Robert McCauley – Why Religion is Natural (And Science is Not)

December 05, 2011

Over the last decade, there have been many calls in the secular community for increased criticism of religion, and increased activism to help loosen its grip on the public.

But what if the human brain itself is aligned against that endeavor?

That’s the argument made by cognitive scientist Robert McCauley in his new book, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.

In it, he lays out a cognitive theory about why our minds, from a very early state of development, seem predisposed toward religious belief—and not predisposed towards the difficult explanations and understandings that science offers.

If McCauley is right, spreading secularism and critical thinking may always be a difficult battle—although one no less worthy of undertaking.

Dr. McCauley is University Professor and Director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture at Emory University. He is also the author of Rethinking Religion and Bringing Ritual to Mind.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, December 5th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and the grassroots. My guest this week is Robert Macaulay, author of the new book Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not in It. He lays out a cognitive theory about why our minds from a very early state of development seem predisposed toward religious belief and not predisposed toward the kind of difficult explanations that science offers. Dr. McCauley is university professor and director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Culture at Emory University. In addition, he is the author of Rethinking Religion and Bringing Ritual to Mind. Robert McCauley, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks for having me. 

It’s great to have you to discuss. Really, really fascinating book. And I guess I’ll just dove in asking you to lay out sort of the big picture. Then we’ll get into some more details, if I understand it. Your theory is that the human brain is in a sense and if you degree with this phrasing, built for religion, hardwired for religion. But in any case, whether you would agree with those phrasings or not, the reason seems to be that it’s because religion lines up pretty well with some basic instincts that we have that we learned very young in terms of how we interact with the world. 

Yeah, I like the last version of the way you put it best. The position is one that basically says that religions typically engage a lot of very, very natural propensities of human minds, that, you know, whether they are hardwired, whether they are innate or whether or not they are just characteristic features of almost all humans, natural cognitive development. 

They are clearly present and. 

And my suggestion is that religion, in short, engages them and that science certainly not only does not engage them, but indeed quite regularly tends to overthrow them and their deliverances. 

OK, well, let’s let’s talk about what some of these I don’t know, shall we call them instinct’s cues, heuristics, what they are, because your explanation fits very well into this whole framework that’s become quite famous that I everyone associates with Daniel Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize for it, which is that we have System one thinking in System two thinking system one is sort of quick, fast, dirty and intuitive. And you don’t even know you’re doing it in system two is actually where we engage in elaborate thoughts, like what you’d have to do if you wanted to solve a math problem. So you’re saying that religion is really appealing to system one in a way. 

Yeah, and Ray, actually, they’re economists distinctions perfectly usable here as well. 

That’s right. 

I’m saying that religion involves system one thinking, intuitive thinking, rapid sort of immediate insight, as it were, that we typically feel we have our understanding. 

I should add, though, that I think that, in fact, there are two types of system. 

One thinking and this is a distinction that I drive home in the book by distinguishing between a last somewhat unwieldy terms, but nonetheless a distinction between what I call practiced naturalness as opposed to maturation or naturalist’s. And it’s the maturation of the systems that I’m concerned about. I mean, we we can develop system long capacities in areas where we have just a tremendous amount of experience. It’s basically an expertize effect. But that’s not the kind of system one thinking I’m talking about. I’m talking about these capacities that, as I’ve said, seem to be a fairly normal part of human cognitive development. 

Okay, so let’s just clarify this a little more. If I understand it, on the one hand, you’d be talking about learning a skill like a golfer gets really good at having instincts or a soccer player just kicks. You know, I mean. Or a musician. Their hands move really fast. 

And that’s that’s not what you’re talking about. What you’re talking about is sort of more innate automatic responses that every child in every culture has at age one or two. 

Yeah, and perhaps even more so that that are surely in place by the time that children typically are about five or six, roughly what looks to be what people describe as school age, the world over. 

And I think that’s not a coincidence. In short, I think that basically, you know, educators all over have realized that there are a variety of these capacities that sort of need to develop. 

