Religion is natural, science is hard

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Conner Wood takes a look at Robert McCauley’s book, ‘Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not’.

Robert McCauley, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Emory University, thinks that religion is natural, but science isn’t. Such a claim could easily inspire all manner of outrage and uproar from both offended believers and irked scientists alike. But what McCauley means, as he outlined in a recent book – titled, aptly, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not – is that religious beliefs arise from our basic, evolved cognitive predispositions and biases, while science is only possible when we struggle hard to overcome those biases. So is there any truth to his claim? Is religion just what human minds do when they’re being lazy?

As you can probably tell from the last sentence, Wood is a bit skeptical, and notes Tanya Luhrmann’s work.

But how realistic is McCauley’s vision? Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist and New York Times columnist, has argued in her columns and a recent book that modern American evangelical Christians work very, very hard to develop their spiritual senses – that prayer is work, in other words. Contrary to McCauley’s thesis, people don’t usually show up at the types of churches Luhrmann studies already able to blithely perceive and feel God in their everyday lives. Instead, the church community teaches its members how to pray, giving specific instructions on how to develop an ongoing interactive relationship with God.

And finishes with this summation:

If it takes serious effort to learn how to be religious, how to coax the brain into producing spiritual experiences, then McCauley’s argument may need some rethinking of its own.

Despite Luhrmann’s work, I think the sheer ubiquity of religion makes it more likely that it arises from some innate cognitive predispositions. Hyperactive agency detection seems like a good candidate, although I’m sure it’s only one of many (others might include the need for existential comfort, promoting the social order, or explaining the world).  And religion appears to stretch back tens of thousands of years, at least.

On the other hand, science is a far less ubiquitous and much more recent development. It’s also more fragile, tending to disappear when social order collapses. And a much smaller percentage of the population either practices it or is fluent in it, even though all of the population benefits from it.

35 thoughts on “Religion is natural, science is hard

  1. Meh, they’re both natural. Think the natural curiosity of a child, contrasting with the natural propensity for a child to have invisible friends.


    1. Good point, although curiosity by itself isn’t science. Maybe the way to think of this is that systematic inquiry and mechanisms to minimize human bias, is not natural. But I guess you could say the same thing of the complex cultural systems of religion.

      Still, as I noted, religion pretty much appears in every human society, although it is in decline in a few modern prosperous societies. Science is a much more recent development, and historically has only flourished in prosperous societies.


      1. Curiosity does lead to science though. At some point, a caveman observed that a spark can start a fire, or a log rolls, and repeated the experiment and eventually put it to work for himself. Admittedly, codifying it and using it with a higher order of abstract thinking that comes with age, something cavemen had a shortage of, compounds the benefit, but the curiosity is the ultimate source. Religion also enjoys that abstract thinking to defend itself, but it is not reliant on it like more complex science is.


  2. Thinking is natural. Jumping to conclusions is natural. Jumping to the conclusion that the christian invisible sky daddy exists is not natural. Restraining your conclusions with the scientific method is not natural. Concluding that science proves the christian invisible sky daddy exists is definitely not natural.

    The natural processes will help you figure out how to not get eaten. When we push them a bit harder we find ourselves safe from witches. When we push ourselves even more we find exoplanets.

    Religious belief is better than living in caves but not as good as teflon or kevlar. Science is awesome!


    1. Most of humanity has worshipped gods or spirits of one type of another though, assuming agency in nature, so I’m not sure how unnatural it is. Those gods or spirits grew in scope and power as society grew in scope and power.

      Totally agree on science being awesome!


    1. I think there are economics and then there are economics. There is a science of economics. It will never be as precise as physics, because it’s modeling humans that can react to whatever it learns, but it still provides useful information. Unfortunately, the profession tolerates too many within its ranks that ignore that science in favor of their preferred ideology.


  3. I agree ‘SAP’ as I don’t see Luhrmann’s Vineyard subjects being representative of evangelical Christians much less believers in general. Reading the preview of ‘When God Talks Back’ she starts with:

    “… roughly 95 percent of Americans say they believe …” – xi/preface

    … moving on to speak of Christians in general then evangelical Christians more particularly. Further on it’s refined to “neo-Pentacostal” or “renewalist” evangelical Christianity, eventually arriving at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship(xx/preface).

