International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion

by Todd Tremlin

Introductory Essay by Howard J. Van Till

There are many books that constructively engage the question, How are science and religion related? During the last couple of decades, however, a new type of science and religion question has rightly gained increasing attention. It is a question concerning cause and effect: From the standpoint of empirical science, why is religion such a ubiquitous, passionate, and persistent phenomenon in the human species? Why do nearly all humans hold some collection of religious beliefs—propositions that posit or entail the existence and action of supernatural agents (usually person-like, non-corporeal beings)?

This is the central concern of Todd Tremlin’s book, Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion, written as an introductory overview of the field now called the “cognitive science of religion.” Cognitive science investigates the mental processes by which we come to know or believe something. The cognitive science of religion applies its investigative tools to the phenomena of religious beliefs and practices. Its goal is not to determine whether any particular religious belief is true or false, but rather to discover why and how humans arrive at religious beliefs and engage in religious practices in the first place.

In Tremlin’s own words, “The central claim of this book is that understanding the origin, composition, and persistence of religion and the supernatural beings it features requires an understanding of the evolved human mind” [10]. In the opening chapter, “The Prehistoric Roots of the Modern Mind,” Tremlin calls attention to the need to recognize the modern mind as the product of its evolutionary history. The point is straightforward: what our brains are able and prone to do today is what they needed to do in order to survive yesterday. In the following chapter, “The Architecture of the Modern Mind,” Tremlin connects the modern mind’s cognitive proclivities to the mental structures and functions that are the natural products of human evolution.

But why is the modern mind naturally predisposed to posit the existence of active supernatural agents—“gods”? What is it about human evolution that would lead to the development of that particular sort of mind? That is the main question at issue in the chapter titled, “Minds, Other Minds, and the Minds of Gods.”

In the remaining chapters Tremlin continues to probe the cognitive dimension of religion: What sort of god concepts turn out to be most plausible and relevant to the lives of individuals? How accurately do the official theologies of religious groups reflect the god concepts that actually function in the human mind? Why are communally-professed god concepts so remarkably effective in forming strong and long-lasting social coalitions? What can social psychology and neuroscience contribute to our understanding of the role of cognition in the operation of selective forces present in religious systems?

In answer to the question, “Why do people believe in God?” traditional religion has often spoken of belief rooted in “our innate knowledge of God,” or of belief as “our response to Divine Revelation.” Tremlin’s book, however, offers a radically different approach that deserves to be thoughtfully engaged. Related books that deserve comparable attention: Justin L. Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God? and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.