Cognitive Science of Religion

Religion Explained in 2014? IACSR Conference Report

– This post is a copy of an article I wrote for The Religious Studies Project

(although it has not been published yet) – 

Explaining Religion

A few weeks ago, I attended the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion’s (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference. The theme this year was focused on addressing the state of the field, 25 years after the cognitive approach to religion (CSR) first appeared (at least in its modern incarnation). I contributed to these efforts by presenting a critical review of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) literature, and a short poster that detailed a recoding of a previous study on MCI items in Roman prodigies (Lisdorf, 2001) (for those who may be interested, the recoding reversed the original pattern reported). However, I’m not going to review my own talk (for obvious reasons), nor do I intend to offer a thorough account of the entire conference, instead I’d just like to point out some personal highlights and my impressions of the conference overall.


Born Idolaters *

Idol Baby

*With thanks to the illustrious Jonathan Jong for the title!

A flurry of recent research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has suggested that from our childhood we are “teleologically promiscuous“- detecting purpose readily behind everything from birds to rocks, “intuitive dualists“- distinguishing between physical bodies and immaterial minds, and possess a “hyperactive agency detector device” (HADD), which makes us quick to worry about what caused that twig to snap in the bush behind us. All of these factors (and more beside) are said to make us Born Believers in the words of  Justin Barrett, a psychologist specialising on religious thought (and my former supervisor). However, even if we accept such accounts, then an important question remains: what exactly are we ‘born to believe’ ?


Anatomy of a Counterintuitive Zombie

One typical ‘Person-like being violating biological intuitive expectations’ AKA a ZOMBIE

Zombies are currently enjoying a resurgence in popular culture appearing in a host of popular movies, TV shows, comics, reinterpretations of classical fiction and even computer games fighting with plants. Having just enjoyed/endured the controversial 100th issue of the Walking Dead zombies are also firmly in my mind and as such I’ve thought of another useful purpose they can serve; illustrating the features of a minimally counterintuitive concept.

The field of the Cognitive Science of Religion involves approaching religions and religious beliefs from a scientific perspective and examining whether part of the enduring popularity of religion can be explained by the cognitive features and evolutionary history shared by all humans. A central finding/theory that has emerged from this field, primarily due to the work of Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett, is that almost all religious dieties and icons, despite their apparent diversity, can be placed into a ‘Minimally Counterintuitive’ (MCI) template. What this means is that they possess most of the expected and intuitive aspects associated with a particular category of things, for instance a zombie like a normal person moves around under its own power, seeks food, is subject to gravity, sees with its eyes and so on. However, MCI concepts also involve one or two violations of our intuitive assumptions, so in the case of zombies this means that the biological assumption of mortality/being susceptible to injury is violated. Zombies are dead and they typically don’t seem that bothered by injuries that would be of significant concern to a normal human. The MCI template then can be presented as:

Intuitive assumptions of an ontological category + 1/2 violations of those assumptions