This debate appears to be the latest iteration of the historic conflict over the sui generis categorization of religion and religious studies. Teehan's evaluation of CSR reflects the mixed reactions of authors included in The Roots of Religion and seems to offer some hope of mediation between them. The strength of this book is in offering something of a preview of how research coming out of CSR might be received by scholars working in various areas of religious studies.
Barrett and Trigg offer an exploration then not of the cognitive science of religion, but the reception of it. The author of many books on the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science, his most recent have been Equality, Freedom and Religion and Religious Diversity: Philosophical and Political Dimensions Justin L. He is author of scores of academic articles and book chapters concerning cognitive science of religion and three books: Why Would Anyone Believe in God?
Please read our policy on commenting. All Rights Reserved. ISSN X. Skip to main content. Search Term. They are part of what it means to be human. That sounds fascinating; can you tell us more about that? CR: Much of the psychology of religion has taken the approach of asking people about specific traditional religious beliefs and practices. This approach is very useful for understanding religious self-identifications and related correlates, but the foundational aspects of religion such as the dualist belief that humans have both material bodies and nonmaterial and transcendent essences are often not fully captured in religious questionnaires.
Also, there is a difference between a firm religious belief and a curiosity or openness to spiritual and related ideas. Add to this the possibility that many of our more intuitive inclinations are not being picked up in questionnaires that give us a chance to respond with a more thoughtfully manicured presentation of how we like to think of ourselves.
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Why does all this matter? It matters because our work and the research of others suggests that we often rely on more intuitive processes when navigating existential questions related to meaning in life. An example everyone can understand is love. Most people would agree that close relationships give us meaning and the research certainly indicates this is the case.
And most would probably also agree that love is an intuitive feeling, not a rational calculation. So we intuitively feel love and that makes us feel meaningful. The leap of faith or hope people take regarding supernatural ideas similarly appears to involve intuition. Religion certainly has more analytical components just like relationships do. The most seriously committed people of faith live very thoughtful and self-disciplined lives that require a considerable amount of rational thinking.
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Also, the religious and secular life goals that contribute to meaning similarly involve careful planning and action. However, I would argue that intuition is important for the supernatural nature of religion and the meaning we derive from it, again, just like intuition is important for the meaning we gain from love.
In other words, a life of meaning requires a certain level of intuition. Religion or any meaning-providing belief system is probably at its best when it properly balances intuition and more analytical, goal-focused thinking. There exist many varieties of religious beliefs, as well as atheists, agnostics, and other skeptics. CR: I think we need a lot more research on atheists and am glad that we are starting to see more. Even if you look at the pretty basic questions asked by organizations like Pew you can see that there is diversity in the spiritual inclinations of atheists.
There are neurological and cognitive -based reasons to argue that a very small percent of people are true atheists.
But there are also reasons to believe that many atheists are really more superficial or social atheists — people who view themselves as nonbelievers but who actually engage in supernatural thinking. Some atheists are angry at religion or even God and so view atheism as a protest against belief. Some, particularly young people, may see religious belief as not cool, something for old people. And many have benefited from a socially and economically privileged life that has not stress -tested their atheism.
Consider, for example, a recent study in New Zealand that observed an increase in religious belief among nonbelievers who were personally impacted by a major earthquake or research showing that atheism is associated with poorer psychological wellbeing among people in economically disadvantaged areas but not in more affluent ones. Think about the following example. It is easier for a rich person who lives in a very safe neighborhood to become philosophical about the value of the police.
But you can bet with near certainty that this individual would be quick to call the police in an emergency.
In other words, the safer, more comfortable, and prosperous a society is, the less outwardly religious it may appear to be. Many atheists may be one serious existential threat away from finding religion or looking for a substitute for it.
From this perspective, true atheists are the few who may simply lack the underlying cognitive characteristics that allow for supernatural and related spiritual thinking. They may also be the rare individuals who are low in the need for meaning. Can you expand further on that idea for us here? CR: In the book, I discuss a number of trends related to supernatural and paranormal beliefs that are in the opposite direction of declining religiosity. As these countries become less invested in traditional Christian beliefs, they become more interested in nontraditional spiritual practices, ghosts, UFOs, healing crystals, psychic powers, and so on.
For example, my colleagues and I recently replicated research documenting an inverse correlation between religiosity and belief that intelligent alien life exists and is monitoring humans as well as conspiracy theories about government cover-ups regarding UFOs. After replicating this effect, we sought to further explore why it is that the less religious people are the ones more into aliens and UFOs.
We predicted that part of it is about the need for meaning in life. Religiosity is generally positively associated with meaning.
If nonreligious people see life as less meaningful but remain motivated to find meaning, they may be more inclined than those who already have a meaning-providing religious worldview to be attracted to ideas that would suggest humans are not alone in the universe. We found support for this idea using statistical modelling that linked low religiosity to low meaning to a greater desire to find meaning to beliefs about aliens and UFOs. To believe in them requires a leap of faith. And many UFO-related beliefs have a very religious flavor.
They involve feeling like powerful beings are watching over us and may one day welcome us into a cosmic community. Of course, many nonreligious people do hold these beliefs, but there are many unorthodox supernatural or paranormal ideas and beliefs that nonreligious people are attracted to in their search for meaning and cosmic significance.
And there are secular ideologies such as transhumanism that have what I call supernatural-lite qualities. KV: In Supernatural, you suggest that faith in religious supernatural beliefs may offer some benefits for physical health, mental health, and societal living. Can you tell us about what some of those benefits are, and whether you find that there are any downsides to supernatural beliefs? CR: Religious supernatural beliefs promote meaning, and meaning is a predictor of wellbeing and mental health. These beliefs have also been shown to help people cope with stress and the life events that challenge meaning.
This might be because meaning motivates people. That is, people who feel they have a purpose are more driven to take care of themselves, to work hard, to live a healthy life, and to persevere when life gets difficult. They are more inclined to turn to drugs and alcohol or other hedonistic behaviors that feel good but do not help them in the long run. The downsides involve more extreme or fundamentalist supernatural beliefs that have antisocial elements or that lead people to ignore evidence in the service of ideology.
It is worth noting that this is not specific to supernatural beliefs. Secular ideologies can also take an extreme form and lead to many social problems. Consider, for instance, the mass violence and economic ruin that has resulted from communism. KV: Recent years have seen some divisive culture clashes involving mainstream believers, secularists, scientists, religious fundamentalists, the New Atheists, New Age movements, and the like.
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What is your current outlook on these ongoing culture clashes? I think my book does help inform these debates by showing the ways that believers and nonbelievers are more similar than they realize. In fact, the last chapter of the book is dedicated to our common humanity.
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