Debate Magazine

Cognizing the Supernatural & Religion

By Cris

Over at Religion Bulletin, Kenneth MacKendrick has posted a densely packed piece that should be required reading for all cognitive theorists of religion. It resonated with me, and stung just a bit, because as someone who grants that human brain-minds evolved in a way which results in the natural or spontaneous generation of “supernatural” concepts, I haven’t fully theorized and critiqued my usage of that term. My past practice has usually been to scare-quote “religion” (not “supernatural) as a way to signify recognition that religion is not a natural kind or category but is a contingent social construction with a history.

In concrete terms, I have typically bifurcated my usages — calling supernaturalism before the Neolithic transition “animism” and sometimes “shamanism,” and supernaturalism thereafter “religion.” Even this doesn’t quite do, given that religion conceived as something distinct, set apart, private, personal, an institution, a tradition, or a matter of belief, is an altogether more recent development. But at some point, we need to talk-write about whatever it is we purport to study and some kind of shorthand is needed. Thus, while aware of anti-essentialist critiques, I eventually (and perhaps lazily) fall in with Ake Hultkrantz and get on with my “supernatural” business. This has always seemed a natural thing to do, though I now realize that this seeming naturalness may flow, uncritically, from a cognitive or evolutionary approach (which has always been my starting point).

But as MacKendrick disruptively explains, this approach runs the risk of rendering “religious cognition” as something sui generis — untouched by the messy realities of experience and learning:

Cognitive theories usually define religion as having to do with thoughts and practices related to the supernatural. The supernatural is vaguely conceived but focuses on relations with supernatural agencies. The acquisition and transmission of religion is seen as related to how the mind works: our understanding of other minds, bias to detect agency, gravitation toward purpose-based explanations of origins, dualistic notion of body and mind, acceptance of non-natural causality, and memorable attraction to counterintuitive representations. All of these components are thought not only to render the mind susceptible to religious ideas but also to spontaneously generate them. Furthering this view, scholars focusing on cognition in light of an orientation toward the supernatural often build into their theory of religion the notion that religion is an adaptation or byproduct of a process of natural selection. Since in each instance the mind is hardwired for creating, acquiring, and transmitting supernatural representations, religion is deemed as eminently natural (“strong naturalness thesis”). The naturalness of religion readily follows from the adoption of a substantive definition of religion.

However, if we adopt a heuristic definition of religion, even when religion is defined in a similar manner, it does not follow nor could it follow that religion is natural. “Religious cognition” makes about as much sense as “49.8833° N, 97.1500° W cognition.”  The difference between the two is startling, and cognitive theories of religion have yet to consistently clarify the ambiguity.

The problem emerges most clearly when we look at how the strong naturalness thesis re-describes cognitive development in religious terms. For instance, the strong naturalness thesis posits that as theory of mind skills develop they develop in tandem with promiscuous agency detection. Out of this matrix of others in mind is born a special form of thinking, “religious cognition,” the positing of or willingness to accept representations concerning supernatural agencies. When this theoretical impulse to “religionize” cognition becomes systematic it becomes fairly easy to cherry pick contributing elements and identify the origin of religion in evolutionary history as well as in childhood….

Insofar as a cognitive theory of religion engages in a re-description of cognitive development in religious terms it is not really a cognitive theory of religion at all. It would be more accurate to say that the strong naturalist thesis is actually a religious theory of cognition, a sui generis conception of religion – a religious re-description of cognition.

This is a key point, one often missed or ignored by cognitive theorists of religion. I have often been critical of stand-alone cognitive accounts of religion because, had they been tested with actual historical cases or against the ethnographic record, it would be apparent that the supposedly universal neurobiology giving rise to religion is the product of time and place. I just encountered an example of this in Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (2001) by Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili. The authors provide a perfectly plausible account of the brain functions and neural mechanisms associated with the (mystical) experience of transcendence, but mistakenly assume that transcendence — a dissolution of self or ego into “Absolute Unitary Being” — has always and everywhere been the goal of religion (or what they metaphorically call God). Unsurprisingly, their examples of this allegedly universal religious yearning are drawn almost exclusively from Axial traditions. The authors are unaware of the fact that such traditions arose in response to political, economic, and social conditions that made transcendent experiences attractive and construed them as “religious.” It never occurs to Newberg and D’Aquili that forgetting or dissolving one’s self into something larger might be the result of a social atomism and alienation congruent with new kinds of (Neolithic) societies, inequality, disease, warfare, and slavery. It never occurs to them that hunter-gatherers, living unalienated among kin in tight-knit societies, have little or no interest in transcendence.

