(a) Popular and theological versions of religion

CSR focuses on explaining the cultural transmission of religious ideas but distinguishes between theological versions of religion and those employed by ordinary people every day. Cognitive scientists of religion are particularly interested in explaining ideas that emerge relatively easily, with little instruction, established at an early age. These kinds of ideas tap into intuitive processes (i.e. system 1). As covered in Chapter 2 (Core Assumptions), ideas emerging from system 1 are quick, automatic, and implicit. Philosopher Robert McCauley calls the types of religious ideas that emerge relatively easily “maturationally natural.” Maturationally natural ideas tend to characterize many every day lay understandings of religion (for more examples of intuitions that underpin maturationally natural ideas, see Table 7.1 in Chapter 7 (Supernatural Agents).

If theological concepts counter our assumptions about the world, then how do experts recite theological doctrines with ease? McCauley calls these abilities “practiced naturalness.” Practiced naturalness arises not through the ordinary course of physical and psychological development and with minimal instruction, but rather, through consistent training. Think about learning to play a musical instrument, or driving a car, for example. These ideas require support for people to adopt them, such as frequent rehearsal. Theological ideas that counter our intuitions are explicitly held and consciously accessible concepts. That is to say; people tend to recite them accurately only when they have time to think or when they stick to the rehearsed script.

Key points

• Ideas that emerge easily and with little instruction are called maturationally natural.

Table 3.1 Characteristics of religious ideas.



Mental processes


Often found in ...




Emerge easily from a young age with minimal instruction.

Popular religion.


Practiced naturalness.

Are reinforced through cognitive effort and cultural support.



CSR scholars are interested in the sociocultural conditions that give rise to the formation of theological beliefs when these explanations also include a role for human cognition. Cognitive scientists of religion also acknowledge that many theological concepts are complicated and differ from our intuitions about the world. For example, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity presents God as three distinct persons (i.e. the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) yet of the same substance, which counters our intuition that a person is singular. CSR scholars are most interested in the relationship between theological versions of religion and popular versions of these ideas because they tell us much about the role of cognition in processing religious concepts.

Key points

• Ideas often rehearsed and quickly accessible are called practiced naturalness.

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