Cognitive science of religion is the study of religious thought and
behavior from the perspective of the cognitive and evolutionary
sciences. The field employs methods and theories from a very broad
range of disciplines, including: cognitive psychology, evolutionary
psychology, cognitive anthropology, artificial intelligence, cognitive
neuroscience, neurobiology, zoology, and ethology. Scholars in this
field seek to explain how human minds acquire, generate, and transmit
religious thoughts, practices, and schemas by means of ordinary
2 Theoretical basis
3 Main concepts
3.1 Cognitive byproduct
3.2 Minimally counterintuitive concepts
3.3 Hyperactive agency detection device
3.4 Pro-social adaptation
3.5 Costly signaling
3.6 Dual inheritance
4 See also
6 Further reading
7 External links
Although religion has been the subject of serious scientific study
since at least the late nineteenth century, the study of religion as a
cognitive phenomenon is relatively recent. While it often relies upon
earlier research within anthropology of religion and sociology of
religion, cognitive science of religion considers the results of that
work within the context of evolutionary and cognitive theories. As
such, cognitive science of religion was only made possible by the
cognitive revolution of the 1950s and the development, starting in the
1970s, of sociobiology and other approaches explaining human behaviour
in evolutionary terms, especially evolutionary psychology.
Dan Sperber foreshadowed cognitive science of religion in his
1975 book Rethinking Symbolism, the earliest research to fall within
the scope of the discipline was published during the 1980s. Among this
work, Stewart E. Guthrie's "A cognitive theory of religion" was
significant for examining the significance of anthropomorphism within
religion, work that ultimately led to the development of the concept
of the hyperactive agency detection device – a key concept within
cognitive science of religion.
The real beginning of cognitive science of religion can be dated to
the 1990s, however. During that decade a large number of highly
influential books and articles were published which helped to lay the
foundations of cognitive science of religion. These included
Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture and Bringing
Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms by E.
Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley, Naturalness of Religious Ideas by
Pascal Boyer, Inside the Cult and Arguments and
Icons by Harvey Whitehouse, and Guthrie's book-length
development of his earlier theories in Faces in the Clouds. In the
1990s, these and other researchers, who had been working independently
in a variety of different disciplines, discovered each other's work
and found valuable parallels between their approaches, with the result
that something of a self-aware research tradition began to coalesce.
By 2000, the field was well-enough defined for
Justin L. Barrett to
coin the term 'cognitive science of religion' in his article
"Exploring the natural foundations of religion".
Since 2000, cognitive science of religion has grown,
similarly to other approaches that apply evolutionary thinking to
sociological phenomena. Each year more researchers become involved in
the field, with theoretical and empirical
developments proceeding at a very rapid pace. The field remains
somewhat loosely defined, bringing together as it does researchers who
come from a variety of different traditions. Much of the cohesion in
the field comes not from shared detailed theoretical commitments but
from a general willingness to view religion in cognitive and
evolutionary terms as well as from the willingness to engage with the
work of the others developing this field. A vital role in bringing
together researchers is played by the International Association for
the Cognitive Science of Religion, formed in 2006.
Evolutionary psychology of religion
Despite a lack of agreement concerning the theoretical basis for work
in cognitive science of religion, it is possible to outline some
tendencies. Most significant of these is reliance upon the theories
developed within evolutionary psychology. That particular approach to
evolutionary explanations of human behaviour is particularly suitable
to the cognitive byproduct explanation of religion that is most
popular among cognitive scientists of religion. This is because of
the focus on byproduct and ancestral trait explanations within
evolutionary psychology. A particularly significant concept associated
with this approach is modularity of mind, used as it is to underpin
accounts of the mental mechanisms seen to be responsible for religious
beliefs. Important examples of work that falls under this rubric are
provided by research carried out by
Pascal Boyer and Justin L.
These theoretical commitments are not shared by all cognitive
scientists of religion, however. Ongoing debates regarding the
comparative advantages of different evolutionary explanations for
human behaviour find a reflection within cognitive science of
religion with dual inheritance theory recently gaining adherents among
researchers in the field, including Armin Geertz and Ara Norenzayan.
The perceived advantage of this theoretical framework is its ability
to deal with more complex interactions between cognitive and cultural
phenomena, but it comes at the cost of experimental design having to
take into consideration a richer range of possibilities.
The view that religious beliefs and practices should be understood as
nonfunctional but as produced by human cognitive mechanisms that are
functional outside of the context of religion. Examples of this are
the hyperactive agent detection device and the minimally
counterintuitive concepts or the process of initiation
explaining buddhism and taoism. The cognitive byproduct explanation of
religion is an application of the concept of spandrel (biology) and of
the concept of exaptation explored by
Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould among others.
Minimally counterintuitive concepts
Concepts that mostly fit human preconceptions but break with them in
one or two striking ways. These concepts are both easy to remember
(thanks to the counterintuitive elements) and easy to use (thanks to
largely agreeing with what people expect). Examples include talking
trees and noncorporeal agents.
Pascal Boyer argues that many religious
entities fit into this category. Upal labelled the fact that
minimally counterintuitive ideas are better remembered than intuitive
and maximally counterintuitive ideas as the minimal
counterintuitiveness effect or the MCI-effect.