But back to MacKendrick’s point. He is rightly critical of free-floating religious cognition, unencumbered by history or socialization:

This clear identification of the origins of religion in natural history as well as developmental history threatens to become a sui generis discourse when it (unnecessarily and illicitly) replaces more compelling, systematic, and historically viable accounts of cognition. In other words, cognitive theories of religion, by relying on a troubling and contested definition of religion without reference to its historical continuities and political implications, create and foster an ideological posturing that, while appearing to be interdisciplinary and scientifically minded, is conceptually anti-historical and ahistoriographical.

For instance, when the history of representation is described as the emergence of myth through the manipulation of symbolic forms, and hence the origin of religion, this account obscures the more accurate and plausible account of development: that the history of representation allows us to chart the emergence of the imagination (not religion). Re-describing the emergence of the capacity to pretend, to act as though the world is as it is not, as religious is profoundly misleading. It lends itself, for instance, to a problematic account of ritual as distinct from pretense and agency detection as distinct from processes related to the development of communicative competence.

It is no wonder, as outlined in a forthcoming essay by Josh Rottman and Deborah Kelemen, that very little (if any) evidence can be found for the existence of “religious beliefs” in early childhood. As [they and others have shown], the vast majority of evidence for the acquisition of religious thoughts and practices emerges only after individuals are socialized into such practices. There is scant support for spontaneous religiosity, a point that would not surprise an historian of religion but seems to threaten an overthrow of several of the primary tenets of popular cognitive theories of religion.

Cognitive theories, in other words, slide too easily into the neural-numinous. This slippage is attributable, in part, to the promiscuous proliferation of “supernatural” agents and agencies, which are imagined by cognitivists to be everywhere. These agents and agencies, in turn, are attributed to the minds of people present at the primitive beginning, as a superstitious kind of “proto-religion” that later became religion. MacKendrick is skeptical:

I understand the motive to define religion in this way to be the rather embarrassingly fuzzy idea that supernatural agents are postulated all around the world. Supernatural agency, when globalized in this way, is a bit of a will-o’-the-wisp. It is very beguiling but it can mean almost anything. Guided by Carol Nemeroff and Paul Rozin (2000) I have found it helpful to interpret “the supernatural” as that which “generally does not make sense in terms of the contemporary understanding of science.” Of course what makes sense in terms of contemporary science is itself a moving target, often contested, and inordinately fallible. Given the transitory and culturally contoured nature of “what makes sense” it is even more urgent to be cautioned by historiographical reflection.

Though I have on occasion been guilty of overpopulating the Paleolithic with imaginary agents, this characterization of the supernatural accords with at least some anthropological understandings. As I noted in this post, Plains Indians did not recognize the physical/metaphysical dichotomy that characterizes Western thought, but they “can and did react vehemently to perceptions that are wholly out of the normal range of experience.” These were things that struck them as “mysterious, weird, or miraculous, thrilling or awe inspiring.” Nearly every tribe had an umbrella word to describe such perceptions; for the Lakota (Sioux) it is “wakan” and for the Crow (Apsaroke) it is “maxpe.” There is also the famous Algonkian (Winnebago) “manitou.”

In a later post, I made further amends for (cognitively) overpopulating others’ imaginations with supernatural agents-agencies by considering animism as a form of relational epistemology, one which fits within a larger cosmic economy of sharing. Whatever good this did was probably undone by my further characterization of this as altruistic and perhaps even adaptive.

Here things must come to a rambling end. For his part, MacKendrick closes with this palliative: “unless there is a mindfulness of the ambiguity and ideological history of the term religion, the proliferation of its supposed naturalness will ultimately foreclose upon its richness and explanatory potential.” I agree and would add only that unless there is a mindfulness of the ambiguity and ideological history of the term supernatural, the proliferation of its supposed naturalness will ultimately foreclose upon its richness and explanatory potential.

Cognizing the Supernatural & Religion

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