    “The spring I arrived, in 2003, the church met in the gym of the neighborhood association building.” – page 10

    “The teaching in a church like this focuses squarely on the Bible, and it is as different from the sermons in a mainstream Protestant church as contemporary Christian music is different from the mainstream’s hymns.” – page 11

    “For many of them[members of the congregation] (but admittedly not all of them), this involves an intense desire to experience personally a God who is as present now as when Christ walked among his followers in Galilee.” – page 13

    So it seems as though the group of people putting in this extraordinary amount of effort to experience this extraordinary experience gets smaller and smaller the further you read. It may be a trend, but I don’t see it invalidating cognitive by-product, Pascal Boyer’s version of which says that religious belief/thought is the result of the evolved unconscious cognitive mechanisms of agency detection, theory of mind, contagion avoidance, and social exchange(minimally).

    ‘Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function’, Boyer 2003

    Click to access Boyer2003ReligionTiCS.pdf

    … which to my understanding is fairly standard in the cognitive science of religion.


    1. Excellent! Thanks. Yes, from what I’ve read of Luhrmann’s work, it’s interesting as cultural anthropology, but as you note, it’s fairly small in scope. Trying to apply lessons from it to general humanity is probably not productive.

      I definitely agree that Boyer is a better source for that kind of understanding.


      1. Luhrmann’s also writes from experiential, perceptual, and psychological perspectives that I find interesting. I may end up having to read the book. There’s a collection of her works under the heading ‘My Research’ at as well as more about the book at:

        I’m reading about ‘The Absorption Hypothesis’ as we speak(or rather, as I post 🙂 )

        … there’s also a book symposium on ‘When God Talks Back’ at:

        ‘HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory’, Vol 3, No 3 (2013)


        1. I’ve read some of Luhrmann’s articles on HuffPost and NYT. The first one annoyed me until I understood where she was coming from. Don’t know if I’ll ever be motivated to go deeper, but she generates interesting commentary from Jerry Coyne each time one of her articles goes up.


          1. LOL re JC, that she does! While I do visit and enjoy WEIT daily, I have to admit that I don’t read as many of the posts in their entirety as I used to. CC forbid you not sufficiently condemn religion simply due to its lack of veracity. I guess since discovering the cognitive science of religion endlessly debating of the truth of religion has less appeal.

            In the first commentary of the HAU symposium on her book Pascal Boyer pinpoints my specific interest under the heading ‘Disowning one’s own thoughts’ on page 5 and continuing on to page 6 where he references Daniel Wegner’s work:

            ‘Why “belief” is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann’s When God talks back’, Boyer 2013

            Click to access 2013-Boyer-Hau.pdf

            I grew up in a conservative evangelical Lutheran church and my now elderly parents are quite devout – probably has something to do with my interest in how it works.


  4. It’s worth noting that there are different levels of religious. Some people just parrot what their told, and that probably doesn’t take much brain power, but there are a few who take their spirituality to a different level. I don’t think being a Tibetan monk, for example, comes easily.


    1. I used the slightly more cumbersome phrase “innate cognitive predispositions” in the body. I do think “natural” is a good summary label for that, provided the more precise meaning is explained at some point. I think it’s the nature of language though that words are always subject to misinterpretation.


  5. This sort of tosh tends to multiply when we mistake American Protestantism for the whole of religion,. Of course religion comes to us more intuitively than most of physics. It would be very weird if this were not true.

    It is also very sloppy to say the religion is natural while science is hard. It’s like saying that wine is expensive while beer is wet. Utterly meaningless. It would be just as easy to argue that religion is hard while science is natural. Smoke and mirrors, idle sophistry and hot air. It’s a damn sight harder to succeed at religion than at science, which may explain the naivety of the view that religion depends on prejudices and biases that only science can overcome. Much of religious practice is about overcoming prejudice and bias, and for some religions it is the explicit core of the practice.

    Even if, in some ways, religion comes to us more naturally than science, this is only to be expected, given the claims of religion. It need not be evidence of bias, prejudice, but could be an intuitive recognition of an underlying truth about ourselves and our world. McCauley seems to have no idea which it is.


  6. Guymax,
    “Of course religion comes to us more intuitively than most of physics.”
    This is really all I was asserting (although I can’t speak for McCauley, particularly since I haven’t read his book).