Hyperactive agency detection device
Postulated mental mechanism whose function is to identify the activity
of agents. Given the relative costs of failing to spot an agent, the
mechanism is said to be hyperactive, producing a large number of false
positive errors. Stewart E. Guthrie and others have claimed these
errors can explain the appearance of supernatural concepts.
According to the prosocial adaptation account of religion, religious
beliefs and practices should be understood as having the function of
eliciting adaptive prosocial behaviour and avoiding the free rider
problem. Within the cognitive science of religion this approach is
primarily pursued by Richard Sosis.
David Sloan Wilson is another
major proponent of this approach and interprets religion as a
group-level adaptation, but his work is generally seen as falling
outside the cognitive science of religion.
Practices that, due to their inherent cost, can be relied upon to
provide an honest signal regarding the intentions of the agent.
Richard Sosis has suggested that religious practices can be explained
as costly signals of the willingness to cooperate. A similar line of
argument has been pursued by Lyle Steadman and Craig Palmer.
Alternatively, D. Jason Slone has argued that religiosity may be a
costly signal used as a mating strategy in so far as religiosity
serves as a proxy for "family values."
In the context of cognitive science of religion, dual inheritance
theory can be understood as attempting to combine the cognitive
byproduct and prosocial adaptation accounts using the theoretical
approach developed by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, among others.
The basic view is that while belief in supernatural entities is a
cognitive byproduct, cultural traditions have recruited such beliefs
to motivate prosocial behaviour. A sophisticated statement of this
approach can be found in
Scott Atran and
Joseph Henrich (2010) "The
Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning
Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep
Commitments to Prosocial Religions" Biological Theory 5.1.
Psychology of religion
International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion
Issues in Science and Religion
Evolutionary origin of religions
Evolutionary psychology of religion
^ Geertz C. (1966) "
Religion as cultural system" In: Banton, M. (ed)
Anthropological approaches to the study of religion London: Tavistock
Anthropology 21 (2) 1980, pp. 181-203.
^ Barrett, Justin (1 January 2000). "Exploring the natural foundations
of religion". Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 4: 29–34.
^ Pyysiäinen, Ilkka and Marc Hauser (March 2010). "The origins of
religion : evolved adaptation or by-product?". Trends in
Cognitive Science. 14 (3): 104–09.
^ See Laland K. and Brown D. (2002) Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary
Perspectives on Human Behavior Oxford: Oxford University Press for
^ Minimal counterintuitiveness
^ Kress, Oliver (1993). "A new approach to cognitive development:
ontogenesis and the process of initiation". Evolution and Cognition
^ Boyer, Pascal. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas University of
California Press, 1994.
^ Upal, M. A. (2010). "An Alternative View of the Minimal
Counterintuitiveness Effect", Journal of Cognitive Systems Research,
Atran, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2004). "Religion's evolutionary
landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion".
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27, 713-770.
Barrett, J.L. "Cognitive Science of Religion: What Is It and Why Is
Religion Compass 2007, vol 1.
Barrett, J.L. "Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion." Trends
in Cognitive Sciences 2000, vol. 4 pp 29–34
Barrett, J.L. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? AltaMira Press, 2004.
Barrett, J.L. and Jonathan A. Lanman. "The Science of Religious
Religion 38, 2008. 109-124
Barrett, Nathaniel F. Toward an Alternative Evolutionary Theory of
Religion: Looking Past Computational Evolutionary
Psychology to a
Wider Field of Possibilities. Journal of the American Academy of
Religion, September 2010, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 583–621.
Boyer, Pascal. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas University of
California Press, 1994.
Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of
Religious Thought Basic Books, 2001
Boyer, Pascal. "Religious Thought and Behavior as By-Products of Brain
Functions," Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, pp 119–24
Boyer, P and Liénard, P. "Why ritualized behavior? Precaution Systems
and action parsing in developmental, pathological and cultural rituals
.Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29: 595-650.
Cohen, E. The Mind Possessed. The Cognition of Spirit Possession in
the Afro-Brazilian Religious Tradition Oxford University Press.
De Cruz, Helen & De Smedt, Johan. (2015). "A natural history of
natural theology. The Cognitive Science of
Theology and Philosophy of
Religion." MIT Press, 2015.
Geertz, Armin W. (2004). "Cognitive Approaches to the Study of
Religion," in P. Antes, A.W. Geertz, R.R. Warne (Eds.) New Approaches
to the Study of
Religion Volume 2: Textual, Comparative, Sociological,
and Cognitive Approaches. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter,
Geertz, Armin W. (2008). "From Apes to Devils and Angels: Comparing
Scenarios on the Evolution of Religion," in J. Bulbulia et al. (Eds.)
The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques Santa
Margarita: Collins Foundation Press, pp. 43–49.
Guthrie, S. E. (1993). 'Faces in the Clouds: A new theory of religion
New York: Oxford University Press.
Knight, N., Sousa, P., Barrett, J. L., & Atran, S. (2004).
