Features of Religions as Cognitive By-Products

Robert N. McCauley

The birth of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) more than twenty-five years ago inspired a generation of researchers who employ novel methods to study and explain religious thought and behavior. CSR uses the investigative methods, theoretical tools, and empirical findings of the cognitive sciences to redress long-standing imbalances within the academic study of religion, which has opted for the idiosyncratic and the interpretive over the recurrent and the explanatory. Redressing imbalances does not eliminate the idiosyncratic or the interpretive, but it does suggest that they are not the whole story and that greater attention to the recurrent and the explanatory will enrich our inquiries and our understanding.

The most influential proposal in CSR maintains that many features of religions are by-products of normal cognitive processes (Boyer 2001). The cognitive by-product theory holds that religions engage ordinary cognitive systems that are in place on the basis of considerations having nothing to do with religion or with one another—whether:

  • anthropomorphic representations (in myths or icons) triggering humans’ capacities for understanding agents’ minds (Guthrie 1993);
  • causally opaque rituals engaging our action representation system, which distinguishes their forms and associated properties (Lawson and McCauley 1990);
  • sacred spaces and objects arousing humans’ sensitivities to environmental contaminants (Liénard and Boyer 2006);
  • dysphoric rituals (especially) shaping autobiographical memory and self-understanding (Whitehouse and Lanman 2014); or
  • glossolalia (speaking in tongues) recruiting automatic linguistic processors (McCauley 2011).

Reading minds, recognizing actions, spotting environmental contaminants, and the like are all evolved, domain-specific cognitive dispositions that address perennial problems of survival. The costs of unreflective, unconscious, automatic dispositions, however, are their susceptibilities to their activation in response to cultural materials—including religious materials—that cue their operations (Sperber 1996). Religious systems’ sustainability turns partly on how well their representations and practices engage these dispositions of mind. In these regards, at least, humans come prepared for the ready appreciation of much about religions.

Like any scientific theory, though, the cognitive by-product account does not explain everything about religions or even about the features that it addresses (Gervais and Henrich 2010). So, for example, unlike the forms of mental life that the by-product theory highlights, we also think consciously, slowly, deliberately, verbally, and often at some remove from immediate circumstances. The by-product theory says less about religious reflection and about its articulation and organization in propositions, theologies, doctrines, creeds, and the like. Such materials require scrutiny in other areas of cognitive science, which concentrate on explicit cognition. Still, experimental findings about the relationship between explicit religious reflection and unconscious religious cognition suggest that people substantially underestimate the comparative importance of the latter (Barrett and Keil 1996).

This theoretical program has generated scores of studies and dozens of suggestive, even startling, experimental findings concerning:

  • mnemonic advantages that accrue to minimally counterintuitive representations (Banerjee et al. 2013);
  • persistent intrusion of theologically incorrect implicit inferences that are inconsistent with avowed beliefs (Slone 2004);
  • quiescence of the brain’s executive control system in believers in the face of charismatic authority (Schjoedt et al. 2011);
  • diminished religiosity associated with impairments in theory- of-mind capacities (Norenzayan et al. 2012); and
  • empathetic responses (as measured by the synchrony of heartbeats) of related observers to participants in extreme (fire-walking) rituals (Konvalinka et al. 2011).

CSR has met with striking success at coaxing the gods into surrendering more of their secrets.



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Robert N. McCauley

Robert N. McCauley is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor of Philosophy and was the founding director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture at Emory University.

In a quarter century, cognitive science has revolutionized our understanding of religion.

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