Summary of methodological assumptions and approaches in CSR

1 Scientific methods

A commitment to scientific methods binds scholars. This commitment includes the formulation of testable hypotheses and the performance of statistical tests to determine trends in religious ideas and behaviors.

2 Methodological naturalism

CSR researchers are bound together by a commitment to methodological naturalism, which is a basic stance that scientists can study the emergence and effects of religious ideas and behaviors. However, they cannot determine whether these ideas are true or false.

3 Methodological pluralism

Cognitive scientists of religion employ a diverse array of methods to answer questions about religion. Researchers use methods that are appropriate for the type of questions they ask. Often scholars use approaches common to the neurosciences (e.g. brain imaging), evolutionary sciences (e.g. cross-cultural studies), psychological sciences—including developmental psychology (e.g. behavioral experiments), and anthropology (e.g. ethnographic fieldwork).

4 Interdisciplinary integration

Scholars from a diversity of disciplines work together in CSR to answer questions about religion. They include archaeologists, anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, scholars of religion, and historians. Integration in CSR is characterized by the unit, scope, and type of interdisciplinarity.


Nowadays, CSR has come to be characterized by its diversity in theories (interdisciplinarity) and methods (methodological pluralism). This combination is rare, but, in some ways, it is hardly surprising that it has characterized CSR;

Example of how different levels of analyses and corresponding methods provide a better explanation of rituals

Figure 4.3 Example of how different levels of analyses and corresponding methods provide a better explanation of rituals. For example, researchers measured the physiological responses of participants and spectators during real-time in a ritual performed in the field3- (a). Other research has focused on the cognitive representation of the effectiveness of ritualized action,53 while various studies have investigated ritual synchrony (b).’’4 Others have investigated the relationships between the features of ritual and the socio-political dynamics of religion (c).’3

after all, many scholars study the mind and how humans think, yet they each bring to the table a variety of theories, methods, and approaches, which enhances die research. Generally speaking, cognitive scientists of religion tend to have a specialty in an understanding of evolution, the human mind, cognition, and culture, with the ultimate aim of drawing on all four areas to explain the stability and diversity in religious forms.

Discussion questions

  • 1 What are the strengths and weaknesses of the methodological approach used by CSR?
  • 2 What aspects of religion do you think are outside the scope of scientific inquiry?


Object and kind of explanation

Tinbergen’s question applied to rituals

Example of research findings and informed theories and conclusions on this question




What are the mechanisms underlying ritual?

Rituals decrease anxiety. Ritual synchrony increases cohesion. Effects depend upon context.

Bio-psycho-social mechanisms undergird the effects of rituals.




How does ritual behavior develop in individuals?

By engaging in rituals, children learn how to segregate their social world into those who are trustworthy and have high status and those who do not.

Learning rituals are motivated by a drive to affiliate with social groups.




What is the evolutionary history of ritual?

Traces of ritual behavior observed in Wild Guinea baboons and whitefaced capuchin monkeys but not the great apes. Evidence of ritual in archaic human history from the archaeological record.

Rituals are not a product of the modern environment, and humans have a psychological propensity to engage in rituals.


Adaptive significance (ultimate)

What are the functions of ritual?

Rituals promote trust and have psychological benefits such as reducing the anxiety of individuals and groups.

Rituals identify group members, ensure commitment to the group norms, facilitate cooperation with coalitions and maintain group cohesion.

96 Methods

Selected further reading


1 Legare, Cristine. H., and M. Nielsen. “Ritual explained: interdisciplinary answers to Tinbergen’s four questions.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 375, no. 1805: (2020).


  • 1 McCauley, Robert N. “Recent trends in the cognitive science of religion: Neuroscience, religious experience, and the confluence of cognitive and evolutionary research.” Zygon 55, no. 1 (2020): 97-124.
  • 2 Whitehouse, Harvey., “Twenty-five years of CSR: A personal retrospective.” In Luther H. Martin & Donald Wiebe (eds.). Religion explained? The cognitive science of religion after twenty-five years. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017, 43—55.
  • 3 Xygalatas, Dimitris. “Bridging the gap: The cognitive science of religion as an integrative approach.” In Evolution, cognition, and the history of religion: A new synthesis. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2018, 255-272.