International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Believing Primate

edited by Jeffrey Schloss , Michael Murray

Introductory Essay by Roger Trigg

Attempts to explain religion in the light of human evolution are prevalent in different branches of science. They raise philosophical and theological questions about whether religion is being explained away. There is a growing body of empirical research coming from a new discipline, the cognitive science of religion, showing how impulses which contribute to typically religious responses to the world are built into the basic cognitive structures of the human mind. This is aided by research in anthropology, showing the ubiquity of forms of religion in all human society. Psychology also has a lot to contribute, and there is new research into the way children naturally think. It used to be thought that ideas of infallibility, even omniscience, were sophisticated ones. Recent research shows that children up to three or so naturally attribute such characteristics to their parents, and later limit them to God. Similarly, ideas of purpose seem deeply ingrained, and we find it easy to think of minds apart from bodies, life beyond death, and non-material agency. We are all natural creationists, and dualists, in that we find it easiest to grasp those ideas because that is the way the architecture of the human mind leads us.

None of this says anything about truth, but only about the concepts we find it easy to understand, and to transmit to others. For example, the cognitive science of religion points out that ideas that are ‘minimally counter-intuitive’, are easier to remember and to teach than are those that merely come from ordinary life, or build up too many differences from ordinary experience. A frog that talks is more memorable than any old frog, but one that becomes pink, flies and grows into the size of an elephant as well is hard to remember. The relation between these cognitive structures and evolution is a complicated story. Are they incidental by-products of more important cognitive needs, or are they themselves of more central significance? Even if it is agreed that religious tendencies are deeply ingrained in our nature, what does this say about their truth? Has science explained religious belief?

In this interdisciplinary collection of papers, edited by a philosopher, Michael Murray, and a biologist, Jeffrey Schloss, the cognitive science of religion, and related subjects, are examined and put in the context of more general scientific and evolutionary accounts of religion. The tension between any scientific explanation of religion and the rational justification of religious belief is examined, as are the connections between belief in religion and human evolution. Justin Barrett’s  paper on ‘Cognitive Science, Religion and Theology is of particular interest. As one of the main figures in the cognitive science of religion, Barrett describes its main features and discusses its implications. He argues that “a Christian version of the cognitive science of religion remains possible” [98]. This is an important conclusion, as the discipline has also been used by atheists such as Richard Dawkins to bolster their position. All the other papers are also of a high standard, and look rigorously at the philosophical and theological implications of any attempt to give a scientific account of why humans appear to be naturally religious.