I. Introduction: What is the scientific study of religion? - II. New approaches to the study of religion: the cognitive, the biological, and the neurological. 1. The cognitive approach. 2. The biological approach. 3. The neuro-scientific approach. 4. Summarizing. - III. Problems and limits in the current scientific study of religion. 1. Theoretical criticisms. 2. Assessment of empirical evidence. 3. Left-out aspects. - IV. Looking for a renewed scientific approach to religion. - V. Meaning and implications of the new scientific study of religion for theology and its relationship with science.
I. Introduction: What is the scientific study of religion?
The scientific study of religion reflects an academic tradition that finds many institutional expressions established since several decades. The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR), with its acclaimed Journal with the same title (founded in 1961) and its highly attended annual meetings, is a good example. However, that society, despite its general title, focuses mostly on the social scientific study, and leaves aside other scientific approaches that are becoming quite significant, triggering some competition among different models or academic endeavours aimed at better explaining what religion is about.
A former SSSR’s President described what the Society understands with ‘scientific’. The scientific study of religion should be a knowledge (a) based on empirical or experimental data, and (b) organized in theories with high explanatory power and able to offer convincing accounts of those data. Obviously, sociology is not the only discipline matching both criteria. For many, social sciences are still considered as ‘second class’ disciplines, and only natural sciences (such as biology, neuroscience or other cognitive sciences) would fully deserve the title of ‘science’. A new generation of scholars, equipped with fresh theories and methods, took steps during the 1990s to develop a new scientific program to be applied to religion as a subject matter. As a result, what is known as Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) was born, besides other more or less converging programs based on evolutionary psychology and biology.
The current scientific study of religion encompasses a plural and rich panorama of different models and programs that compete with one another to offer satisfactory theories and explanations on the origins, development and current dynamics of religious minds and behaviours. Even the boundaries between what is ‘more scientific’ – according with the standard criteria – and what is more ‘humanistic’ or traditional – like hermeneutic and phenomenological treatment of religious experience – are quite fuzzy and easy to trespass, as it is often the case when human and social phenomena are addressed. The field of the scientific study of religion can possibly be partitioned into ‘traditional’ or social-scientific studies, and ‘new’ scientific studies. However, this distinction can only be partial and conventional. Moreover, social studies may well develop quite novel models, like those applying to religion methods like social networks analysis, big data mining, and other means based on use of complex computer programs.
The present review will mainly focus on the ‘new scientific study of religion’ leaving aside the sociological, economic and anthropological approaches, thus trying to discern the real contribution and promise of the most recent advancements in the field. Such a choice, however, does not intend to imply – by no means – that the new wave is in any sense ‘more scientific’, or more reliable in its outcomes, than the previous approaches. This is, indeed, quite contentious, even on the basis of the two aforementioned criteria of scientificity. The interest in the ‘new wave’ mainly lies in the more provoking nature of several claims in the new sciences and their character of novelty.
This entry will brief on the current state of the new scientific study of religion, showing its main developments and achievements. Then, a critical review will try to address the limits and the objections raised against that program, in order to gain a balanced reception. The third step will develop some alternative proposals in an attempt to move the field towards some more promising directions that could enrich and complement the current scientific study of religion. The last section will analyse the expected relevance that such developments have for theology and for its relationship with the sciences.
II. New approaches to the study of religion: the cognitive, the biological, and the neurological
The new scientific study of religion knows basically three main strands, quite connected with one another and often complementary, but each sometimes following its own paths: the cognitive-psychological; the biological-evolutionist; and the neurological. Probably the cognitive-psychological one is dominant, whereas the neurological has been mostly abandoned after a promising season and several setbacks.
1. The cognitive approach. As so-called cognitive science of religion (CSR) is the main program in the new scientific approach to religious phenomena, it is worth introducing its central tenets and views. The list of authors and works that have mostly established the field is extensive, but there are works to be taken as ‘classics’ in the field: Lawson and McCauley, 1993; Boyer, 2001; Atran, 2002; Barrett, 2004; Whitehouse 2004. CSR results from the conjunction of two theoretical frames: the attempt to describe the mental structures that elaborate relevant information for religious beliefs, and the evolutionist theory that tries to understand the adaptive factors which could help religion to arise and to persist throughout history. Using a simile, in trying better to understand religion, CSR plays an academic game whose rules are exclusively determined by cognitive psychology and evolutionist views of human nature. The two central convictions inspiring such an enterprise are, first, that we can know more and more the internal logic and functioning of the human mind and how it processes information and, second, that we progressively uncover the mechanisms that help humans to evolve and thrive, or to survive and reproduce with remarkable success. Within a framework in which both approaches combined, religion becomes a subject matter to which easily apply the new heuristics and a case-study to test the framework’s validity. The central premise in this case is that humans – as part of the animal kingdom –follow the rules that maximize survival and reproduction, and that our mental abilities evolve as powerful means to improve our adaption to the environment. Religion, thus, comes as part of the endowment (though its biological significance is debated).
