart E. Guthrie's "A cognitive theory of religion" was significant for examining the significance of anthropomorphism within religion, work that ultimately led to the development of the concept of the hyperactive agency detection device – a key concept within cognitive science of religion.
The real beginning of cognitive science of religion can be dated to the 1990s, however. During that decade a large number of highly influential books and articles were published which helped to lay the foundations of cognitive science of religion. These included Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture and Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley, Naturalness of Religious Ideas by Pascal Boyer, Inside the Cult and Arguments and Icons by Harvey Whitehouse, and Guthrie's book-length development of his earlier theories in Faces in the Clouds. In the 1990s, these and other researchers, who had been working independently in a variety of different disciplines, discovered each other's work and found valuable parallels between their approaches, with the result that something of a self-aware research tradition began to coalesce. By 2000, the field was well-enough defined for Justin L. Barrett to coin the term 'cognitive science of religion' in his article "Exploring the natural foundations of religion".
Since 2000, cognitive science of religion has grown, similarly to other approaches that apply evolutionary thinking to sociological phenomena. Each year more researchers become involved in the field, with theoretical and empirical developments proceeding at a very rapid pace. The field remains somewhat loosely defined, bringing together as it does researchers who come from a variety of different traditions. Much of the cohesion in the field comes not from shared detailed theoretical commitments but from a general willingness to view religion in cognitive and evolutionary terms as well as from the willingness to engage with the work of the others developing this field. A vital role in bringing together researchers is played by the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion, formed in 2006.
Despite a lack of agreement concerning the theoretical basis for work in cognitive science of religion, it is possible to outline some tendencies. Most significant of these is reliance upon the theories developed within evolutionary psychology. That particular approach to evolutionary explanations of human behaviour is particularly suitable to the cognitive byproduct explanation of religion that is most popular among cognitive scientists of religion. This is because of the focus on byproduct and ancestral trait explanations within evolutionary psychology. A particularly significant concept associated with this approach is modularity of mind, used as it is to underpin accounts of the mental mechanisms seen to be responsible for religious beliefs. Important examples of work that falls under this rubric are provided by research carried out by Pascal Boyer and Justin L. Barrett.
These theoretical commitments are not shared by all cognitive scientists of religion, however. Ongoing debates regarding the comparative advantages of different evolutionary explanations for human behaviour find a reflection within cognitive science of religion with dual inheritance theory recently gaining adherents among researchers in the field, including Armin Geertz and Ara Norenzayan. The perceived advantage of this theoretical framework is its ability to deal with more complex interactions between cognitive and cultural phenomena, but it comes at the cost of experimental design having to take into consideration a richer range of possibilities.
The view that religious beliefs and practices should be understood as nonfunctional but as produced by human cognitive mechanisms that are functional outside of the context of religion. Examples of this are the hyperactive agent detection device and the minimally counterintuitive concepts or the process of initiation explaining buddhism and taoism. The cognitive byproduct explanation of religion is an application of the concept of spandrel (biology) and of the concept of exaptation explored by Stephen Jay Gould among others.
Concepts that mostly fit human preconceptions but break with them in one or two striking ways. These concepts are both easy to remember (thanks to the counterintuitive elements) and easy to use (thanks to largely agreeing with what people expect). Examples include talking trees and noncorporeal agents. Pascal Boyer argues that many religious entities fit into this category. Upal labelled the fact that minimally counterintuitive ideas are better remembered than intuitive and maximally counterintuitive ideas as the minimal counterintuitiveness effect or the MCI-effect.
Cognitive scientist Justin L. Barrett postulates that this mental mechanism, whose function is to identify the activity of agents, may contribute to belief in the presence of the supernatural. Given the relative costs of failing to spot an agent, the mechanism is said to be hyperactive, producing a large number of false positive errors. Stewart E. Guthrie and others have claimed these errors can explain the appearance of supernatural concepts.
According to the prosocial adaptation account of religion, religious beliefs and practices should be understood as having the function of eliciting adaptive prosocial behaviour and avoiding the free rider problem. Within the cognitive science of religion this approach is primarily pursued by Richard Sosis. David Sloan Wilson is another major proponent of this approach and interprets religion as a group-level adaptation, but his work is generally seen as falling outside the cognitive science of religion.
Practices that, due to their inherent cost, can be relied upon to provide an honest signal regarding the intentions of the agent. Richard Sosis has suggested that religious practices can be explained as costly signals of the willingness to cooperate. A similar line of argument has been pursued by Lyle Steadman and Craig Palmer. Alternatively, D. Jason Slone has argued that religiosity may be a costly signal used as a mating strategy in so far as religiosity serves as a proxy for "family values."
In the context of cognitive science of religion, dual inheritance theory can be understood as attempting to combine the cognitive byproduct and prosocial adaptation accounts using the theoretical approach developed by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, among others. The basic view is that while belief in supernatural entities is a cognitive byproduct, cultural traditions have recruited such beliefs to motivate prosocial behaviour. A sophisticated statement of this approach can be found in Scott Atran and Joseph Henrich (2010) "The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions" Biological Theory 5.1.