And at that point, then the child is as ready as it were, is ready to undertake a kind of systematic approach to economize notion of system to type knowledge, that is to say, the slower, more reflective, thoroughly conscious forms of knowledge and learning. 

Well, let’s give an example, if you would, of how you know, these quick and dirty impulses that you say are in place by May five or six. How does that predispose one towards a religious belief or religious outlook, etc.? 

How does that work? 

Well, maybe I can hearken back to your initial comment about my my brief hesitation about the initial way I should put it. I’m I’m not really saying that human minds are hardwired for religion. 

I’m saying, in fact, they’re naturally develop in ways that lead us to solve all kinds of problems. And it turns out that religions have evolved in a way that ends up engaging those systems. 

It’s no coincidence. Far and away, the most prominent is what the technical literature is called theory of mind. 

This notion that we really have evidence that form unfolds can detect intentional behavior from other sorts of events in the world. 

But very and this is just the first step in the development of an understanding that, you know, there are other people and that I guess a better way to put that would say that out there in the world of all the things there are, there are some things that have minds and some that don’t. 

And we learn very, very early on how to distinguish those. Well, you know, religion engages that. It leads us to all sorts of quick abilities to mind read again, sort of system one knowledge. 

And that, of course, is the is the lynchpin of of in effect, that at least the paradigm cases of of religions and the way they operate. There are additional agents posited. 

And those agents, of course, as soon as we know they’re agents, we know a whole bunch of things about them. 

We don’t have to sort of read any books or or learn any particular set of rules or doctrines, whether there are a whole bunch of things we know. If they’re agents, they carry out actions. They’ve got mental states. 

They have desires, beliefs, intentions, they’ve got likes and dislikes, preferences and so on. 

And on the basis of that, we can draw all sorts of inferences about their states of mind and their probable actions, as well as we can draw them about our hopes. 

We cross each day on the street. 

So in other words, we miss that tribute agency to things because we assume agency is all around us. 

In other words, I guess, would the analogy be then, you know, believing that the Greek gods are like humans or something like that and that they you know, they operate forces of nature. 

Out of human type of anger, impulses, reactions, etc.. 

Sure. I mean, the the broad notion of sort of that that the gods are, you know, in our image, as it were, is part of what I’m after. 

Stuart Guthrie in his book Faces in the Clouds, advances what he calls an anthropomorphic account. 

It’s probably the best recent version of a theory that’s been around for some time. 

But the suggestion goes a little further than that in that at least in the project I’m pursuing, and that is that this is one dimension of, as it were, intuitive mentality that religion engages. 

There are plenty of others. 

Everything from our knowledge about how to handle hazards in our environments to. 

Language itself, kinship. 

Are a centralistic assumptions in biology, face recognition, moral intuitions on and on and on. These are all, I think, intuitive systems that. 

Develop and Nora Hurley developing human beings that in effect, religions end up engaging. 

Which is to say, they Cuvee Systems. 

And on the basis of cueing them, there’s a whole bunch of knowledge we just get for free. It’s just default knowledge that is built into these intuitive systems, as you quite nicely said at the outset. And then, I mean, this is in effect, mostly knowledge we don’t even realize we have. 

I want to remind our listeners that Robert McCauley’s new book, Why Religion is Natural in Science is Not, is available through our Web site Point of inquiry, dawg. Well, there are a lot of possible examples in there. 

And I do recall from your book the one about the content, bodily contaminants, the sense of disgust. I mean, this is a system where I assume you’re you’re reacting automatically like that seems icky. I don’t want that near me. I need to protect the integrity of my body. How does how does a religion play to that? 

Well, sure. And again, just a quick footnote before I directly address your question, and that is, is that this is knowledge that children have by the time they’re three or four years of age. You know, when I was a kid, there was, I think, called playing cooties. But how does that work? Well, the point is, is that once we know something is a contaminant, we know a whole bunch of principles that apply here. 

There’s some marketing research by Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, for example. 

