Presenting the CSR at the upcoming conference of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion (ESPR)

From tomorrow (Thursday) until Sunday, the 20th biennial conference of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion (ESPR) will take place in Münster, Germany. The theme is “Transforming Religion”. I will be one of the main speakers. I am invited to be one of the main speakers at the conference and to discuss evolutionary insights and their implications for the philosophy of religion.

Thus I have written a 20-page paper on some the implications of the cognitive science of religion for theology and philosophy of religion with the title “Religious Belief Beyond Kant and Darwin: Philosophical Reflections on the Evolutionary and Cognitive Roots of Religious Belief”.

The participants have received the paper before the conference (which is customary at ESPR-conferences). The participants are expected to have read it beforehand. At the conference itself I will give a short introduction, which summarizes the main points of my paper. Thereafter a discussion will follow. Below you find the text of my presentation at the conference. (The paper itself is at present unavailable, I hope to hear at the conference whether the main papers will be published somewhere – but if you’re interested, send me an e-mail.)

Introduction to “Religious Belief Beyond Kant and Darwin”

Presentation for the ESPR, Münster, 28th-31st August 2014

In my paper “Religious Belief Beyond Kant and Darwin” I have tried to deal with some issues that I’ve been engaged with in the last couple of years. Ever since Richard Dawkins published his The God Delusion in 2006, and Daniel Dennett his slightly less polemic Breaking the Spell, many religious believers believe that the cognitive sciences are out to get them. Both Dawkins and Dennett use the cognitive science of religion to show that religious belief is nothing but an illusion. The criticism that religion is wishful thinking isn’t new – Feuerbach and Freud are often mentioned as predecessors – but the rhetoric is: it seems as if there is now solid scientific research that backs up the claim that religion is a byproduct of the brain.

And indeed, I believe that the scientific research is valid, and that indeed religion may be a byproduct of the brain. However, I have been quite unsatisfied with the books of Dawkins and Dennett, since to me their basic argument seemed flawed by their atheistic presuppositions. Does the fact that religion is rooted in cognitive processes that are themselves the product of a long history of human evolution really logically entail that religion is an illusion, or is the latter conclusion a non sequitur? Indeed, it seems that the cognitive science of religion are used to argue for a new discourse of conflict between science and religion. But if one looks at the history of the relation between science and religion, many conflict-discourses turn out, on closer scrutiny, to be social constructs that are motivated more by rhetoric and power agendas than by a longing for truth. Is this also the case with the argument that taking the CSR seriously entails atheism?

In 2011 and 2012 I participated in a seminar Cognitive Science of Religion and Christianity at Calvin College. The seminar was led by prof. Justin Barrett and was a first-class introduction into the cognitive science of religion by a psychologist who not only was himself one of the leading scholars in the field of CSR but also was a Christian. During the seminar we worked through many books and numerous scientific articles that showed that the CSR slowly is growing into an interdisciplinary field where philosophers, cognitive scientists, linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and scholars from many more disciplines work together in empirical experiments that aim at theories about how religious belief is anchored in the human cognitive system and ultimately in human biological evolution. It has nothing to do with e.g. Dean Hamer’s ideas that humans have a “God-gene”, or with Michael Persinger’s “God helmet” that apparently can induce religious experiences at the push of a button, or with putting people in scanners to find the “God spot” in the brain. No, the CSR is comprised of many experiments done with people in many different cultures to see which cognitive processes are involved in everyday contexts. Many experiments are done with young children, to see how human cognitive processes evolve before cultural influences become too pervasive. And the more experiments are done, and the more data are amassed, the more it becomes clear that religious belief – the belief in one or more supernatural but personalistic entities that are actively involved in what goes on in the world, and that are especially interested in human beings – is something that apparently comes very natural to humans because it builds upon the cognitive processes that are involved in our everyday activities (in contrast to atheism, which seems to be more a cultural phenomenon and is more contra-intuitive).

My paper consists of a philosophical and theological reflection on the data of the CSR. I try to draw together in just 20 pages some of the issues that are constantly emerging in discussions concerning the cognitive study of religious belief. In the first section I describe how Charles Darwin saw religion as a problem for his theory of natural selection. Darwin suspected already that the human cognitive system was involved in religious belief, and as I describe later on in the paper, the CSR seems to confirm Darwin’s suspicion. The CSR builds upon the insights from evolutionary theory.

In section two I give a rough and sketchy overview of the cognitive science of religion. I describe what is often called the standard model of the cognitive science of religion. This describes how our cognitive system functions on different levels. There is the level of conscious experience, but this level is driven by subconscious processes that function more or less autonomously and influence our ways of thinking in sometimes surprising ways. This subconscious level of cognitive processes is often perceived as being molded and shaped by our species’ evolutionary history. The result is that we have certain intuitive beliefs about the world and about other humans, and as the CSR is unveiling, there are also intuitive beliefs about gods or God. I also describe other processes that are involved in religious cognition, such as the workings of the “hypersensitive agency detection device” (HADD) and the “theory of mind mechanism” (ToMM) – cognitive “tools” that we use in everyday social interaction but that also seem crucial for religious belief. I also discuss the concept of “counterintuitiveness” of religious ideas that may be responsible for the success of culturally transmitting religious ideas and especially stories.

