Religion as a cognitively natural universal: “religion” and “science” aren’t that interesting


by Thomas J. Coleman III

Millions of people in the world today, just as they have in the past, typically believe in something that is, or can be, considered supernatural. From an emic perspective, gods, ghosts, devils, demons and alluring forest nymphs usually have some form of real ontological existence. Understood in the scientific naturalistic framework of the cognitive science of religion (CSR), we find that these supernatural entities, heuristically termed “religion”, actually have quite “natural” explanations. The naturalness of religion thesis in CSR, briefly summarized, supports the claim that religion, at a minimum, is a by-product of the normally function human mind, or has been adaptive at the group level (Xygalatas, 2014). This framework allows researchers to formulate meaningful and progressive research questions using its methodology to view religion at the level of psychological processes (an abstraction, however nonetheless useful). To this point it has been rather successful and its future continues to look promising. Although some aspects of religion can clearly be explained cognitively in the form of answers to specific empirical questions, that these explanations should actually tell us something specifically meaningful about any non-operationalized definition of religion is problematic. Particular instances of “religion” exist, either picked out as such by a researcher, or identified as such by an individual of the researcher’s interest (Taves, 2009). There is no such thing as “religion in general” (Belzen, 2010).

Moving on, it appears that religion might only be interesting at the level of whatever its particular “explicit form” or cultural expression takes, as opposed to the cognitive mechanisms operating implicitly that might underlie it. Such mechanisms underlie any phenomena in our mental life, from baking cakes to playing the clarinet, and not just “religion”. These mechanisms (two common examples: hyper agency detection device [HADD] and theory of mind [ToM]) are certainly utilized in the domain of playing sports too. For example, a football player is going to have to detect a moving ball (HADD) and try to anticipate the possible thoughts and actions of his teammates (ToM), if they are going to be any good that is. Does having “normal” ToM and HADD capabilities make me an “implicit football player” or “universal athlete”? Unlikely. Moreover, what separates religious cognition from sports cognition? Perhaps, it is the interesting content, and not the cognitive processes, that would help elucidate such a matter (Beit-Hallahmi, 2015).

Bulbulia (2005, p 72) suggests that, “[f]rom the vantage point of cognitive architecture, it appears that there is only one human religion with minor but strategically important variation in its conventional expressions.” At the specific level of cognition, this “one human religion” claim is broadly supported in the texts, and certainly the titles of popular books looking at religion from a cognitivist perspective, ranging from McCauley’s (2011) Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, to Bering’s (2012) The Belief Instinct, and especially Barrett’s (2012) Born Believers. The “one human religion” claim (properly referred to as the naturalness of religion thesis), certainly makes for interesting book titles and attention grabbing popular science articles. However, in modifying Bulbulia’s claim, couldn’t we say that, from the vantage point of cognitive architecture, it appears that there is only one human sport with minor but strategically important variation in its conventional expressions? Yes we could, but this doesn’t trivialize Bulbulia’s claim, it actually puts it into further perspective by demonstrating that this is largely true of most phenomena that one might wish to insert in place of “religion” in that statement. Nonetheless, the first claim would be a much less interesting statement than the second. Understanding our “universal sport” would not tell us anything too meaningful, I suggest, about professional shuffleboard players in Florida, and understanding a universal “religion” doesn’t tell us anything about a specific “religion”, or “religious” peoples. Once we are talking about the specifics, we are no longer talking about an alleged universal.

Naturalism presupposes that whatever you seek to explain will be done so naturalistically. The object (religion) CSR wishes to explain in mental-like, cognitive terms, is contaminated with the very mental systems themselves – the capacity to have a mental life is a prerequisite for even talking about “religion” or “belief”. That we should find an explanation for any phenomena in naturalistic terms or at the cognitive level should hardly be an interesting idea; this is just what naturalism does. However, it is the contrast between the CSR’s object of investigation, between something thought to refer to the supernatural (religion) from the vantage point of the natural (scientific epistemology), which makes its operationalization of “religion” interesting. From a cognitive standpoint, is the notion that “religion” is a human universal really all that meaningful – does it have adequate explanatory “cash value” to be considered interesting?

Imagine if we used what we know about the function of the heart (to pump blood) to examine and analyze the properties of lying to your boss about overtime pay (a complex social situation supported by multiple cognitive variables). While we could surely find a correlation between a person’s heartbeat and lying, and indeed we usually do, it would be odd to explain this specific social situation (lying) using only what the beating of the heart can tell us about it. Indeed, we might first reach the uninteresting conclusion that heart beat should relate to – map onto – what we want to know about lying. To be able to tell a lie in the first place presupposes the notion of having blood pumping through your veins. Thus while the universal capacity to pump blood through your veins, and the variations in one’s heartbeat underlie the phenomena of lying, these things by themselves, and without much waxing interpretation, can tell us nothing of much interest about the overall situation of lying.

When researchers in the CSR talk about religion as a cognitive universal, we should remember what an uninteresting claim this really is. We should remember that part of the reason for it being termed “natural” and “universal” (problems with these terms aside) is largely a demand of the methodology, framework, and research assumptions of CSR itself. Importantly, this in no way invalidates the CSR endeavor anymore than calling blood a “natural” and “universal” fluid invalidates medical research. These are simply useful abstractions, background assumptions – “normal science” to borrow Kuhn’s (1962/2012) term – in which the research moves forward with. Importantly these frameworks can be changed (McCauley, 2004). Thus, there is no “universal religion”, at least not in any particularly meaningful sense, anymore than there is a “universal sport”. That religion can be understood as stemming from the human mind is rather benign when we realize that every mental or social phenomenon is at some level derived from the same place. In this sense, scientific explanations of the supernatural at the cognitive level aren’t as interesting as they may first appear, however useful they may be to both scientists and ideologies, “scientific explanations are always partial” (McCauley, 2004, p. 200, emphasis in the original). Perhaps the most interesting explanations aren’t “scientific”?



Barrett, J. (2012). Born believers. New York: Free Press.

Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2015). Psychological perspectives on religion and religiosity. Sussex:    Routledge.

Belzen, J. (2010). Towards cultural psychology of religion. Dordrecht: Springer.

Bering, J. (2012). The belief instinct. New York: W.W. Norton.

Bulbulia, J. (2005). Are There Any Religions? An Evolutionary Exploration. Method &        Theory In The Study Of Religion, 17(2), 71-100. doi:10.1163/1570068054305619

Kuhn, T. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: The University of             Chicago Press.

McCauley, R. (2004). Is Religion a Rube Goldberg Device? Or Oh, What a Difference a     Theory Makes. In T. Light & B. Wilson, Religion as a Human Capacity: A     Festschrift in Honor of E. Thomas Lawson. (pp. 45-64). Leiden: Brill.

McCauley, R. (2011). Why religion is natural and science is not. New York: Oxford           University Press.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton        University Press.

Xygalatas, D. (2014) Cognitive Science of Religion, in: D.A. Leeming  (ed.)  Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, 2nd ed., Springer: London, UK.

Thomas J. Coleman III is a graduate student in the Research Psychology Masters program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) studying the psychology and cognitive science of religion. He is the Director of the Ralph W. Hood Jr. Psychology of Religion Laboratory at UTC, and an Assistant Editor for The Religious Studies Project and the journal Secularism & Nonreligion. His email is [email protected].

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