Following the described model, what we need is to identify the mental structures that facilitate or trigger religious ideas, and how such mechanisms are related to adaptive drives. Many voices complain that such an approach is too reductive, but this is not the issue here. Science is mostly reductive in its methods. It proceeds identifying few key variables about the inquired process and trying to describe their working and interactions; all the rest should be bracketed with the aim to know more about what is considered as central or more relevant.
Consequently, the first step consists in identifying the main mechanisms involved in religious cognition. The consensus points at least at two main mental functions: agency detection and theory of mind (and a few other derived ones).
Agency detection is a simple mental device that proposes agents as cause of happenings and phenomena. Justin Barrett (2004) has coined the expression ‘Hyperactive Agent Detection Device’ (HADD) to designate the first mechanism just mentioned. Its working often goes beyond the actual environmental stimuli and what is really needed to deal with them and take the right decision. Indeed, the HADD view assumes that it is much better to overreact to a suspicious movement or noise (attributing it to an agent) and flee, than to underreact and incur in a predator or other dangerous situations.
Theory of mind (ToM) is the capacity to grasp the mental states of those who interact with us; in other words, it is the capacity to understand not only intentions, but also whether others are happy or sad, calm or angry, relaxed or anxious.
The combination of these two basic mechanisms may explain a lot about religious beliefs. As we are quite good at recognizing agents and their intentions, and since knowing that lowers the stress associated with uncertainty, then, we tend to attribute several natural phenomena whose origins and causes we ignore, to ‘supernatural agents’. As we are able to identify mental states in other people’s expressions and reactions, we can easily imagine the positive or negative feelings of those inferred or imagined supernatural agents. For instance, a storm with thunders and lightning would be caused by a raged supernatural being. Bad events would receive similar explanation, while positive events, like a good harvest or a successful hunt would be linked to positive divine dispositions and gifts.
A third mechanisms that contributes to generate religious ideas is the disposition of the human mind to conceive ‘minimally counterintuitive events or beings’ (i.e. cognitive templates including mostly intuitive concepts combined with a minority of counterintuitive ones), like those that religions attribute to supernatural agents: great powers, special abilities, immortality or future divination. According to this theory, such disposition would bias our minds and make it particularly sensitive to such conceptions and easily inclined to transmit them to others (Boyer, 2001).
A complementary theory finds a tendency in humans to anthropomorphism, and to find human features and behaviours in every sort of natural phenomena, e.g., the propensity to see faces in the clouds (Guthrie, 1993). This tendency is often considered as closely linked with the aptness to recognize agency and to attribute human mental states to animals or even inanimate objects.
Considering similar psychological predispositions, it has been shown that humans are prone to ‘conspiracy theories’ and to views that hypothesize powerful agents behind the scenes of important social or political events, so that nothing would be really contingent or accidental but always the result of intentional plans aimed at influencing reality for the benefit of few actors. Religion would thus be interpreted in terms of a ‘conspiracy theory’, but at a higher level and larger scale where ‘special’ powerful agents are identified for all what happens to humans, be it positive or negative.
The previous analysis may make sense when the context is restricted to a definite population or historical period, or to specified mental processes or social interactions. Indeed, most scholars in the described program do not claim that religious ideas are the product of false beliefs, mere mental illusions, or even consequence of defective cognition (e.g. paranoia). Rather, religious idea are conceived of as the result of mental biases or tendencies that are generally useful in many circumstances and can generate – as by-products – beliefs in special imagined agents. Indeed, cognitivists like the abovementioned J. Barrett, find positive value in such tendencies, which can indeed allow for genuine religious faith mediated and supported by those psychological structures.
Within the described general panorama, there are several slightly different viewpoints and approaches that is worth presenting here. The first, extrinsic to CSR proper, has had an important influence: the distinction between intuitive (or “fast”) and reflective (or “slow”) modes of cognition. The distinction is well established in cognitive psychology, and has been popularized by the works of, among others, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (1982). For most authors in CSR the distinction justifies a greater focus on the intuitive side of religious cognition, and a general disregard for the reflective mode, which would play only a minor role. Indeed, a point made by these cognitivists is the so called ‘theological incorrectness’, i.e., the tendency to ignore theological or doctrinal principles and to apply simple intuitive schemas (Slone, 2004). The second distinction comes from inside CSR, and posits two cognitive modes of religiosity: on the one hand, the so-called ‘imagistic’ mode focusing on easily accessed images or symbols and, on the other hand, the ‘doctrinal’ mode with a more institutionalized and elaborated character (Whitehouse, 2004). The latter distinction can be somehow traced back to the one proposed by Lawson and McCauley (1990) regarding ritual styles. These distinctions may indeed help in better organizing that highly complex set of phenomena that we label ‘religion’, and in unveiling the actual complexity of cognitive processes involved in religious behaviour, thus stopping too easy simplifications.