In section three I explain the idea that religion for humans is as natural as learning to speak or to walk. Religion is what Robert McCauley and Justin Barrett call “maturationally natural”, meaning that religious belief arises among humans regardless of cultural influences. Learning to write, to ride a bike, or doing mathematics are forms of “practiced naturalness”. Once one has learnt to write or ride a bike, it becomes “second nature”, but it takes quite a lot of practice before one masters it (and with mathematics some never master it). This is not the case with walking, talking, and chewing. These behaviors arise spontaneously and cross-culturally. And the cognitive processes that are foundational for religious belief seem to arise in humans just as naturally and cross-culturally. This has led Justin Barrett to propose that there may be something like “natural religion” (which is not to be mixed up with “natural theology”) analogous to Chomsky’s idea of “natural language”. Barrett’s idea is that the intuitive beliefs entailed by natural religion are the cognitive building blocks whereupon the different cultural forms of religion – religion as we know it in its institutionalized form – build and which make those cultural forms so appealing to religious believers.

The fourth section deals with issues of the rationality of religious belief. I argue that the CSR is neutral as to the rationality or irrationality of religious belief. That religious belief is maturationally natural doesn’t say anything about whether religion is true or even whether it is good to be religious (indeed, we know that racism also has a maturationally natural component, but we do not consider racism as a good thing). This means then, that the atheist argument that religious belief is irrational because it is cognitively anchored, commits the genetic fallacy, but so do theological constructs that try to argue that because e.g. certain religious beliefs are maturationally natural they must therefore be justified and true.

Sections five and six have a more constructive aim. In section five I describe the value that I see in the CSR from a theological perspective. To formulate it in one sentence: the CSR shows us how anthropomorphic our view of the divine is, and this should give us pause to take our religious imagery too seriously or too literally. The CSR shows that anthropomorphism – the thinking and speaking about God in personal and even human-like terms – is one of the key features of the god concepts of at least the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religion. The god concepts of these religions are “minimally counterintuitive” and clearly based upon human person-concepts. This does not entail that the god concepts of these religions are illusions, but from a theological and philosophical perspective, this does raise the point that we should perhaps not take our religious ideas too literally.

However, I argue that this moment of criticism is not all there is to it. The implicit, nonreflective use of anthropomorphic language in a sense masks the more explicit and reflective, and more abstract understandings of the Transcendent. However, because of its communicative function, the anthropomorphic language also gives rise to (and thus makes possible) more abstract and symbolic theological reflection. That god-language is anthropomorphic means that our concept of the Transcendent is configured by our human cognitive system; the Transcendent is translated into human and thus human-like terms, which makes communication possible and also more abstract reflection. Our cognitive system thus configures and mediates the Transcendent, but at the price of constraining ideas about the Transcendent to human-like categories. I thus conclude that the CSR is useful for a self-critical theology and philosophy of religion since it once again confirms one of the fundamental theological notions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, that if we absolutize our human language and our human images of God, we tend to domesticate God’s transcendence, and by doing so tend to lose all sensitivity to the alterity of the Transcendent, as expressed by apophatic strands of theology.

In the sixth and final section, I discuss the issue that if one stresses God’s otherness or alterity, then how can we say that we come to know God? I put forward the idea that the CSR indicates that humans have a natural propensity or, one might say, receptivity for religious belief. I then propose a hermeneutical model of revelation as an enactive process of discernment, where the hermeneutical framework may be informed by the theology of a specific religious community, but where there is also always a moment of subjective appropriation. The process of discernment entails that the disclosure of the transcendent in, through and under the immanent takes place through perception that, perhaps via culturally-embedded religious ideas, triggers the processes underlying maturationally natural religious cognition. So, for instance, it is through the workings of my maturationally natural religious cognition that I experience that I am being addressed in a specific event by the Transcendent, and that I am invited to respond accordingly. I thus propose a model of revelation where the revelatory event constitutes a process that takes into account the personal, historical, and cultural situatedness of the subject, and that appeals to or builds upon the embodied cognition of which the CSR describes the cognitive mechanisms.

All in all, I hope to have shown in this paper that the atheist interpretations of the data from CSR research are not the only ones possible. A self-critical and hermeneutical theology and philosophy of religion that is also sensitive to the apophatic moment in God-talk can and perhaps even should constructively, positively, and fruitfully engage with the CSR. The CSR do not in themselves give reason to believe that God is mere projection, an illusion, or a social construct – unless, of course, one lets oneself be wooed by the rhetoric of a specific atheistic discourse.