Overview summary of basic assumptions in CSR as outlined in this chapter

1 Religion is cognitively natural

Cognitive biases that underpin religious ideas and actions emerge early among children with minimal instruction. Religious ideas are part and parcel of our normally developing cognition and rapidly spread when introduced in social environments.

2 Religion is not unique

Some religious systems are distinctive, but all contain fundamental psychological biases.

The cognitive biases that underpin religious ideas and actions readily appear in other domains.

3 Religion can be explained scientifically

Religion is not a singular, naturally occurring phenomenon. It can be fractionated into cross-culturally recurrent forms of ideas and practices to explain why certain forms of these ideas and behaviors emerge and persist. Theories about religion can be tested using scientific methods such as formulating falsifiable hypotheses and performing statistical analyses.

4 Religion can be explained through a better understanding of cognition and culture

To explain how and why specific ideas emerge and are recurrent within and across cultures entails taking account of cognitive biases and how they are manifested and shaped by different cultural contexts.


According to CSR, to successfully explain religion involves two things: the first draws on what is known in the cognitive and evolutionary sciences about panhuman cognition; that is, how humans attend to, process, and remember information, to explain why these patterns persist (content biases). The second draws on a specialist understanding of particular sociocultural environments in which these ideas and behaviors operate, to explain how these predisposed patterns of thinking and behaving manifest themselves in particular contexts (context biases and other sociocultural conditions48). This perspective demarks CSR from disciplines such as the sociology of religion, which tends to focus more on how social dynamics shape religious ideas and behaviors rather than specifying the interaction between the environment and cognitive mechanisms to account for such variation.

Discussion questions

  • 1 What is CSR? Draft a response using your own words and compare it to your answer from Chapter 1.
  • 2 Based on Chapters 1-3, outline the distinguishing features of CSR.
  • 3 Based on Chapters 1-3, what do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of CSR?

Selected further reading


  • 1 Barrett, J. L. “Cognitive science of religion: What is it, and why is it?” Religion Compass 1, No. 6 (2007): 768-786.
  • 2 Boyer, Pascal. “Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, no. 3 (2003): 119—124.


  • 1 Evans, Dylan, and Oscar Zarate. Introducing evolutionary psychology: A graphic guide. Icon Books Ltd, 2015.
  • 2 McCauley, Robert N. Philosophical foundations of the cognitive science of religion: A head start. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.
  • 3 Whitehouse, Harvey, and James Laidlaw, eds. Religion, anthropology, and cognitive science. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2007.
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