Review: Religion in Mind

Given its penchant for to publishing findings in obscure journals, one can easily miss the profound discoveries in the field of the cognitive study of religion. Fortunately, every once in a while, a book comes along that gathers together the key researchers from this field. Religion in Mind: Cognitive Perspectives on Religious Belief, Ritual, and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), an anthology recapping the most important results of the cognitive study of religion from the 1990s, is one such book.

Religion in Mind asks the leading researchers of the cognitive science of religion from the 1990s to write about their findings. It begins with an introductory essay by its editor, Jensine Andresen, who explains the three leading theories of cognitive science. First, cognitivism treats the human mind as a computer processor: input goes in, the mind processes it, and responds with an output. Cognitivism assumes that the brain operates in a static, rule-based way, and so is challenged by instances in which the same input leads to different output (e.g., religious ritual practiced over time resulting in different experiences). Connectivism, the second cognitive theory, focuses on the emergence of higher level complexity from lower levels, and favors a holistic, interactive approach. Thus the “problem” of the same input leading to a different output disappears because new connections may arise at practically anytime. Finally, enactionism agrees with connectivism in its emphasis on interactions and dynamism, but parts ways by arguing that cognition is about action, not problem-solving. That is, the world is the environment with which one interacts, not an obstacle one must overcome.

Importantly, when applying cognitive science to religion, Andresen emphasizes that none of the following authors (or herself) try to explain away religion or reduce religion to cognitive science. Her essay concludes with an historical overview of cognitive science.

Andresen divides Religion in Mind into three parts: belief acquisition and the spread of religious representations, questioning the “representation” of religious ritual action, and embodied models of religion. Benson Saler, Ilkka Pyysiäinen, and Stewart Guthrie contribute to Part I, Robert McCauley, E. Thomas Lawson, and Justin Barrett to Part II, and Matti Kamppinen, Francisco Varela, and Patrick McNamara to Part III.

Saler’s essay, “On What We May Believe about Beliefs,” briefly explores the philosophical and theological history of belief before moving on to cognitive science. Saler compares classical mental state theory, disposition theory, and cognitivist theory. The classical mental state theory holds that when one believes something, one experiences a mental state change. Since only the believer directly undergoes this change, he or she has privileged insight into what he or she believes. By contrast, disposition theory denies such privileged insight, stating that belief simply means to act a certain way under certain circumstances. Taken to its extreme, it becomes eliminativism, which denies the existence of beliefs and mental states entirely. Lastly, cognitivist theory encompasses a wide range of beliefs, all of which acknowledge the existence of mental phenomena while admitting mental phenomena’s dependence on the biological.

In “Cognition, Emotion, and Religious Experience,” Pyysiäinen argues against functionalism, the cognitive theory that one can understand the brain’s cognition solely in terms of its function – its structure therefore does not matter. For instance, both a calculator and a human can perform basic arithmetic despite structural differences; thus, function counts and structure doesn’t. Pyysiäinen proceeds to show how functionalism cannot account for religion experiences, which he defines as “an emotional reaction to religious representations.” Functionalism fails on both counts. First, it cannot explain emotion because emotion plays no role in its computational model of the mind. Second, Pyysiäinen propounds that religious beliefs stem from emotionally laden counterintuitive beliefs affirmed by a society. Belief in a counterintuitive reality by definition contradicts what functionalism expects, and yet evolution has engrained such counterintuitive beliefs in the human mind. Put another way, evolution results in some counterintuitive beliefs, and those that are emotionally potent form the basis of religious belief. Either way, functionalism is shocked into silence.

Guthrie concludes the first part of the book with his essay, “Why Gods? A Cognitive Theory.” Unlike Pyysiäinen, Guthrie argues that belief in gods or supernatural entities is intuitive. Humans naturally interpret ambiguous data as the most important data (e.g., facial expressions). If humans can unravel a hidden pattern or intention behind the data, they can then solve the meaning of the data and so reap great rewards. For example, if people ignore an angry facial expression, they may be surprised at the harsh backlash when they give this person relatively minor bad news. On the other hand, if people interpret this facial expression as meaningful, they can quickly learn to distinguish an angry face from a calm one. In a nutshell, evolution has hardwired humans to detect intentionality: if such intentionality exists, much is gained, and if not, reading intentionality into events (e.g., deciding that a famine has been caused by angry gods) results in minimal, if any, loss. The instinct to anthropomorphize the world persists in all cultures; for example, even the most scientifically minded might talk about a “furious” storm. Putting the two together: belief in gods arises because human intuition anthropomorphizes and reads intentionality into nature.

McCauley’s “Ritual, Memory, and Emotion: Comparing Two Cognitive Hypotheses” begins the second section of the book, the section on religious ritual. The “two cognitive hypotheses” McCauley compares both try to answer the question, “What makes a ritual emotionally powerful?” The ritual frequency hypothesis, the hypothesis McCauley rejects, argues that infrequent rituals need to stir emotions in order to become memorable while frequent rituals do not. For example, people remember weddings and funerals because of the great emotion involved, and so quickly learn the ritual of what a wedding or funeral should be. On the other side, the Christian Eucharist occurs on a regular basis, and consequently people learn the ritual not because of its emotional impact but through perfunctory repetition. Against this hypothesis, McCauley asks whether observing a ritual counts. If so, then the frequency of rituals drastically changes. Baptism goes from a once-a-lifetime event to a weekly occurrence in some churches. If not, then the ritual frequency hypothesis fails to make the very important distinction between participating in a ritual and observing one. McCauley favors the ritual form hypothesis, which states that the key difference between rituals is whether or not they put the participant in direct contact with the Deity. If they do, they cannot be repeated (e.g., initiation rituals), and if they don’t, then they can (e.g., communion). The former rituals enact a permanent change on the individual while the latter do not. Thus the form of the ritual determines whether or not a ritual evokes powerful emotions.

Lawson’s contribution, “Psychological Perspectives on Agency,” explores the importance of agency for religious ritual. For Lawson, agency entails having (1) a renewable source of energy, (2) purposes and goals, (3) cognition and intellect, and (4) the ability to attribute agency to others. This last feature enables humans to believe in supernatural agency (see Guthrie above), and supernatural agency plays a key role in ritual. In order to believe that their religious ritual “works,” religious people need to believe that supernatural agent(s) directly involve themselves in the ritual. Without the intercession of the supernatural, the ritual borders on meaninglessness. In a nutshell, belief in supernatural agency fuels the power of religious rituals.

In “Do Children Experience God as Adults Do?,” Barrett challenges the conventional wisdom that children hold to naïve views of God until they grow older, at which point they develop more sophisticated, abstract views. He attempts to undermine previous research about children’s belief in an anthropomorphic God by pointing out that these researchers typically invite children to anthropomorphize God rather than neutrally seeing if they do. For instance, one researcher asked children to draw a picture of God. Naturally, the children drew a human-like figure, but Barrett wonders whether adults would respond any differently given the same task. Instead, researchers asked the adults to describe what God is like verbally. In other words, Barrett accuses the opposition of comparing apples to oranges – the test should be the same for children and adults. Barrett notes that by placing adults under cognitive strain, they will anthropomorphize God because they will drop their non-intuitive, abstract theology and replace it with a simpler one in order to speed up their cognitive processing. Researchers can therefore induce adults to theologize like children, but can they induce children to theologize like adults? Barrett, citing research demonstrating the ability of children to reason abstractly, concludes that they can at least entertain abstract notions of God, and that the conventional wisdom exaggerates the difference between how children and adults experience God.

Kamppinen’s “Cognitive Study of Religion and Husserlian Phenomenology: Making Better Tools for the Analysis of Cultural Systems” starts the third and final part of the book on embodiment. Kamppinen believes that phenomenology can systematize the study of religious experience. Importantly, Husserl’s phenomenology, with its emphasis on part-whole structural explanations and intentionality, offers a non-reductionistic phenomenology of religion. Since phenomenology captures both cognition and culture, and religion consists of cognition and culture, phenomenology is a powerful tool for studying religion.

Varela’s essay, “Why a Proper Science of Mind implies the Transcendence of Nature,” argues for a naturalized phenomenology; more specifically, one rooted in neuroscience. In this relationship, phenomenology would not reduce to neuroscience and neither would neuroscience reduce to phenomenology. Instead, they would both constrain the claims of each other. While phenomenology does not reduce to neuroscience, it stills needs to account for neurology, at which point Varela advocates for a downward causation model – that is, phenomenological events would incur neurological events. Again, neurology constrains phenomenology and certainly does not reduce to phenomenology. In this way, Varela sees a transcendence of nature through breaking down the (in his opinion false) dichotomy between life and matter.

Capping off the embodiment section, McNamara’s “Religion and the Frontal Lobes” presents research showing the importance of the frontal lobes for religion. The frontal lobes play a vital part in emotional processing, empathy, delayed gratification, self-awareness, agency, theory of mind (that is, the ability to attribute an independent mind to beings), belief fixation, moral insight, and auto-biographical recall. Clearly, religious practice and belief heavily relies on the capabilities of the frontal lobe. McNamara goes so far as to suggest that people may engage in religion because it stimulates their frontal lobes.

Overall, tremendous insight from the cognitive science of religion has been condensed into one book. Religion in Mind covers a gamut of issues, and each essay provides an extensive bibliography. Of course, no book is perfect. The authors do not directly dialogue with each other or critique each other’s essays. Rather, the tension between authors looms in the background. For instance, Pyysiäinen considers religious beliefs counterintuitive while Guthrie considers them intuitive; Kamppinen prefers a Husserlian phenomenology while Varela a neurophenomenology. Much could have been learned from more direct disagreement. Still, Religion in Mind offers a variety of views on core topics in the cognitive science of religion, and will be of interest to anyone curious about this field.

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