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The cognitive science of religion: a modified theist response

  • DAVID LEECH (a1) and AKU VISALA (a1)

Critics of religion have recently claimed that the natural explanation of religious-belief formation offered by the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) is incompatible with theism. Defenders of theism have in turn responded to these claims by arguing for the compatibility of the CSR account with theism. In this paper we propose a modified defence of the compatibility of the CSR account with theism which supplements extant theistic arguments by drawing out the implications of certain points about the nature of CSR explanation which have so far been left relatively unexploited. In developing this defence, we argue that extant atheistic and theistic readings of the CSR can be understood as accepting certain presuppositions, especially about the relative centrality of the CSR account in explaining religious belief, which, we argue, would be detrimental to the theist case were they actually intended, and which should be clearly rejected. We suggest that the theist should argue explicitly from the nature of CSR explanation to its compatibility with theism.

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1. Most prominently Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006), and Daniel Dennett Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York NY: Viking, 2006). See also, Paul Bloom Descartes' Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (New York NY: Basic Books, 2005); idem Religion is natural’, Developmental Science, 10 (2007), 147151; and idem ‘Religious belief as an evolutionary accident’, in Michael Murray & Jeffrey Schloss (eds) The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Reflection on the Origin of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 118–127.

2. Barrett, Justin spells out basic theist responses in his ‘Is the spell really broken? Biopsychological explanations of religion and theistic beliefs’, Theology and Science, 5 (2007), 5772. Some of Barrett's responses are also developed by Michael Murray in his ‘Four arguments that the cognitive psychology of religion undermines the justification of religious belief’, in Joseph Bulbulia et al. (eds) The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques (Santa Margarita CA: Collins Foundation Press, 2007), 365–370. The most updated versions of theist arguments can be found in Michael Murray ‘Scientific explanations of religion and the justification of religious belief’, in Michael Murray & Jeffrey Schloss (eds) The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Reflection on the Origin of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 168–177. See also a currently unpublished paper by Kelly James Clark & Justin Barrett ‘Reidian religious epistemology and the cognitive science of religion’ (2010).

3. The following account of the standard model is adapted from Michael Murray & Andrew Goldberg ‘Evolutionary accounts of religion: explaining and explaining away’, in Murray & Schloss The Believing Primate, 179–199.

4. Since those authors who have asserted the incompatibility of the standard model with theism have not explicitly argued for it, we will follow the theistic reconstructions. Thus far, the accusation of incompatibility has come from atheist authors, but theist authors might also have reasons to doubt the compatibility of the standard model with theism as it is currently construed.

5. In the case of atheists, such arguments usually emerge from a certain set of background ideas. Usually, these ideas include claims such as: (a) scientific methods have priority over all other ways of obtaining knowledge, (b) the ultimate description of the world is given by physics, and (c) there can be no irreducible intentional explanations. Dennett, for instance, seems to adhere to all these claims in his way of understanding Darwinism, consciousness, and religion. See Daniel Dennett Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin Books, 1993), idem Darwin's Dangerous Idea (London: Penguin Books, 1995), and idem Breaking the Spell. For critical comments on Dennett's view on religion, see, e.g. Charles Taliaferro ‘Explaining religious experience’, in Murray & Schloss The Believing Primate, 200–214.

6. This is the response of Clark & Barrett in ‘Reidian religious epistemology’.

7. The most famous account of two types of explanations is Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God, 2nd edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004).

8. As aforementioned, in the literature arguments from unreliability are mostly implied rather than explicitly stated. Take Paul Bloom, for instance, who writes that ‘plainly, no finding from the cognitive science of religion can refute either the existence of god or a theistic account of the origins of religious belief. But, even so, psychological inquiry can still tell us something about the rationality, or lack thereof, of religious believers, in the same sense that it can tell us about the mental status of those who believe in life on other planets’; Bloom ‘Religious belief as an evolutionary accident’, 126.

9. A slightly different formulation of the argument can be found in Barrett ‘Is the spell really broken?’, 62–63.

10. This standard response can be found in ibid.

11. For a detailed formulation and discussion of this argument, see Murray ‘Four arguments’.

12. This position is developed in Murray ‘Scientific explanations of religion’, and Murray & Goldberg ‘Evolutionary accounts of religion’.

13. This response is given by Barrett ‘Is the spell really broken?’, 65–66. Barrett's defence entails that beliefs are always produced by many collaborating factors: conscious reasoning, unconscious biases, and available information all contribute to the formation of individual beliefs.

14. Our treatment of this argument mirrors Murray ‘Scientific explanations of religion’, 169–171.

15. Ibid., 171.

16. Ibid., 172–173.

17. This is a summary of Peter van Inwagen in his ‘Explaining belief in the supernatural – some thoughts on Paul Bloom's “Religious belief as an evolutionary accident”’, in Murray & Schloss The Believing Primate, 128–138. Others, e.g. Niels Henrik Gregersen, have argued in this fashion. See Gregersen ‘What theology might learn (and not learn) from evolutionary psychology: a postliberal theologian in conversation with Pascal Boyer’, in F. LeRon Shults (ed.) Evolution of Rationality: Interdisciplinary Essays in Honor of J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006).

18. Do any of the extant readings – atheistic or theistic – make these presuppositions? Although we have the impression that they often do, the discussion hitherto has been conducted at too general a level, and the starting assumptions left too unspecific, to decide with confidence. If, however, atheists want to imply, as they appear to, that the unreliability of these mechanisms leads to the irrationality of theism, they would seem to require premises like (1a) and (2a), as we argue below. Theists may also be making these presuppositions, either because they take them over uncritically from the atheist presentations, or perhaps more likely because they tacitly grant them for the sake of the argument with the atheists (for example, Murray ‘Scientific explanations of religion’). The reason for this lack of specificity can probably be traced to the self-presentational style of the CSR community itself. Certain CSR publications, especially by Pascal Boyer, may give the impression that CSR regards the cognitive mechanisms of the standard model as offering a very comprehensive account of religion approximating to completeness. See Pascal Boyer Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (London: Basic Books, 2001). Indeed, critics of CSR have accused it of making unjustified completeness claims. See e.g. James Laidlaw ‘A well disposed anthropologist's problems with “the cognitive science of religion”’, in James Laidlaw & Harvey Whitehouse (eds) Religion, Anthropology and Cognitive Science (Durham NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2007), 211–246, and Day, MichaelLet's be realistic: evolutionary complexity, epistemic probabilism and the cognitive science of religion’, Harvard Theological Review, 100 (2007), 4764. In fact, as a deeper acquaintance with the CSR literature makes plain, the CSR community does not claim to have a complete explanation of religion, but their occasional rhetorical exaggerations have been influential on the broader discussion.

19. Murray ‘Scientific explanations of religion’, 193, also anticipates this as a prima facie problem.

20. The theist can still of course appeal to a spectrum of positions on divine providence, from Molinism to stronger positions on divine sovereignty, depending on the extent to which she is prepared to swallow the bitter pill of compatibilism.

21. This kind of argument is made by those who argue from the hiddenness of a loving God to the nonexistence of a loving God. See e.g. J. L. Schellenberg Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). For a more detailed discussion, see Daniel Howard-Snyder & Paul Moser Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

22. These theological doctrines are, of course, not uncontested, but neither are they marginal, either within classical or contemporary theism. In at least some traditions of theistic reflection they have been or are mainstream. See Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003).

23. We are understanding ‘mechanisms’ here in a liberal sense which can also encompass ‘reasons’, etc.

24. We take it that explanations in general give answers to questions by specifying the causes that make a difference between two incompatible cases. In this sense, explanations are not just descriptions of all causal factors that bring about the explanandum, but rather they pick out the causes that are relevant for answering the question being asked. An account of explanation along these lines is James Woodward's contrastive (or interventionist) theory of causal explanation. See James Woodward Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). For a fuller discussion of these issues in relation to the CSR, see Aku Visala Religion Explained? A Philosophical Appraisal of the Cognitive Science of Religion (Dissertation, Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki, 2009).

25. Take Bloom ‘Religious belief as an evolutionary accident’ for instance, which states quite clearly (120) that the standard model explains only universal types of beliefs, not culture-specific beliefs. However, he does not seem to realize the significance of this fact for his claims concerning the irrationality of theism.

26. This generality is a result of the (Sperberian) cultural epidemiology commitment of CSR theory. See Dan Sperber Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

27. One could question whether it even makes sense to talk about the ‘rationality’ of ultimate mechanisms of human religiosity.

28. This article was generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation. We should also like to thank Justin Barrett, Kelly James Clark, and Roger Trigg for invaluable comments.

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Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
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