Why do religions appeal to human minds?
The by-product theory of religious cognition holds that our religious propensities are, in large part, by-products of the operations of a variety of normal, adaptive, domain specific cognitive systems. Those systems, which concern such capacities as language, theory of mind, contamination avoidance, kinship recognition, and more, arise on the basis of considerations that have nothing to do with religion and nothing to do with one another. I have pursued the theory’s implications in two areas.
In my book, Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not, and in a number of papers, I have investigated the implications of the cognitive by-product view for thinking about religion and religions and their relationships to science, both cognitively and socially. That project has involved examining and contrasting the cognitive foundations of science and the cognitive foundations of religion, and that contrast has yielded a number of surprising implications (which follow unadorned and unelaborated):
- Traditional comparisons of science and religion are cognitively misbegotten.
- Theological incorrectness is inevitable.
- Science poses no threat to the persistence of religion.
- Relevant cognitive disabilities will render religion baffling.
- Science is an inherently social undertaking.
- Science depends more fundamentally on institutional support than religion does.
- Science’s continued existence is fragile.
Earlier work (most of it pursued collaboratively with E. Thomas Lawson) concentrated on the cognitive foundations of religious ritual, in particular. We advanced our theory of religious ritual competence in Rethinking Religion and investigated—in detail in our second book together, Bringing Ritual to Mind—one of its principal consequences, viz., the ritual form hypothesis. We argue that:
- Normal cognitive equipment for the representation of action determines participants’ representations of the forms of their religious rituals.
- Those forms of those rituals are largely responsible for many of those features of those rituals, including their repeatability (with the same ritual participants), reversibility, frequency, levels of sensory pageantry, and more.
- The connections between religious ritual form and performance frequency, sensory pageantry, and emotional arousal account not only for rituals’ motivational and mnemonic effects, but also for various dynamic patterns that religious ritual systems manifest the world over.