2. The biological approach. The second theoretical framework in the scientific studies of religion is the evolutionist adaptive one. According to this approach, religion makes sense in its contributing to human survival and reproduction. Within this approach, there is not strict consensus on a main framework, and proposals multiply. Even if the mental structures that facilitate religious beliefs can be fairly described, it is far from clear whether such mental dispositions are useful to adapt to hostile environments and to support welfare of a social entity. Two main theories compete to provide the best explanation. The first one can be described as minimalist: religion is just an epiphenomenon or by-product of the normal mental functions, but without use or practical application; it is rather a ‘distraction’ that would divert our attention from more useful activities. The second theory tries to identify possible applications for religious behaviour that could arise in the course of human evolution. The assumption is that, even if the mental traits that gave rise to religious beliefs and practices were originally useless, they gradually became useful, otherwise they would have disappeared. This may be understood in terms of ‘exaptation’, i.e. the idea that traits originally having a different function or no function at all, may acquire a novel function during the course of ensuing evolution. (The typical example of exaptation is that of birds’ feathers, which originally served for regulation of body temperature and later became means for flying).
The question about how religion could survive and expand despite its supposed futility according to the minimalist interpretation has some answers, as those already described. The human mind is very prone to detect agency and to minimal counter-intuitive ideas. Moreover, these ideas are easily transmitted and spread, what explains their persistence. In other words, it would be like a kind of irresistible tendency of the mind to hold superstitions or beliefs about mysterious causalities that grow spontaneously even along with more scientific world views.
For the second approach (the “exaptive” one), different candidates contend with one another for explaining religious beliefs in adaptive terms. The most widespread explanation points towards religion’s ability to enhance prosocial behaviours in individuals and to confer greater cohesion to groups. This ability of religion has been explained in various ways. Some argue that religion enhances ritual coordination between tribe members, and provides ‘costly signalling’ inclining to help other or to dissuade ‘free riders’ who profit from the group without committing themselves to social duties (Sosis and Alcorta, 2003). Others point to the role of religion in promoting more eusocial organizations, or those in which there is a division of tasks and even reproductive functions for general benefit (Feierman, 2016). The relationship between religion and moral order has triggered more nuanced views and theories, like the recent proposal on ‘Big Gods’ and the thesis that links representations of divine power with the formation of more articulated societies, up to empires (Norenzayan, 2015). However, this standpoint leads to a clear insight: only moralizing Gods, and not every religious form, entail morally oriented societies.
Other suggestions point to religion as a factor to select better partners, contributing to reproductive success (Slone, 2004), or as having indirect biological values, like: alleviating anxiety and helping to cope with fear or uncertainty. These suggestions actually revive functionalist theories trying to explain religion on the basis of its positive functions for individuals and their societies.
3. The neuro-scientific approach. The third strand in the new scientific study of religion follows a path opened by neuroscience. This approach has experienced a season of great enthusiasm and expectations, a period of growth, and an eventual stage of decline in recent times. Probably the contrast between the wishful expectations in the nineties and the delusions suffered lately might explain the current decline. It is instructive to remember how scholars like Persinger (1987) launched some theories about how religious experiences could be generated through neural mechanisms in some brain areas that could be easily accessible and manipulated. Such program prompted building devices that could – through electromagnetic pulses – trigger mystical states. Despite initial apparent success, the difficulty to replicate such results raised many doubts and determined the end of many such programmes. Another research program, by Newberg and D’Aquili (2006), scanned the brains of people in deep mediation. Their published outcomes pointed to a ‘God spot’ in the brain, a neural structure involved in intense religious experiences. Again, the attempts to replicate the results did not confirm such theory. Still other studies, like those by Mario Beauregard (2007), showed that several brain areas were involved during religious mental activity, so that it cannot be claimed that a single neural network is the main source of religious cognition. Despite other attempts in this direction, that program was gradually abandoned, likely because the neuroscientists realized the limits of neuroimaging methods in properly discerning neural activations about greatly complex mental functions – like those involved in religious beliefs and practices. The dream of scholars in the CSR was to ascertain which ‘mental domains’ were involved in religious cognition, possibly also resorting to ‘harder’ scientific approach to religion like those promised by neuroscience.
4. Summarizing. Summarizing, the proposed new scientific attempt to explain, or at least to describe, how religion works, raises two interesting ideas to be retained. First, with insight into the human mind and its cognitive mechanisms, it is relatively easy to discern the clues that allow religious beliefs to arise and develop into systematic world views and ritual practices. Second, the evolutionary adaptative model of human behaviour can place religion into a grandiose schema in which religious ideas and practices make sense also from the biological viewpoint.
