Cognitive Science and Theological Conflict

I am doing some interesting research on the way religious ideas, and specifically concepts of deity, developed in antiquity. One of the most fascinating things I’ve come across is the notion within cognitive science that certain perspectives on deity derive directly from universal patterns in human cognition. This is not to say that religion is indigenous to our minds, but that basic cognitive functions lend themselves consistently to particular conceptualizations of divinity. For instance, humans tend to interpret the ambiguous and the unknown in nature and society in terms of what is most important and influential to them, namely other humans. We are more likely to ascribe unknown events or entities to living agents—usually human—than to non-living phenomena.

For this reason, God and the gods are most naturally conceived of as anthropomorphic. They are also usually understood in terms of the cultural institutions and figures most ideal or central to a group: shepherds, kings, warriors, fathers, etc. As humans are social creatures, so too are deities. All deities have some manner of relationship with humanity. None operate completely independently, completely detached from humanity.

These are the intuitive and reflexive conceptualizations of the divine. Studies have shown that the brain is drawn to such ideas about deity, irrespective of theological orientation. For instance, Barrett and Keil (“Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts,” Cognitive Psychology 31 [1996]: 219–47) conducted several studies that involved testing the recall of details about short stories that the participants read about deities. Through a variety of variables and controls, the authors were able to conclude that when deprived of the luxury of theological reflection, the human brain is drawn to anthropomorphic and anthropopathic concepts of deity. Even for people well acquainted with Christian orthodoxy, the mind substitutes those ideas where it is more cognitively efficient.

But religious traditions often have the luxury of time and reflection, which facilitates the development of more complex and intricate conceptualizations of the divine. There is still a cognitive predisposition to the more intuitive concepts, however. This leads to different kinds of theological incongruities. In the course of the study, one participant commented:

When I pray? Well, I normally, I just think about like . . . a human bring, like a typical human being, long hair and the beard, and I think of on a cloud up in Heaven, and just, like, listening. I just kind of always picture God as like an old man, you know, white hair . . . kind of old, I mean, but I know that’s not true.

As another example, a scholar mentions a close Calvinist friend who is a theological determinist, but who is still involved in evangelical ministry, as if he believes people have any freedom in the matter. This kind of incongruity is accepted as a part of religious living, for the most part.

One related phenomenon I’m working with is the notion of intermediary deities. In early Near Eastern theological thought there were multiple levels of deity, with authoritative deities on the top, the active “sons of God” on the second level, and the servant and messenger deities on the bottom. As Israelite religion gave way to Judaism, and YHWH was compartmentalized from the other gods, they were all demoted to angelic status, but continued to fill the same roles as messengers and active divine agents. Second Temple Judaism (and rabbinic to some degree) inflated and expanded those angelic roles and identities, but later Christian sensitivities would find that expanded junior pantheon unpalatable. Some traditions would nevertheless replace those intermediary figures with saints. Like the angels, they served intermediary functions, taking prayers before God and giving an anthropomorphic and familiar presence to God on earth. This trend evinces the fundamental cognitive predisposition to conceive of the divine as anthropomorphic and physically present, as well as reluctance to give them up.

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2 responses to “Cognitive Science and Theological Conflict

  • RT

    Very interesting Dan. So on this reading, the highest tier deity (Yahweh or El) would in some sense be the locus of theological reflection and complex conceptualization while the intermediary deity/deities would be a reflection of that primary/intuitive human predisposition?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Good question. I don’t know if the division itself would be a function of that difference in reflection, but I think the primacy of place enjoyed by the highest deity would result in more attention and thus more reflection.

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