Summary of explaining events in the world

  • • People employ coexistence reasoning across cultures and throughout development to explain events in the world, such as the origins of species, misfortune, illness, and death.
  • • People often adopt integrated thinking when reasoning about accounts of the origins of species and illness.
  • • Integrated thinking is a type of coexistence reasoning where people construe the relationship between natural and supernatural accounts as compatible, and they integrate both into a single explanation.
  • • Evans-Pritchard and Legare and colleagues found that people in Africa endorsed supernatural causes to explain “why” misfortune occurred (the distal cause). In contrast, natural causes told “how” misfortune occurred (the proximate cause). Similar types of coexistence reasoning about illness are present in other parts of the world, such as Melanesia and the modern West.
  • • People often explain events in the world by endorsing ideas about moral justice. They are likely to reason concerning immanent justice, that good things happen to good people, and conversely, that bad things tend to happen to bad people.
  • • Cognitive biases and enculturation facilitate the widespread endorsement of immanent justice reasoning.

Research case study: The coexistence of natural and supernatural explanations for illness

Developmental psychologist Cristine Legare was intrigued by Evans-Pritch- ard’s early observations about how the Azande reason about the causes of events. Drawing from her background in cross-cultural and developmental psychology, Legare noted that access to natural as well as supernatural explanations is not confined to the Azande. Legare noted the distinct parallels between Evans-Pritchard’s observations of reasoning about misfortune in Zandleland and the presence of both biological and supernatural explanations for the transmission and cure of illnesses in parts of the world where serious diseases are prevalent. For example, in parts of South Africa, although people have access to information about the transmission of the AIDS virus, supernatural accounts of infection based on witchcraft are also disseminated.

Legare wondered whether biological knowledge supplants supernatural explanations. In other words, one possibility is that people use supernatural explanations until they acquire an adequate understanding of biological reasons. Another option is that people use both supernatural and natural frameworks, but here, little was known about how people used these types of explanations. For instance, supernatural and natural frameworks may remain distinct and alternative views of the world that are recruited to explain specific types of events, or they may be used jointly to explain the same phenomenon. Based on Evans-Pritchard’s observations and the research on chronic illness, Legare expected the latter. Yet only a detailed and systematic series of studies, which compared different ways of coexistence thinking, would provide concrete evidence for this and information about how, precisely, they coexist at the same time.

Legare and colleagues thus investigated how children and adults reasoned about the cause and spread of AIDS among two communities in South Africa, where discourse about AIDS is prevalent.113 The communities Legare worked with had both knowledge of biomedical explanations for AIDS (e.g. contaminated blood) and supernatural frameworks of understanding (e.g. bewitchment). Also, research with communities other than the Azande would speak to the question of whether, and to what extent, coexistence reasoning appears cross-culturally. Furthermore, by conducting studies with children and adults, Legare and her colleagues were able to understand the development of coexistence reasoning over time.

In one series of studies, Legare and her team asked children and adults to reason about the likelihood of different types of explanations for the contraction of AIDS. They found that all participants gave biological explanations, and almost all (93 percent) gave at least one bewitchment explanation throughout the study. Based on these findings, they concluded that bewitchment explanations were more flexible and idiosyncratically employed than biological explanations. Importantly, they also found a difference between the type of cause that participants endorsed. Proximate explanations are like the “why.” In the case of the granary, this was the termites eating the wood, and in the case of cancer, this is the cell dividing at an alarming rate. They focus on the closest causal explanation to the event. By contrast, distal accounts concentrate more on the “how” questions; they focus on the most distant, or ultimate, causal explanation of the event. In other words, witchcraft caused the termites to eat the wood at that precise time, or that by getting cancer, God had a purpose for the individual.

In Legare’s study, most participants identified a proximate natural cause for contracting AIDS, (e.g. having unprotected sex), and the distal cause was supernatural (e.g. reasoning that witches distorted your sense of sound judgment). Furthermore, participants often combined both types of statements in a precise fashion to explain contracting AIDS, referred to as integrated thinking. For example, participants provided reasons such as “a witch can make a condom weak and break,” “jealousy and spells, people sent someone with AIDS to sleep with him,” and “the people that hated her paid the witches to put the virus in her path.”

Both children and adults reasoned about the causes of AIDS similarly, and adults were even more likely than children to cite supernatural causes.

From her research, Legare argued that bewitchment explanations were neither the result of ignorance nor replaced by biological explanations. Instead, they coexist to explain particular aspects of illness. Furthermore, the combination of biological and natural reasoning about events are not naive ways of thinking that we grow out of, but rather, are robust default explanatory frameworks that are supported by enculturation. As she and others who have studied the development of causal reasoning have discovered both biological and supernatural explanations are found in many different cultures on diverse topics, including evolutionary and creationist accounts of the origin of species among Americans and Europeans.

Discussion questions

  • 1 In your own words, summarize the claims Legare is making.
  • 2 What are the differences and similarities between Legare’s research and previous research (e.g. Evans-Pritchard’s research) on coexistence reasoning?
  • 3 What do you think demarks this research as typical of the CSR approach to religion?
  • 4 What are the implications of this research on the religion-as-irrational thesis proposed by new atheists (covered earlier in the chapter)?

Further reading

  • 1 Legare, Cristine H., and Susan A. Gelman. “Bewitchment, biology, or both: The coexistence of natural and supernatural explanatory frameworks across development.” Cognitive Science 32, no. 4 (2008): 607-642.
  • 2 Watson-Jones, Rachel E., Justin T.A Busch, and Cristine H. Legare. “Interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives on explanatory coexistence.” Topics in Cognitive Science 7, no. 4 (2015): 611-623.
  • 3 Busch, Justin ТА, Rachel E. Watson-Jones, and Cristine H. Legare. “The coexistence of natural and supernatural explanations within and across domains and development.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology 35, no. 1 (2017): 4-20.
  • 4 C.H. Legare and A. Shtulman (2017). “Explanatory pluralism across cultures and development.” In J. Proust and M. Fortier, eds. Metacognitive Diversity. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
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