Muhammad Afzal Upal is a writer and a cognitive scientist with contributions to cognitive science of religion, machine learning for planning, and agent-based social simulation.Ann Taves
Ann Taves (born 1952) is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is a former President of the American Academy of Religion (2010). She holds the chair of Catholic Studies at the university. Taves is especially known for her work Religious Experience Reconsidered, stressing the importance of the findings and theoretical foundations of cognitive science for modern religionists.Dan Sperber
Dan Sperber (born 20 June 1942 in Cagnes-sur-Mer) is a French social and cognitive scientist. His most influential work has been in the fields of cognitive anthropology and linguistic pragmatics: developing, with British psychologist Deirdre Wilson, relevance theory in the latter; and an approach to cultural evolution known as the 'epidemiology of representations' in the former. Sperber currently holds the positions of Directeur de Recherche émérite at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Director of the International Cognition and Culture Institute.David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson (born 1949) is an American evolutionary biologist and a Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He is a son of the author Sloan Wilson and co-founder of the Evolution Institute.E. Thomas Lawson
Ernest Thomas (Tom) Lawson (b. 27 November 1931 in Cape Town) is an honorary professor at the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University Belfast. He is the executive editor of the Journal of Cognition and Culture (JCC) and co-founder (with Luther Martin and Donald Wiebe) of the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR). He is a founding member and has served as the first President of the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion (IACSR).
Lawson is widely considered to be the founder of the cognitive science of religion field. He has published the books Religions of Africa: Traditions in Transformation (1984) and, with Robert N. McCauley, Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture (1990) and Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Ritual Forms (2002). He also played a leading role in the establishment of departments of religion at public universities in the United States during the 1960s. A festschrift in his honor, Religion as a Human Capacity: A Festschrift in Honor of E. Thomas Lawson, was published in 2004. He is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University.
Currently, Lawson is a "Senior Researcher and Distinguished Professor in Residence" at LEVYNA (Laboratory for Experimental Research of Religion) at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.
In addition to his research activities Lawson is an avid painter, traveler, science fiction reader, and bird watcher.Evolutionary psychology of religion
The evolutionary psychology of religion is the study of religious belief using evolutionary psychology principles. It is one approach to the psychology of religion. As with all other organs and organ functions, the brain's functional structure is argued to have a genetic basis, and is therefore subject to the effects of natural selection and evolution. Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand cognitive processes, religion in this case, by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might serve.International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion
The International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion (IACSR), founded in 2006, is a scholarly association dedicated to the promotion of the Cognitive Science of Religion. The IACSR is an interdisciplinary association, including scholars from a wide variety of disciplines in the human, social, natural and health sciences that are interested in the academic, scientific study of religious phenomena. The IACSR seeks to advance the naturalistic study of religion. It is strictly scientific and does not encourage or welcome those who are interested in dialogue between science and religion, attempt to find religion in science and science in religion, or attempt to validate religious or spiritual doctrines through cognitive science.The IACSR supports the Electronic Archive for Religion & Cognition at the Centre for Religion & Cognition, Groningen, the Journal of Cognition & Culture (Brill Publishers), and two book series, Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation (Bloomsbury Academic), which was formerly the series Cognitive Science of Religion (AltaMira Press), and Religion, Cognition and Culture (Equinox Press).Jesse Bering
Jesse Michael Bering (born 6 May 1975) is an American writer and academic. He is Associate Professor in Science Communication at the University of Otago (where he serves as Director of the Centre for Science Communication), as well as a frequent contributor to Scientific American, Slate, and Das Magazin (Switzerland). His work has also appeared in New York Magazine, The Guardian, and The New Republic, and has been featured on NPR, the BBC, Playboy Radio and elsewhere.Joseph Bulbulia
Joseph A. Bulbulia is a Professor in the School of Humanities, Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland, where he was appointed the Maclaurin Goodfellow Chair in Theological and Religious Studies in 2018. He was formerly a Professor in the School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington (2000– 2017). Bulbulia is regarded as one of the founders of the contemporary evolutionary religious studies. He is a past President of the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion and is currently co-editor of Religion, Brain & Behavior. Bulbulia is one of four on the Senior Management Team of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a 20-year longitudinal study tracking over 15,000 New Zealanders each year. He is an associate investigator for Pulotu, a database of 116 Pacific cultures purpose-built to investigate the evolutionary dynamics of religion. In 2016 Bulbulia won a Research Excellence Award at Victoria University.Joseph Henrich
Joseph Henrich is an anthropologist. He is the chairman of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology of Harvard University and a professor of the department. Henrich is interested in the question of how humans evolved from "being a relatively unremarkable primate a few million years ago to the most successful species on the globe", and how culture affected our genetic development.Justin L. Barrett
Justin L. Barrett (born 1971) is an American experimental psychologist, Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development in Pasadena, California, Thrive Professor of Developmental Science, and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He previously was a senior researcher and director of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind and The Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University.Kelly James Clark
Kelly James Clark (born March 3, 1956) is an American philosopher noted for his work in the philosophy of religion, science and religion, and the cognitive science of religion. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute and Professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids Michigan.Leonard George
Leonard George (born 1957) is a Canadian psychologist and schizophrenia researcher based in Vancouver, British Columbia, best known for his writing and lectures on varieties of anomalous phenomena, spirituality, psychology and history. In the 1990s he was a noted broadcaster in Canada, appearing on radio and television in that country and in the United States where he appeared on national programs such as a highly rated NBC special hosted by actor Peter Graves in October 1994.He is the author of two extensively annotated reference works on paranormal experience and religious history. The Washington Post included his Crimes of Perception: An Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics in a 1995 round-up of notable religion themed books. This volume also appeared in British (London: Robson Books, 1995; Northam: Roundhouse, 2001) and several Spanish-langiage editions published in Spain and Mexico (Barcelona: Robinbook, 1998; Barcelona: Editorial Oceano, 1999; Mexico: Oceano, 1999). His second reference work, Alternative Realities: The Paranormal, The Mystic and the Transcendent in Human Experience (1995) was republished in a Book-of-the-Month Club edition in 1996.