    “Smoke and mirrors, idle sophistry and hot air.”
    Obviously I disagree. Given your statement above, I think you’re taking a particularly uncharitable interpretation of my words.

    “It’s a damn sight harder to succeed at religion than at science”
    I’d say that depends on which religion and which science. It seems to be a universal feeling that what we do is harder than what others do.

    “but could be an intuitive recognition of an underlying truth about ourselves and our world. ”
    Could be, and I probably should have explicitly noted that, even if I’m not personally convinced of it.


    1. No no! Oh dear. I was referring not to your words but those of McCauley. I wouldn’t be so rude as to accuse you of hot air and idle sophistry. 😉

      I would say that success is far harder to achieve than in religion than science, to the point where there is no sensible comparison. Can’t prove it though.

      The last point seems vital. If religion comes to us naturally, as a response to an intuitive realisation of truth, then McCauley’s point is empty. . ,

      Sorry if it seemed like a criticism of your words. Not what was intended. .


      1. guymax,
        I’m grateful for the clarification. Looks like I could have been more charitable in interpreting your comment. Sorry!

        You’re right of course. To a believer, religion is more natural because it’s true.

        I think there’s value for both believers and non-believers in trying to understand what the cognitive causes are, even if we disagree about their ultimate sources.


        1. It’s okay. I should have been more careful.

          I didn’t mean that to suggest that ‘to a believer’ religion is true, It hardly matters what believers believe. I meant that if it is true, or has a true basis, then it would not be surprising if we have an intuitive sense of this. Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey might be an example.

          Whether religion has cognitive causes is an interesting question. I’d say that for a fundamental view the cause would be pre-cognitive, but this would be yet another can of worms.


  7. I think it might be productive to compare scientific and religious modes of thinking rather than modern science or religion per se, neither of which are natural. We ought not to be comparing Christianity to Physics, but Superstition to Skepticism.

    I think there are people for whom respect for tradition, conformity, superstition and believing what they want to be true comes very naturally, but there are also individuals who are motivated by a desire to seek truth with an open mind wherever it takes them. The former, superstitiously-inclined people may be the majority, but the skeptical-minded have in my view always existed and neither is more natural than the other.

    I’m not an atheist because I was raised an atheist. From a very young age, I was inclined to be skeptical of what I was taught. I doubted the existence of God from about the same age most kids start to doubt Santa. I tried to do experiments to prove that the tooth fairy did not exist by concealing the fact that I had hid a tooth under my pillow. This way of thinking comes so naturally to me, is so much a part of my identity, that I have chosen to call myself “Disagreeable Me” online.

    But yeah, for a randomly chosen individual, superstitious thinking is probably slightly more likely to come naturally.


    1. Good point. One I’ve made before. We all don’t start with the same inclinations and drives. “Natural” won’t be exactly the same for all of us.

      Personally, I had to learn skepticism. It didn’t come naturally to me at all. But gradually over decades I picked it up. Now of course I’m even skeptical of many of the skeptics.


  8. Religion is learned — its in the dna by now — but religion evolved from early times. We change our brains as higher-self spiritual development evolves from one generation to the next.


  9. What to do with Claude Levi Strauss who in The Savage Mind provides examples of a high degree of scientific enquiry in cultures most would assume had no science? I am thinking of the people in Papua New Guinea who had knowledge of over 600 animals and insects and, apparently, a complex taxonomic system to pass on that knowledge. This example may have come from Tristes Tropiques. It’s been a while since I have read these. The point is, I guess, how you define science.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can’t say I’ve read Levi-Strauss, but from what I’ve seen of ethnographies in general, we have to be careful about making sweeping conclusions from their observations, which are inherently subjective.

      The dividing line between what is and isn’t science is often controversial. I think science is pursuit of knowledge about reality using techniques that have demonstrated reliability. The reliability of any particular technique falls along a spectrum between least and most reliable, so where exactly to draw the line between reliable enough for science and not reliable enough will always be a judgment call.

      With that in mind, while I definitely think we have to acknowledge that pre-literate societies often have amazing techniques for memory and knowledge retention, I’d be skeptical of an assertion that it amounted to anything a reasonable person would be tempted to call science.


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