But a single touch is enough to contaminate someone and indeed to contaminate them fully. So we understand also how to cure these systems. 

So, for example, if someone’s walking across a place and suddenly diverts their path in a very deliberate way and then after a while returns to the original direction that they were proceeding, we and certainly, for example, with, you know, arming themselves around a hazard or a contaminant. 

But the way religions do this is that’s just the way they mark off sacred spaces, which is to say that people feel with a certain space in exactly that same way and choose us and we’re capable. 

Then this system kicks in. We have all these influences. We know so. I remember one touches enough to contaminate. So, you know, there are things that we don’t touch there. 

I a quick footnote about this one, and that is that this is one that I think actually religion sort of inverts, which is to say it’s not that the sacred space or the sacred object is the contaminant, quite to the contrary. Where are the contaminants? 

And it’s only people with very special sorts of properties who, you know, can easily traverse those spaces at anytime or deal with those sacred objects. Typically, priests or holy persons, but. 

The same set of inferences are applied, and it’s why people don’t have to be instructed about these things. They know how to conduct themselves in such settings. 

OK, well, so if we’re talking about keeping ourselves pure, I mean, in all these cases, frankly, you have to imagine, one asked, imagine are listeners of our show will imagine that we have these instincts or impulses for very good evolutionary reasons. 

And so that naturally leads to the question of whether there’s something about religion that is itself evolved or, you know, inherently part of us. And so what is your view on that? 

Well, I think that because of this variety of proclivities and especially the pension for sort of. 

Appealing to agent causality in the absence of any other kind of explanation available to us, I think that to that extent they’re there. It’s fair to say that there is a sort of disposition that quite rarely leaves us. Well, Sara, I should say a susceptibility in effect, that that leads us in religious directions. 

I mean, it’s not as if this is a surprise. I mean, we we. 

Deploy a theory of mind and all sorts of situations that we face in life, from talking to our computers to at least back in the days when I used to live in the north and the cold of the winter, urging our cars to start as if they were persons. As if those that kind of interaction would somehow have some sort of causal influence. 

That all comes pretty naturally. 

And I’m not trying to say that it’s inevitable that every human mind will always act on these these impulses or on these dispositions. 

But it certainly is the case that in populations of human beings, ideas that fit these sorts of frameworks pop up. 

And I am suggesting that they are they will always pop up and they do. And and they gain a certain currency. And that itself is an evolutionary process. 

I think at a different level, not about, you know, the evolution of individual organisms, but rather more along the lines of evolution of ideas and evolution of culture. 

Well, I’m just calling to mind, I can’t not call the mind, you know, having read a lot of Darwin, there’s this great passage and I believe it’s in the descent of man where he talks about a curtain rustling and a dog is in the room and the dog barks at the curtain because it thinks that there’s a person there that’s causing the rustling, but it’s just the wind. And in a sense, that’s, you know, that’s agency attributed by a nonhuman rights. 

So that’s that’s what I mean by saying. Are these things evolved in that sense? 

Sure. I mean, what that kind of incident is a perfect illustration of is as cueing a particular kind of perceptual system in the dog. Got a particular reaction to motion. I mean, it is indeed irregular motion. That is one of the most standard ways by means of which we detect animacy, things that are alive. 

And then if that motion looks like it’s at all goal directed, things that have goals and if things have goals, then they may at least be a subset of them, at least may be things that have intentional space. 

And sure, it’s a very nice analogy. 

Well, Darwin was good at those zoo. This then leads Darwin’s a good transition, right? 

Then the fruits of science that we eventually arrive at arrive that unless, you know, 500 years, they are then cognitively unnatural. And let’s let’s go through some example of examples of those. I think you say very, very nicely that we all accept Copernican ism, although actually I’m not sure we all do accept Copernican ism. But even those of us that do certainly still say that the sun rises and sets. So in a sense, we’ll never kind of get over that. 

