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.