How does culture interact with cognition to produce religion?

As we covered in Chapter 1 (Introduction), early pioneers in CSR argued that the study of religion was skewed in favor of personal and interpretative accounts of religion over systematic and explanatory theories. Their endeavors aimed to redress this balance by including explanatory accounts. As McCauley points out, the aim of CSR was never to dismiss the insights provided by interpretative accounts, but rather, to enrich them by including explanations of religion.37 This endeavor includes specifying how cognitive predispositions interact with the environment, which often entails an understanding of sociocultural particulars. The historical and culturally situated character of religion is, correspondingly, emphasized, even by early works in the area, such as those by anthropologists Harvey Whitehouse (1995)38 and Stewart Guthrie (1993).39 As Trigg and Barrett put it, the cognitive science of religion “draws upon the cognitive sciences to explain how pan-cultural features of human minds, interacting with their natural and social environments, inform and constrain religious thought and action.40

Key points

  • • CSR aimed to explain religion by taking account of how cognition interacts with culture.
  • • Some scholars in CSR, especially anthropologists, have dedicated much of their research to understanding religious ideas and behaviors in particular contexts.

(a) Content and context biases

To answer questions about the interaction between cognition and culture, researchers build on their knowledge of cognitive biases (which give rise to content biases) by evoking the cultural environments that give rise to recurrent ideas and practices. As we cover in Chapter 10 (Rituals: Part 2), evolutionary anthropologist Joseph Henrich and colleagues have proposed that content biases are necessary to explain the stability and change of religious ideas and behaviors over time and across cultures. However, they are not sufficient.41 Henrich proposed the need to evoke context biases to explain such things.42 Context biases are not related to the content of specific ideas but rather, to the context in which they are transmitted, such as the perceived reliability of the person transmitting the information and the sociocultural context within which they occur.

Consider the following examples from Chapter 7 (Supernatural Agents). First, think about popular agents in western culture, such as the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. These agents are depicted as having similar properties of gods, yet they are not believed in as gods, nor do they evoke the same level of commitment that they would if they were represented as gods. After all, no wars have been fought over whether the Tooth Fair)' is real. Second, consider other agents such as Zeus, who contains all the features of a successful god but is no longer believed to be a god.43 Why do children tend to endorse the beliefs of their parents? Why does belief change over time? Moreover, why do people not believe in other people’s gods if they all employ content biases that enjoy transmissive success?

To answer these questions, Henrich and colleagues urge us to consider various contextual factors, including context biases. These factors include understanding the history of ideas that have been labeled religious, including an understanding of how ideas originated and the cultural context within which they spread and changed over time. For instance, philosopher Helen De Cruz and colleagues have outlined the relationship between theological ideas and intuitions (i.e. natural theology) and the historical development and transmission of theological concepts over time.44 Another series of contextual considerations include questions of how intergroup conflict exacerbates or emphasizes differences within religious traditions. For example, Theologian Hugh Nicholson provides an account of the emergence of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity that takes into consideration both cognitive biases and intergroup conflict at critical points during the emergence of these doctrines.43

A great deal of human knowledge comes through cultural learning. Some concepts are more readily endorsed than others because the source of information influences us. For example, people are more likely to endorse ideas about God from a prestigious individual with traditional authority, such as the Catholic Pope, than those without authority, such as a stranger during Mass. Likewise, as we cover in Chapter 10 (Rituals: Part 2), the convictions of individuals who engage in credibility enhancing displays (i.e. literally walk the walk) are more likely to be believed, in so far as their behavior is connected to authentically living out professed religious beliefs. Accounting for context-dependent factors enhances the explanatory power of CSR over and above content biases alone. As we cover in Chapter 11 (Conclusion), recent developments in CSR include an appreciation that human cognition is a result of dual inheritance from interacting genetic and cultural streams of evolution, which broadens the scope of traditional evolutionary accounts.46

Cognitive scientists of religion have attempted to understand how these biases manifest themselves in particular sociocultural contexts, thus endorsing context biases and other features of the environment at the time of their research. This understanding is achieved by drawing on their specialist knowledge and often spending extended periods in the field conducting ethnographic research.17

Key points

  • • Content biases refer to biases that direct our attention to the content of representations.
  • • Context biases are related to the context in which ideas are transmitted, such as the reliability of the source.
  • • Scholars have proposed that content biases are necessary, but not sufficient, to explain the popularity of some religious ideas and behaviors.
  • • Scholars propose that context biases, such as the perceived reliability of the person transmitting the information and the sociocultural context within which they occur, enhance the explanatory power of CSR.

Summary of standard research questions

1 Why do some ideas and behaviors persist?

Of all the possible types of religious ideas and behaviors that could be possible, we find some that recur. First, scholars identify what these popular ideas and behaviors are, and then they ask what makes these ideas and behaviors especially common?

2 What kind of mind does it take to represent these ideas?

One reason why these ideas and behaviors are especially prevalent within and across cultures is that they relate to how humans tend to think. They may also have important individual and societal effects, which makes them more likely to be remembered and passed on.

3 What is the source of these biases?

One way of identifying how humans tend to think is by looking at early emerging biases in children and adults in different cultures, and to examine our evolutionary history for possible origins and adaptive functions of these biases and behaviors.

4 How does culture interact with cognition to produce religion?

These ideas and behaviors are especially prevalent within and across cultures because they fit well with the environment. Other ideas seem very different in different contexts or may change depending on the sociocultural conditions. Understanding how culture interacts with cognition provides a more fruitful explanation of religion.

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