Explaining events in the world: Coexistence reasoning

Tlius far, we have learned that cognitive scientists of religion endorse a coexistence account of theory change to explain cognitive biases about the origins and development of the world among adults. That is to say, naive theories about nature are not displaced by increased knowledge about science, but rather, are concealed by later constructed beliefs, so ultimately naive and learned theories coexist in the minds of people. Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that coexistence reasoning exists across cultures and throughout development. This is especially prominent when people reason about events in the world, such as the origins of species, misfortune, illness, and death.73'7'4 These scholars have also proposed that people are much more likely to employ coexistence reasoning to explain highly significant events.

We have already covered examples of coexistence reasoning about the origins of species at the start of the chapter. As you may recall, some people construe the relationship between biological evolution and supernatural accounts of the origin and development of the world are compatible, often adopting integrated thinking. For example, reasoning that evolutionary theory explains how life and species evolve gradually but that God created life on earth in the first place. We also cover examples of coexistence reasoning about death in Chapter 6 (The Afterlife). Here, research reveals that people are sensitive to aspects of the context in their explanations. For example, when presented with a narrative highlighting the biological aspects of death (e.g. the unsuccessful efforts of doctors to save the dead person), people are likely to assert that living functions (and mainly bodily functions) have ceased. By contrast, when the same people are presented with a narrative highlighting the spiritual aspects of death (e.g. a religious figure or ceremony), they are more likely to assert that living functions (and particularly spiritual or mental functions) continue. In what follows in this section, we concentrate on coexistence reasoning about misfortune and illness.


One of the most well-known examples of coexistence reasoning about mis- fortunate events was in the 1930s by the British anthropologist Evans-Pritchard. Evans-Pritchard disagreed with his intellectualist predecessors who viewed science as the highest form of thought and religion and magic as the misapplication of science. Evans-Pritchard’s grounds for disagreement was spending an extended time conducting ethnographic fieldwork—observing and interacting— with the Azande people in North Central Africa, with the goal of understading the people in their terms. He argued that the Azande used both natural and supernatural explanations to explain events.

Evans-Pritchard provided what is now a famous example of a collapsing granary (i.e. a massive structure of beams and clay to store for grain where people also gather under the shade). This unfortunate event happened frequently, he observed, so there was nothing at all remarkable about it. Sometimes, however, the granary would collapse, and people were injured as a result. Evans-Pritchard explained that people are not ignorant of natural laws. They understand that termite damage and decay make the eventual demise inevitable. Yet the Azande were not so much concerned with the question of how the granary collapsed as with why it collapsed at that particular moment on those specific people/1 Thus, Pritchard claimed that the Azande supplemented naturalistic explanations of the collapse of the granary with supernatural forces of witchcraft. Witchcraft caused the granary to collapse at that particular moment in time when specific individuals were underneath it.

One of the main contributions of Evans-Pritchard’s work was to make a seemingly exotic belief in witchcraft seem easy to relate to when considered in context. To extend Evans-Pritchard’s observations, consider how Azande’s beliefs relate to people’s thinking in the modem western world today. We too make a host of assumptions about the world’s reality because we cannot trace all causal pathways, and they remain hidden from our perception. We fill these “black boxes” of causal pathways with all sorts of laws when probed, just like the Azande. The following quote from the pioneer in cybernetics, Ross Ashby, sums up this idea:

The child who tries to open a door has to manipulate the handle (the input) so as to produce the desired movement at the latch (the output), and he has to learn how to control the one by the other without being able to see the internal mechanism that links them. In our daily lives, we are confronted at every turn with systems whose internal mechanisms are not fully open to inspection, and which must be treated by the methods appropriate to the Black Box.7fl

Few people can explain the internal mechanism that links a handle to the latch, or how flipping a light switch results in electricity and light, yet we blindly trust these aspects of our environment. In part, this is due to context biases because it is easier to leant from others we trust than to practice a behavior only when we understand the inner workings of causality. Thus, for a child growing up in the modem West, a belief in electricity is no more rational than Azande’s belief in magic.


Access to natural and supernatural explanations is not confined to the Azande. Developmental psychologist Cristine Legare (whose research we encountered earlier in the chapter), investigated how children and adults reasoned about the cause and spread of AIDS in South Africa.77 Just like Evans-Pritchard reported that the Azande used different types of explanations for the collapsing granary, Legare and colleagues also found a difference between the type of cause of AIDS that participants endorsed.