The first, cognitive, approach can unveil what specialists label as the ‘proximate causes’ of religion, i.e. the cognitive processes underpinning religious ideas. The second, evolutionary, approach can instead unveil what specialists call religion’s ‘remote causes’, i.e. the possibly adaptive payoffs making religion evolutionary plausible and persistent.
It is worth stressing, however, that the new scientific approaches to religion does not take adequately into account the sense of the sacred and the intensity of spiritual experiences at the core of religion. Their aim is declaratively more modest: to identify the mental structures that bias or elicit views on transcendence and supernatural agents, and to discern their adaptive value. This could be, in any case, a great contribution to the understanding of religion, provided that the problems and limits of these approaches are taken seriously into account.
III. Problems and limits in the current scientific study of religion
After almost twenty years of research in the field, it is convenient to try a critical assessment about its merits and limits. The critical literature is conspicuous and shows a interest and reception from several disciplinary areas (Laidlaw, 2007; Day, 2007; N. Barrett, 2010; Visala, 2011; Van Slyke, 2011; Schüler, 2012; Turk, 2013; Watts & Turner, 2014; Smith, 2014; Jones, 2015; Szocik 2016. 2017). A summary on the main discussed points will be offered in this section (but see also Oviedo 2018 for a systematic review).
Let us begin by acknowledging the achievements and merits of the endeavour described in the previous section. In broad strokes, the new scientific treatment of religion has shown how religious beliefs are deeply rooted in the human mind and its working: there is nothing strange or weird in them. They appear as ‘natural products’ of mental processes able to transcend their own physical limits and to move beyond the perceived world. That ability is associated with some elementary mechanisms that can be identified and described. Thus, religious ideas and practices appear as relevant for the human struggle to survive and adapt to its environment; various functions can be identified when that adaptive value is considered.
Then, it is important to highlight limits and flaws affecting the developments in the field, especially to try to figure possible corrections and complements to the ongoing research. To begin with, CSR receives a large number of critical responses, which however, in most cases, have not been properly addressed by the practitioners of the field. The criticisms concern three main contexts: first, the theoretical basis upon which CSR has been built; second, a critical assessment of the empirical evidence supporting CSR’s claims; and third, the aspects and dimensions left out and overlooked in the current research, which might potentially debunk the whole attempt.
1. Theoretical criticisms. It should be nowadays acknowledged, in the first place, that the theoretical bases on which CSR was built between the late nineties and the beginning of the new millennium are being clearly overwhelmed by ongoing developments in several fields. First, a great progress can be noticed in the cognitive sciences, a progress leading to rethinking the computational models of the human mind. This holds particularly true for so-called ‘connectionism’ – which assumed the existence of ‘mental domains’ specialised in particular cognitive functions –now gradually being overcome by more nuanced positions based on neural network models, recent artificial intelligence systems, and probabilistic or Bayesian approaches. The second big problem afflicting standard CSR is the almost total barring – to all practical effects – of the conscious and reflexive dimensions undoubtedly present in the religious mind, as if only the automatic or intuitive processes were relevant for religious beliefs. Such position was justified by some empirical and experimental studies showing a negative correlation between the predominance of a more analytical cognitive style and levels of religious faith. Such results – and their interpretation – have been later contrasted with other studies that contest that claim, showing how a reflective attitude does not entail a religious loss or decline (Farias et. al., 2017).
The panorama of studies about the conscious and reflective mental processes has changed significantly after the first studies applying a cognitivist framework. Today, most scholars assume that conscious processes are essential in life orientation and decision making, and that they cannot be ignored as it is instead the case with eliminativist strategies. The consensus clearly assumes that both cognitive styles – intuitive and reflective – coexist also in the religious mind. Consequently, excluding one of the two dimensions, or reducing a complex process like religion to one single factor, would constitute a serious fault.
Other studies have pointed out the importance of symbolic processes. The role played by the ability to conceive metaphors, the dynamics allowing for combinations of ideas and ‘conceptual blending’ (Lakoff, 1999; Masson, 2014), and the so-called shared or extended mind (Clark and Chalmers 1998), are all factors that importantly contribute to configure the human mind, including its religious dimension. These features have all been largely ignored by the original developments in the scientific studies of religion.
Other theoretical problems concern the study of human evolution and the involved factors. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb cleared the way for a better understanding of human evolution with their famous book Evolution in four dimensions: Genetic, epigenetic, behavioural, and symbolic in the history of life (2005). The work ushered in the need to consider those four dimensions in evolution, thus encouraging more extensive studies and less reductive models. Also, scholars like Kevin Laland and others have pointed out, as a key human characteristic, the ability to build their own ecological niche, in an eminently cultural way, and have stressed how cultural niche construction strongly determines human evolution beyond the purely biological level (Laland, 2017). This novel standpoint further complicates things when trying to enquire human behaviour, including the religious sphere, scientifically.
2. Assessment of empirical evidence. The second level on which doubts about the new scientific studies of religion arise concern the empirical evidence considered. Curiously, this objection has been the same that the new scientific studies of religion moved against other approaches to religion, like the hermeneutic and normative ones, which could not provide scientifically rigorous and acceptable data and methods. Despite the “good intentions”, researchers in CSR could not gather overwhelming evidence to support their thesis. On the contrary, during the last few years, a growing number of empirical and experimental studies casted serious doubts upon central tenets in CSR. For example, the idea that religion has to do with the theory of the mind did not find strong evidence: rather, recent studies show that the subjects in the autistic spectrum – who are frequently impaired in mentalizing – on average are not less religious that unimpaired subjects. Also the emphasis on minimally counterintuitive ideas finds supporting evidence only in pre-adolescents and adolescents.
On a different level, the idea that religion is linked to the ability to attribute agency or to project human features on various happenings (HAADD) has found weak evidence as well. The problems are even greater with respect to theses linking religious faith to collaborative attitudes. The current consensus suggests that only religions with moralizing gods elicit a moral sense – an obvious statement not requiring much theory-building, but revealing points of interest. Indeed, religious faith and ritual activity are not necessarily related to moral performance or to altruistic cooperation: many religious forms have indeed a quite individualistic character and care just for personal interests or one’s own family advantage. Also the theses emphasizing ‘Big-Gods features’ finds only weak empirical or historical evidence: reviewing the historical record rather suggests that even great empires like the Roman one lacked such big gods, while the people of Israel, who believed in the greatest and most transcendent God at that time, did not overcome a rather limited socio-political status.
3. Left-out aspects. The third set of criticisms stems from the limits of a strongly reductive model. There is general awareness that CSR and related biological programs aim to describe some partial issues about the religious mind and behaviour, and not to exhaust all its possible causes or to build a ‘macro-theory’ able to explain every aspect of religiousness. Robert McCauley – one of the founding fathers of the discipline – once said during a conference in Amsterdam some years ago, that these sciences “only explain some features of some features of a broad phenomenon that we call for convenience religion”. Such awareness is appreciable and encourages to frame this scientific endeavour into a broader context as an element among others. In spite of this, the approach still remains essentially reductive, and this hinders potential developments. First, a difficulty persists in integrating the supposed intuitive architecture that explains the formation of elementary religious ideas, with higher-level networks of more complex mental functions implied by mature religious beliefs. Even admitting the importance to start from the basic building blocks, it should not be denied that religious ideas eventually rely on other cognitive means, like reasoning, language, episodic memory, self-narratives, etc. The point is that religious cognition builds on a complex network of different cognitive styles and resources, which deeply engrained and can hardly be separated, except for a methodological analysis. Perhaps the simplest models could account for the simplest religious forms, but not the more sophisticated forms found in many historical religions. In any case, the suggested methodology helps to trace insightful distinctions among different religious expressions and styles, a plurality that need to be taken into account by any scientific study of religion.
A second limit of the entire project is the lack of the historical dimension. The issue at stake here is to what extent human cognition evolves in time to accommodate specific functions involved in religion. Even a description of elementary mental procedures that could explain religion’s origins, would be incomplete without hypothesizing a dynamism that helps such cognitive mechanisms to evolve and adapt, and to allow for an array of religious forms in constant development. Again, such dynamisms should be deeply rooted in human cognition and its ways to relate to the environment. The issue becomes even more pressing when addressing the great transformation that religions underwent through the so called ‘Axial Age’, which clearly influenced the deep religious structures and functions.
The last weakness to be mentioned has to do with the cultural dimension, which CSR largely overlooks (though the last years know some attempts to integrate it). In this case, the criticism might at first sight be contested, since cognitive structures are clearly different from cultural scaffolding. However, it is not obvious how to isolate cognition from culture in the case of a highly cultural phenomenon like religion. Indeed, it is hard to specify cognitive mechanisms that are not mediated by language and by systems of shared symbols, or that are not the result of social interaction and learning – the latter being all elements clearly influenced by the cultural milieu (see, e.g., D’Ambrosio and Colagè, 2017, Colagè and D’Errico, 2018).
IV. Looking for a renewed scientific approach to religion
Criticisms concerning the methodology, the completeness and the empirical basis of a discipline might incline to think that such a discipline should be abandoned. However, once regarded in the light of the historical dynamics of scientific progress, those criticisms should be regarded as part and parcel of the development of that discipline. Therefore, the criticisms to the new scientific studies of religion reported in the previous section, should be understood as a call to elaborate a refined and updated endeavour, one precisely able to overcome its own limitations. In other words, the impression is that this relatively new model represents still a ‘work in process’ and needs to learn from the former mistakes if it has to grow and proceed towards more plausible models that could exhibit greater evidence and heuristic power. This is especially true when considering that changes are happening in many of the contiguous disciplines, like evolutionary biology, cognitive sciences, neuroscience, anthropology, etc.
Moreover, a new priority should be added to the scientific studies of religion: assisting the dialogue between science and theology, and providing theology with refined means to deal with faith and religious experience.
Under this light, there are a few lines of developments that need to be reviewed in what follows, also as a way of promoting the renewal of the new scientific studies of religion.
The starting point for an effective revision of the current model would be to face the reported criticisms point by point, starting with the theoretical weaknesses and then trying to integrate the neglected aspects just mentioned: the reflective or “slow” mode of cognition, the historical dimension, and the cultural level. A number of interdisciplinary research programs have the potential of re-arranging the new scientific study of religion.
A good example – currently in a phase of interesting development – is the study of beliefs as a key cognitive activity that goes much beyond religiousness. This program aims at understanding the factors in the formation, stabilization, and loss of beliefs, focusing more on the dynamic process of “believing” than on static “beliefs”. In the current stage, the efforts are dedicated to identify cognitive functions, often neglected in previous approaches, that might be relevant in providing meaning and purpose to one’s own life and in guiding decision making. Several programs (Angel et al. 2017; Connors and Halligan, 2015; Castillo et al., 2015; Smith, 2014; Donaldson, 2015) have been developed in the last years trying to better model such processes and to find out the factors they involve. The main idea that underlies this project is that beliefs play a positive role and are a distinctive cognitive function, not just a secondary system or a by-product.
Part of the problem in studying the process of believing is that it is much more complex than other cognitive processes that can be easily modelled in computational terms or with other methodologies. Belief formation likely results in the convergence of several factors and cognitive functions. Research on beliefs is currently benefiting from developments in artificial intelligence, such as pattern-recognition systems and Bayesian probabilities analysis, as basic processes that can explain the acquisition, stability, and abandonment of beliefs. Such research clearly converges with the studies on symbolic abilities, the merging of ideas, and other abovementioned cognitive functions. Recent discussions have focused on the specific traits of religious beliefs, in contrast with general or ‘factual’ beliefs (Van Leeuwen, 2014). The point is that one thing is to believe in the weather forecast and take an umbrella, or that the flight will depart in time and try to arrive early to the airport, and a different thing is to believe that there is a loving God caring for us and so to trust Him and behave accordingly. Religious beliefs share many structures and functions with other sorts of beliefs but, at the same time, they constitute a subset of what might be called ‘existential’ or ‘ultimate beliefs’, as they have the potential to provide meaning and purpose to one’s life.
As already said, the evolutionary study of religion must account for the processes of cultural evolution. The latter has its own mechanisms and dynamics, which do not coincide with those of biological evolution and are not easy to ascertain and to be integrated into a broad framework. Religions do evolve at various scales. Also Christianity has followed evolutionary pressures and adaptations to new contexts. The growing field of ‘cultural evolutionary studies’ offers promising insights and elaborations for the scientific study of religion.
If it is agreed that some basic cognitive structures conspire to bias religious thinking and reasoning, then it would be convenient to pursue that program beyond the basic building blocks described until now. It is relatively easy to spot a number of cognitive patterns that apparently nourish most religious traditions and conceptions. To some extent, one might even conceive a sort of ‘universal religious grammar’ underlying most religious expressions. Additional empirical research is needed to test this hypothesis in actual religious forms. What can be proposed at the moment is a series of mental dispositions which would assist the formation religious beliefs and practices. A provisory list – besides those already described by standard CSR, would include: contractual mentality; dualism; anthropomorphism; mimesis; and narrative plotting.
A largely ignored topic, which however plays a key role in religious cognition is the exchanging mentality, or the contractual attitude. Here, the relationship with the divine or the supernatural sphere is conceived in terms of a convention that forces each party to be loyal to the other. When a superior being is concerned, it justifies the offering of sacrifices or gifts in change of benefits and advantages. Such a thinking pattern – widely extended in most religions and in popular religious expressions – invites to understand life’s failures as punishments or as consequence of limited regard for the divine rights and expectations. The well-known ‘covenant model’ in the Bible is just one expression of an elementary mentality that helps regulating human interactions and is based on the idea of fairness and justice, which applies to the supernatural realm as well.
The second strong cognitive tendency that bias religious mind is dualism. Even if some religions can adhere to more monistic stances, many mental structures are clearly imbued with dualistic forms. We tend to distinguish between the good and the evil in absolute terms, as opposed and personalized realities. Seeing things in ‘black or white’ terms is much more intuitive and spontaneous than considering them along a continuous scale of grey, or according to subtle nuances or distinctions. Dualism is also apparent in the human realm, as evident in the distinction of body and soul or in applying moral judgements.
Anthropomorphism has deep roots in the human mind. This does not just explain the propensity to identify human traits everywhere, even in physical or mechanic reality, but to conceive religious dynamics as if the divine will behave in a human-predictable way. All the interactions with transcendent beings naturally assume an anthropological tone and are mostly understood in analogy with our habitual social relationships. The experience of personal rapport with another fellow human being provides the normal pattern to model other supposed interaction and make sense of them.
Mimesis is another mental mechanism crucial in social relationships, and playing a relevant role in the religious sphere as well. Humans tend to imitate behaviours, signs and styles that are perceived as more convenient, appropriate or successful. The religious mind steadily copies other forms, expressions, and practices: what others do often is the surest path; and religious innovation becomes hard when the general trend is just to repeat our neighbours’ features and their words and practices. The default rule is case of doubt is: do as others do; follow generally assumed patterns. Such tendency is present in ritual dynamics as well, and justifies religious practice as a repetitive one.
Finally, another relevant trait is narrative plotting. The expression refers to the tendency to arrange events and experiences into a continuous and coherent frame in which happenings are inter-linked within an encompassing plot that makes sense of everything. Religion often assumes a narrative form, since this is the easiest way to make sense of happenings and contingent circumstances. Myths are the usual expressions of such an attitude and help in explicating religious concepts and in justifying beliefs. It is worth stressing that in the history of religion, explicit theological reflection comes very late and has a minor effect in the common religious mind.
The list of tendencies at the basis of the religious mind can surely be enriched. For instance, human cognition tends to prefer simplicity to complexity. Thus, religious representations can be expected to assume the easiest path, and to “save energy” – using an elementary thermodynamic analogy.
Besides all this, the attempt to build a ‘universal religious grammar’ is a fully cognitive endeavour and is motivated by the perception that religion works as a language specialised to communicate about a special realm following quite strict rules to be meaningful and avoid confusion. These rules are mostly inscribed into positive religious traditions but might possibly be abstracted from historical instantiations and grasped in their universal form. At the moment, an ongoing program builds on the idea of binary codes based on elementary distinctions, like: natural vs. supernatural, life vs. death, sin vs. grace, salvation vs. damnation, absolute vs. relative. Combinations of these pairs according to rules could provide the basic blocks for the universal religious grammar or for a system in which distinctions can be integrated or dropped (Oviedo and Canteras, 2012). Rituals follow a quite fixed structure that has been analysed and reconstructed; myths can be described as narrative structures with common elements. All that points to the presence of almost universal schemas underlying religions and enabling actual religious expressions and performances.
Finally, a promising field for the study of religious cognition is the so-called ‘neurodiversity’, i.e. the study of the religious expression of people with neurological disorders. For instance, people in the autistic spectrum present cognitive peculiarities that can influence how they experience religious faith. Empirical studies have shown that – on average – these people are not less religious than ‘neuro-typical’ subjects (Ekblad and Oviedo, 2017). However, several indices suggest that neuro-diverse individuals have their specific way to approach and live religion. Probably a better understanding of such differences could enable a more nuanced approach to the religious mind and its many forms.
V. Meaning and implications of the new scientific study of religion for theology and its relationship with science
Progress in the scientific study of religion has surely an impact in the field of science-and-theology, since such attempts unveil the will of scientists to understand better ‘the other of religion” in the debate between science and theology – or, better, between scientists and theologians. However, that program can also have negative implications from this standpoint. Instead of providing a more accurate view on what religion is and is about, it might lead to a very simplified and distorted understanding of religion, also impoverishing the real import of theology and philosophy of religion.
The current production in the new scientific study of religion clearly displays a source of tension – to say the least – for theologians engaged with the sciences. The research programs of scholars in the scientific studies of religion cannot – and should not – be ignored by theologians: after all, they do study ‘religion’, as theology does since long. Their programs, indeed, can compete with those of traditional disciplines, like theology and philosophy of religion, for more credible explanations of religion. Furthermore, theologians and philosophers of religion can have the uncomfortable feeling of being ‘observed from outside’, and this could have beneficial effects for them. However, the source of tension is that, quite often, the explanations proposed by scholars in the scientific study or religion actually downplay religion, entirely overlooking its grandiose claims to truth and transcendence. The work of theologians is sometimes questioned as such, and even considered as a self-serving and self-referential activity in sharp contrast with scientific methods and results.
Theologians and Christian philosophers have scarcely dealt with that new scientific study of religion, and they have generally ignored the challenges it poses. However, and fortunately, this is not free of exceptions.
