By Kenneth MacKendrick
The discourse on sui generis religion, as outlined by Russell McCutcheon is one that deemphasizes difference, history, and sociopolitical context in favor of abstract essences and homogeneity, characterized by the supposed uniqueness and autonomy of religion. While on the surface it would seem that cognitive theories of religion steer away from this problematic discourse by adopting a naturalistic, interdisciplinary, and experimental approach, the curious definitional strategy concerning the supernatural and the jump from a historically self-reflective and heuristic definition to a neo-Tylorian substantive definition leaves their work vulnerable to critique.
Cognitive theories usually define religion as having to do with thoughts and practices related to the supernatural. The supernatural is vaguely conceived but focuses on relations with supernatural agencies. The acquisition and transmission of religion is seen as related to how the mind works: our understanding of other minds, bias to detect agency, gravitation toward purpose-based explanations of origins, dualistic notion of body and mind, acceptance of non-natural causality, and memorable attraction to counterintuitive representations. All of these components are thought not only to render the mind susceptible to religious ideas but also to spontaneously generate them. Furthering this view, scholars focusing on cognition in light of an orientation toward the supernatural often build into their theory of religion the notion that religion is an adaptation or byproduct of a process of natural selection. Since in each instance the mind is hardwired for creating, acquiring, and transmitting supernatural representations, religion is deemed as eminently natural (“strong naturalness thesis”). The naturalness of religion readily follows from the adoption of a substantive definition of religion.
However, if we adopt a heuristic definition of religion, even when religion is defined in a similar manner, it does not follow nor could it follow that religion is natural. “Religious cognition” makes about as much sense as “49.8833° N, 97.1500° W cognition.” The difference between the two is startling, and cognitive theories of religion have yet to consistently clarify the ambiguity.
The problem emerges most clearly when we look at how the strong naturalness thesis re-describes cognitive development in religious terms. For instance, the strong naturalness thesis posits that as theory of mind skills develop they develop in tandem with promiscuous agency detection. Out of this matrix of others in mind is born a special form of thinking, “religious cognition,” the positing of or willingness to accept representations concerning supernatural agencies. When this theoretical impulse to “religionize” cognition becomes systematic it becomes fairly easy to cherry pick contributing elements and identify the origin of religion in evolutionary history as well as in childhood.
This clear identification of the origins of religion in natural history as well as developmental history threatens to become a sui generis discourse when it (unnecessarily and illicitly) replaces more compelling, systematic, and historically viable accounts of cognition. In other words, cognitive theories of religion, by relying on a troubling and contested definition of religion without reference to its historical continuities and political implications, create and foster an ideological posturing that, while appearing to be interdisciplinary and scientifically minded, is conceptually anti-historical and ahistoriographical. This point, I should add, has been noted more and less critically by numerous historians of religion who are unquestionably sympathetic to cognitive theories of religion (see the excellent anthology Past Minds: Studies in Cognitive Historiography edited by Luther H. Martin and Jesper Sørensen).
Insofar as a cognitive theory of religion engages in a re-description of cognitive development in religious terms it is not really a cognitive theory of religion at all. It would be more accurate to say that the strong naturalist thesis is actually a religious theory of cognition, a sui generis conception of religion – a religious re-description of cognition. When natural history is re-described as religious history or cognitive development is re-described as religious development these descriptions threaten to supplant or replace other explanatory hypotheses or explanations in an ideological manner unless the re-description can be translated (or reduced) to a competing conceptual framework without loss of insight or explanatory power.
For instance, when the history of representation is described as the emergence of myth through the manipulation of symbolic forms, and hence the origin of religion, this account obscures the more accurate and plausible account of development: that the history of representation allows us to chart the emergence of the imagination (not religion). Re-describing the emergence of the capacity to pretend, to act as though the world is as it is not, as religious is profoundly misleading. It lends itself, for instance, to a problematic account of ritual as distinct from pretense and agency detection as distinct from processes related to the development of communicative competence. It is no wonder, as outlined in the forthcoming essay by Josh Rottman and Deborah Kelemen, that very little (if any) evidence can be found for the existence of “religious beliefs” in early childhood. As shown, the vast majority of evidence for the acquisition of religious thoughts and practices emerges only after individuals are socialized into such practices. There is scant support for spontaneous religiosity, a point that would not surprise an historian of religion but seems to threaten an overthrow of several of the primary tenets of popular cognitive theories of religion.
I understand the motive to define religion in this way to be the rather embarrassingly fuzzy idea that supernatural agents are postulated all around the world. Supernatural agency, when globalized in this way, is a bit of a will-o’-the-wisp. It is very beguiling but it can mean almost anything. Guided by Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin (2000) I have found it helpful to interpret “the supernatural” as that which “generally does not make sense in terms of the contemporary understanding of science.” Of course what makes sense in terms of contemporary science is itself a moving target, often contested, and inordinately fallible. Given the transitory and culturally contoured nature of “what makes sense” it is even more urgent to be cautioned by historiographical reflection.
As an imaginative challenge to cognitive theories of religion, perhaps we could try to think about what such theories would have to offer if a temporary moratorium on terms including religion, supernatural, magic, ritual, myth, theism, and atheism were to be voluntarily undertaken. How might human behaviour be accounted for differently if ritual was re-viewed as a subcategory of fantasy play, if belief in God was one treated as one of many everyday imaginary relationships, if theologies were taken as paracosms, and if supernatural representations were viewed as analogous to concepts of nation, gender, and class [I’m hoping that some cognitive theorist will get back to me and say, “Yes, that’s it exactly!”]. This kind of back and forth translation is underway. Ann Taves’s book (2009) on religious experience focuses on anomaly and specialness as an analogue of religion and Tanya Luhrmann (1989) examines English witchcraft as an extension of fantasy play. My own modest effort equates imaginal religious dialogue with fantasy play under institutional sanction (2012). While not all cognitive theories of religion are susceptible to this critique, unless there is a mindfulness of the ambiguity and ideological history of the term religion, the proliferation of its supposed naturalness will ultimately foreclose upon its richness and explanatory potential.
Some Recommended Readings:
Atran, Scott. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Barrett, Justin. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Lanham: AltaMira Press.
Bering, Jesse M. 2011. The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.
Caughey, John L. 1984. Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Hood, Bruce. 2009. SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. New York: HarperCollins.
Lewis-Williams, David. 2002. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Luhrmann, Tanya M. 1989. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
MacKendrick, Kenneth G. 2012. “We Have an Imaginary Friend in Jesus: What Can Imaginary Companions Teach Us About Religion?” Implicit Religion 15, no. 1: 61-79.
Martin, Luther H. and Jesper Sørensen, eds. 2011. Past Minds: Studies in Cognitive Historiography. London: Equinox.
McCutcheon, Russell T. 1997. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nemeroff, Carol and Paul Rozin. “The Makings of the Magical Mind: The Nature and Function of Sympathetic Magical Thinking.” In Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific, and Religious Thinking in Children. Edited by Karl S. Rosengren, Carl N. Johnson, and Paul L. Harris, 1-34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rottman, Josh and Deborah Kelemen (forthcoming 2012). “Is There Such Thing as a Christian Child? Evidence of Religious Beliefs in Early Childhood.” In Science and the World’s Religions: Origins and Destinies. Edited by P. McNamara and W. Wildman. Santa Barbara: Praeger Press.
Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered. A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.