Cognitive Science and the Naturalness of Religion



Cognitive approaches to religious phenomena have attracted considerable interdisciplinary attention since their emergence a couple of decades ago. Proponents offer explanatory accounts of the content and transmission of religious thought and behavior in terms of underlying cognition. A central claim is that the cross-cultural recurrence and historical persistence of religion is attributable to the cognitive naturalness of religious ideas, i.e., attributable to the readiness, the ease, and the speed with which human minds acquire and process popular religious representations. In this article, we primarily provide an introductory summary of foundational questions, assumptions, and hypotheses in this field, including some discussion of features distinguishing cognitive science approaches to religion from established psychological approaches. Relevant ethnographic and experimental evidence illustrate and substantiate core claims. Finally, we briefly consider the broader implications of these cognitive approaches for the appropriateness of ‘religion’ as an explanatorily useful category in the social sciences.