Cognitive Psychology of Religion

I’ve been following developments in the cognitive psychology of religion over the past few years. I think they’re very interesting, and obligatory reading for anyone seriously interested in questions concerning the truth of supernatural and paranormal claims. I’ve come across a few accessible articles lately that are good introductions: Paul Bloom’s “Is God an Accident?” in The Atlantic, and Jesse Bering’s “The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural” in American Scientist. I’ve included half a chapter on this subject in my just-out Science and Nonbelief. And naturally, anyone interested in the details should check out books by Pascal Boyer, Scott Atran, and Ilkka Pyysiäinen.

As Bering puts it, “It is clear that when it comes to the big questions in life, our brains have evolved so that science eludes us but religion comes naturally.” There is a sense in which belief in supernatural agents comes much more naturally to our sorts of brains than does a naturalistic view — a possible grain of truth in claims that humans are born believers or that atheists at some level continue to believe. Just because I’ve managed to get myself thoroughly brainwashed by science doesn’t mean that my normal tendency to perceive gods and ghosts in certain situations is completely switched off. God-beliefs are almost certainly false — and cognitive-science based views of religion add further evidence to support this claim — but they are also likely here to stay.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University