David Brooks, in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists,” offers speculations about how the “cognitive revolution” will impact religious belief. He goes on to cite studies by Andrew Newberg and others studying brain states that correlate with particular religious practices and experiences and then speculates as to what such research might mean for undercutting or bolstering particular religious commitments. Specifically, he suggests that doctrinal and theistic religions may be more threatened by contemporary science in this area than mystical religions. I suppose there is little harm in speculating, but we should get our “revolutions” straight. What Brooks refers to as a “cognitive revolution” is predominantly non-cognitive. Additionally, the genuine cognitive movement in the study of religion doesn’t obviously undercut any major religious system, but by suggesting a natural tendency for the acquisition of religious ideas, supports the idea that theistic beliefs are firmly grounded in natural human cognitive systems.
What is customarily referred to as the Cognitive Revolution in psychology began in the 1950s to bring mental states, processes, and structures back from their Behaviorist-mandated exile. The result was a return to talking about human memory, attention, perception, thought, problem solving, concepts, and feelings. Behavior was no longer the only game in town, and the presumption that human thought and action were wholly dictated by environmental contingencies (apart from some boring observations about gross physiological differences between, say, humans and Skinner’s pigeons) was rejected. The Cognitive Revolution was, then, first and foremost about cognition and not about brain activity. We can learn what human working memory capacity is like, for instance, without knowing anything about what the requisite neural architecture is like. We can specify how people tend to solve analogical problems without knowing what their neural correlates are.
To call neuroscientific or genetic studies of religious experience and behavior “cognitive” is curiously misleading. Some neuroscientific work, such as those studies that help to distinguish between competing models of cognitive architecture, is genuinely cognitive, but merely finding neural correlates of experiences or behaviors does not pass this test. It may be scientific, and it may be interesting, but it is not properly “cognitive.” The move is comparable to studying pole-vaulters in action, recording a characteristic muscle activation pattern, calling that discovery “cognitive,” and going on to suggest it has profound implications for humans’ natural receptivity to or even the goodness in general of pole-vaulting.
Something of a cognitive movement (“revolution” is too strong a term) in the study of religion has been growing for the past two decades, but it is distinguishable from genetic, neuroscientific, and many evolutionary approaches. Barbara Herrnstein Smith rightly identifies some of the cast of characters in this cognitive movement in her postings of June 16 and June 23, 2008 on The Immanent Frame. Together, their cognitive approach is characterized by an attempt to explain the cross-cultural distribution of different forms of beliefs, practices, and social arrangements that generally fall under the “religion” umbrella by appealing to underlying cognitive mechanisms that make people more or less likely to entertain and adopt certain beliefs, practices, and social structures. A comparison can be made to Chomskian linguistics. Chomsky rejected the idea that language can be (and is) entirely constructed by the linguistic environment and his research program generated ample evidence that the character of language acquisition and the diversity of linguistic expression is informed and constrained by underlying cognitive systems (regardless of specifiable neural pathways). Cognitive approaches to studies of religion have a comparable character by attempting to show how cognitive systems inform and constrain (but do not determine) religious acquisition and expression. This cognitive science of religion (CSR) can also be likened to cognitive turns in economics pioneered by Kahneman and Tversky. As human economic behavior is at least partially explained by individual mental representations concerning resource management, so too religious behavior is at least partially explained by individual mental representations (that is, cognition) concerning superhuman agency, the relationship between minds and bodies, death and afterlife, the nature of fortune and misfortune, the origins of the natural world, and so forth.
CSR possesses three attractive features for scholars interested in explaining religious phenomena. First, it avoids the age-old problem of defining “religion.” Rather than dictating what religion is and trying to explain it in whole, scholars in this field have generally chosen to approach “religion” in a piecemeal fashion, identifying human thought or behavioral patterns that might count as “religious” and then trying to explain why those patterns are cross-culturally recurrent. If the explanations turn out to be part of a grander explanation of “religion,” then all the better. If not, meaningful human phenomena have still been rigorously addressed.
This piecemeal approach makes CSR complementary to the activities of other religion scholars from many disciplinary perspectives, a stance of explanatory non-exclusivity. CSR does not pretend to explain exhaustively everything that might be called “religion” (provocative book and project titles aside). Rather, it seeks to detail the basic cognitive structure of thought and action that might be deemed religious and invites historians, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and other religion scholars to fill in the rich details of particular religious phenomena. Where CSR scholars are less friendly toward more traditional approaches is when interpretations or descriptions are offered as substitutes for causal explanations. Different levels of causal explanation are acceptable (e.g. socio-political, cultural, behavioral, economic, psychological, evolutionary, neurological, etc.), and rich description is invited as valuable data, but descriptions of historical or cultural states-of-affairs offered as directly “explaining” human beliefs and actions without specifying causal pathways or without consideration of the mediating factors of human bio-psychological systems are considered unacceptable, as is the position that takes interpretation and description to be the ultimate product of inquiry.
A third virtue of CSR is its methodological pluralism. In seeking out what constitutes cross-culturally and historically recurrent features of human religious cognition, scholars in this field have turned to whatever data collection and analysis methods appear appropriate to the questions at hand, including archaeology, ethnography, interviews, history, and experimentation, both cross-cultural and developmental. What CSR tends to require of methods is only that they evaluate hypotheses empirically.
In his column, Brooks suggests that the “cognitive revolution” in the study of religion will likely encourage belief systems that focus on “self-transcendence” but discourage “the idea of a personal God.” The more genuinely cognitive trend in contemporary science of religion does not directly bear upon whether one should hold any given religious beliefs, but if it offers any clues as to which religious beliefs are likely to remain resilient in the future, it suggests that belief in personal gods aren’t going anywhere soon. A common refrain in CSR is the naturalness of belief in supernatural agents or gods. In his review of the cognitive and evolutionary studies of religion, anthropologist Scott Atran writes: “Supernatural agency is the most culturally recurrent, cognitively relevant, and evolutionarily compelling concept in religion. The concept of the supernatural is culturally derived from an innate cognitive schema.”
Many different and perhaps mutually supporting pathways to belief in gods have garnered some supportive evidence, as I review elsewhere. Here I offer just one example. Developmental psychologist Deborah Kelemen and colleagues have generated experimental evidence demonstrating that from early childhood humans (1) have a strong tendency to find design and purpose in the natural world, (2) know that design is not attributable to human agency, and (3) find a powerful God (or gods) an intuitively reasonable cause(s) for the apparent design and purpose in the natural world. For these reasons among others, Kelemen suggests that children are “intuitive theists” (see Kelemen’s 2004 article in Psychological Science). Humans have early-developing cognitive biases waiting to be filled in by a specific God or gods, much as we have early-developing cognitive biases to acquire natural language. These cognitive predilections to believe in gods can be overridden by special types of enculturation but experimental, historical, archaeological, and ethnographic evidence suggests that as a species we are prone to belief in gods.