"Children’s attributions of beliefs to humans and God". Cognitive
Science 28(1): 117-126.
Kress, O. (1993). "A new approach to cognitive development:
ontogenesis and the process of initiation". Evolution and Cognition
Lawson, E. T. "Toward a Cognitive Science of Religion." Numen 47(3):
Lawson, E. T. "Religious Thought." Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science
vol 3 (A607).
Lawson, E. T. and McCauley, RN. Rethinking Religion: Connecting
Cognition and Culture Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Legare, C. and Gelman, S. "Bewitchment, Biology, or Both: The
Co-existence of Natural and
Supernatural Explanatory Frameworks Across
Development." Cognitive Science 32(4): 607-642.
Light, T and Wilson, B (eds).
Religion as a Human Capacity: A
Festschrift in Honor of
E. Thomas Lawson
E. Thomas Lawson Brill, 2004.
McCauley, RN. "The Naturalness of
Religion and the Unnaturalness of
Science." Explanation and Cognition (Keil and Wilson eds), pp 61–85.
MIT Press, 2000.
McCauley, RN and Lawson, E. T. Bringing
Ritual to Mind: Psychological
Foundations of Cultural Forms Cambridge University Press, 2002.
McCorkle Jr., William W. Ritualizing the Disposal of the Deceased:
From Corpse to Concept Peter Lang, 2010.
Norenzayan, A., Atran, S., Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2006).
"Memory and mystery: The cultural selection of minimally
counterintuitive narratives". Cognitive Science 30, 531-553.
Nuckolls, C. "Boring Rituals," Journal of
Ritual Studies 2006.
Pyysiäinen, I. How
Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of
Religion Brill, 2001.
Slone, DJ. Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe
What They Shouldn't Oxford University Press, 2004.
Slone, DJ (ed).
Religion and Cognition: A Reader Equinox Press, 2006.
Slone, DJ, and Van Slyke, J. The Attraction of Religion. Bloomsbury
Academic Press. 2015.
Sørensen, J. "A Cognitive Theory of Magic." AltaMira Press, 2006.
Sperber, D. Rethinking Symbolism Cambridge University Press, 1975.
Sperber, D. Explaining Culture Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
Talmont-Kaminski, K. (2013).
Religion as Magical Ideology: How the
Supernatural Reflects Rationality Durham: Acumen.
Taves, A. "Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block
Approach to the Study of
Religion and Other
Special Things" Princeton
University Press, 2011.
Tremlin, T. Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion
Oxford University Press, 2006.
Upal, M. A. (2005). "Towards a Cognitive Science of New Religious
Movements," Cognition and Culture, 5(2), 214-239.
Upal, M. A., Gonce, L., Tweney, R., and Slone, J. (2007).
Contextualizing counterintuitiveness: How Context Affects
Comprehension and Memorability of Counterintuitive Concepts, Cognitive
Science, 31(3), 415-439.
Whitehouse, H. (1995). Inside the Cult: Religious innovation and
transmission in Papua New Guinea Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Whitehouse, H. (1996a). "Apparitions, orations, and rings: Experience
of spirits" in Dadul. Jeannette Mageo and Alan Howard (eds). Spirits
in Culture, History, and Mind New York: Routledge.
Whitehouse, H. (1996b). "Rites of terror: Emotion, metaphor, and
memory in Melanesian initiation cults" Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute 2, 703-715.
Whitehouse, H. (2000). Arguments and Icons: Divergent modes of
religiosity Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of Religiosity: a cognitive theory of
religious transmission Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Xygalatas, D and McCorkle Jr., W.W. (eds). Mental Culture: Classical
Social Theory and The Cognitive Science of
Religion Durham: Acumen.
Religion as Anthropomorphism with Stewart Guthrie.
Religion is Natural and Science is Not with Robert McCauley.
God's Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind with Will Gervais.
Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of
Religion with Robert
"Practice What You Preach" : CREDs and CRUDs with Jonathan
Evolutionarily stable strategy
Darwinian literary studies
Evolution of emotion
W. D. Hamilton
Carel van Schaik
David Sloan Wilson
E. O. Wilson
George C. Williams
Jerome H. Barkow
Dominic D. P. Johnson
Justin L. Barrett
David F. Bjorklund
David C. Geary
Judith Rich Harris
Aurelio José Figueredo
Douglas T. Kenrick
Simon M. Kirby
Michael T. McGuire
Randolph M. Nesse
David P. Schmitt
Todd K. Shackelford
Peter K. Smith
Mark van Vugt
Center for Evolutionary Psychology
Human Behavior and Evolution Society
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
New England Complex Systems Institute
The Adapted Mind
The Evolution of Human Sexuality
Evolution and Human Behavior
Evolutionary psychology and culture
Criticism of evolutionary psychology
Evolutionary psychology research groups and centers
Bibliography of evolution and human behavior
Evolutionary biology portal
Major religious groups
Major religious groups and religious denominations
Eastern Catholic Churches
Church of the East
Assyrian Church of the East
Nation of Islam
Fon and Ewe
Apostasy / Disaffiliation
National religiosity levels
Irreligion by country
Separation of church and state
New religious movements
Religions and spiritual traditions