George completed his B.Sc. in psychology at the University of Toronto in 1979. He earned his M.A. (1980) and Ph.D. (1985) in clinical psychology at the University of Western Ontario. He completed a one-year postdoctoral residency in 1986 at Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario, and completed licensing requirements and became a Registered Psychologist in both Ontario (1986) and British Columbia (1990). In addition to his clinical career, George is noted for his early experimental work and publications on the cognition of schizophrenia. He also conducted some of the earliest research on practice effects in mental imagery enhancement training His summaries of the relationship of cognitive variables such as mental imagery enhancement training, altered states of consciousness and expectancy to psi were also among the first reviews of the experimental literature on these topics. In recent years George has made contributions to the cognitive science of religion through his application of findings from experimental research to interpretations of Neoplatonic texts through publications and presentations at the annual conferences of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies (in 2003, 2005, 2009, and 2016), the Association for the Study of Esotericism (2014) and the American Academy of Religion (2015).From 1980 to 1981 George was a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in Durham, North Carolina. This was parapsychologist J.B. Rhine's Institute for Parapsychology, now renamed the Rhine Research Center.
Between 2013 and 2017 he was Chair of the Department of Psychology at Capilano University. In 2017 he became Chair of the School of Social Sciences at Caplilano University. George retired from full-time teaching at Capilano in April 2018.
George has offered seminars across North America and Europe and in places as diverse as Alexandria, Egypt, and Iceland. Many of these were part of the eleven Esoteric Quest programs of the New York Open Center he has served as a presenter or advisor beginning in 2000.In July 2017 George delivered an invited presentation at the Institute of Philosophy, the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He was invited to do so by Chuluunbaatar Gelegpil, Mongolia's Minister of Education and Culture. Accompanied by American psychologist and historian of medicine Richard Noll, George also conducted anthropological fieldwork among Mongol shamans and Buddhist lamas in areas outside Ulaanbaatar and in the eastern Gobi near Sainshand in Dornogovi province. Seven short videos of Mongol shamans performing a summer solstice ritual (Ulaan Tergel) on 21 June 2017 are available online.Pascal Boyer
Pascal Robert Boyer is a French and American cognitive anthropologist, mostly known for his work in the cognitive science of religion. He taught at the University of Cambridge for eight years, before taking up the position of Henry Luce Professor of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches classes on psychology and anthropology. He was a Guggenheim Fellow and a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Lyon, France. He studied philosophy and anthropology at University of Paris and Cambridge, with Jack Goody, working on memory constraints on the transmission of oral literature.Peter Richerson
Peter James Richerson (born October 11, 1943) is an American biologist. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis.Religious Experience Reconsidered
Religious Experience Reconsidered is a book by Ann Taves on the study of religious experience. She proposes a new approach, which takes into account the attribution of religious meaning to specific events, using the term "specialness." "The focus of the book is on experiences deemed religious (and, by extension, other things considered special) rather than "religious experience.""Religious experience
A religious experience (sometimes known as a spiritual experience, sacred experience, or mystical experience) is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework. The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of Western society. William James popularised the concept.Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge which comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.Skeptics may hold that religious experience is an evolved feature of the human brain amenable to normal scientific study. The commonalities and differences between religious experiences across different cultures have enabled scholars to categorize them for academic study.Robert Boyd (anthropologist)
Robert Turner Boyd (born February 11, 1948) is an American anthropologist. He is Professor of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (SHESC) at Arizona State University (ASU). His research interests include evolutionary psychology and in particular the evolutionary roots of culture. Together with his primatologist wife, Joan B. Silk (who is also a Professor in SHESC at ASU), he wrote the textbook How Humans Evolved.Scott Atran
Scott Atran (born February 6, 1952) is a French-American anthropologist who is Emeritus Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in Paris, Research Professor at the University of Michigan, and cofounder of ARTIS International and of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University. He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders.