Dissecting the Religious Mind — An Introduction to the Cognitive Science Of Religion, Part 1

In the last century and a half, anthropologists have documented the religious beliefs of many of the traditional societies that have yet to be erased by globalization. From their efforts they have found that religious beliefs of some kind are reliably found in groups around the world. Those beliefs can differ greatly, making it difficult to generalize about ‘religion’ in the abstract. However, the widespread recurrence of religious beliefs and their interesting variability has led many anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, and historians to try to isolate the source of religious ideas.

It has been historically impossible to reach as much as a consensus definition of what a ‘religion’ is, since each is a conglomeration of many different things. In the Abrahamic religions, the definition of ‘religion’ is typically expanded past simply the belief in God to include all of its dogmatic beliefs and values. One could argue, however, that other religious traditions such as Buddhism or Taoism are better described as a set of philosophical beliefs and spiritual practices than of any kind of dogmatic belief system, and neither are formed around a deity. The mythologist Joseph Campbell was fond of telling an anecdote in which he heard a puzzled Western religious scholar appeal to a Shinto priest to explain his religion’s ideology and theology. The priest replied, “I think we don’t have ideology. We don’t have theology. We dance.”

With the variety in how the concept of religion can be defined, what is it that the cognitive science of religion is trying to explain? Different researchers are attempting to explain different aspects, but as of yet, the majority of the research has focused on why humans so recurrently develop beliefs about the existence of supernatural beings. This tendency spans the world over. Even among adherents to religions that do not establish a deity, such as Buddhism, local folk beliefs about supernatural beings such as ancestors, ghosts, and spirits abound.


There has been a long history in Western thought of seeking to understand the origin of religious ideas (there are probably similar traditions of inquiry elsewhere in the world, but I do not know about them). Of course for much of Western history, religion was treated as unquestionably true, at least publicly, and differing beliefs were rooted in either ignorance or demonic influence. While this belief may potentially be true of any individual religion, it is not suitable to account for the variety of religions since they cannot all be true.

Around the time of the the European Enlightenment, as publicly questioning Christianity became less fatal, philosophers began the first search for the nature of religion with the search for a ‘natural religion’ or ‘natural theology.’ Natural religion is distinguished from revealed religion as being the study of what can be known about God or religion through the use of one’s reason, as opposed to what is known from only direct communications from God, such as through revelation or scripture.

Though many philosophers attempted to ground Christian dogma in natural philosophy, the Scottish philosopher David Hume challenged many of these arguments in his book Discourses Concerning Natural Religion, published posthumously in 1779. Using the format of a discussion between three friends of different philosophical inclinations, Hume criticizes many of the arguments from natural religion and instead proposes that the human religious inclination is rooted in weaknesses like fear and misinformed attempts to comprehend the world.

Hume’s argument is an early form of one of the two leading schools of thought on the origin of religious ideas. The first follows Hume in proposing that humans invent religious ideas in order to explain natural or mental events that they do not understand, such as weather patterns, illness, dreams, visions, and misfortune. Similar arguments are that religions can function to alleviate anxiety about the world and about death, or that they cannot be disproved and must therefore be taken seriously just in case. Those sorts of explanations can be described as epistemological since they are rooted in individual understanding or emotion.

However, while religious beliefs can provide answers to many difficult questions about the world, they nevertheless introduce just as many, if not more, problems than than they resolve. For example, it might be said that witches cause illnesses, but how is it that they achieve this? What gives a witch the power to cause illness? Christianity may propose that the world was created by God, but where did God come from? Did God create himself? In addition, though religions may reduce anxiety about some events, they also introduce new anxieties, since evil ghosts and spirits appear as often as good versions, not to mention the anxieties surrounding eternal punishments.

The other main class of explanations are sociological. Rather than emphasize the benefits of religious ideas to individuals, sociological explanations emphasize the benefits of religious ideas to collective life. These arguments are most often applied to the religions found in larger societies, such as Christianity, that emphasize a theologically rooted system of morality. The argument goes that these religions function as a means to enforce the pro-social behavior that is required to sustain a large-scale society. As societies increase in size, it is more difficult to police the behavior of its inhabitants. Theologically based systems of morality allow for a god-head or a pantheon to police the behavior of a population by punishing offenders with misfortune or posthumous suffering. Emile Durkheim was an early proponent of this sort of explanation and argued that religion itself was the expression of society and its institutions. Sociological explanations are problematic, however, since religions can cause societies to disintegrate as well as to unite. Societies are often brought together by religion, but religions can be used to isolate and alienate subsets of a society just as often.

Another popular explanation for religious ideas is that they originate in mystical feelings and emotions, such as a feeling of unity with the world or with a humanistic ‘brotherhood of man.’ These explanations are popular with people who would like to disassociate the moral, mystical, and social aspects of religion with its more concrete beliefs in gods or other supernatural agents. However, they fail to account for those unavoidable concrete beliefs that are found in every religious system. The mystical feeling of ‘oneness’ is interesting, and we should try to understand where it comes from, but it is not enough to understand if we want to understand a religion as a whole. An emotion of unity has no causal connection to the belief in supernatural agents, which is just shy of ubiquitous around the world, and is at the heart of what almost everyone means by ‘religion.’

Most recently, the memetic account of religion has gained popularity in scientific circles. These argue that religious ideas are highly successful cultural units which compete in an evolution-like war of ideas. The concept of memes was introduced by Richard Dawkins in his classic book, The Selfish Gene, as an educational analogy of how the concept of evolution can be applied outside of genetics. The concept has been taken up and further advanced by the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett and the psychologist Susan Blackmore. Memes (in a purposeful analogy to genes and genetics) are defined simply as the units of culture that are transmitted from person to person. Memes compete in an analogous way to genes by mutating through transmission errors into potentially ‘fitter’ versions that are more likely to be adopted by people, for various reasons. As memetic evolution advances, less fit variants die out, and fitter variants pervade a population. Memes become fitter by developing more memorable characteristics. Religion was Dawkins original example of a result of memetic evolution. He argued that religion (specifically Christianity) is a successful meme (or memeplex – a cluster of related memes) because it has adopted the worrying proposition that those who do not believe will be punished eternally. This concept will be taken up further in a later section.


One aspect that characterizes these approaches to religion is that they do not take into account the role of cognition in the development of religious ideas. Sociological approaches tend to see religion as emerging collectively from a need for cooperation, and epistemological approaches tend to see religion as decisions made about the existence of supernatural beings in the world in order to explain and interact with natural phenomena. That they do not take into account the structure of the mind is understandable seeing as most of these explanatory traditions originated long before research into the structure of cognition began. However, in order to understand the origin of religious ideas and how they have become so persistent and widespread, it is important to understand the mechanisms by which any unit of knowledge or belief is created, maintained, and transmitted.

The first concept that must be understood in order to understand the cognitive approach to religion is ‘modularity.’ Until fairly late in the 20th century, the dominant model of the mind among psychologists was that the mind was one ‘domain-general’ mechanism, meaning that the mind was seen as having little or no innate internal structure. Domain-generality states that a cognitive system is equally capable of processing all types of information, whereas domain-specificity means that a cognitive system is only capable of processing one domain of information; domain-general systems do many things, while domain-specific systems do one thing. The idea that the brain was one large domain-general system largely emerged from the associationist school of thought begun by the British empiricists in the 17th and 18th centuries like John Locke, David Hume, and George Berkeley, and and was later developed by the behaviorist school in the early to mid-20th century spearheaded by John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. They proposed that during development, children develop increasingly complex associations between stimuli that eventually become complicated enough to result in the mind of a functioning individual.

In this account, there is little or no innate (meaning reliably developing, not necessarily present from birth) structure to the mind. The brain’s only ability is to form and activate associations. This had importance for cultural differences as well, since any form of culture was equally capable of being acquired. It could be assumed as well that from radically different cultures would come radically different and virtually incomparable minds. This concept of the mind is still implicit in most strands of anthropology and the humanities, leading the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby refer to this as the ‘standard social science model.’ If the mind is a just a mechanism for forming associations and absorbing culture, then there is little that could be called ‘human nature.’

In the 1950s and 1960s, however, more and more mental functions were proposed to be naturally developing in the brain. Along with advances in computer science and artificial intelligence, psychologists began developing new techniques with which to begin to infer the structure of our cognitive mechanisms, such as perception, memory, and decision-making. This has been called the ‘cognitive revolution.’

In his highly influential 1983 book, Modularity in Mind, Jerry Fodor defined a cognitive module as operating automatically, independently, quickly, developing naturally as a result of genetic inheritance, and as having its own unique brain area. He argued that our perceptual input systems were composed of a large number of these sorts of processes. However, he argued that the central systems, or those responsible for processing semantic and conceptual information, remained domain-general. Fodor worried that domain-specific conceptual mechanisms would be too rigid and limited to be capable of integrating information from different conceptual domains, and therefore incapable of producing the complexities of human thought. In more recent years however, psychologists have become more comfortable in accepting a ‘massively modular’ model of the mind, in which both input mechanisms and conceptual mechanisms are modular.

The cognitive science of religion is built upon the massively modular model of cognition (see Lawrence Hirschfeldt and Susan Gelman’s edited volume Mapping the Mind: Domain-Specificity in Cognition and Culture for a collection of papers giving evidence for massive modularity). From this perspective, the whole brain is composed of small processes that work together to perform all of the brain’s actions, which is necessary if the brain is to be taken as a computational system. Though computers and brains work in radically different ways, any computational system must break down their operations into smaller steps in order to achieve anything complex. In the massively modular model, these processes both perform the kinds of perceptual processes that Fodor outlined, such as processes dedicated to edge detection in vision, to the higher level conceptual processes like organizing one’s knowledge about a particular class of animals.

These modules perform different kinds of functions. One is to provide people with structured learning mechanisms with which they can quickly, effortlessly, and reliably learn certain important information about the world that is essential for survival. They also provide dedicated mechanisms that can be used to reason about certain types of things in the world efficiently that are important for survival. Most of these processes are unconscious, and we become aware of only the end results of their activity, giving the illusion that there is only one ‘place’ in the brain where we analyze information. Modules also can be used to provide expectations about how things work in the world, which we can use to ‘fill in the gaps,’ in a sense, when we have only incomplete information. These expectations are formed through the structured learning mechanisms, which ensure that the correct kinds of expectations are made.

When several related systems converge, a larger ‘folk theory’ emerges about a certain domain. A folk theory is in a sense the sum of intuitions and expectations that one’s cognitive systems provide about a certain domain. Several of these folk theories have been studied extensively by psychologists, and three that are relevant in the cognitive science of religion are folk-physics, folk-biology, and folk-psychology.

Folk-physics provides people with expectations about how objects should behave in the world. A few such expectations are that no two solid objects should share the same space, non-living objects should not move without there being an outside force, and that objects should fall if unsupported.

Another folk theory is folk-biology, which in gives people the cognitive tools with which they organize and reason about the natural world. One function it performs is to give people the intuition that every individual animal belongs to a category of that kind of animal, all of which share a set of similar characteristics. In addition to that, it gives people the intuition that those categories of animals (or species) can be further categorized into larger groups that share other sets of characteristics; a taxonomic intuition. This categorical thinking results in an intuition of essentialism, or the idea that a category of living beings share a sort of metaphysical essence that is shared by all individuals of that category and that makes them as they are.

Lastly, humans are highly social, and as a result, we have evolved a number of cognitive mechanisms with which we are able to navigate the social world, which can be collectively referred to as folk-psychology. Key among these is a theory of mind, which is the result of several processes that we unconsciously use to effortlessly attribute mental states to other people. We almost instantly form ideas about the intentions that other people have, their knowledge, their beliefs, and their desires. We can even form complex attributions, such as forming ideas about what other people know that you know that they know, ad nauseum. Daniel Dennett has argued that the limit of these attributions is six steps (i.e., I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that you know), after which we cannot comprehend the meaning of the statement (I personally cannot even get through all six). As far as we are aware, humans are the only species with such a complicated folk-psychology.

Pascal Boyer, a cognitive anthropologist who has been a leading figure in the development of the cognitive science of religion, has argued that these various folk theories come together to form what he calls intuitive ontologies about different classes of things in the world. While a specific tiger may be grouped into a TIGER category, it is also classed into a broader category of ANIMAL. Boyer lists five such categories: PERSON, ANIMAL, PLANT, ARTIFACT, and NATURAL OBJECT. These categories differentiate the basic categories of things in the world, and guide the brain in how to deal with them. For example, there are fundamentally different ways in which people interact with members of the PERSON category as opposed to members of the the PLANT category. One such way is that it is useful to employ one’s theory of mind mechanisms when interacting with another person, since that person (presumably) has internal mental content that can be profitably inferred, whereas it will do no good to struggle to uncover the intentions or false beliefs of a flower or tree (though we are not prevented of consciously doing so if we so choose).


This is the general model of the mind that the cognitive science of religion is based upon, but there is a specific conception of culture, termed cultural epidemiology by the cognitive scientist and philosopher Dan Sperber, that is essential to understanding these arguments, which will be presented in part 2 of this post. The memetic model developed by Richard Dawkins described above was an attempt to naturalistically ground the study of culture. It offered a model of cultural replication and mutation, but failed to specify what it actually was that was being replicated and mutated. Furthermore, he made the assumption that the brain was a passive replicator of cultural variants, placing the burden of successful or unsuccessful replication on the cultural variant. Lastly, evolutionary systems of replication and selection only function when the mutation rate is very low. Such a low rate of memetic mutation is untenable, however, since most exchanges of cultural information only offer a few key points outlining a new concept to the recipient, who then must fill in the ‘spaces’ in the concept themselves, either through conscious reasoning or by using inferences implicit in their domain-specific modular cognition.

The cultural epidemiology model takes some of the basic ideas from the meme model, but improves upon many of its weaker elements. First of all, it continues the tradition of naturalism by describing culture as a system of replication. However, while Dawkins’ meme theory does not concretely specify what memes are, in any real sense, Sperber’s model specifies that mental representations, or the physical manner in which the brain acquires, stores, and transmits cultural material, are what undergo replication and selection. However, if the brain is the mechanism by which cultural variants are acquired, stored, and transmitted, then its structure imposes a set of constraints on which cultural variants will be likely to be stored, further transmitted, and invented. In this way, the brain cannot be seen as a passive replicator, since its structured modular architecture is a source of cultural constraint.

The most important step for mutations in the cultural material, i.e. in the mental representations, is the process of transmission. While the brains of the participants on either end of the transmission process are similarly structured, it is not possible for one to simply ‘download’ cultural information from one person to the next. In order for cultural transmission to take place, the sender of the cultural information must first take the concept housed in their own mind, or their private representation in Sperber’s terms, and convert it into a communicative form, or public representation. That public representation is typically spoken or written language. The recipient must then take that public representation and convert it into their own private representation.

However, one often encounters a ‘poverty of the stimulus’ when re-converting a public representation into a private representation since one typically communicates very little of a new concept. As an example, consider the description one might give of a rare bird to a person that had had no prior exposure to it. One might describe the colors of the plummage, the size, what food it consumes, whether it is a predatory bird, and perhaps the more orithologically inclined would list a few closely related or similar species with which the other may be acquainted. This is however a very small amount of information with which to construct a complete concept. To further flesh out their concept of that new bird, the recipient might draw upon their categorical knowledge of birds to fill in many of the gaps (e.g., has wings, flies, comes from an egg).

This process is largely carried out quickly and effortlessly by the inference systems described above. This example is a fairly clean case, but it can be expected that more complex subjects will pose a greater challenge to the inference systems, and can produce a much different private representation than that of the initial sender. Thus the epidemiological model embraces a much higher rate of cultural mutation than the meme model, and as a result, does not see culture as directly analogous to a genetic model of replication and selection.

This has been a longer introduction than planned to the models of cognition and culture upon which the cognitive science of religion is built. In general, the cognitive science of religion proposes that religious ideas are recurrently successful because they exploit our domain-specific cognition in order to be more successful in cultural transmission. This is done in various ways which will be described in the next post.



    • Tyler B. Tretsven

      Hi Jim, I’m sorry to say that I still have not written part II.

      However, I can direct you to a paper that I would have cited constantly which lays out how these ideas are applied to religion:

      Boyer, P., (2003) Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function [pdf]

      This site has a few other articles on the topic as well; it’s a professional organization of people who research these things. The ‘Reader’ page may be of interest to you.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Jim Alfredson

        Thank you, Tyler. I found your article after searching for more discussion about Dennett’s book “Breaking The Spell” which I recently finished. I find Sperber’s concept makes a bit more sense. I’ll check out the PDF, thanks.

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