Tag Archives: Cognitive Science of Religion

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Cognitive Science of Religion, and CREDS

You are likely aware by now that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has agreed to perform at the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th. Both support and criticism have been expressed for this decision by Church members and by non-members. Critics have largely focused their concern on the way the decision and its framing as a continuation of a proud tradition contribute to the normalization of a thoroughly abnormal incoming presidential administration that rode a belligerent wave of bigotry, lies, and depravity to a controversial electoral win. Trump is no normal president, and to treat him as such not only mitigates our ability to challenge and undermine the threats he explicitly and proudly poses to the safety and freedoms of millions and millions of Americans, but also belies the sincerity of our moral convictions. How can we signal tolerance, if not support, for an unrepentant sexual predator and then stand before our congregations and honestly tell them—with victims of sexual abuse among them, who already feel marginalized and devalued—that sexual sin is the sin next to murder?

Supporters have focused on the way the acceptance signals our patriotism. The performance, they insist, does not honor the incoming president anyway, just the office and the country as a whole. To turn it down would be seen as engaging in partisan politics, against which our Church has an ostensibly firm policy. We have never turned down an opportunity to let our light so shine at a presidential inaugural, and we’re not about to start now. Additionally, this provides a wonderful missionary opportunity. We should not turn down a chance to inspire, influence, and move those around us (and perhaps even Trump himself). These supporters of the decision are not unilaterally supporters of Trump, either. Many loathe the man but see this acceptance as a sign of our prioritization of our responsibility to our nation.

As I’m writing a doctoral dissertation right now that incorporates the cognitive science of religion, I thought I would share some thoughts on how these two reactions can be viewed through that lens. First, some background: in short, the cognitive science of religion, or CSR, applies insights and theories from the cognitive sciences and other related and cognate fields to the study and explanation of patterns of thought and behavior that we commonly call “religious.” Since the 1990s, two broad evolutionary approaches have been common: the more common approach views the features of our conventional conceptualization of religion as the evolutionary byproducts of cognitive features evolutionarily selected for other more generic purposes. The three main features are mentalization (or our ability to perceive and draw conclusions about the presence and intentions of minds in the world around us), teleological reasoning (the propensity to find purpose and reason in the things that exist and happen around us), and mind/body dualism (the intuitive belief that our minds are neither identified with or confined to our physical bodies). These cognitive features mainly served other evolutionary functions, like survival, but also contribute to the production and cultivation of mental representations of deities and other types of supernatural agents. Religion is thus a spandrel (or unintended byproduct) of other cognitive architecture.

The other approach sees religion as an evolutionary adaptation itself, primarily on the grounds that these features were selected because they contributed to greater prosociality, or social robustness and cohesion. One of the main ways they helped social cohesion was to provide mechanisms for high-cost displays of in-group fidelity (with a deity usually as proxy for the group), allowing larger populations that extend beyond normal kin-based groups to maintain trust and mitigate the free-rider problem (the problem of free-loaders who take advantage of the group’s productivity without contributing themselves). Those not willing to invest in the appropriate displays will not be considered part of the in-group. These displays have become known as CREDs, or Credibility Enhancing Displays. In performing these displays, our commitment is perceived as more genuine, which enhances our credibility within as well as outside the group, increasing the cohesiveness of the group and the likelihood of others joining as a result of that degree of cohesion. These can range from fire-walking, to crucifixion, to self-castration, to vows of celibacy, silence, and/or poverty, to food restrictions, to dress and grooming standards, and on and on and on.

These days, these two CSR approaches are coalescing into a coevolutionary model that sees the constituent parts of “religion” as cognitive byproducts that were then adapted for through the mechanisms of cultural evolution as societies grew larger and larger. If you want a very recent and very thorough case for this model, along with over two dozen responses from other CSR scholars, see here.

So how does this relate to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Both responses betray the CREDs given priority by the individuals asserting them. For critics of the choir’s performance, sacrificing that publicity in the name of our rejection of racism, sexism, and oppression would be a powerful display of commitment to those standards, both to other members within our group and to those outside the group assessing our sincerity and our values. For supporters of the choir’s decision, the acceptance of the invitation may signal to them commitment to the country, to the office of the presidency, or to conservatism/the RNC (depending on their position vis-à-vis party politics). There is an additional dynamic in play with the latter, however: opposing the choir’s choice represents opposition to the inspiration and infallibility of Church leadership, and so the position we take itself represents a display of our own commitment. Are we willing to subjugate our own feelings about the choir’s performance to our “Follow the Prophet” standard? Those prioritizing this consideration tend to be more authoritarian in orientation, and are largely concerned either with rooting out those considered inadequately committed to the group’s authority structure or with using that authority structure as a rhetorical trump card.

