A new fractionation approach to religion and morality

Psychologist Ryan McKay and anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse propose a new approach to understanding the connection between religion and morality. Their work builds upon prior approaches in CSR by fractionating the category of religion (Chapter 2: Core Assumptions). They argue that morality must also be fractionated, and that prosociality—which is often used in social psychological studies as a proxy for morality—is an inadequate measure of morality.

McKay and Whitehouse’s model involves two necessary procedures. First, the categories of religion and morality must be decomposed into theoretically grounded elements. Second, theorists ought to consider the complex interplay between cognition and culture in the development and expression of these elements. In short, researchers must first fractionate the categories of religion and morality and then establish connections between the components. These procedures are outlined in more detail below.

Researchers must fractionate the categories of religion and morality into theoretically grounded elements

We discussed how cognitive scientists of religion conceptualize religion in Chapter 2 (Core Assumptions). To recap, cognitive scientists of religion propose those general theories of what constitutes religion are unreliable and biased. Take the analogy of sport to help explain the fundamental problem they have with questions about religion. Imagine trying to answer the question of whether sport serves a particular function. It is true that in all cultures, people like to play and engage in exercise, but the differences in the configurations of these things across cultures are enormous. In some places, contests are competitive and draw in large crowds, in other places, they take the form of teams competing against one another, and in other places, the aim is for an individual to improve their physical skills. Where does sport begin and end?

As anthropologist Pascal Boyer puts it, the question is not worth pursuing, as it is a matter of terminology, not as a substantive understanding of what people do in these circumstances.64 Likewise, asking whether religion makes one moral depends upon how one defines religion and morality. Since these are, like sport, not naturally occurring categories, they are defined based mainly on a person’s viewpoint and experience, and in the modern west, what we consider as religious or moral most likely differs from how people in other parts of the world conceptualize these categories.

For these reasons above, cognitive scientists of religion take an alternative approach to study religion by fractionating religious systems into their constituent components. Key candidates to be explained are typically those that seem to recur across cultures, such as concepts of non-visible agents, punitive deities, continued consciousness in the afterlife, and ritualized behavior. The underlying assumption is that recurrent ideas and practices are underpinned by various psychological propensities that are reassembled in culturally contingent ways. For instance, ideas about places and people as having a purpose are based on the tendency for humans to engage in teleological reasoning. Assumptions that supernatural agents have minds are made possible by our capacity and inclination towards mentalizing agents generally.

McKay and Whitehouse have argued that we should study morality in much the same way CSR scholars research religion. Like religion, morality consists of many components. It can also mean different things to different people and labeling certain behaviors as moral or immoral may well depend upon judgments about the person, motivation, and situation. Scholars seem to circumvent the definitional problems of studying morality by investigating prosociality. Yet McKay and Whitehouse find this term equally unsatisfactory in its current usage. The standard social psychological usage focuses on pleasant, neighborly aspects of behavior such as generosity and trust. By contrast, evolutionary scholars tend to use the term prosociality' to mean behavior that furthers the interests of a particular group (whether or not this disadvantages another group). Yet scholars are seldom explicit about what, precisely, their use of the term prosociality designates.

The lack of upfront conceptualizations is especially problematic because depending on which definition is used, the same behavior can be labeled either prosocial or not. For instance, murder and even genocide can be viewed as prosocial according to the evolutionary conceptualization of the term because they facilitate success in intergroup competition. Even more importantly, the term has implications for testing theories of religion and morality. For instance, harming an out-group member may be labeled as either prosocial or immoral and used to provide evidence for or against the hypothesis that religion enhances prosodality.

At the core of this new approach is the assumption that religion and morality are not unitary things, but rather, are multifaceted.65 McKay and Whitehouse propose to fractionate both religion and morality in an attempt to understand the relationship between the two better. Unlike most other researchers, they do not assume that the relationship between religion and morality is unidirectional. Instead, they consider worthy of scholarship questions about which features of religion influence the expression of human virtues, and how moral representations amplify and constrain the activation of religious intuitions.

McKay and Whitehouse point out that the fractionation approach they propose works only when the elements are theoretically grounded in levels that account for the influence of both cognition and culture. They criticize other scholars for operationalizing religion or morality as purely psychological systems or cultural notions. For instance, recall the work of researchers such as Bloom and de Waal, who have investigated the precursors to morality in babies and other primates. These researchers have concluded that religion is not necessary for morality. Yet, they assume that morality is located in a set of evolved psychological mechanisms, for example, recall the discussions earlier in the chapter about the biological predispositions that underpin morality, such as feelings of empathy. Further, the same authors operationalize religion as a set of cultural notions; they do not seek out the potential psychological foundations. Work in GSR has demonstrated that although religion is culturally learned, to grasp such cultural concepts and transmit them to others is rooted in early emerging cognitive capacities and preferences.

On McKay and Whitehouse’s account, the formation of religious and moral traits is a product of both cognitive-developmental and socio-historical processes. For instance, the capacity to empathize with others’ pain may be located in the neural structures of infants’ brains. However, environmental cues help shape these structures and culturally distributed norms about what is the right course of action in certain circumstances that affect their expression. Processes at each of these levels influence the nature and targets of empathy in society, influencing people’s willingness to tolerate harming behaviors such as warfare and enslavement, for example. The same combination of cognition and culture is also valid for religious concepts. For example, the genetic capacity to process information about mental events may undergird developmental pathways for mind-body dualism. However, this tendency is also shaped and constrained by cultural concepts and their histories, such as notions of bodiless agents.

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