Are religious beliefs fundamentally different, or are they simply the result of cognitive systems built for interactions with other human beings projected onto a supposed supernatural agent? A recent report by Dimitrios Kapogiannis Aron K. Barbey Michael Su, Giovanna Zamboni, Frank Krueger, and Jordan Grafman; entitled “Cognitive and Neural Foundations of Religious Belief,” explored brain activation patterns when participants indicated their level of agreement with a series of statements reflecting supposed basic psychologic dimensions of religious belief. The authors found brain activation patterns for these dimensions of belief that matched those of previously known networks linked to social cognition and not uniquely religious networks. In short, the study suggests that there is no religious network in the brain as such, and that religion lives by borrowing the structures responsible for social cognition.
The authors used multidimensional scaling techniques to identify basic content dimensions of recent questionnaires and surveys on religious belief. Next, the authors examined brain activation patterns in relation to evaluation of statements that represented those basic dimensions of religious cognition.
The study notes that the prefrontal networks activated in relation to God’s actions and emotions were regions that have been independently linked to social cognitive processing such as the human mirror neuron system, action understanding, – theory of mind’ processing and emotion detection. A midline and medial prefrontal network that has been linked to processing Self-relevant stimuli was also activated. Statements relating to the content of doctrines strongly activated temporal-lobe regions. Statements reflecting experiential religion activated a more posterior and precentral network including bilateral occipital lobes (including the L precuneus), the L precentral gyrus, and the left inferior frontal region. This network classically mediates visual and motor imagery of self in action.
Overall, the authors argue that the findings support the view that religiosity is integrated into cognitive processes and brain networks used in social cognition, rather than being sui generis.
Nevertheless, this claim is not supported by the data. The authors did not test for brain activation networks involved in religious cognition per se as they had no appropriate control condition. For example, if the authors had asked their participants to evaluate both religious statements (involving God’s actions and emotions etc) and similar statements involving a non-supernatural agent, such as a significant other. If they had, we would have gotten a picture of what brain regions are engaged in religious cognition as such.