One more theoretical model of CSR is relevant: dual-process cognition. According to this model, our mind operates on a spectrum, with one end largely the purview of our subconscious or intuitive cognition, which is quick, automatic, and tied to those evolutionary predispositions about mental agents, teleology, etc. As we move toward the other end, we have more conscious control of our cognition, and it slows down and incorporates reason, evidence, and other considerations. Conflict frequently occurs between these two types of cognition as thinking unfolds, with two broad approaches possible: rationalization (the use of reason and evidence to try to affirm or defend our intuitive beliefs) or decoupling (the use of reason and evidence to overrule or inhibit our intuitive beliefs). These dynamics have been demonstrated in numerous different ways, with an interesting recent example discussed here.

So these different beliefs about what the choir is signaling are all in conflict with each other as different members of the Church with different cognitive predispositions, understandings of our ethical priorities, and convictions about the relationship of the Church to the United States, try to apply their reason to either rationalizing or decoupling their intuitions and their conscious ideological frameworks. We either prioritize our values related to the oppression/abuse of marginalized classes, our values related to patriotism, or our values related to the infallibility/authority of Church leaders. The second priority is inarguably not given priority in the literature and rhetoric of the Church and its leadership, but we have become so thoroughly integrated into the conservative evangelical American worldview that it has become an undeniably central part of Latter-day Saint self identity for many. To assert that the LDS Church actively avoids all displays of partisanship in light of this is demonstrably untrue, but this is the worldview I think has become intuitive for many, and so there are many who are hard at work rationalizing this, with concerns for authority or the infallibility of leadership frequently buttressing it. The assertion that the inauguration is a celebration of democracy and the office of the presidency, and not Trump himself, is an example of another factually incorrect attempt to rationalize that intuition.

I, for one, proudly and absolutely unapologetically prioritize standing against the oppression and abuse of minorities, women, and the poor. I have relationships with victims of abuse who already feel marginalized and devalued in the Church, and seeing the choir further marginalize them in the interest of celebrating democracy, maintaining tradition, or not appearing partisan has been especially dehumanizing. Donald Trump is a self-described unrepentant sexual predator who has repeatedly asserted intentions to facilitate grotesquely racist, sexist, xenophobic, and generally hateful, violent, and destructive legislation. His elevation to the presidency has already catalyzed a spike in hatred and a scurrying to exploit and protect the mainstreaming and normalization of that hatred. I believe this is the greatest threat to our nation and to its citizens that our generation has ever faced, and I will not participate in its normalization, much less its celebration, in any sense whatsoever. If you are LDS and you’ve made it this far in this post, consider where your priorities are placed, whose wellbeing is most important to you, and how you may have been trying to rationalize things.

Paper Accepted to St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies

CFP Son of God-page-001I just received word that my paper proposal for the St Andrews Symposium for Biblical and Early Christian Studies has been accepted (abstract below). This year’s symposium is entitled “Son of God: Divine Sonship in Jewish and Christian Antiquity,” and it includes invited addresses from scholars like Jan Joosten, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, Philip Alexander, and others. it should be an exciting two days (in addition to the days I’ll be golfing). If you would like to attend, you can find registration info here.

Divine Agency Christology: Cognitive Perspectives on Christ as Divine Agent

Concepts of divinity, identity, and agency are central to all christological models, but few scholars have directly addressed these concepts within their ancient West Asian contexts. Rather, the inclination has been to retroject modern, Eurocentric, and binary frameworks onto the ancient texts. With such frameworks governing the reconstruction of ancient conceptualizations of divine agency and identity, the resulting christological models inevitably reflect modern Western Christian orthodoxies and/or ontological categories.

The proposed paper seeks to avoid this tendentiousness by applying a cognitive framework to the reconstruction of ancient conceptualizations of divinity, identity, and agency. Identifying evolved and innate cognitive architecture can help facilitate a more critical and methodological reconstruction of those concepts. Among other things, the study of human cognition reveals a marked absence of the binary conceptual categories that characterize the philosophically based christological models that have predominated from the Nicene era to today. Within cultures not heavily influenced by a sophisticated philosophical ontology, identity is predicated upon social roles and functions. As a result, that identity, and associated notions of agency, are conceptualized as quite fluid and even communicable.

