Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies
The 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.”
Anthropologist 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.”
Looking 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?