Yeah, lots of these sort of folk conceptions, you know, the idioms persist. But you’re quite right about the Copernican case. In fact, we typically don’t look at the sky as Copernicus and I talk in the book actually following some suggestions made couple decades ago by Paul Churchwomen, one of his books, Scientific Realism of the Plasticity of Mind that. 

In fact, if we do constrain ourselves and it does take a fair amount of frankly, rational effort to do so, to actually look at the night sky as a Copernican, among the results is that it will, in fact induce vertigo, which is to say you’ll you’ll almost feel like you’ll suddenly realize that you’re sticking on directly perpendicular to the side of a huge round ball. And it will feel like nothing to hold me up. But yeah, I mean, the suggestion is, is that in contrast to religion, which, you know, gets attention by sort of making minor little modifications, minor little counterintuitive moves in any particular sort of religious myth or something like that. 

So, you know, a violation of our assumptions about the way the physical universe works or about how biology works or about how psychology works. So the reading of minds or, you know, somebody who is a mortal or someone and. Go fast distances or penetrate walls or things like that. 

Those are, I’m suggesting, actually really rather modestly intuitive representations. 

By contrast, what I’m suggesting is, is that science, in fact, deploys radically counter intuitive representations, indeed ones that are so. Much against the grain of deliverances of these intuitive systems that they sometimes, in fact, in effect, overthrow them. That is to say that the view that we get of various parts of the world that science offers us is a view that is actually finally contrary to the delivery system systems. 

And again, that would presumably be because we evolved in this in a way where we never had to perceive the scale that science is using in order to understand things, I would think. 

Right. So in evolution, it’s giant stretches of time. Explain how you can break down the essence of an organism and actually have a continuum between different kinds of organisms. But there’s no reason that human beings would have evolved to perceive these vast kinds of stretches of time. And of course, with physics, it’s it’s a different kind of vastness or vastness of speed or something like that. Right. I mean, so in some sense, that’s why science is unnatural. 

Well, it yeah. 

I mean, it’s certainly the case that in order to test most of our scientific hypotheses, we it turns out we have. Well, we have to go to either much, much larger scales or sometimes much, much Scott, smaller scales, things that are too far away for us to sort of see with our, you know, their natural perceptual equipment, in contrast, and sometimes things that are too close to the experience of actually being able to sort of have sensations of the veins in your eyes when you go after images and such like. 

Well, I mean, that gives us a clue that there’s something there to be seen, but we can’t easily see it. 

So quite rarely, scientific experiments construct extremely bizarre environments because all the theories are perfectly good for sort of explaining the stuff that that makes sense or other that we deal with on a fairly ordinary basis with kind of regular, medium sized objects here on the surface of the Earth. 

But scientists quite routinely have to construct very unusual environments in order to test these theories, merits and their ability to sort of explain phenomena in those and rather from our standpoint, exotic environments as well. 

Let me remind our listeners again, the Robert McCauley’s new book, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, is available through our Web site. A point of inquiry dot org. 

So one question that I had browsing through your book, and this is the kind of question I sort of always ask. I can’t resist. Is that okay? 

Some religions, national science is not. But is every person the same? With respect to their proclivities towards one or the other, because I was just browsing as it happened in context of my own research, a twin study that showed strong genetic explanation for the if I can get this right, genes explained a large percentage of the variance in whether people were born again and whether people adopted conservative religiosity. 

And people don’t like to think that that’s true. But it seems like you compare twins and you find that religiosity, the proclivity is got a genetic component to it. 

Yeah, I’m I’m not a behavioral geneticist, but I’m very much impressed by so much of the work that’s done. And so when I hedge about language of hardwiring or an aid or genetically grounded, it’s not because I reject that view. 

It’s just because I don’t feel confident enough about how to assess all the evidence that arises there. But the sorts of examples like the one that you’re citing right now are quite striking. 

One of the things that I say in the book is, is that, you know, my justification for writing yet another book on science and religion is basically I have two justifications. 

And that is that, first of all, by looking at their cognitive foundations, I think I’m doing something that no one has ever done before. 