Applying these frameworks to the analysis of divine agents in early Jewish literature reveals a number of functional and conceptual parallels to the christological descriptions in the Christian scriptures. The proposed paper will argue that early Jewish conceptualizations of divine agency provided a conceptual template for early christological developments, which were later assimilated to philosophical models developed in the second century CE and later.

Atheism is as natural as religion?

The University of Cambridge has an article up publicizing and commenting on new research from Tim Whitmarsh. Whitmarsh’s book is Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, and the article is entitled, “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion.” I’ve seen a few different people linking to it, so I thought I’d offer some thoughts. First, Whitmarsh’s book is, from what I understand, a must read that I have on my list and am looking forward to as soon as I can get to it. It does swim counter to the conventional wisdom that prior to modernity, everyone and their dog was a true blue theist, and rightly so. The conventional wisdom is silly wishful thinking on the part of conservatives who feel threatened by atheism and anti-theism.

Having said that, I think the headline and portions of the story rather misunderstand or misrepresent the implications of Whitmarsh’s research. First, what the article means by the word “religion” is a modern cultural reification. Atheism is far, far older than religion, since religion—at least, what we tend to mean when we use the word—was invented between the Reformation and Enlightenment periods. Theism (not a synonym for religion) would be a better word, since that refers specifically to belief in deity, but even then, atheism and theism are still modern conceptual frameworks that aren’t really entirely commensurate with those of, for instance, ancient Greece and Rome. Squishy conceptual categories like religion and atheism are not helpful for cross-cultural and historical analysis. As an example of how squishy these categories can be, according to Pew, only 92% of self-identified atheists reported not believing in God. 2% reported absolute certainty that God exists. 19% of Buddhists, 10% of Jews, 5% of Muslims and Hindus, and 1% of Christians reported not believing in God. So it would seem that “atheism,” as the article appears to use the term, overlaps quite a bit with religion. They’re not incommensurate categories.

Next, the question of the naturalness of both perspectives is not something historical criticism can really determine. The fact that many ancient authors and others objected to ideas about deity really has little bearing whatsoever on the cognitive innateness or naturalness of atheism. The article’s claim that the research raises “considerable doubts about whether humans really are ‘wired’ for religion” is, I would argue, baseless. The reference to our cognitive “wiring” for “religion” refers to the Cognitive Science of Religion, and within that field scholars largely differentiate between intuitive and reflective beliefs. Intuitive ones are those instinctual or reflexive perspectives or thoughts or reactions that occur without our conscious input. Reflective beliefs are those that we formulate through our own reason or to which we subscribe because others told us to or convinced us to. A quote from Whitmarsh suggests he uses “intuitive” to mean something different:

Rather than making judgements based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world.

Whitmarsh here uses “intuitively” to refer to what cognitive scientists would say is “reflective,” which kinda problematizes the appeal to the findings of that field. The human is mind is indeed intuitively primed to accept things that are not there in your world. The consensus within CSR that belief in deities is a product of innate cognitive predispositions reflects research into intuitive beliefs that has demonstrated that we are evolutionarily predisposed to beliefs about the world around us that facilitate that belief in deity. For example, an evolutionary adaptation we all share is heightened sensitivity to mentality and agency in the world around us. Our prehistorical ancestors who were quickest to assume the rustling in the bushes was an animal with intentionality and big teeth were evolutionarily privileged over and against those who assumed it was the wind. We all have this cognitive default in our brains to interpret unnatural and unknown events and entities as something with a mind and agency. This goes hand in hand with the similar cognitive predisposition to interpret events in the world around us as happening for a purpose, or because of intentionality, and when the two are put together, we find culturally determined reifications of beliefs about agents that have counterintuitive properties that are more easy to remember and transmit culturally, like invisibility, full access to strategic knowledge, superhuman power, etc. And there were gods. In cultures without sophisticated philosophical or scientific frameworks to undermine those beliefs, they tend to become culturally embedded. This is what it means to say that “religion” (better, “belief in deity”) is natural, or that we are “preprogrammed to believe.” On a subconscious level, we are.

Studies have shown that these intuitions are there even in spite of firmly held ideologies. For instance, in a recent study that asked participants to determine whether or not given objects had been “purposefully made by some being,” results closely aligned with self-identified beliefs about the agency of nature, but when not given time for adequate mental processing, non-theists increasingly described earth as “purposefully made.” As a control, cartoon characters were included, and many non-theists actually more frequently identified them as naturally occurring. This was accounted for as an attempt to override their instincts and underplay creation. On the other hand, in a study about conceptualizations of deity, contemporary Christians who reported orthodox beliefs about the nature of God were asked to recall details about a variety of narratives involving computers, Superman, God, etc. They were more likely to appeal to and remember descriptions of God as anthropomorphic and confined to time and space. Both studies show the salience of intuitive beliefs that are grounded in our cognitive architecture when our ability to override them with reflective beliefs is mitigated.

Now, I have yet to read Whitmarsh’s book, and so I may be way off, but I doubt that he digs into evolutionary psychology or the Cognitive Science of Religion to show that rejection of those beliefs is just as cognitively innate. That would entirely overthrow the field. I don’t get the sense from a brief search that that’s what’s going on, either. The word “cognitive” only occurs twice in the book, and in one footnote there’s a reference to Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds, but that’s over 20 years old (for a much more up-to-date discussion, see Boyer’s Fracture of an Illusion). I don’t know if the notion that his research disproves the cognitive predisposition to beliefs in supernatural agents is his own idea or something the publisher or school thought would help promote it, but I flatly disagree with it and think it rather undermines the important impact his book will hopefully have.

Has the Cognitive Science of Religion (Re)defined ‘Religion’?

I recently read a very interesting paper from the journal Religio by Czech Classicist Juraj Franek entitled “Has the Cognitive Science of Religion (Re)defined ‘Religion’?” In it, Franek suggests the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) cuts through the Gordian knot of essentialism and “social constructionism” and provides an empirically established definition of the category of religion. The argument is very well researched and generally well reasoned, and I want to comment on some of the insights it raises, but there are some significant gaps that I believe fundamentally undermine the conclusion. In following, I’ll outline the paper and explain where I believe Franek has missed some critical observations.

Franek begins with defending the need to arrive at a definition of religion, pointing out that there are significant social consequences to the delineation of the category (for lawyers and jurors, questions of tax exemption, conscientious objection, etc.), but also that the study of religion needs at least a proximate definition if it is to be able to “demarcate the object of its study” and “formulate its basic theoretical postulates.” In light of this, the question merits engagement.

Next, Franek gives a representative sample of definitions that have been offered by authoritative voices within the field of CSR. What they all have in common is the assertion that religion is essentially about belief in and interaction with supernatural agents. He states,

barring some minor differences, every single assessment of the nature of religion cited above explicitly identifies superhuman, supernatural or counter-intuitive agents as a differentia specifica of religion: A belief or an action can be considered religious if and only if it entails the involvement of counter-intuitive agents. Since the acceptance of this principle is virtually unanimous in the CST, I find it justified to speak about a ‘cognitive definition of religion’ with the concept of counter-intuitive agents operating as its definiens.

The phrase “counter-intuitive agent” references a concept central to CSR that is founded on the observation that humans have evolved a cognitive predisposition to sensitivity to agency in their environment. This predisposition is a by-product of an evolutionary adaptation that favors the hyperactive detection of agents. Natural selection favored those who intuitively assumed there was an agent with a mind behind given events or circumstances. It’s better for survival to think the dark shape in the shadows is a bear and be wrong rather than think it’s a big rock and be wrong. The by-product of this adaptation (the distinction between an adaptation and a by-product of an adaptation is critical to CSR) is that we tend to think things are happening for a reason, and specifically one that is determined by some kind of agent. While this opens the door to positing all kinds of different agents behind the way things happen, those agents that are minimally “counter-intuitive,” or that violate a minimal number of our intuitive understandings about the way things work, tend to be most memorable, and therefore most salient. (Note that “counter-intuitive” does not necessarily mean “false,” since human intuition is not infallible.) This is what CSR scholars understand to be the cognitive framework responsible for our conceptualization of deities.

