Religious beliefs are a kind of play

Songkran festival - Religious beliefs are playOne of the most important questions in the cognitive science of religion is, “Why do people believe in God or gods?” It seems to boggle the mind: how on earth can people seriously believe propositions that lack any concrete evidence? After all, we believe in chairs and dachshunds because those things obviously exist. We can see them, touch them, hear them. There’s no equivalent evidence for the resurrected Christ or an all-powerful God. But one philosopher of cognition, Neil Van Leeuwen, argues that this difference actually means that religious beliefs are different from normal beliefs. In fact, they’re a lot more like play. [Read more…]

Cognitive biases don’t explain religion, after all

The cognitive science of religion shows why Czechs are less religiousIf you’re familiar with the cognitive science of religion, then you’ve probably heard the term “hyperactive agency detection device,” or HADD. The HADD is one of today’s most popular explanations for why people believe in God or gods. It proposes that the human brain is equipped with a hair-trigger mechanism that perceives personhood – that is, intentions and purposes – everywhere in the world. This mechanism is why you see faces in campfire flames or jump when you hear a twig crack in the woods. According to the HADD hypothesis, these perceptions are the reason for human beliefs in gods and spirits – and, hence, the cognitive foundation for religiosity itself. But religiosity is a often lot more than seeing faces in clouds or campfires. It’s also rituals, texts, moral codes, community, and funny hats. So, really, how much of religion boils down to cognitive biases for detecting agency? According to new research from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the answer might be “not much.” [Read more…]

Trust issues? The answer might be rhythm

Connor Wood

Djembes

One mistaken assumption many Americans have about religion is that it’s a private affair – a certain set of beliefs that individuals either do or don’t hold in their hearts. But the reality is that throughout cultures and history, people have gathered to chant, sing, and worship in communities, from Korean Buddhist sanghas to little Protestant chapels in New England. While there are massive differences between traditions, members of nearly every religious community take part in some sort of synchrony, or shared, rhythmic action: think singing in time, or bowing simultaneously toward Mecca. And recent research from New Zealand shows that this moving or chanting in sync helps people act more generously  – especially if they’ve worked hard to stay in time with each other. [Read more…]

Ritual bypasses conscious cognition

Connor Wood

Muslim ritual

Pretend you’re an alien anthropologist come to Earth to study humans. What do you notice most about these strange, bipedal creatures? Their glittering cities? Their fondness for chocolate? Their use of daringly creative insults during traffic jams? Maybe, but let’s not forget one behavior that distinguishes humans almost more than anything else: ritual, and lots of it. No other animal participates in, invents, or performs rituals as complex and detailed as humans. But why? Our bemused alien anthropologist might benefit from new Danish research describing how ritual, using what’s called “cognitive resource depletion,” helps cultures pass knowledge and values down to new members.

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Painful rituals: good for some, not for others

Connor Wood

Painful_ritual

From the somber Catholic high mass to the painful, often frightening initiation rites of many tribal cultures, every human society practices some form of ritual. But the rituals themselves differ radically – in ways that may be predictable across cultures. Namely, new research shows that complex cultures that depend on agriculture tend to have frequent, repeated rituals that are relatively sedate and calm. Smaller cultures with less agriculture, on the other hand, feature rituals that are less frequent but far more emotionally and physically arousing. Ultimately, these trends may give us a vital clue as to how human culture changes over time.

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