Debate Magazine

Reducing Religion

By Cris

When I began studying religion several years ago, it was a heady time. It seemed that the (ostensibly) new cognitive and evolutionary approaches to religion would be able to explain it. Several books and many articles appeared purporting to do just this. In every case, the method was the same: reduce religion to some cognitive faculty or ability and then explain the ability as an evolutionary adaptation or byproduct.

Though there had been earlier attempts along these lines, things really got going in 1993 when Stewart Guthrie published Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Guthrie argued that religion rested on the human perceptual habit of anthropomorphizing, which is a good evolutionary strategy — “It’s better to make mistaken judgments about things that aren’t there than it is to ignore them and be killed by something or someone that is in fact there.”

It didn’t take long for scholars of various stripes to find additional faculties that supposedly were critical for generating and sustaining religious beliefs or supernatural ideas. The reduction became rampant and the list has grown to include the following:

  • Cause-Effect Sequencing or Causal Attribution
  • Agency Detection or Agency Attribution
  • Pattern Detection or Pattern Imposition
  • Theory of Mind
  • Commonsense Dualism

Sometimes these various faculties are lumped together and treated as “folk” or “naive” beliefs dealing with different domains: physics, psychology, and biology. In addition to these habitual (and largely subconscious) abilities, other researchers have proposed that the aspects of mind critical to religion are either more basic or complex. These include:

  • Language or Narrative
  • Emotions (Fear, Curiosity, Attachment, Awe)
  • Fluctuations in Consciousness
  • Memory Formation and Concept Retention

All of these proposals, or reductions, are in their own way plausible (some more so than others). None of them, in isolation or in conjunction with only one or two other faculties, accounts for or explains religion. Because they are all plausible, and not mutually exclusive, I decided some time ago to give them all credence. When all the reductive parsing is done, however, we need to put things back together and consider the whole.

When all of these faculties, abilities, and propensities are put back together, what do we get? A fairly complete and comprehensive description of the mind. We don’t get a description of a religious mind. It’s just a human mind. If this is the case, then it’s hard to say that we’ve really made much progress or advanced the ball. We may be going round in reductive circles.

We’ve reduced religion to brain-mind essentials in a search for the key components. After identifying all the components and piecing them back together, we’re back where we started: with a whole mind. When I finally realized this, not long ago, I was astonished. Have we really explained anything with all our reductions? This is a sobering question for those, like me, who take science and evolution seriously. I think we probably have explained some things, but not nearly as much as we’d like to think. This is, of course, simply the cognitive or “intellectualist” side of things — it completely ignores the social and ritual aspects of religion. All of these are essential ingredients in religion stew.

This is just something to think about on a beautiful Sunday morning. I’m going on a long motorcycle ride so I can stop thinking about it. For those who would like some more gluttony with this punishment, there is some good stuff on reduction in Massimo Pigliucci’s post on consilience and Elliott Sober’s review of Thomas Nagel’s new book.

Reducing Religion


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