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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Jimmy Licon


    Do you think that perhaps science eludes us and religion comes naturally to us because we were created to be religious– i.e. religion and God are more important to our soul’s health than is science?

    Perhaps this is confirmation of Calvin and his sensus divinitatis! I for one agree with Alvin Plantinga!

  • Mark Plus

    Then of course you have to explain the existence of people with autistic neurologies who can handle scientific, mathematical and technological thinking far better than they deal with the emotional and social aspects of life. In The End of Science, John Horgan quotes one physicist’s opinion that it takes a “freak” to really understand general relativity and quantum mechanics — yet we have always had people with that kind of naturally intuitively scientific insight around around, even in antiquity when the culture didn’t know what to make of such people, much less have institutions to cultivate their abilities. (Archimedes, for example, must have caused considerable anxiety in the people he met, because he looked like a regular Mediterranean guy, but many of his efforts at communication just wouldn’t have fit into the minds of ordinary people.)

  • Jimmy Licon

    Why must the theist explain this fact? You’ll have to do more than assert.