International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science: Challenges for the Anthropology of Religion

edited by Harvey Whitehouse , James Laidlaw

Introductory Essay by Ronald Cole-Turner

Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, unlike most books on science and religion, is about how science studies religion. Its central question is how far science – cognitive science in particular – explains the nearly universal human phenomenon of religion.

Religion is defined as the “beliefs and behavior concerning culturally postulated supernatural beings and entities” [8]. The book argues that religion is a natural outcome of the way the human brain evolved. “Religion is…a range of effects of the way our brains are constructed. The defining and foundational premise of the cognitive-science approach is that the mechanisms by means of which humans learn, think, perceive, remember, and so on, affect the content of their thoughts and behavior” [7]. 

At the same time, the book is a debate over just how far cognitive science will go in explaining religion fully. On that question, the co-editors and seven other contributors are in disagreement. Co-editor James Laidlaw takes the most cautious stance. He agrees that cognitive science explains aspects of religion (such as the widespread belief in gods), but he warns that reducing religion to what cognitive science can explain tends to exclude “everything that humans think and do in the reflective exercise of…reason, imagination, and will” [214]. 

Other contributors, including co-editor Harvey Whitehouse, argue for a significantly wider role for cognitive science in the future of the anthropology of religion. Classic ethnographic studies of religion (the detailed descriptions of religion in traditional cultures around the world) point out striking similarities and equally striking dissimilarities among religions. The similarities, these writers suggest, arise because of globally shared cognitive structures rooted in evolution and predating the divergence of cultures. 

The “Theory of Mind” is an example. Not only humans but many other animals interpret objects around them in terms of “intentionality, teleology, and essentialism” [48]. It is quite “natural” to believe in gods and supernatural agents, with or without bodies, and such beliefs are widespread among human cultures and found in very young children. As Justin Barrett puts it, “people believe in gods because gods gain tremendous support from the natural and ordinary operation of mental tools” [186]. At the same time, the content of these beliefs may be highly abstract and may differ radically, culture to culture. Stewart Elliott Guthrie, however, claims that “the new cognitivism shows how diverse and how abstract our conceptions of persons, and hence of gods, can be” [50]. 

Can cognitive science also explain why some beliefs and behaviors are transmitted from one individual or group to another? Whitehouse argues that it can. The spread of religion “requires tools – not just physical artifacts, like books and buildings, but also mental tools” [261]. Cognitive science is the study of these tools, and so it helps explain how successful religions “exploit certain fundamental universal human intuitive biases and predilections…” [273].

Other contributors include Maurice Bloch, Jesper Sorensen, Jonathan A. Lanman, Emma Cohen, and Rita Astuti, writing on topics ranging from the role of magic, ancestors, and witchcraft in religion. The result is a helpful introduction to an important debate.