Several research lines appear to be very relevant for theology, especially for the study of faith, conversion, and the Church, as well as in the field of pastoral and spiritual theology. To begin with, these studies teach us to better distinguish between intuitive and reflective processes, between a spontaneous or ‘natural’ religiosity and a more elaborate or reflective religious faith. Greater clarity on these topics may help to better conceive evangelization, as well as the connections and contrasts between Christian faith and more intuitive processes present in every population and widespread in popular religiosity, whose integration remains difficult in many contexts. The program that tries to identify simple ‘religious biases’ or ‘previous religious trends’, and to find out ways to de-bias them appears in this case as very helpful to reach a mature faith beyond religious forms that arise as the easiest to acquire, but hardly correspond to a more evolved and demanding expression. That program reminds the one proposed by Daniel Kahneman aimed at correcting biases that distort human cognition and lead to wrong decisions (Kahneman, 2011). It is relatively easy to apply a similar model to mature religions struggling to overcome intuitive views that often contradict religious wisdom and norms.
Knowledge based on the new scientific study of religion, and in particular on the mentioned studies about the ‘process of believing’, could help to conceive better ways to reconcile religious faith with the scientific view of reality, a program which implies many serious challenges but is not desperately unrealizable. Indeed, there are studies suggesting that different cognitive strategies are applied when the religious and the scientific worldviews confront each-other, and that the two might even become compatible and coexistent (Legare and Visala 2011). However, we are still far from having a clear understanding of these different cognitive strategies and of how the human mind can deal with the scientific and the religious domains jointly and harmoniously.
In general, it can be claimed that today it would be a big mistake to build a theology of faith ignoring those recent developments. Even if describing the so called ‘building blocks’ of religious faith is far from a complete description of the true Christian faith, as we know it in theological tradition and elaboration, such elementary forms nevertheless help to better understand its structure and functioning. Theologians should be bold enough to apply ‘belief studies’ or studies about the general (not necessarily religious) believing process. Identification of the peculiarities of truly religious beliefs can follow.
Studies on ritual dynamics and effects are also essential for a proper understanding of the Church as a ritual community, of the sacraments as its central activity, and of other ritual practices that try to support the credibility of faith. In short, what is involved here is precisely the possibility to understand and support that credibility of the faith on the basis of a better knowledge of the basic elements of religion, which help living faith as a gift.
Despite the positive aspects just mentioned, other issues need to be addressed by a theology engaged with science. For instance, CSR has provided arguments to ‘debunk’ religious beliefs, in the sense of revealing the cognitive mechanisms that underlay to such beliefs. In several cases, such developments have justified reduction of religion to elementary cognitive means, or ‘just so stories’. In the words of Daniel Dennett, these theories have contributed to “break the spell”, or to dismantle religious beliefs (Dennett, 2006). As a result, believers might feel discouraged to believe, once told that their religious beliefs amount to no more than a series of cognitive mechanisms that bias their usual approach to reality and give place to imaginary special beings without any scent of reality. Even a Norwegian theologian, LeRon Shults, confessed that such views convinced him about the futility of religious beliefs (Shults, 2014), a negative experience that casts shade on the entire program. The so called ‘debunking argument’ based on naturalistic explanations and reductions of religion has been extensively addressed by Aku Visala and others, who have unveiled the inconsistency of such argument. The basis of the criticism is that the same mental structures addressed in debunking arguments can be understood as positive means to believe, and not as confusing something distracting our attention from what should be more important for our own survival and human success (Visala, 2011; Barrett, 2004). The discussion is quite developed and the provided arguments by both parties can be used in both destructive and constructive approaches to religion.
Biases may still persist in standard scientific approaches to religion, and some ‘de-biasing’ process would be desirable. However, part of the problem lies in the nature and style of the described ‘biased’ programs and of the alternative ones just reported in the previous section. The point is that a scientific study of religion is good and convenient, but risks becoming partial when only in the hands of those who do not believe or feel little empathy with those who live intense religious experiences. A scientific program like that should also involve researchers empathising with believers or being acquainted with religious experience and sincere love for God. After all, it seems quite obvious that people who felt in love are in a better position to understand what love is about. Consequently, theologians should enter such research programs as committed team members able to interact with, and provide valuable insights to, other colleagues lacking such expertise or ignoring the rich religious history and experience.
In any case, we need to reflect on the utility of the new scientific study of religion for theology and related disciplines. The described line of studies has garnered great editorial success and publications in the best scientific journals, and it is also remarkable its ability to attract the interest of foundations that have supported their research programs with generous grants. An immediate practical application has been quite obvious: understanding religious phenomena could help to control better or to tame their wildest expressions, like fanaticism, intolerance and violence, after the dramatic events that can be attributed to those religious expressions. Furthermore, knowing how religion works could help to explain and even to manage the growing influence that this factor plays in the political life of large societies, such as the American one. But such an interest and program would be perceived by believers – and even more so by theologians – with great suspicion, again as an attempt to know in order to manipulate. Theology certainly needs to go beyond such immediate applications to find out in which ways that research can enrich our knowledge about religion and to provide better arguments to understand and live faith.
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