As we discussed at the start of the chapter, scientists often categorize questions, and explanations, as either proximate or distal. Distal causes are the most distant, or ultimate, causal explanation of the event, and proximate is the closest causal explanation. Legare and colleagues found that people endorsed witchcraft as providing an answer to the “why” question of illness (the distal cause), whereas biolog)' offers a response to the “how” question of disease (the proximate cause). For instance, participants tended to identify a proximate natural cause for contracting AIDS, such as having unprotected sex, and a distal cause as supernatural, such as reasoning that the witches distorted people’s sense of good judgment or put an HIV infected person in a person’s path. We discuss this research in more detail in the case study at the end of the chapter.

Combining both natural and supernatural explanations about illness is not only found in Africa. Legare and colleagues have also found similar types of coexistence reasoning about illness in Vanuatu, a Melanesian island nation in the South Pacific.78 There are also many instances of coexistence reasoning in the modem western world, especially when it comes to the diagnosis of life-threatening illness.

Consider the devastating scenario of a woman hearing for the first time from the oncologist that she has cancer. The oncologist may well preempt the “how” (i.e. proximate) question by explaining the risk factors that make people susceptible to diseases, such as genetics. She may even explain to the patient that the exact cause of cancer is unknown.

Most people have a rudimentary understanding of the underlying mechanisms of disease, just enough knowledge to justify protective behavior. For example, most Americans know that the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads from person to person and that avoiding social contact is the safest way to avoid contamination. Yet even those who have expertise in the biological model of disease do not find this model a satisfying explanation of misfortune. More often than not, the question that is most pressing in the mind of a newly diagnosed individual with a life-threatening disease, such as metastatic cancer, is “why me?”79 This has been dubbed as “the question with no answers”. °’ 1 This term refers to the fact that, in the mind of the individual, there are no satisfactory answers from a medical model of disease that adequately explain the ultimate cause of their cancer, and why they have to endure the condition rather than someone else.

Many people who are diagnosed with a chronic illness, such as cancer, are likely to employ a non-biological framework to make sense of their plight.82 These frameworks are generally referred to in the coping literature as “meaningmaking.” This refers to the representation or restoration of possible meaningful relationships between events, and people frequently employ teleological reasoning, such as the idea that their suffering is for a purpose.83 Unsurprisingly, research in the psychology of religion suggests that at least in non-life-threatening stages of cancer, patients report becoming more religious following diagnoses.84 Drawing upon religion may be especially prevalent in the early stages following diagnoses because it may provide people with reassurance and certainty' to an otherwise uncertain outcome, for instance, that God has a purpose for them or can help them cope. Certainty reduces anxiety about consequences, and studies report overall better mental health outcomes for believers suffering from chronic illness relative to non-believers.85

Other studies report a decline in religious belief in terminal illnesses when patients are closer to death. This finding is commensurate with the interpretation that drawing upon religious frameworks helps people make sense of uncertainty.86 The psychologist Julie Exline and colleagues found that many cancer survivors—especially those who reported belief in God—reported being angry at God for their disease.8/ Appealing to a sense of divine order in the world to explain suffering may be more cognitively appealing than the alternative, which is to explain one’s suffering as deserved (i.e. immanent justice) or just misfortune. Indeed, of all the possible causes for good health, people rate luck as the least important factor.88

Just like the Azande drew upon their culturally salient model of witchcraft to explain why the granary collapsed at a particular moment injuring specific individuals, believers are likely to draw upon their existing beliefs and culturally dominant representations of God and divine order to make meaning from their suffering. On the one hand, cancer survivors have an understanding of cancer from a biomedical model. Yet, on the other, they employ other non-biological frameworks to answer questions about why they got the disease. Both cases depict the coexistence of natural and supernatural explanations that again serve to dispel the idea that has permeated many discussions about the rationality of religion, that greater scientific knowledge displaces religious thinking.

In sum, converging evidence from diverse contexts demonstrates that supernatural beliefs are not replaced by scientific knowledge but instead coexist and are often employed to explain different types of causes. This coexistence reasoning is not unique to the domain of the supernatural or religious but applies to many naive theories of how the world works.89,90 In the next section, we continue to focus on how intuitive biases predispose us towards specific explanations for events in the world. As will become apparent, these tendencies favor religious over secular accounts.

Key points

  • • Supernatural beliefs are not replaced by scientific knowledge but instead coexist and are often employed to explain different types of causes.
  • • Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that coexistence reasoning exists across cultures and throughout development when reasoning about events in the world, such as the origins of species, illness, and death.
  • • One of the most well-known examples of coexistence reasoning was the description of the Azande people in North Central Africa in the 1930s by the British anthropologist Evans- Pritchard.
  • • The Azande were concerned with the question of how the granary collapsed, and they used naturalistic examples to explain this. They were also concerned with the question of why the granary collapsed at a particular time when certain people were sitting under it, and they used supernatural forces of witchcraft to explain this.
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