Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

February 23, 2012

Don't be misled by the title. This is not a book written in praise of religion as natural or criticising science as unnatural - quite the contrary. The author, Robert McCauley, is a cognitive science philosopher, and the book is part of a growing genre in which cognitive science and evolutionary psychology are used to explain religion. Two other recent noteworthy examples are Stewart Guthrie's Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1995) and Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001).

Here is the core claim that such books make about religion. As part of normal cognitive maturation, children develop what is called a theory of mind; that is, they come to see other people as agents who act from beliefs and desires in the same way that they do. Because, under primitive evolutionary conditions, there is a high cost for not quickly identifying animate agents as such (seeing a snake as a rope can be deadly) but a relatively low cost for the reverse (seeing a rope as a snake is merely startling), human cognition becomes a "hypersensitive agency detection device" that cannot help but apply theory of mind and see humanlike causal agency behind natural phenomena. Thus religion.

Religion is natural, McCauley argues, because, like other maturationally universal systems such as language and face recognition, it relies on cognitive processes that are automatic, unconscious, unreflective, subject to illusions and not dependent on culture. The causal agents/gods of religion are easy to picture and understand as beings that conform to theory of mind, and they have only one, or at most two, counter-intuitive features (such as the ability to move through walls). Other aspects of religion, such as ritual and myth, can be derived from similar processes.

Scientific cognition, on the other hand, is unnatural. The theories of science are abstract formulations that are seriously counter-intuitive (eg, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics), and are subject to rigorous testing for possible disconfirmation.

Furthermore, the ability to perform science is dependent on the acquisition of specialised knowledge (literacy, mathematics) and the increasingly elaborate technology for testing its theories; it is thus at the mercy of cultural, economic and political systems for support. It is this last factor that leads to the grand conclusion of the book; contrary to religious rhetoric, it is science and not religion whose continued existence in the modern world is fragile.

The book is so clearly and engagingly written that it is easy to take its arguments at face value, but there is much in it that calls out to be challenged. McCauley says that he is comparing the cognitive foundations of religion and science, but in fact what he juxtaposes is the alleged cognitive-perceptual bases of religion with the advanced societal products of science.

Scientific thinking may actually begin at birth. A large number of developmental studies show evidence that even very young children explore, form cognitions about how things work and take action to test those cognitions (see The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind and other works by Alison Gopnik and her collaborators). McCauley acknowledges but dismisses this research as showing cognitive mechanisms but not real science.

He likewise dismisses signs of scientific explorations in preliterate cultures as mere tool use or technology, and dismisses Chinese and Arab science because it did not develop into modern science the way post-Enlightenment European science did.

What McCauley is doing is wielding the philosopher's prerogative of apportioning life and death to data by means of definition. He performs the same Procrustean surgery on the meaning of religion. If you have noticed that the minimalist causal agents that for McCauley comprise religion do not match the God of the monotheistic Western religions (infinite, all good, all knowing, all powerful...), he answers that such concepts are theology not religion (and incomprehensible at that). He does not deal with the centrally important non-agentive aspects of Eastern religions at all - except for a one-phrase dismissal of Buddhism as an esoteric practice rather than a religion.

Likewise there is no treatment of religion as spiritual path, although those pursuing such might argue it to be more counter-intuitive than anything in science, since it involves a personal transformation of the "selfish-gene" cognitive and emotional motivations of evolution into a mind with attributes such as forgiveness, compassion and openness.

Were this book to be used in the classroom, it should be accompanied by other readings that will compensate for McCauley's biases, both with respect to science and to religion, and help facilitate appropriately vigorous debates on the issues raised.

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

By Robert N. McCauley. Oxford University Press. 352pp, £18.99. ISBN 97801998268. Published 26 January 2012

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