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.