Religion as Natural

By Robert N. McCauley, and I have clipped bits from his longer piece, which come from his book on this subject:

Suggesting that natural science is unnatural and that religion, which traffics in the supernatural,is natural seems to turn things upside down. Sorting out these paradoxes, though, will offer insight about both enterprises.

The “naturalness” of cognition is the sense of the term in play here. Natural cognition is intuitive, fast, automatic, unconscious, and often difficult to articulate. It arises in a flash on the basis of scant evidence and without conscious reflection. Natural cognition is also domain-specific. We immediately detect which things around us have minds; we instantly read others’ emotions on the basis of their facial expression, tone of voice, or bodily comportment; we spontaneously comprehend and produce syntactically complex utterances without planning or forethought, and we become careful straightaway about what we breathe and what we touch when we think that an uncontained contaminant is in the vicinity….

In contrast, cognitively unnatural thinking is slow, reflective, conscious, and, typically, articulate. Such reflective thinking is deliberate, conjectural, and easier to formulate linguistically. When thought closely resembles talking to ourselves, it exemplifies this measured, reflective, unnatural cognitive processing. Unnatural reflection is laborious and, frequently, the result of considerable instruction. Most of the knowledge that we acquire in school, for example, is the result of this slow form of conscious reflection…

Science is cognitively unnatural to the extent that it both depends upon such conscious reflective thought and does not depend upon the dictates of our maturationally natural cognitive systems….

All of this stands in striking contrast to the cognitive naturalness of religion. Popular religion engages humans’ maturationally natural cognitive dispositions, while in any given setting mixing in but one or two violations of the many default assumptions that come with those dispositions’ activation….

Once children have the ability to detect agents and anticipate their mental states (theory of mind), language, an appreciation of environmental contaminants, and other natural cognition in place, they are fully prepared to understand popular religious representations and carry out creative inferences concerning them.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • DMH

    Interesting, and true I think. But where does this leave us, in terms of the God/no God questions? It seems to me that both sides could use this to their advantage.

  • Patrick

    They do. I’ve read evolution “planted religious impulses” in us so we would survive until we wised up and realized it’s all nonsense , then the impulse would go away. That “evolution genie” sure has omniscience.

    They had to come up with this explanation after several academic studies confirmed humans do have a natural inclination to believe in divinity based on children of atheists assuming “God did that” when asked at young ages.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    It seems to me that “religion” could very well be “natural” in that it may understandably arise as a cognitive coping mechanism created to help us carry on living in the face of the nearly subconscious idea that we are shameful, inadequate, and ultimately small and powerless in the world. I would say that by this definition consumerism, capitalism, and the quest for power, prestige, and knowledge are “natural” responses to the same knowledge. To take on a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Athiest, or any other religious identity may very well be quite natural for one who’s cognitive development allows them to compare themselves negatively to others and fear for their security in a world they cannot control.

    I would, however, disagree that the desire to take ip one’s cross and follow Christ is “natural” in the same cognitive sense described above (if I inderstand the post correctly). In fact, I would be inclined argue that it is only BEFORE a child develops a Theory of Mind that they may be naturally inclined to truly follow Him. A child who does not yet understand his own smallness and powerlessness (and who has not yet been made to feel shame by the sins of another) may well naturally live in pure love and joy without sensing a need for “religion” and are thus free to naturally follow Christ.

    The process of being “Born Again” then would be a re-entering of this childhood state by faith–returning to a time before we were ruled by shame and obsessed with exerting the world via knowledge and power. The life born “naturally” out of this freedom is that of Christ.

    All that said, I do recognize that many will have a different conception of “religion”. Take what I say with a grain of salt and my apologies if I am unclear. : )

  • Mike M

    Am I reading this right: the “natural” thing to do is NOT to think? Because thinking takes effort and deliberation, “not thinking” is natural? So much for education and really, theology. And where does that put the spiritual disciplines whereby deliberation, study, meditation, and physical effort puts us in a space where God draws closer to us?
    There may be some confusion here. Think about the Olympics last summer when certain athletes displayed such graceful, powerful, and coordinated beauty that we thought it all came “naturally” to them. Yes, because they practiced perfection for thousands of hours before then. One of the key phrases above is, “once children have the ability to…” which says education and training first.

  • DMH

    Mike #4 If I am understanding this right… :) It’s not between thinking and not thinking, but thinking and thinking differently- something along the lines of critical thinking and intuition (more to it than that). I like your Olympics illustration- perhaps “intuition” has been being honed for hundreds of thousands of years, “critical” thinking not quite so long? I would think a child’s “ability” is connected with development more so than education.

  • http://www.compathos.tv John

    @ Nate W: nice

    Interesting thesis, but McCauley stops short of positively integrating the fast-intuitive with the conjectural-reflective. He seems to assert that the intuitive-spontaneous is qualitatively superior to the logical-reflective. I offer that we’re designed for a balanced synergy of all cognitive states, and suggest than meditation/prayer, along with ideals-based embodied service, are key practical exercises towards a healthy integration.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I’m not through his whole book, but Robert Bellah in “The Role of Religion in Human Evolution” seems to trace the origin of the “religious impulse”, if you will, to the play-behaviour common in “higher animals”. From playing to acting to ritual, maybe. And, (and these are my own thoughts), coupling that with story, which can be described as “games of the mind”, but ritualized in the common/mutual/tribal context, and the desire to formalize or systematically classify our relationship with the world around us, would explain the “religious impulse”. This does not invalidate Faith by any means – in fact, it defines Faith as part of our humanity. It does not prescribe a specific faith though. That is a different issue altogether.

    Science is the systematic investigation of not only the world around us, but our understanding of the world around us, but with the express principle of following the data, or the logic, wherever it might lead. Thus, it is an investigation of the context of the Human story, the human ritual.


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