Supernatural Agents

Ilkka Pyysiäinen’s new book, Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas is a very nice addition to the recent literature on cognitive science-based explanations of religious and supernatural beliefs.

Pyysiäinen provides a useful update on what is happening in this fast-changing field, though this is an academic book and some previous acquaintance with the field is probably necessary to get the most out of the book. Still, Pyysiäinen is especially notable in how he has (in previous work as well) emphasized how official, rationalized, and theological religion has drawn on the same cognitive processes underlying folk supernatural beliefs and popular religion. His detailed look at Christian theology and Buddhism as well as common notions of souls and ghosts in Supernatural Agents is illuminating. I highly recommend reading this book and similar literature, which often brings a fresh perspective to debates over gods and ghosts that risk getting caught in the familiar philosophical ruts.

Though it is not his focus, Pyysiäinen even has a few things to say about religious nonbelief today. In his last paragraph, he remarks that

Although the “new atheists” tend to use the word “religion” as if there were a general consensus on what belongs to religion and what does not, this really is not the case. . . In my view, using reflective thinking and the best scientific evidence to continuously reevaluate all kinds of cherished beliefs is far more important than vigorously attacking an imagined totality (a quasi agent of sorts) called “religion.” If “religion” as we know it withers away some day, this will be a by-product of other changes—just as religion once emerged as a by-product.

Read the book to see why Pyysiäinen thinks so.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University