Philosophical and theological implications of CSR

Since the 1990s the number of empirical projects in CSR has grown exponentially. As research has grown, so too has the amount of attention paid to the implications of the approach. In this section, we review these implications.

Philosophical and theological questions in response to CSR research

The philosopher Justin McBrayer has provided an overview of the philosophical and theological issues that often arise as a result of theories and research in CSR.1' He divides these into three categories, outlined below:

1 The nature and success of explanations of religion in CSR

The first type of issue concerns the nature and success of explanations of religion in CSR. We have already covered some of these throughout this chapter and in Chapter 1 (Introduction). They include questions about whether, and how, research supports theories about religion (e.g. does research support an MCI theory of religious transmission?13 Is the belief in “Big Gods” adaptive?14), the type of conclusions reached (e.g. can we conclude that religion is intuitive or natural?15), and the nature and success of empirical explanations of religion in general (e.g. what are the strengths and weaknesses of a reductionist account of religion?16)

2 Metaphysical implications of explanations of religion in CSR

The second type of issue concerns the metaphysical implications of explanations of religion in CSR. These include implications for the nature of humanity and the nature of the divine (e.g. does research reveal a bias towards some conceptions of the divine?) Philosophers of religion, in particular, have begun to consider these implications in detail.1' For instance, philosopher Helen De Cruz and colleagues have applied the findings of CSR to an array of important issues. These issues include the compatibility of CSR findings with philosophers of religion, who have often made claims about the nature of religion (including the naturalness of religion) and how religious thought relates to other beliefs. For instance, the question of whether religious and scientific theories are compatible.18

CSR has focused mostly on the content biases that underlie the successful transmission of religious concepts. One claim by De Cruz is that there is more continuity between cross-culturally widespread religious ideas and official theological beliefs than recognized. Therefore, CSR also has implications for the acquisition and transmission of theological beliefs that ought to be further explored.1


Key points

Three kinds of philosophical and theological issues arise from CSR:

  • 1 The nature and success of explanations of religion in CSR.
  • 2 Metaphysical implications of explanations of religion in CSR.
  • 3 Epistemic questions about the implications of CSR explanations of religion for the truth, rationality, or justification of religious beliefs.

Findings from CSR speak to predictions about the future of religion. Specifically, they render the hypothesis that religion is going to go away implausible. First, the definition of religion in CSR is more inclusive of ideas and practices beyond the “big five” traditions, so while the number of people affiliated with institutionalized forms of religion may decline, this does not equate to the disappearance of religiosity. From the perspective of the evolutionary cognitive sciences, religion, as broadly construed, is here to stay because humans have a psychological propensity to engage in such ideas and behaviors.

3 The cognitive science of religion cannot determine whether religion is true or false

The third response from cognitive scientists of religion on the relationship between CSR and religious beliefs comes from the methodological framework employed to study religion. Cognitive scientists of religion abide by the commitment to methodological naturalism, which is the basic idea that only the “human side” of religious ideas and experiences can be studied in naturalistic tenns. CSR scholars are interested in understanding how and why humans respond to ideas that are deemed religious, rather than decipher whether or not those ideas are true or false (i.e. ontological status).

Researchers naturally have their commitments and dispositions towards religion. In CSR, these dispositions are many and varied. Even though some scholars may offer their personal opinions on the reality of religion in their writings, this does not mean that CSR, in general, supports their opinion. Most importantly, when scholars conduct research, they bracket personal opinions. Research in CSR is guided by methods in science in much the same way that it governs other research outside of religious domains. Some doubt that a scientific study of religion will always be subject to the influence of religious concerns,30 while others have argued that a non-confessional and scientific approach to the study of religion in CSR is not only possible but has already occurred.31