Science on Religion

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Natural religion?

Nature Cover 23 Oct 2008Despite many famous examples of contemporary atheism in the media, and often highly dubious claims of religions, widespread belief continues. Why? In a recent essay in the journal Nature, Pascal Boyer argues that religious belief is easier to maintain and acquire because we are predisposed to it by several cognitive traits.

Boyer explains that the contemporary evolutionary study of religion seeks to discover “what in the human make-up renders religion possible and successful,” by drawing on the findings of “cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology.” Boyer reviews representative findings in the field to show how the ways we think and interact with each other tend to support holding religious beliefs.

For example, Boyer points out that research in cognitive science has shown that people often hold assumptions that contradict their explicit beliefs. These assumptions tend not to vary as much as explicit beliefs across cultures and may be connected to the way memory functions.

Boyer also suggests that the available data suggests that “religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities” rather than religion itself being adaptive. (Compare the claims made in the article, "Religious diversity linked to disease and adaptive behavior") Religious thinking and practices seem to “hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion.” This happens because, “religion provides some form of what psychologists would call super stimuli. Just as visual art is more symmetrical and its colours more saturated than what is generally found in nature, religious agents are highly simplified versions of absent human agents, and religious rituals are highly stylized versions of precautionary procedures.” Boyer concludes, “we should not try to pinpoint the unique origin of religious belief, because there is no unique domain for religion in human minds.”

Boyer suggests that these findings “challenge two central tenets of most established religions. First, the notion that their particular creed differs from all other (supposedly misguided) faiths; second, that it is only because of extraordinary events or the actual presence of supernatural agents that religious ideas have taken shape.” According to Boyer these claims are challenged if not refuted by the cognitive evolutionary study of religion. “We now know that all versions of religion are based on very similar tacit assumptions, and that all it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way.”

Boyer closes his thought provoking essay with the observation that the prospects for atheism are not good. Religious belief appears to be a natural outgrowth of the most natural ways humans think, whereas the denial of these beliefs requires far more effort.

For the original essay see here.

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