Is Religion (Merely) a Natural Phenomenon?

I recently received a copy of The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. This book, edited by J. B. Stump and Alan Padgett, consists of scholarly essays covering a variety of topics relating to the discussion of science and the Christian faith. The contributors range from believers to skeptics and approach the topics from a variety of different angles. The book is designed and priced for libraries, not the casual reader, but many of the essays introduce topics worth some consideration here. I expect to dip into the book occasionally over the next several months, starting today.

In the section on The Human Sciences two articles by Justin Barrett and Dylan Evans provide an interesting contrast. Today I will look at Barrett’s article – and then on Thursday come back and look at the article by Evans. Justin Barrett studies the psychology of religion. He recently moved from Oxford to Fuller Theological Seminary where he is the Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. He has published a number of books, including most recently Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief.

In his article Toward a Cognitive Science of Christianity Justin Barrett discusses the hypothesis that there are basic common cognitive structures characteristic of the human mind that provide mental tools enabling religious belief. Religion is a common phenomenon across cultures. These different religions contain a set of overlapping ideas and structures because of a “cognitive naturalness” to religious thought. As Barrett describes it:

Normal human cognitive systems operating in normal human environments generate converging intuitions that find satisfaction in some core religious ideas (and subsequent practices).  (p. 321)

Natural religion is a form of religious belief that agrees with these converging “natural” intuitions. Christianity contains many elements that agree with natural intuition, but also deviates this natural religion in important ways. The study of the psychology of religion, however, raises questions about the truth of religious beliefs. Many assume that any rational explanation of religion is equivalent to explaining away justified religious belief. The idea of an inborn natural religion is seen as an argument against rational belief in the truth of any religion. As we will see on Thursday, Dylan Evans argues essentially this position.

Do you think a scientific explanation for religion undermines the truth of religious belief?

Is this a topic you find dangerous or of concern? Is the psychology of faith a topic that should be studied or one that should be considered taboo?

Barrett argues that the naturalness of religion and the study of the mental tools used in religious thinking are not intrinsically a threat to justified theistic belief.

That CSR [cognitive science of religion] can offer explanations for why people tend to believe in some kind of god does not mean that there is not God, nor does it mean that belief in the existence of God is unjustified or irrational. (p. 329)

He uses the example of a radio … learning how a radio works does  not impact the presence or absence of a signal. Likewise a radio will receive inputs from the environment, but these consist of both intentional signals and noise. The analogy can be pressed too far, but the point is an important one. He continues:

[E]xplaining the cognitive equipment relevant for forming beliefs in gods, souls, the afterlife, and other religious concepts does not importantly impact whether one is justified in holding such beliefs. (p. 329)

Barrett goes on to suggest that the diversity of beliefs across cultures may prevent science from explaining away belief in God. Although there are threads of similarity there are also significant differences. Thus it is difficult to conclude that our beliefs are merely instinctive. Or put another way, if humans had no choice but to believe in god, and a particular kind of god at that, Barrett would find the scientific explanation a far more serious challenge to the reality of any underlying truth to religious claims for the existence of God.

From a Christian point of view, Paul in Romans 1-2 reflects on the naturalness of religion, and of an inborn understanding of God. Barrett quotes both Romans 1:18-20 and 2:14-15 to make this point. The power of God is clearly seen so that all are without excuse, and the requirements of the law are written on the hearts of the gentiles. We should expect religion to be, at some level, natural.

Barrett does not get into evolutionary theories for the development of religious belief. Many conclude, as Dawkins outlines in his book The God Delusion, that religious belief is a tag-along corollary or even incidental and accidental, to the evolution of key characteristics of the human species (p. 172-190). If God is real, however, evolution of the collection of mental tools and cognitive equipment may simply represent a “natural” response to a real signal somewhat similar to the way eyes evolve in response to light and ears in response to sound.

The naturalness of religious belief is not proof of the truthfulness or falsehood of any religious belief. This must be argued on other grounds.

Deviations from Natural Religion. Barrett also reflects on Christian doctrines that deviate from natural religion. Theologians offer intellectual ways to reconcile doctrines such as free will and predestination, grace and merit but people will automatically fall into more “natural” ways of thinking. This is true even of many of those theologians when caught off guard. Such natural response can be studied by telling stories with gaps and recording how people fill in the gaps reflexively in real time.

The gap between these two conceptions is theological correctness. Like political correctness, when our intellectual guard is up, we use the ideas we know we are supposed to use; different ideas than those that come naturally. The further ideas deviate from Natural Religion, the harder they are to use reflexively in real-time situations. (p. 326)

This gap between theologically correct ideas and natural intuitive ideas leads to a number of interesting questions.  Many of the conflicts in our church, those causing divisions and the breaking of communion, arise from the perceived importance of theological correctness. To list just a few examples, issues of theological correctness arise when we consider the nature of scripture, the sinfulness of man, the response of God (can God change his mind?), the autonomy of human choice, the authority of the church, and presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Calvinism, for example, is an intellectually coherent doctrine but in some respects an “unnatural” one (i.e. it conflicts in several ways with “natural” human cognitive structures). Could these conflicts with natural religion arise because the theologically correct doctrines of Calvinism deviate from truth? Barrett does not use precisely this example, although he does point out that some aspects of Calvinism deviate from natural religion.

But natural religion is not a sure guide for determining correct theology. In particular natural religion may be theologically incorrect because it uses an intuition developed in one context to make sense of a completely different level of reality. When we anthropomorphize God and define God using human characteristics, we use an intuition developed in one context to try to make sense of different level of reality. Any such attempt will of necessity introduce a level of error. Thus the truth or error in Calvinism must be judged on grounds other than naturalness.

Barrett does not give any specific conclusions in his article, but suggests that the naturalness and cultural scaffolding of Christianity are promising areas for future research into the cognitive structure of Christian faith.

Do you think the evidence for the naturalness of religion is a threat to justified belief?

What role should naturalness play in our understanding of Christian faith and doctrine?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

 If you have comments please visit Is Religion (Merely) a Natural Phenomenon? at Jesus Creed.

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