Typically, the focus is on metaphysics, epistemology. 

And the second is to say that I have what I call seven surprises at the end of the book. 

And one of those surprises is precisely to say that there, I think, are differences in human minds and in susceptibility to short to religious ideas. 

I’ve emphasized the theory of mind plays such a central role, that is to say this detection of agents and drawing inferences about agents, minds and intentions and actions. And then I suggest in the book that I think that if that’s the case, then if theory of mind is something that can be disarmed or undone in a human mind, then we would have reason to believe that person is in such a situation, might find religion a lot more difficult to understand and to deal with and to make sense of. And in short, you know, what I’m describing is. 

People who are incapable of literature sometime it’s called mentalizing. And that is a characteristic description of people with autism. 

Autists don’t. 

Seem to have the kind of facility that the rest of us do and understanding which things around them have minds and how those those minds work. 

If that’s the case, then I suspect they would be no better dealing with. Putative mines that are attached to entities that are not even visible. 

There are proposals, of course, that suggest that theory of mind is a module that is to say, a kind of isolated, functionally specific system. The notion of a sort of a module coming loose, whether by genetic means or reasons or grounds or other kinds of causes, would seem to suggest that that’s a possibility. But no others. 

We certainly talk about an autistic spectrum, and that leads to another kind of related finding. 

Out there, it turns out in the general population that there there seemed to be some small but with large enough populations, real differences on average between males and females on this front. And interestingly enough, it seems to correspond with a well-known finding in the sociology of religion, which is to say that. 

Pretty reliably in just about every culture that this has been examined. 

Women tend to show higher levels of sort of religiosity, religious participation, religious activity, religious thoughts and so on. 

And then males do again on average. 

This may fit into this picture after all. 

Spurger, Hongs Asperger, when he first wrote the original paper on autism, suggested that all tests were people who had what he called, quote, hyper male minds and minds that aren’t great at necessarily handling the theory of mind matters. 

Better have other sorts of strengths and rather different sort. 

I’m suggesting this may pertain to susceptibility to religious ideas. 

Well, I certainly know based on psychology of personality that I think that one of the traits is agreeableness and one component of that is empathy. And women definitely score better on empathy. I think that that’s that’s sort of accepted in that field as well. But I don’t I don’t I don’t know where to take that suggestion beyond that. Let me let me suggest a different way in which we might vary. That was just popping into my head based upon reading your book. 

I mean, to go back to system one and system two, you know, a lot of these the systems that seem to predispose us towards religious inferences are these quick and dirty systems. So, you know, do people might people not diverge on whether they get to second stage thinking system, too, which is, of course, more deliberative, more rational? This is sort of, you know, engaging the prefrontal cortex, basically. I mean, could there be just a difference in terms of how much people rely on heuristics and cues versus how much people? Use cognition, as we typically think of it. 

Well, I think there is any question that there are differences. 

I’m not sure that those are much rooted in nature as they are in culture today, that this is an awful lot about what an education is about and getting you know, as I said, it is no coincidence that we typically don’t sort of carry on formal education with with populations of kids and these older six or seven years of age. 

But at that point, it’s the exercise of a tremendous focus on sort of the system to type thought, that is to say, the conscious reasoning and learning and you know how well that develops and how adept people become with those kinds of skills or are very, very much what I would call practice naturalist’s. 

That’s I mean, education is practice. Education is practice at all sorts of cognitive tasks, from doing mathematical problems to learning how to carry out inferences in a more formal sense. So, yeah, my own I think there’s any question that there are differences. 

The problem, of course, is, is that, as you correctly noted and I do cite some of the work of condiments or Askey in the book, but not just them. 

I mean, what they show is, is that it turns out that our practice gives us new capacities, new rational capacities, new cognitive capacities. 


We’re remarkably floored even in using those, and that, I want to suggest, is one of the reasons why science isn’t natural and why it’s so hard to do and so difficult to attain and so incredibly complicated and complex to sort of do successfully, because it requires a mastery of all sorts of cognitive skills of these sorts. And they’re ones that humans, even experts, can have lapses at. 

