Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies

August 7, 2009

teehanThe academic study of religion has come a long way from the days when knowledge of scripture, history and a few ancient languages were the main qualifications a scholar needed. Psychology, sociology and other social sciences have been applied to the field for over a century. Over the past 20 years, cognitive science has been edging into the field, especially with the explosion of neuroscience research. Some of the hottest research into religion is now being done with brain scanners searching for data on what happens inside believers’ heads when they pray or feel a special connection to God.

(Photo: John Teehan at the Neuroscience Boot Camp, 6 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Among the participants at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending this week and next is John Teehan, an associate professor in the religion department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. He’s seen how cognitive science has brought new tools and insights to the study of religion and may eventually challenge the ways religions justify their beliefs. He is writing a book about how many moral teachings in the Bible fit with the moral psychology that cognitive science says evolved naturally. I asked Teehan for an overview of what’s happening in the religion studies field in the United States.

“At the end of the 19th century, there was a real interest in looking at religion from a psychological perspective,” he said. “Sigmund Freud and William James were the major figures. The Freudian paradigm was not a scientific one, even though Freud thought it was, and our understanding of the mind and the brain was primitive then compared to what we have now. What’s happening now is that the science of the mind has advanced to the point that we’re actually developing a scientific understanding of the mind. With the cognitive revolution involving cognitive science, neurological science and evolution studies, a more empirical approach to understanding the mind and morality is developing. Over the last 20 years, some of these scholars have started to look more particularly at religion. This field of the cognitive science of religion started in the early ’90s looking at religious behavior and rituals and how emotions mediate or reinforce religious experience.”

faces-in-cloudsAnthropologist Stewart Guthrie‘s book Faces in the Clouds (1993) played an important part in turning religious studies towards cognitive science, Teehan said. Guthrie’s thesis was that people naturally tend to believe events are caused by a conscious agent and this belief was an important evolutionary tool. “If you live in a very uncertain and dangerous environment, as humans did for most of their history, it’s very important to be able to make sense of what you’re hearing and seeing. Guthrie points out the best rule of thumb is, when in doubt, overinterpret. If you hear a rustling in the bush, it could be the wind but it’s much more useful to interpret that as a snake or a possible predator. If you’re wrong and it’s just the wind, you’ve lost nothing. But if you think it’s the wind and it turns out to be a snake, you’re in danger. Guthrie argues this is an ingrained mental predisposition. There has since been lots of empirical work to show how easy it is to get people to think in terms of agents… Religions are built out of that and those we have today continue to tap into that.”

Teehan stressed the empirical work being done to test this thesis is not restricted to testing religious people. Researchers have found people in various situations respond the same way. Other new research into religion involves studying how people process information, how they make moral decisions and why they punish people who act against the community’s generally accepted morality.

“A lot of work in morality shows cooperation can develop among groups of strangers, but all the studies seem to show those effects only in very small communities. But humans have incredibly complex and large systems of cooperation. How do we get from one to the other? It seems that religion plays a complicated role here. A major role is the belief in a moral God who serves as the overseer of the community. One of the problems with complex societies is that it’s easy to benefit from society without contributing, the “free rider” problem. That problem is solved or improved if there is a common belief that all cheating is being observed. Behavioral economics has developed various games to test peoples’ willingness to cooperate and be generous in anonymous situations. When those situation are observed by somebody, people tend to be more generous… So part of the proposition is that part of the development of religion was an adaptation to help community cohesion and help communities develop into larger units.”

Religion also seems to play a role in drawing lines between an in-group and an out-group. “There is evidence that we are much more morally sensitive to people we identify with in our in-group than in an out-group,” Teehan said. “One study shows neurological evidence of how people respond to faces of in-group versus out-group members. One thing to be done is to see how religious identification or symbols or rhetoric may impact on those studies.”

brain-capLooking to the future, Teehan said cognitive science could provide guidelines or constraints for testing some of the more speculative propositions that scholars of religion put forward. “We have the theories, but can we see see what’s going on in the brain and does that seem to support what the theories predict? That would be significant if we have the cognitive psychology, evolutionary theory and neuroscience saying that the theories are coherent. With the explosive development in this field, we’re on the cusp of lots of new information. That’s very exciting.”

(Photo: Student volunteer wearing cap recording electroencephalograpic data, 5 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

This scientific approach has established itself sufficiently in the religious studies field for the American Academy of Religion, the main scholarly association in the discipline, to add panels on cognitive science and religion at its annual meetings in the past two or three years, Teehan said. At some conferences, religious people present say the new approach gives another insight into God’s creation while the atheists in attendance see it as one last nail in the coffin of faith.

“My sense is that both of those are extreme and unjustified positions,” Teehan said. “This work does not entail atheism but I believe it does have implications for the justification of religious beliefs and claims. If we want to look at religion academically, scientifically, rationally, this is going to change some of the claims that can be made. We’re starting to generate good empirical evidence on how it is people come to have religious belief, the kind of belief they have and how those beliefs function in their moral lives and their decision making.”

Here’s a short video where Teehan talks about his upcoming book drawing links between Biblical teachings and moral psychology:

What do you think? Does a scientific study of religion like this undermine faith by showing “it’s all in the brain”? Or could it bring more insight into God’s creation? Or neither?

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The cognitive sciences will eventually drive the final nail into the coffin of irrational belief by showing conclusively that man created god(s) and not the other way around.Previous discoveries in History, Biology, Astronomy, and even serious Biblical Studies have painted the very concept of god(s) into an ever-shrinking corner. The stage is now set for the final blow.

Posted by John Shuey | Report as abusive

[…] Religious Studies Turning Toward Cognitive Science John Teehan, an associate professor in the religion department at Hofstra University, has seen how cognitive science has brought new tools and insights to the study of religion and may eventually challenge the ways religions justify their beliefs. He is writing a book about how many moral teachings in the Bible fit with the moral psychology that cognitive science says evolved naturally. I asked Teehan for an overview of what’s happening in the religion studies field in the United States. (Tom Heneghan, FaithWorld Blog, Reuters) […]

Posted by August 7, 2009 – Science and Religion Today | Report as abusive

I saw the blog post title referring to ‘religion studies’.I did not need to read any [url= rdcore-history-interviews-victor-davis-h anson/]further[/url].

Posted by Q.S. | Report as abusive

Great to see a post on this topic. The movement has been building for several years, and is likely to expand dramatically in the years to come. Ann Taves, who in recent years has developed deep interests in the cognitive science of religion (CSR), is now President-Elect of the American Academy of Religion—where she has also led the charge in starting a cognitive science discussion group at the annual meeting. (She was also my graduate advisor.)I’ve written previously about theological interpretations of CSR here: ves/Back%20Issues/2008%20May-June/full-b ioreligion.htmlAnd I helped curate a discussion on it here: a-cognitive-revolution/Feel free to contact me if you’d like to discuss further.

Posted by Nathan Schneider | Report as abusive

[…] FaithWorld » Blog Archive » Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies | B…. […]

Posted by Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies | The Row Boat by Nathan Schneider | Report as abusive

I am sure that somewhere on this planet of ours, cognitive scientists are exploring what goes on in the brain when we think of mathematical truths. These truths are objective in the strongest sense of the word (2+3 is equal to 5 whether you are Mother Theresa or Osama Bin Laden). They are based at least in part on our personal experiences. Yet there is something intangible about them (What color is 5? Where is the perfect right triangle? etc.) Relating them to neurological activity in no way detracts from their objectivity. It doesn’t reduce the object of knowledge to events in the brain (when I think 2 + 3 = 5 I am not thinking about something going on in my head–if I did, the object of mathematical thought would be a private and subjective rather than a public and objective). Something similar may be the case for other disciplines, such as science and religion. We must grant that they all involve neural activity, but that doesn’t take away from any objectivity that they may have.

Posted by Leo White | Report as abusive

Have they used the same brain scanners on atheists? Perhaps they would find that there was something missing.D J Wray

Posted by D J Wray | Report as abusive

What must be considered the profound experiment in ‘religious’ cognition is taking place not in association with any religious tradition or academic institution but as an open experiment from a number of sites on the web. And the answers provided here may come to resolve the most divisive questions of faith and the human condition that the moden world continues to stuggle to understand.”For those individuals who can imagine outside the historical cultural box, who are willing to learn something new and stand against the stream of fashionable thought and spin, an intellectual and moral revolution is already in progress, where the ‘impossible’ becomes inevitable, with the most potent Non Violent Direct Action any human being can take to advance peace, justice, change and progress. “To take part go to

Posted by Robert Landbeck | Report as abusive

Compared to the stereotype person of faith, I guess I am a strange bird, and some might challenge whether I should in fact call myself a person of faith. First, I do not believe in miracles or a spiritual world in the traditional sense. I believe God has a perfected and immortal body of flesh and bone. I believe that God resides and presides in a parallel universe. I believe that miracles, and matters of the spirit, are of a physical nature, and subject to universal laws of physics, which we do not yet comprehend and/or are not yet capable of identifying by current scientific knowledge.However, over our 6000 years of recorded history, I would propose that the keystone of man’s advancement of knowledge is to make inspirational leaps from the known to the yet unknown, but imaginary, or visionary, concept. The architectural designs of Leonardo da Vinci are a primary example of my meaning.With this being said, I declare that I believe God hears our prayers, knows our thoughts, and recognizes our needs. Therefore, I have voluntarily made myself a student of cognitive neuroscience, not to prove or disprove the relevance of religion versus science, but to learn the working of the organ of our body which contains the communication link with the parallel universe of God, as well as with those elements in our world typically dumped into the category of parapsychology. Moreover, recognizing the two primary components on either side of the equation, I am seeking to envision the physical formula that allows x+y=z. We have our drafting tools, and if we agree on what the concept of a helicopter is, can we then draft the theoretical mechanisms that illustrate the process of its operation? Would anyone like to join me in the effort?

Posted by Marshall Wren | Report as abusive

Do we really need to do further research to prove that when we have an experience something happens in our brain? Faith isn’t all about chills and thrills, or ooohs and ahhhs, or answering the question “why do I need to be good?” There is an interactive element of the faith relationship in which knowledge and insight are received directly from God. Here is where the research would be most useful, but still impossible to generate.

If it were going to be generated, it might be useful to consider the complexity of the “truth” generated in relationship to the time and though process involved in formulating that truth. In other words, in a flash of spiritual insight, what goes on within the persons brain, and how does this relate to other types of thought. But even here it will be suggested that this phenomenon arose from the believer’s own mind as some sort of evolutionary throwback.

Our brain is always involved, even in matters of faith. The only way to prove whether an actual spiritual agent is involved would be to put a brain monitor on that spiritual agent who is sending the signals. That might prove kind of tough, don’t you think.

Please just tell me they aren’t going to spend any federal money on this atheist pet project.

Posted by Varon | Report as abusive