To contextualize these definitions of religion, Franek moves on to the traditional definitions that have been offered outside CSR, first highlighting the essentialist definitions of Edward Burnett Tylor and Émile Durkheim, which he suggests represent the poles of a definitional continuum. Tylor insists “belief in Spiritual Beings” are the essence of religion, while Durkheim rejects that idea and defines religion as “a system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things . . . which unite all those who adhere to them in a single moral community, called a church.” In the mid-twentieth century came a new essentialist-eschewing approach to understanding religion that Franek describes as “social constructionism.” He divides these into “power-innocent” and “power-based” conceptualizations, with Wittgenstein and his “family resemblance” description representing the former, and the latter, Foucault and Bourdieu with their perspectives on structuring power. Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald are included in the power-based discussion, but their observations about the invention of the category of “religion” during the Enlightenment are overlooked.

Moving on to analysis, Franek lists the concerns a CSR definition must resolve: (1) how is it different from Tylor’s essentialist definition? (2) what about religions without concepts of deities (primarily Buddhism)? (3) how does it overcome the concerns raised by those who insist “religion” is a social construct? and (4) is it power-based? These four concerns are resolved for Franek in quite short order:

  1. In a lengthy discussion of “cross-cultural universals,” Franek appeals to Kant and Chomsky and cognitive modularity to insist that the CSR definition is not theoretically essentialist so much as empirically universal.
  2. Franek appeals to Ilka Pyysiäinen’s work to insist even Buddhism fits the CSR definition, since it generalizes from “deities” to “counter-intuitive agents,” like Buddha, the buddhas, and any other “counter-intuitive agents” that populate, we are to assume, every last tradition categorized by scholars as “religion.”
  3. Franek rejects the “social construct” category, since CSR identifies this predisposition to counter-intuitive agents in our very “cognitive architecture.” It’s innate, not culturally constructed.
  4. CSR can sidestep accusations of being “power-based,” according to Franek, since it is the product of empirical research that can and should be free from power manipulation.

My concerns with Franek’s argument begin with the fallacy of essentialism and of defining conceptual categories, which I’ve briefly described in the last paragraph of this post. These concerns come from the field of cognitive linguistics, which I was surprised to find entirely absent from Franek’s paper. The appeal to Chomsky and cognitive modularity signal either a lack of awareness of the field or a rejection of it. This is particularly peculiar in light of the fact that Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory, which Franek engages in some detail, set the stage in many ways for cognitive linguistics and its insights into categorization.

Next, if counter-intuitive agents are to be considered the empirically determined essence of the category “religion,” then we need some accounting of how the category so accurately developed in the process by which European colonialist ideologies divided up the world and its traditions. With no real concept of “counter-intuitive agents,” how did writers and rulers so perspicuously keep the category so clearly and so accurately delineated? Why did no one raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Buddhism through so many centuries when it was for so long devoid of supernatural beings? Franek directly cites Smith, McCutcheon, and Fitzgerald, but overlooks the implications of their description of the origins of “religion” as a category. Yes, counter-intuitive agents pre-existed that development, but they also extend well beyond the category that developed, and this raises another concern. If counter-intuitive agents are a necessary feature of religion, they’re certainly not sufficient. Counter-intuitive agents, as an innate part of our cognitive architecture, are found everywhere. Does Smith’s invisible hand render capitalism a religion? What about millennials who refer to the agency of “the universe”? What about the personification of the nation or justice? Even the anthropmorphizing of “science” or “evolution” that is found in thinking about and describing their will and what they do could be said to produce a counter-intuitive agent.

As Smith, et al., also highlight, one of the results of the Western Enlightenment era construction of religion is a view of religion as fundamentally about belief, which means religion is really being analyzed through a Protestant Christian lens. Franek’s definition fails to escape the gravitational pull of that cultural construct, and even though he mentions practices, the definition is still essentially focused on the belief in counter-intuitive agents. This is problematic on its own, but also in light of modern research that shows even within traditions widely accepted as religious, some faithful adherents marginalize the importance of belief in deities or outright reject their existence. I personally know multiple individuals who identify as firmly Jewish and Christian, but also identify as staunchly atheist. If staunch atheists can be religious, belief—and particularly belief in counter-intuitive agents—cannot essentialize the category. The chart below shows the results of a Pew Research study regarding belief in “God or a universal spirit.” Note how many adherents to different religions, Christian and non-Christian, do not believe in deity.

In light of these concerns, I don’t believe we can insist the Cognitive Science of Religion has successfully defined religion. I don’t think that conclusion at all undermines CSR’s contribution to understanding the cognitive foundations of religion and religious belief and practice, but I don’t think its findings overcome the theoretical and methodological problems with attempting a definition of a modern cultural construct like religion.