There are lots of reasons for those lapses, not the least of which is sort of the fact that those system one deliverances will just keep intruding. 

There’s good research about this with respect, for example, to people’s understanding of just basic mechanics. 

You know, throwing balls to dropping things and what the trajectories will be. And it turns out that even folks who’ve taken courses in physics, when you present them with these very common, ordinary problems with somewhat unsettling frequency, lots of folks, the educational sort of. 

Background just goes out the window and they go right back to these intuitive systems. 

Mike McCloskey at Johns Hopkins University is a person who’s done some very, very interesting research on this front. 

And then to get to what you what you say at the end of the book is that for all these reasons, science will always occupy a bit of a precarious state. 

You say I am going to quote this because I think it sort of really left me with a lump in my stomach. I mean, you said one consequence of the position I’ve been defending is that nothing about human nature would ever prevent the loss of science again. 

You know, science. If we look at the entire history of our species and one might say the entire e-mail, let alone the prehistory of our species. Science is a comparatively rare activity in human cultures. Its pervasiveness or at least its prominence in our in our current culture notwithstanding, and in many virtually all the developed first world countries. 

But arguably, you know, even across populations today, around the world, it’s comparatively rare thing even in those societies and cultures that support it. It’s carried out by a very small minority of people who are able and had the means to and the desire to dedicate themselves to the kind of long education that that curing, you know, being a professional level scientist requires the acquisition of. 

But when we start looking back in human history, the scarcity, its rarity becomes even more stark and obvious. 

Mean you alluded to the. 

Modern scientific revolution of the 17th century, 16th and 17th century. 

Of course, there’s a long history prior to that. 

And prominently we sometimes talk about the Muslims, the Arabs who inherited some of the ancient Greeks scientific texts. 

And you know about some of the ancient. 

Some of those ancient Greek texts. 

Other than that, we’ve got a few records of sort of astronomical work and other ancient cultures. 

But, of course, in China. But it’s. There’s a lot of the world I haven’t even mentioned and there wasn’t science going on in those parts of the world. 

So, yeah, I’m suggesting that, you know, at least one sort of story about the history of science that’s been told has been that in effect, there was science created by the ancient Greeks and at least in the western Christian world, it was lost. 

And it was only by way of connection with the. 

Ancient Greeks text to the evil Arab world that, in effect, there was a stimulus for a rebirth of science. And yeah. 

I mean, my suggestion is precisely that. I don’t think there’s anything about the character of human mind that guarantees us that science will continue. 

It’s a very complicated and and cause of. 

All these floors of human minds. 

It’s a very complex social arrangement that that really is required for sustaining and in the long run. 

And one one less mentioned on, I guess it’s explicit. But you make it explicit and this OK. I think it says this will be my last question, too. Is it just as science is not at all necessarily assured based on the human mind, but in it? But you also say that religion kind of is and science doesn’t really pose any threat to as a rule. Religious people shouldn’t worry too much. I mean, you know, they’ve got they’ve got the upper hand. Science is never going to vanquish them. 

Well, yeah. In short, that is what I’m arguing. Religion, to the extent that it relies on these natural capacities, is inevitably going to persist. Religions, Traficon, ideas that appeal to human minds. Science, by contrast, does not do so at all. This is not to say that everyone’s going to be religious, but it is to say that religion is going to arise in human populations. 

This is a lesson the communists never seem to understand. They were always trying to suppress it. But, you know, you sure as a present one place it pops up in another. 

Well, you know, on that note, I think this has been a really, really, really fascinating discussion. A lot of food for thought. And I think our listeners are really going to enjoy trying to figure out why the science itself of why science canto is persists. 

So on that note, Robert McCauley, it’s been really great to have you on point of inquiry. Well, thanks very much for having me. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about this show. Please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry, dawg. 

Of Inquiry is produced by Adam and Embers. New York, Our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael. This show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney