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The Cognitive Science of Religion

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. He specializes in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.

Learn about 13 important ways in which cognitive science has uncovered the psychological underpinnings of religion.

Learn about 13 important ways in which cognitive science has uncovered the psychological underpinnings of religion.

Why Does Religion Exist?

Religion is a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon that has inspired and perplexed philosophers, psychologists, and social commentators for centuries. The cognitive science of religion is the most recent attempt to decipher its role in the world. It puts aside theistic and atheistic biases and tries to understand the psychology underpinning religious thought, belief, and behavior.

The cognitive science of religion asks the following important questions:

  • Why is religion cross-culturally popular?
  • Which cognitive mechanisms ensure its popularity?
  • How did these cognitive mechanisms evolve?
  • Which psychological traits dispose us to religious belief and behavior?

Of principal concern is how religion became so pervasive when it encourages behaviors that are a costly use of time and resources (prayer, ritual, meditation, sacrifice, etc.). Would natural selection favor such wasteful endeavor, or is our attraction and commitment to religious ideas a byproduct of other adaptive traits? The rest of this article summarizes key findings in the cognitive science of religion.

Why waste time on elaborate rituals when survival is more important?

Why waste time on elaborate rituals when survival is more important?

1. Gods Capture our Attention and Memory

Some stories are so memorable that they resonate within cultures for millennia. Pascal Boyer and Charles Ramble suggested that stories that violate our basic intuitions about how the world works are particularly captivating and memorable.

They performed an experiment to compare the memorability of intuitive and counterintuitive objects. The counterintuitive items included such things as a living person built from plaster and objects that don't like you staring at them.

They found that people from several different cultures were more likely to remember the counterintuitive objects. Boyer and Ramble surmised that religions enjoy a cultural advantage because their counterintuitive gods are attention-grabbing, memorable, and transmissible (people talk about them).

The experimenters also discovered an "optimum level" of bizarreness. Objects that are too counterintuitive are not well remembered, but objects that are minimally counterintuitive are "just right." For example, a god that is emotionally human and has one or two powers (e.g., it can read your mind and pass through walls) is more likely to be remembered than an inhuman god with dozens of counterintuitive features.

The inclusion of these mundane characteristics makes the god memorable because it allows inferences to be drawn about what the god is thinking, how it will behave, and how it will impact human life. Boyer and others have remarked that many religions employ such gods.

Minimally counterintuitive gods capture our attention and are memorable.

Minimally counterintuitive gods capture our attention and are memorable.

2. The Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)

A rustle in the bushes could be caused by a gust of wind or a falling branch. Noise in an old house could be caused by cooling pipes or a tree brushing against the structure. What it usually isn't is a monster or a poltergeist. However, the human brain is wired to predict the presence of a purposeful agent that caused the disturbance.

An explanation for this superstitious behavior can be found in our ancestral past, when people who made more false positives about potential threats were more likely to survive. This is because the cost of falsely assuming that a threat is present is negligible, while the cost of failing to detect a threat (such as a predator) could be fatal.

Simply put, it is better to be safe than sorry! As a result, natural selection appears to have endowed humans with an agency detection device that is "hyperactive." As well as monsters and poltergeists, people will chide "lady luck" when they experience misfortune, complain about gremlins in their machines when something breaks, and anthropomorphize animals and objects (i.e., give them more agency).

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Gods may be another example of our propensity to invent or exaggerate agency. Our need to understand the causes of miraculous and distressing events could lead us to see faces in the clouds and devils in the shadows.

The cognitive science of religion frequently draws on studies and findings from psychology, anthropology, and the social sciences. However, it is a collaborative field that accommodates neuroscience, evolutionary biology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, and ethology.

3. Anthropomorphism is Involuntary

Justin Barrett and Frank Keil discovered that people often try to make sense of counterintuitive gods by anthropomorphizing them. They asked 145 college students about their theological beliefs. Most described their god as perfectly omnipotent, omniscient, atemporal, and omnipresent; in line with what is prescribed by many religious traditions.

However, when asked to remember and comprehend narratives about God's actions in the world, people used anthropomorphic concepts that were inconsistent with their stated beliefs. God was given a physical form, with human senses, emotions, likes, and dislikes; his attention was limited to one location, he could be distracted by noise, and he was only capable of performing one action at a time.

People involuntarily distorted religious narratives and consistently misremembered their stated beliefs in favor of these more intuitive, anthropomorphic ideas. When their stated beliefs were highlighted by the experimenters, anthropomorphism was reduced.

The tendency to anthropomorphize is probably caused by a "theory of mind" module in the human brain, which helps us to recognize and infer the desires, beliefs, and intentions of other people (e.g., those who might deceive us). Much like the HADD and our intrigue for counterintuitive objects, the module appears to have been co-opted by religion, giving our gods an all-too-human personality.

Justin Barrett Discusses Science and Religion

4. Creationist Thinking is Natural

Deborah Kelemen has found that people have a tendency to find function, purpose, and design throughout their natural environment, even when there is none to be found. The tendency may occur more frequently in children, especially after they have developed a theory of mind, leading to statements such as "rocks are pointy to stop elephants from sitting on them.”

Sometimes called "teleofunctional reasoning," the tendency continues into adulthood, arising more often when there is limited time to compose one’s thoughts. The research suggests that people are "intuitive theists," which may facilitate belief in religions that propose creationist explanations for natural phenomena.

5. Religious Concepts Are Easily Communicated

Building on the notion of memes, Dan Sperber explained how religious ideas utilize our cognitive predispositions to ensure their cultural spread. Our tendencies to remember counterintuitive objects and to invent intentional agents are examples of predispositions that help to spread religious content.

Contrary to memetic theory, this content isn't transmitted intact. Rather, it is transformed by an individual's existing beliefs, predispositions, and desires (like the "telephone" game or "Chinese whispers"). For example, stories may be more likely to include counterintuitive objects over time. However, religious content may be transmitted more efficiently if it is publicly represented and receives institutional support (e.g., public displays of devotion, churches, and other social, political, and educational institutions).

Another factor that makes religion popular is the emotion that is elicited during public displays (e.g., rituals and worship). Intense emotion focuses the mind on its causes, making the experience memorable. Harvey Whitehouse found that rituals performed less frequently required an especially emotional experience to ensure their popularity.

Emotional experiences are more likely to be remembered.

Emotional experiences are more likely to be remembered.

6. Social Benefits and Dual Inheritance Theory

The previous sections imply that religion is no more than a cultural construction that is parasitic on human cognitive predispositions that evolved for other reasons (e.g., detecting agents and novelty in our environment, or understanding other minds and the purpose of objects). The following sections suggest that religion is more than this. These sections examine what may be the adaptive (i.e., naturally selected) social advantages of religious belief and behavior.

For example, if useful information that benefits society and helps it to survive (e.g., social norms or moral rules, such as "love thy neighbor") is included in a narrative, then the information will be communicated more effectively if the story includes a counterintuitive object. Religious narratives may therefore increase the prevalence and effectiveness of adaptive, pro-social information. This use of cognitive predispositions to promote adaptive behaviors that benefit one's genetic survival is an example of Dual Inheritance Theory. The following sections provide some examples of the phenomenon.

7. Religion Promotes Prosocial Behavior

Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan found that unconsciously priming people to think about gods, spirits, and prophets made them more likely to be generous in an economic game. Another compelling example emerged in the work of Jesse Bering. He found that when people were left alone to play a game, they were less likely to cheat when told that a ghost was in the room with them.

A further study looked at how religious rituals can motivate pro-social behavior. The researchers found that painful rituals in particular led to more charitable giving by participants and observers of the ritual.

These studies suggest that people are wary of the existence of punitive supernatural agents (e.g., wrathful gods) that monitor human behavior, and that we respond with increased displays of moral, prosocial, and cooperative behavior that benefits society. This behavior is almost certainly adaptive, meaning that it provides advantages that aid the survival of its adherents and the groups they belong to.

The Research of Jesse Bering

8. Religious Symbols, Cooperation, and Morality

Religions generate widespread consensus and commitment to a prescribed set of beliefs, ideas, and rituals. This lack of epistemic diversity within religious groups leads to increased cooperation, friendship, loyalty, and other prosocial benefits.

Such groups often adopt special symbols, tattoos, dress codes, and modes of greeting that serve as artificial cues of kinship. This reinforces group bonds and helps them to identify outsiders. It also signals their alliance to potential collaborators or belligerents.

The consensus found in religious groups naturally leads to agreement on moral issues. The group is able to form an unambiguous moral code, while individual believers receive an added incentive to behave morally to avoid supernatural punishment. This efficient path to collective obedience appears to be an adaptive advantage enjoyed by religious groups and civilizations.

9. Costly Displays of Commitment

A key question in the cognitive science of religion is: why do people devote time and resources to costly religious rituals or acts of worship that appear to have no adaptive function? Richard Sosis and Joseph Bulbulia proposed a solution called "costly signalling theory" in which religion's onerous practices demonstrate a performer's genuine commitment to their beliefs.

By performing this costly behavior, a religious believer is effectively signaling that they are moral, trustworthy, and a loyal, cooperative partner in the community. As a result, they receive increased social and trading opportunities from the community. In turn, the community benefits from having an easy way to distinguish contributors from free-riders (those who are not willing to perform the costly behavior).

Sosis and Bulbulia argue for something called "niche construction" in which widespread costly signalling gradually pushes a community towards greater cooperation. For example, Emma Cohen has found that religious rituals involving group-synchronous movement increased people's willingness to cooperate with each other and with non-participants. Such movements might include praying, singing, drumming, or dancing in unison. They determined that synchrony alone isn't enough and that a religious context is essential for seeing increased cooperation.

Other researchers have claimed that costly displays can bring in new believers too. Joseph Henrich suggests that people use costly signals as evidence of the credibility of the performer's beliefs. This overcomes the problem of individuals who hold one belief but espouse another. Henrich proposes that learners detect costly behavior, which he calls "credibility enhancing displays," and use it to assess how credible the performer's belief is, and thus, how much to commit to it themselves.

Dress-codes reinforce shared beliefs, social bonds, and cooperation.

Dress-codes reinforce shared beliefs, social bonds, and cooperation.

10. Palliative Benefits and Existential Anxiety

The following sections examine the role that religion might play in alleviating anxiety. As with the social benefits of religion, these sections about palliative benefits describe another way in which religion may be adaptive.

Anxiety is elicited when an uncontrollable or uncertain threat looms on the horizon. It is an unpleasant emotion that motivates precautionary behavior to restore control or certainty to the situation. Death is best described as an "existential anxiety" for this reason, and religious belief may be one way to restore control or at least offer some form of comfort.

Several experiments have measured the effect of existential anxiety on levels of religious belief. For example, Ara Norenzayan and Ian Hansen asked people to think about what would happen to them when they die. Afterward, people's level of belief in gods and other supernatural agents increased.

Some studies have replicated these results, finding increased belief among believers and atheists alike, but others have found that atheists show reduced belief in gods after thinking about death. Terror Management Theory claims that this is because atheists are responding to death anxiety with "worldview defense." Reducing their belief in deities reinforces their worldview, providing an alternative source of comfort.

Jamin Halberstadt and Jonathan Jong sought to understand the contradictory results. They confirmed that existential anxiety causes atheists to exhibit worldview defense when asked about explicit measures of religious belief, but, for implicit measures, there was a universal increase. Implicit beliefs operate automatically below the level of conscious awareness. For example, an atheist might explicitly deny the existence of souls and a higher power, but they will still be reluctant to sell their soul to someone or to "speak ill of the dead."

It is these implicit, unconscious, religious beliefs that appear to be strengthened by existential anxiety. It is likely that these implicit beliefs are the basis for similar explicit beliefs (e.g., in an afterlife), although atheists are an example of how implicit beliefs can be overridden with a worldview that may provide a comforting alternative.

11. Difficulty Simulating Being Dead

Jesse Bering found that most people (even atheists) intuitively attribute emotions, desires, and beliefs to the dead. For example, they will say a dead person still loves his wife, believes his wife loves him, and wants to be alive. However, they are far less likely to attribute biological qualities to the dead, such as hunger, thirst, sensory perception, or a functional brain.

This disparity and inability to mentally simulate "complete" death appears to be caused by an implicit belief that an essence or soul that encapsulates the important, psychological aspects of one's being survives death. Thus, it may be natural to believe in an afterlife and to utilize one's "theory of mind" to imagine a disembodied location for our thoughts, beliefs, and desires, and it may be nearly impossible to "switch off" our episodic memory and our propensity to envisage a future self.

A connection between this research and our intrigue for counterintuitive agents is apparent. As death is inescapable in our intuitive world, religious, paranormal, and superstitious beliefs offer a unique opportunity. By definition, counterintuitive agents circumvent the laws of reality, meaning they could provide their human allies with a way to circumvent death.

12. Other Anxieties Increase Religious Belief

Death isn't the only peril that can alter beliefs. Ian McGregor found that asking a group of people to read and comprehend a difficult passage about statistics was enough to make them anxious about looking foolish. The participants subsequently displayed stronger religious beliefs and superstitions than a control group. A different experiment made people anxious by asking them to remember uncontrollable events from their past. This lack of control led to increased belief in God as a controlling entity.

Neuroscience is a field that ties psychology to biological processes and structures in the brain. An experiment by Michael Inzlicht and his team found that asking people about their religious beliefs led to reduced distress when making errors during a subsequent Stroop task. The experimenters measured levels of distress by looking at the anterior cingulate cortex and saw less activity in response to errors when compared with a control group.

Another compelling study revealed that countries with less welfare (existential security) have higher levels of religious participation, while other investigators have found that negative emotions such as grief, guilt, and stress can strengthen religious belief, bringing increased life-satisfaction, happiness, self-esteem, and general well-being. These and similar works are explored within comfort theories of religion that focus on religion's palliative benefits.

13. Rituals Provide Comforting Control

People have a tendency to engage in ritual behavior when real or perceived hazards are present. For example, children sometimes require a bedtime ritual that involves checking the room for monsters, while adults might require a routine for checking electrical appliances are turned off.

Ritual behavior might be as simple as always putting the TV remote in the same place, or it might be an elaborate religious ceremony involving many people. OCD sufferers take ritual behavior to its extreme, meticulously performing and repeating their actions.

Pascal Boyer and Pierre Lienard explored the mechanics of ritual behavior. They discovered a common cause is the detection or anticipation of hazards that, according to the performer, would worsen if the ritual wasn't performed. The hazards include such things as contamination (disease), social status loss, interpersonal violence, and predation, all of which would have been present in our ancestral environment.

These evolutionary hazards elicit anxiety, which motivates ritual behavior as a precautionary response. Flawless performance of the ritual satisfies the participant that something has been done to avert negative consequences. Cristine Legare and Andre Souza tested this idea and found that inducing anxious feelings related to randomness and a lack of control led to increased belief in the efficacy of rituals.

Boyer and Lienard also found that rituals are generally repetitive, ordered, meticulous, rigidly unchanging, and bereft of goal-related actions. Thus, flawless performance of a ritual requires deep concentration and extensive cognitive resources. This effectively prevents the hazard from eliciting further anxiety by swamping working memory.

Religious rituals are compelling because they co-opt our disposition for ritual behavior and provide meaning to actions that are ostensibly meaningless. While many religious rituals deal with the aforementioned hazards, they can also address other concerns such as natural disasters by placing a god at the center of the ritual. If appeased by flawless performance of the ritual, the god may become a means for perceived control over these concerns. David Hume focused on this palliative approach in his Natural History of Religion.

A Malawi initiation ritual. Elaborate and bizarre rituals can be comforting.

A Malawi initiation ritual. Elaborate and bizarre rituals can be comforting.

The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion

In summary, rather than being an adaptation, most cognitive scientists prefer to describe religion as a by-product of the evolution of several cognitive mechanisms. These include a hyperactive agency detector, an intrigue for counterintuitive things, creationist thinking, a theory of mind, a distaste for uncertainty and anxiety, a fear of death, a propensity for ritual behavior, a use for moral and pro-social behavior, and a need to form cooperative groups. None of these cognitive biases and motivations require religious ideas, but each has found a place for them.

The mechanisms listed above have proper functions, such as detecting danger or understanding the intentions of other minds, but they have been co-opted or "hijacked" by the super-stimuli that copiously appear in religious narratives (gods, spirits, and afterlives). Whether this hijacking was driven by selection pressures, human motivation, or a cultural happenstance is unclear.

At the very least, the evidence suggests that religion has come to fulfill a social and palliative role. For this reason, we could describe religion as an exaptation because it has acquired an additional, adaptive role to the "functionless byproduct of cognitive mechanisms" that it may once have been.

What Is Religion?

Many cognitive scientists define religion as an aggregate phenomenon, reliant on the exploitation of distinct cognitive mechanisms working in tandem. However, it is unlikely that religion sprung into existence in its current form. Most likely, there were earlier proto-religions that only utilized some of these mechanisms.

If this is the case, then what drove the evolution of religion? Why were some mechanisms included at the expense of others? A functional approach may be required to answer these questions. For example, were these mechanisms exploited because each can serve a palliative or social function? Future research may provide insight into whether religion has a single unifying function, or really is just the sum of its parts.

Research in the Cognitive Science of Religion

© 2014 Thomas Swan


Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on August 11, 2019:

For those who are curious about this topic, one of my articles was recently published in a peer-reviewed journal. The article essentially asks why people believe in Jesus but not Superman, Santa Claus, or Mickey Mouse. It looks at the differences between religious and secular supernatural beings, and what these differences tell us about why the religious beings are believed and worshiped. The differences tend to support the notion that religion provides palliative benefits. A link to the article is below:

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on March 26, 2019:

Interesting not sure exactly my reaction with just one reading However I am much more open to considering ideas and opinions than I was at a much younger age SO I will save this and come back and reread and ponder in depth Angels are headed your way not sure how they fit in your way of thinking i have written about Angels in several hubs I do so believe we encounter them daily both celestial and those we encounter as we make our way through each day ps

Tommy Coleman on September 12, 2018:

Careful with the Jong & Halberstadt TMT discussion. A closer look at the methods section of Jong et al. (2012) does not support the conclusion that “implicit belief” was bolstered for atheists. For example, only in study 1 were there ever any self classified atheists (p. 985) Furthermore, they were then collapsed into a single category (i.e., as “non-religious”), which, rather than being filled solely with self identified atheists, primarily contained self identified “non-religious” (87.23%), “agnostics” (2.13%), and then “atheists” (10.64%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, when parsed out, the religious participants scored significantly higher than the self identified non-religious, who in turned scored significantly higher than the self identified atheists on a self report measure of supernatural belief. For the analysis using the mortality salience prime, however, only the religious and nonreligious groups were compared and Jong et al. (2012) did find that typical worldview defense mechanisms were bolstered. In contrast to study 1, the researcher's sample for study 2 did not consist of any atheists, only 95% “non-religious” and 5% “agnostics” (p. 986). Furthermore, in study 3 no religious self-identification was used. In sum, it is very plausible that the sample from study 3 was much similar to study 2, in which there were no atheists, or perhaps even study 1, in which only 10.6% of the sample was atheists. I am certainly open to the possibility that mortality salience primes could temporarily increase IAT response times in atheists, but to date no studies suggest this has occurred.

Will Apse on June 18, 2016:

This is interesting stuff but I know what my non-scientist friends would say: you could could have got all these insights (and a lot more) from reading a few Shakespeare plays.

And my religious friends would say: watching spiritually impoverished scientists wrestle with important issues in human life is like watching children play near a cliff. At any moment they might realize where they are and panic.

Evleen Sharma on April 12, 2016:

It puts aside theistic and atheistic biases, and tries to understand the psychology underpinning religious thought, belief, and behavior.

jonnycomelately on May 19, 2015:

Thomas, thank you so much for this enlightening Hub. It helps me to see my own motivations to do with religion and beliefs. It also helps me to a little understanding of the motives within other minds.... their needs and aspirations.

Regardless of exactly WHAT individuals believe or accept, I find it useful to understand more of WHY they believe. So this is a very socially responsible treatise on the subject.

Thank you again.

Readers Square from Punjab, India on May 15, 2015:

Hi Thomas,

This is so much information and I’m really amazed! All these stuff are to be pondered well and I see the potential and hard work behind it. Thank you for it all and I’m moved by it. Religion is all that our childhood teaching, our present days’ inspiration and our future hope is based on. The study of it is well lighted here.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 30, 2015:

Great hub, Thomas. This was so very informative on your thoughts on religion and cognitive science. This was very interesting, too. Voted up!

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 28, 2015:

Asa2141 - You are correct that society and culture determine what is "moral". The bible created its morality from its society and culture - over 2,000 years ago, as did the Romans, Egyptians, and others long before the bible was ever conceived of. And atheistic societies and cultures have their own moral codes. Morality doesn't come from the bible! Morality comes from society and culture and it is different for whatever society and culture you happen to find yourself living in.

Obviously slavery is one of the biblical "morals" that religionists point to in order to apologize for reading and believing in the bible. But slavery isn't the worst offensive morality apologies in the bible, murder is - IMHO.

Also, there is no evidence for "alternate universes" except in your head. So, what makes that some kind of valid argument?

Asa Schneidermann from Boise on March 28, 2015:

BibiLuzarrga - My point is that in an atheistic universe, morality has no basis. It is whatever mankind decides. So, if a man decides to rape a woman and says it's good then it is. There is nothing wrong with that. He decided it was good so it is. Society might even condemn him, but it does not make it bad. He is just one chemical accident acting on another chemical accident.

Most atheists I know at least try to have some standard of "morality" (even if it's unfounded) and we all have a moral conscience. That's because we are not just evolved animals, but created in the image of God who instilled in us a moral conscience.

Austinstar, The Bible does not promote slavery like modern Americans think of slavery. Here is an interesting article some experts on the subject wrote together:

Also note that is was Bible believing Christians who abolished slavery in America and the UK and further, as historian Eric Meteaxas put it, "pulled the world around a corner" so that now almost everyone around the world considers slavery wrong. Such Christians as William Wilberforce, Granville Sharpe, Abraham Lincoln, George Whitfield to name a few, were the Christians who lead the charge against slavery in the West using the Bible as their source and inspiration.

On the flip side, in an atheistic universe, there is no reason why slavery is wrong. You are just one chemical accident having control over another chemical accident.

Mara Alexander from Los Angeles, California on March 27, 2015:

Thank you for sharing, because this is a very interesting hub

I enjoyed reading all the different theories about why people seek God/religion

I was raised in a non-religious household, and my family never spoke of a God, but when I was about 14 years old, I somehow knew inside, that he existed. It was just something I never doubted. I don't even remember how the idea of God came about, or if someone outside my family mentioned God to me or not, and I was never taught anything about him. For some reason I believe in God, and I also believe in evolution, God, and Science

I have witnessed a lot of amazing things. I don't know if God is a separate entity, or part of our minds, but either way, I feel God is the Source of all

Just my opinion

Voted up

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 26, 2015:

I suppose I could have worded that a bit differently. But understanding a thing depends on cognitive ability. So, I have to say that it has a tangential relationship, maybe :-)

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on March 26, 2015:


those odd negative hate speech comments have nothing to do with this Hub.

maybe you could start a Hub about it?

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 25, 2015:

Oz - I'm totally against religious harm, but I could not care less what people want to worship as a god. I'll never understand the mindset of people who continue to believe in harmful beliefs and then say that their god is an all-knowing, all-loving god. I just wish they would confine their slave/master relationship to themselves.

I can't even understand why they can't understand that what they are doing is harmful!

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on March 25, 2015:


I think we both know those hubbers. As I never indulge in personal attacks it would be wrong to "name names".


Hypocrisy knows no bounds and bad apples will always use anything to satisfy greed be they religious or atheist. Real altruistic spiritiually motivated examples of religious people far outweigh the politically motivated hypocrites.

Current atheist leaders are both condemning any sign of intolerance in any religion yet at the same time are actively promoting Total intolerance to ALL religion! That is one step away from the zeitgist of IS.

tony mcnaughton on March 25, 2015:

What a fabulous article . I was "stilled" by some of the conclusions and concepts presented. Why/How is it that religion has enabled me to become a more whole and completed person , in both lifestyle and inner tranquility of it my "believing" that does it ? Regardless , I really enjoyed the journey of thoughts this presentation has provided and like where it brought me....Thank You for sharing the "good thinker" you are and the good way in which you think !

Edward J Longo from New York, New York on March 25, 2015:

Astounding site full of spirituality . . . Edward

Neetu M from USA on March 25, 2015:

One more thing, Oztinato, since you have brought it up - the nihilism and anarchy you refer to, as destructive to society - are you saying the current state of affairs in the world, the history of religious persecution and genocides over the past centuries have not been destructive? What caused and continues to cause those?

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 25, 2015:

Oztinato - Who are these atheists that are promoting "if it feels good, do it"? I don't know any atheists like that.

I do, however, know of quite a few religious folk who keep accusing atheists of doing so.

Consuelo De Bilbao Luzarraga aka Bibi from Doral, FL (Greater Miami) on March 25, 2015:

wordswithlove, you may be interested in a few of my hubs; I am an aethist as well :)

Neetu M from USA on March 25, 2015:

Oztinato, I have no desire to enter into a conflict or argument on anything related to religion, hence I tread very carefully on this topic. If a large number of atheists have come around to this hub, it is because it resonates with them (myself included). It is much like anything else you read - you read what appeals to you or has the appearance or elements of something you are drawn to. I have generally found many hubs of faith and beliefs on this site and was quite surprised to find a hub that actually discusses the basis of religion, to be honest.

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on March 25, 2015:

Its good to see some atheists attempting to create coherent standards of human ethics. This is a much more scientific approach as it builds on the long evolutionary connection to religion. On the other hand atheists promoting a "if it feels good do it" approach are failing miserably to set any standards at all. Such foolish nihilism and anarchy could rapidly destroy human society. Fortunately this unscientific form of atheism is still mainly limited to a cafe mentality based on cheap populist book selling gimmicks.

Consuelo De Bilbao Luzarraga aka Bibi from Doral, FL (Greater Miami) on March 25, 2015:

Thank you, Austinstar :)

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 25, 2015:

Asa2141 - Our society as a whole defines what is "good", "bad", "moral" or "immoral". If we were still dependent on the Christian bible, for instance, slavery would still be legal and moral.

The atheist commandments attempt to define our current society's culture. This means we need to take into account everyone's idea of morality, not just one religion over another.

The only laws we really need (moral or secular) should be to control things that are physically harmful to one another. Like murder, theft, violence, rape, etcetera.

We should NOT be trying to legislate what people 'believe" or "think".

Consuelo De Bilbao Luzarraga aka Bibi from Doral, FL (Greater Miami) on March 25, 2015:

Well, the Aethist Ten Commandments are NOT criminal, abusive nor unhealthy at all; I read them within the mentioned article. I believe that the majority of humankind will agree with me--BibiLuzarraga.

Asa Schneidermann from Boise on March 25, 2015:


You said atheist commandments are "good" and "moral" In an atheistic world, who is to say what "good" and "moral" are. We are all a bunch of chemical accidents in a random universe. Who's to say our actions are "good", "bad", "moral" or "immoral"?

Consuelo De Bilbao Luzarraga aka Bibi from Doral, FL (Greater Miami) on March 25, 2015:

Did anyone watch CNN's Special Report entitled "Aethists: A World of Non-Believers" which aired last night? Special mention was also made to "Aethist TV" which is broadcast on YouTube and reaches approximately 25 million viewers worldwide :) I just figured that since we ARE discussing Thomas Swan's hub on cognitive religion that others may be interested in knowing that there are aethist congregations in the U.S.A. and in other countries. Inclusively, I found an article this morning entitled "Thousands Worldwide help write Aethist Ten Commandments" which is very appropriate for the 21st Century as the 'new' aethist commandments are good, moral, healthy and NOT Satanic by any means, of course.

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 25, 2015:

Oztinato - We are embracing it because it is a good piece of writing!

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on March 24, 2015:


that is an entirely different subject.

I am glad you raised it as that is my point in expressing an alternative view ie there are other entirely opposed world views.

In answer to your question; the general thrust of the Hub is that all things spiritual are caused by scientific or psychological reasons only.

Now, I would like you to answer my question: why is the Hub being so enthusiastically embraced by well known HP atheists? (I note this is the third time I have asked this question but have not received a reply).

Asa Schneidermann from Boise on March 24, 2015:

Mr. Thomas,

One of the first things I ever wrote was a personal blog stream called 'Churchianity' in which I expressed my displeasure with some of the practices going on in modern day churches. At the time I thought my writing was soooo good, but I read some of it the other day and I could not believe how bad it was! I was embarrassed I even published it!

I disagree regarding the Big Bang. To see that the universe is expanding and say it came from an explosion still does not account for all of the complexity. If I found a laptop in the mountains and brought it before you and said, 'hey, I think this laptop just formed from different pressures and forces of nature working for a really long time' would you believe me? Of course not! We would assume it had a designer -- that intelligence was behind it. Heck, even if I found something as simple as a rubber ball in the mountains and brought it before you and claimed it was formed by natural processes, I still don't think you would believe me. Yet, this is what evolutionists and other proponents of naturalistic theories are saying.

In regards to scientific proof vs religion, this is called a either/or fallacy. Either you believe in science or you believe in religion. This is simply false. I personally love science and I believe in the Bible and God.

There is no conflict between observational science and the claims of Christianity. In fact, science and Christianity work together, which makes sense why most of the world greatest scientists were Christians. For example, Francis Bacon who established the scientific method. Michael Faraday, Johannes Kepler (three laws of planetary motion), Sir Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur (father of microbiology) James Clerk Maxwell, as well as modern day Raymond V. Ramadan (invertor of the MRI) and Dr. Ben Carson. The idea that you chose between 'looking at scientific evidence' or believing in religion is pure myth. Some scientists even make the case that science would not be possible without Christianity being true.

The underlying assumption snuck into this science vs. religion argument is that science somehow disproves religious beliefs. This is bunk.

I noticed that some people were saying that this article is not atheist based. I disagree there too. The assumption of this entire article is that religion or belief in a deity is something just made up in people's minds. (kind of like 'we are all born atheists until we make up God in our minds') This is most certainly an atheistic idea. This Hub most certainly has atheist underpinnings. Do you disagree?

Neetu M from USA on March 24, 2015:

Oztinato, even if it is an atheist's view, isn't everything about every belief purely a perception? Your perception may be different than an atheist's, but that is not to say it is to be dismissed just because it is a theory based on anthropological grounds. There are no absolutes in this world with regard to our beliefs. Each one of us determines what we choose to believe in and each one of us has the right to be respected for it as long as we do not impose our beliefs on others. As for the theory expounded here, the author has given several examples of how faith and belief evolved. He is neither supporting nor opposing religion itself; he is merely explaining how it came to be. What is so "atheistic" about that?

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on March 24, 2015:


The Hub is an atheists view of a certain anthropological theory. Why is it so enthusiatically embraced by HP atheists otherwise?

I have a degree in Archaeology with two years of anthropology in it so I know what an atheist anthropological viewpoint is when I see it.

This is not intolerance just my objective analysis of the hubs zeitgist. It is my alternative view which should be tolerated by science minded people here

Martie Coetser from South Africa on March 24, 2015:

Interesting, well-researched and well-presented topic. The contents of this hub is logical and coherent, appealingly to the left side of the brain, but it leaves the right side unsatisfied. As long as the human brain functions the way it does, humans will have an urge to dream and fantasize - their way of escaping from reality. It is a fact that people can not handle too much reality - they simply have to dilute reality with whatever makes it easier to absorb.

Excellent hub!

Neetu M from USA on March 24, 2015:

With due respect, Oztinato, I disagree. The hub shows no preference for atheism vs. theism. Of course, it is for the author to comment here, and it is not really my place to defend the hub, but I do find that when it comes to religion, there is very little tolerance by those who believe for those who doubt. I find that spectacularly pronounced on all social networks, in particular.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 24, 2015:

Thank you Nadine, Austinstar, Lady Guinevere, wordswithlove, ahmed, and Oztinato for your comments.

Nadine, that's high praise! There are some better writers on this subject, but they usually stick to writing journal papers or books. Calling human reality a mental program isn't such a bad comparison. Comparing the human mind to a computer helped to inspire the `cognitive revolution' in psychology.

Austinstar, thank you and I'm glad you found it useful. This acts as a reference for me too, in case I forget something.

Lady Guinevere, thank you. I'm very happy this was HOTD. I hope you find it interesting and informative.

Wordswithlove, much appreciated. I hope you also find it interesting. The more psychology unearths the reasons for religious belief, the more people can make an informed choice about what to believe.

Oztinato, I'm not sure what's atheistic. Some examples would be nice. I'm willing to change things if they appear biased. What if `God' gave us all these propensities to believe? I'm sure a theist could make an argument for that.

Andrew Petrou from Brisbane on March 23, 2015:

The Hub takes a distinctly atheist view of religion in spite of its claim not to. It is a purely anthropological view. Hence its appeal here to notable HP atheists.

Science itself has evolved out of religion via deeply religious scientists.

Neetu M from USA on March 23, 2015:

I only read this hub cursorily, Thomas, as I just discovered it and have to get back to cooking, but will come back to read it in depth. I think you have done an excellent job of encapsulating the fundamentals of why religion exists.

Debra Allen from West By God on March 23, 2015:

I am going to have to come back and re-read it again. As far as I could understand at the moment it is a great and useful article. Congrats on your HOTD!

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 23, 2015:

Absolutely a great hub! Congratulations on Hub of the Day status! I will be using this hub as a reference. Thank you!

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on March 23, 2015:

This must be one of the most comprehensive article Ive read so far on this topic. My outlook on any religion is that it seems to give structure to peoples lives. Personally I'm non-religious, and lately have come to my own conclusion that our human reality is a mental program, but that's just me.

Consuelo De Bilbao Luzarraga aka Bibi from Doral, FL (Greater Miami) on March 23, 2015:

Hi Asa2141 and CatherineGiordano, I definitely am WITH Catherine on that; scientific proof!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 23, 2015:

Cheers Asa2141, there's always room for improvement though. Sometimes I look at hubs from years ago and think they were written by a different person. I suppose they were in a way.

Personally, I wouldn't say the Big Bang theory is far-fetched. All explosions create a complex dispersal pattern. Exploding a water balloon gets water and bits of balloon everywhere! I'd agree it's counterintuitive to say the explosion came from nothing. I don't subscribe to that version of the theory, but then, it's just a theory. Evidence for a rapidly expanding universe is quite clear though, e.g. most of the universe is `red-shifted' (meaning it's moving away from us), and then there's cosmic microwave background radiation.

One area of science that's especially counterintuitive is quantum theory. Think of the `two-slits experiment' in which a single electron can seemingly pass through two slits at the same time and create an interference pattern on the other side. Though this is completely bizarre, and right up there with the supernatural, it's something we've observed. It's proven beyond reasonable levels of doubt with hard evidence.

I don't think you'll find anything asserted confidently in science that is both counterintuitive and difficult to prove. Religions on the other hand..

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 23, 2015:

You might be right Catherine! - that topic certainly appeals to me. I'll speculate and say it's something to do with early discoveries of dinosaur bones.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 23, 2015:

Thanks Bibiluzarraga, I'll have a look. I'd say the bottom line is we just don't know if gods exist; not knowing is nothing to be afraid of; and `why people pretend to know' is a far more interesting topic of study.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on March 23, 2015:

ASa2141: The difference between the two beliefs is that astrophysicists can explain how it happened that way using evidence. Religious beliefs lack scientific evidence. All the "proof" is anecdotal."

Asa Schneidermann from Boise on March 23, 2015:

With all sincerity, you are a really good writer. Impressive and very well researched Hub!

However, the statement: "stories which violate our intuitions about the world are particularly captivating and memorable." is interesting.

The theory that the entire, complex UNIVERSE we see around us came into existence when a dot of matter the size of a pinhead exploded (the Big Bang) is a story that violates my intuition and is particularly memorable. A person who believes this has just as much faith if not more faith as the person who believes that a deity created it.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on March 23, 2015:

Your comment about fears and phobias suggests that you might like my hub "Do Humans Have Dragon DNA?" I discuss the research that attempts to explain why so many different cultures have dragon myths.

BibiLuzarraga on March 23, 2015:

Hi Thomas, insightful article :)

I am aethist; there is a bottom-line when it comes to "gods," though. Maybe I'll write about it the meantime, feel free to visit my blogs/articles within and read between the lines--take care.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 23, 2015:

Cheers Catherine. I was especially pleased to get hub of the day for this because it's one of my best hubs. I think it contains a lot of research that has gone unnoticed in the religion-atheist debate. Thank you again for the kind words and the share.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on March 23, 2015:

Brilliant! I was especially impressed with your discussion about mildly counter-intuitive information. Well deserved HOTD and I am giving it H+ also. Also voting up. I follow information about the science of religion, but you provided a lot of information that was new to me.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on March 23, 2015:

Thanks DreamerMeg. Yes, it's a bit longer than the usual hub, but hopefully chock full of information.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on March 23, 2015:

Very interesting article, almost a book!

G Ivanova on January 01, 2015:

This is great information and very informative. Thanks!

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on January 01, 2015:

It's certainly interesting how our fears and phobias manifest. Fear of snakes is a great example because it's commonly used in the literature to describe an innate fear. Some can clearly override it with experience but, presumably, we're all born with it because it's adaptive to be fearful of things that slither around our feet.

However, we're not born with a book in our heads to identify adders and cobras with; rather we're afraid of things that exhibit the same physical and behavioral characteristics (long body, no legs, slithers, etc). This appears to be where cultural differences come in. As we grow up and learn things, we put together a repertoire of threatening animals, e.g. we learn that some snakes are more dangerous than others.

It's the same with monsters: we naturally fear things with sharp teeth and claws, but we're not born with a book of specific creatures to be afraid of. Our culture and environment fill in the blanks. This explains why monsters differ across cultures, but also why they share some common traits. It's also the best possible situation because it allows us to adapt to whichever culture we're born into.

You could be right that Santa is a kind of semi-religion, perhaps even a `gateway religion' for more serious faiths. Children do grow out of it though. Also, there's the theory that children don't actually believe things properly, they merely `suspend their disbelief' as I think Richard Dawkins put it. Children's minds are certainly more malleable than adults, so I don't think Santa is particularly special. We could cite all manner of fairies, witches, and elves. The reward and punishment, and yearly rituals do seem to give it more of a religious connection though.

Katie Armstrong from Lincoln, Nebraska on December 31, 2014:

We may not believe in those things in the same way people believe in gods, but people certainly fear things irrationally, like killer clowns or masks. Phobias also don't seem to transfer as cultural memes the same way religions do--my grandmother's fear of snakes didn't get passed down to her children the way that her religious preferences did (or her moussaka recipe).

I think the social aspects of religion are a major factor in what makes fearing clowns a phobia, but fearing Satan an acceptable facet of how you live your daily life; assuming you're living in a Judeo-Christian culture, that is. Demons and monsters from other cultures often seem patently absurd to people from another culture, because those creatures aren't part of the religion or culture of the listener. I know a girl who was so frightened of jinn, she couldn't even look at an illustration of one--I don't find them frightening, but I'm not a Muslim, so I wasn't raised on stories of jinn and Shaytan and their fire. A Taoist would probably find a Christian's fear and concern about Satan and demons to be silly, and if there was a religion in which evil entities looked like clowns, they wouldn't find clown phobias to be irrational at all. Everyone probably acknowledges that being afraid of bears or your house burning down are pretty rational, but nobody has formed belief systems around those fears, unlike all the religions seeking to assuage fears of death.

It's somewhat odd that we don't define believing in Santa as a sort of 'children's religion', given that there is a definite communal aspect of children talking about Santa, a system of reward and punishment, supernatural beliefs, ritual behavior, a moral system, and a sincere, devout belief in Santa among children who are part of the cult.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on December 30, 2014:

Thanks for commenting Katie. You're probably right that many of these cognitive biases and emotion-based reactions will apply to monsters, especially if they have counterintuitive features or behave in a counterintuitive way. It's been remarked that Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse do too but, as they're not the focus of religious beliefs, we know there is more to religion than just counterintuitiveness. Things conjured up by our HADD may stand a better chance, such as monsters, but that doesn't seem to be enough for belief either. Most of us don't believe in killer clowns and werewolves. We appear to need beliefs that serve particular social or palliative functions. Monsters don't comfort us or encourage us to behave pro-socially, so there is no motivation to believe in them. Deities do, and that's probably what gives them an edge.

Katie Armstrong from Lincoln, Nebraska on December 29, 2014:

It's interesting to think about how much of this also applies to monsters, as well. For instance, I'm a big fan of gods that are so alien, they're incomprehensible to humans (i.e. Lovecraft's mythos), and I think that the actual descriptions of angels found in the Bible are delightfully trippy (the Thrones in Ezekiel are not exactly fat little cupid-clones). I find them intriguing, but these things don't scare me--Slenderman does. A humanoid being that is tall, faceless, silent, and hardly moves yet is inescapable is far more terrifying than Yog-Sothoth, because you are capable of imagining it. Zombies and werewolves and vampires are scary because they were once like us and still look human-like, but have now fallen prey to the uncanny and the worst aspects which we fear in ourselves. Clowns are scary because they are humanoid, but their expressions are inscrutable and their movements are exaggerated beyond normal human ranges. And so on and so forth.

Our fear of monsters comes from the same HADD reactions that belief in the supernatural arises from--only the nature of our monsters change as we get older and experience what real monsters are.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on November 29, 2014:

I agree Thomas Swan, science is all about expanding knowledge, not denying it. See Association for Research and Enlightenment and Sylva Ultra Mind. Both are research organizations into topics such as telepathy.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 29, 2014:

Thanks for commenting here Buildreps. Yes, rituals appear to be bizarre because those actions couldn't mean anything else other than to service a deity.

I think science is about acknowledging the inevitability of uncertainty, but reducing it as much as possible. Science reduces it plenty too! If there are other dimensions, I'd like to see evidence for their likelihood. There may be other forces in nature or layers of reality and, like you say, it's worth keeping an open mind. Too many people think science is about closing one's mind to things that haven't been scientifically proven. There should be no `hard' atheism in science.

Buildreps from Europe on November 24, 2014:

You provide here interesting information about certain aspects of religion and the possible cognitive processes that could be involved. Most rituals and manifestations that most religions practice seem primitive and scientifically they seem useless.

On the other hand there's a large uncertainty in our (scientific) perception since it is likely there are many more dimensions than we perceive.

There much to what you've said here and I find it interesting. On the other hand I'm hopping on two legs since the world we perceive is just about a fraction of a larger whole. I tend to reject any religion that has rituals, guru's, symbols, masters, techniques and all that kind of stuff.

Keep doing your research, Thomas. It's like always very interesting. I'm not always your first reader, but I certainly read most of the things you've researched. Cheers :-)

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 09, 2014:

Thanks Jay. Yes, the emotional side of things is very important to my particular interests. I've tried to include research related to this in sections 9-12 (mainly about anxiety). However, the cognitive science of religion often prefers `cold cognition' for explanations. I see greater interplay between cognition and emotion, so I'd like CSR to go more in the direction of "hot cognition" in future, i.e. taking account of how emotions generate cognitions, and vice versa. Religious experiences are very emotional, and comfort theories of religion appear to imply that comforting/happy beliefs are formed or strengthened in response to negative emotions.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on November 03, 2014:

Thank you, that is very reassuring. You seem logical and rational. Let us not forget the other half of the brain, the emotional. I believe it is necessary to balance the two hemispheres.

I am suggesting you study the readings of Edgar Cayce. At least 20 years before science was aware of it, Edgar Cayce stated the Sahara Desert had been green with rivers and the Nile flowed east/west and emptied into the Atlantic Ocean. Oil companies proved these statements true. Please advise your findings after you have made your study.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 03, 2014:

Jay, I don't think I denied or discounted telepathy. I tried to explain it in terms of existing research in the cognitive science of religion.

Tanara, I'm glad you liked it. I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment. Religion is a natural, pervasive, and mystifying human characteristic and, whether we like it or not, we need to learn more about how it interacts with the human mind.

Tanara Lee on November 01, 2014:

Thank you for sharing such an informative article. Religion takes a large part in the lives of most of us and learning more about it sheds light to one of life's great mysteries. I do hope that this science that studies religion develops more and provide more explanations about God and faith.

Robert Sacchi on November 01, 2014:

Thank you.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on November 01, 2014:

You wrote, "This explanation shouldn't be interpreted as ignoring the possibility that telepathy might be real. However, it's the explanation that fits with what we currently know about the topic, which is that there's been a huge number of frauds, and a huge number of gullible people who believed those frauds."

I agree there are many frauds and coincidences thought to be telepathy. I offer my experiences because I know they occurred, were Verified by another person and I am not out to make money. Two of these experiences were under controlled conditions.

Before you discount telepathy check out Edgar Cayce and his 14,000 mostly medical readings. That is what I did, a medical reading. Go to an Association For Research and Enlightenment (ARE) group in your area.

Just because you cannot control an experience like a light switch does not mean it does not exist. If you are a true scientist you will deal with the reality of telepathy/ESP rather than deny it. Now, what place does telepathy have in your program?

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 01, 2014:

Thanks Robert, I'm glad you found it interesting. I think the HADD uses a number of criteria to differentiate between predators and supernatural agents. How we attribute a cause to a stimulus would depend on:

1. What is capable of causing the stimulus? A face in the clouds couldn't be caused by much, but a rustle in the bushes could.

2. Memories of what could cause the stimulus. Someone who has recently been burgled would be more likely to identify that as causing a bump in the night rather than a poltergeist. Someone who has just heard a ghost story might have another perspective.

3. What is adaptive or useful? Has it been safe to attribute a supernatural agent to a particular type of stimulus in our ancestral past, or in our personal experience? If assuming a supernatural being led to many deaths for a particular stimulus, I expect natural selection would shape a HADD that doesn't do that.

4. Current mood. There is evidence that anxiety leads to more superstitious thinking.

Those are some of the factors that spring to mind. Religious thinking has been quite adaptive though. Generally, I think it's sufficient to assume there's a potential threat... whatever the capabilities of that threat. In many ways, supernatural agents carry more threat-potential than natural agents. This could lead to added vigilance. In other ways, they are less relevant and fewer inferences can be drawn about them.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on November 01, 2014:

Jay, in terms of the cognitive science of religion, there is evidence that people who often, or temporarily, feel a lack of control will be more likely to find patterns in random assortments of dots or stock market figures. This need to find order in the chaos can also cause increased belief in superstitions and order-giving supernatural agents. I linked to a paper in section 11 on the words "lack of control" that goes into this.

I'd suggest explanations involving telepathy are used to make sense of unlikely coincidences, lucky guesses, and surprising phenomena. When something surprising happens, it makes us feel a lack of control because the prospect of another surprising thing happening intuitively becomes more likely. So, we attempt to find some way to explain it. We might call it telelpathy, a miracle, or the will of some supernatural agent. We'll look for an agential cause because agents can be controlled or appeased, as opposed to blind chance, which is uncontrollable and comparatively terrifying.

This explanation shouldn't be interpreted as ignoring the possibility that telepathy might be real. However, it's the explanation that fits with what we currently know about the topic, which is that there's been a huge number of frauds, and a huge number of gullible people who believed those frauds.

To prove telepathy exists, we'd need more extensive trials. However, many potential candidates have been trialled without conclusively proving anything (to my knowledge). Results would need to go far beyond a couple of lucky guesses, or the limits of perception. Statistically, if 64 people tried to guess which hand another person was holding a coin in six times in a row, one person would be right every time. Some would look at that and say they've identified the one telepath in the group.

The limits of human perception are another topic of relevance. Much of what we do is driven by the subtle behavioral and verbal cues of others. Most of us respond to these cues without knowing it, while others appear to be able to read them. Derren Brown is an example of how much someone can read these cues. He's quite open about it too. If he wasn't, I expect many people would believe he's a telepath or psychic. I imagine many poker players are quite skilled at it too.

However, reading cues doesn't need to be a conscious process. Someone could unconsciously read the cues of another, let this affect their conscious thinking, and be oblivious to how they got that information. This may be the main way in which people come to believe they're telepaths. For example, an ill person gives lots of cues to their condition, such as rubbing the problem area, or displaying symptoms such as fatigue, agitation, skin discoloration, and so on.

Robert Sacchi on November 01, 2014:

This is a very informative and interesting article. The HADD section doesn't seem to explain why someone would choose to consider a bump in the night as being something beyond their control, gods and ghosts, instead of something they can control, a predator go for a weapon. It would seem the next step is to see the advantage/disadvantage of the devout vs nominal believers.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on October 31, 2014:

This is a very in-depth discussion of ritual, evolution and religion. I offer my personal experiences for review. I believe more research is needed on the subject of telepathy. Telepathy is real, it is not a theory. How does telepathy fit into your program?

When I was a teenager Jim, my stepfather came into the living room and told me about a reoccurring pain I had been having. The pain went down my left arm to the wrist. I would respond by taking my right hand and grasping my left wrist for a few seconds. No one had seen me do this and I had never told anyone about it. Jim described the pain and what I did about it perfectly. I was so shocked I denied it and Jim walked away.

Also as a teenager I had an experience with my best friend, David. I had a feeling that a rope came out from my midsection and was attached to David. I felt a tugging and then felt his mind. I do not remember what he was thinking, but I was aware of a great connection.

Also as a teenager I was discussing telepathy with a neighbor. She asked me whether I could do it and I said yes. She asked me to do it and I sat down to meditate. I saw a cloud on her midsection and I thought of the fallopian tube. She then confirmed that her doctor had told her she could not have children because of a withered fallopian tube.

I also did two medical readings under controlled conditions under the Silva Method. A woman sat facing me with index cards filled out with the condition of the patients. Twice I described the persons’ medical condition. The moderator then showed me the index cards. My descriptions matched what had been written on the cards.

How does the existence of telepathy fit into the cognitive science of religion? See also Edgar Cayce.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 31, 2014:

I respect your opinions too Mel. I agree that decline in religious participation is related to social changes. I would reserve judgment on the cause-effect of that relationship though. Perhaps social changes, such as reduced need for comfort in an ever-safer and more welfare-driven society, is the reason for less religious participation. The social and palliative benefits that come with being religious might not be as important in Westernized, developed countries with socialized health care and extensive welfare systems. That may be why Scandinavian countries, the UK, and Canada are seeing high rates of atheism.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on October 30, 2014:

This is a fairly comprehensive statement on the subject. My own views are two-fold, and more or less fall in line to your theories here. For one, I think religion provides important social cohesion, because whether people accept it or not we are a social animal, and decline in religious participation could be a reason society is in decline. Secondly, prayer is therapeutic. Superstitious or not I find it makes me feel better, so I will continue to do it although I realize on an intellectual level it makes no sense. Then again, try as hard as we do to puff ourselves up we are not rational monkeys, as we pretend to be. Great hub - I respect your opinions even if we approach the subject from different points of view.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 30, 2014:

Thanks for commenting James. Glad you liked it.

James Herrera from Los Angeles, California on October 29, 2014:

Really great information, a lot of insight. Thank you

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 28, 2014:

Thanks Hendrika, I'm glad you found this interesting and were not put off by it. The intention in this article and in most/all of the research cited is to wholly avoid atheist/theist arguments and to just see what the science shows us.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 28, 2014:

Thanks for relaying that experience fpherj48. I suppose conscience fabricating could be seen as a good thing as well depending on your perspective. Either way, I think you were lucky to have such good parents.

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on October 28, 2014:

This is very fascinating. As a Christian myself it is interesting to compare with the research done. I will have to ponder on this more, thanks for the research you have done.

Suzie from Carson City on October 27, 2014:

Thomas.....Something I didn't share above: Many decades ago, as a very young child, my Dad would teach me the names of buildings as we'd pass by. I clearly remember pointing at a big church and asking my Dad if it was a factory. He laughed a little and said, "It's a 'factory' in a way.....they do conscience fabricating." I had the same comment as an innocent child, not fully understanding what he I do now that I do understand ......."Wow."

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 27, 2014:

Thank you very much for your feedback fpherj48. Hearing you say that already makes writing this worthwhile!

It was useful for me too to revisit these findings and learn a little more about some of the one's I'd only briefly looked at. My previous studies focused less on the social benefits, and more on counterintuitive beings, rituals, and the palliative benefits of religion.

I was pleasantly surprised by the videos on youtube as well. If that's a measure of the popularity of this field, then the cognitive science of religion is doing better than it was. The one with the children shows how we probably all have an innate, intuitive belief in the potential existence of supernatural beings. You're right that what we teach our children can tap into this innate belief, and allow it to provide a basis for all manner of bizarre religious and superstitious ideas during one's lifetime.

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 27, 2014:

Thanks for the question smileysock. The link at the end of this article, on the word `exaptation' should be immensely useful for answering your questions.

To give you my answer, an adaptation is something that was naturally selected because it reliably and efficiently solved an adaptive problem that helped to facilitate reproduction during it's period of evolution. A by-product is something that emerged as an functionless product of the evolution of an adaptation. An example would be the belly button, which has no use, but which is a by-product of the need for an umbilical cord. Of course, we might find that the belly button had a past function which drove its evolution... which would make it an adaptation. To the best of our knowledge, it's a functionless by-product.

A functionless by-product can acquire a function at a later stage. Religion may be one example because it became useful for large-scale cooperation and palliative effects. Adaptations may also acquire additional functions. A bird's feathers evolved for thermal regulation but became useful for flying. We know this because birds didn't always fly. Both religion and feathers are therefore likely to be exaptations, which is the word for a product of evolution that acquires a new function.

To class something as a by-product, you need to be able to identify the adaptation that produced it. So, for religion, the adaptation would be the cognitive mechanisms summarized in this article (HADD, MCI intrigue, theory of mind, ritual, etc). These have proper functions that would have been applicable before the advent of religion. For example, detecting danger, detecting cheaters, restoring control, or understanding other minds. Religion is unlikely to have directed the evolution of these mechanisms without having a tangible stimulus in the environment (that we know of). Thus, there was no adaptive problem in the environment to be solved by creating religion. There was however the problems of detecting danger and understanding other minds.

Though all adaptations may have been exaptations at some earlier stage, it's useful to be able to tie the current function of something like religion to things that evolved for other reasons. The linked article goes deeper into how to test the differences between adaptations, byproducts, and exaptations, but I hope I've been somewhat useful.

Many studies in psychology have used American college students. The obvious problems with this approach have generated many papers, and there has been a change in the last 20 years or so.... especially in the cognitive science of religion which must necessarily test many different cultures to verify universal conclusions about religion. For example, #1 in this article, Boyer tested it within 3 different cultures (to my knowledge).

Suzie from Carson City on October 26, 2014:

Thomas.... I find this hub absolutely fascinating, informative and on a personal level....I Thank You sincerely, for sharing this with your readers.

I had so much going through my mind while reading and felt I would have such a long & involved comment.

Then I viewed the videos. The one of the experiment with children blew me away. Not because it was something I had never thought of or that it presented such a profound concept......but because it made me realize how extremely POTENT the things we teach our children can be and remain for a lifetime, despite knowing more & better as we age, learn & experience.

I then realized that anything I had to share here was described totally and with perfection in that one video. Fabulous....UP+++ pinned, tweeted, googled & SharedHP

smileysock on October 26, 2014:

Can you explain this statement? "Rather than being an adaptation; most cognitive scientists prefer to describe religion as a by-product of the evolution of several cognitive mechanisms."

How do you tell the difference? Also, how many of these studies utilize primarily white college students?

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on October 26, 2014:

Thanks Colleen. This is a topic that I've studied for a number of years, so I'm glad you found it informative. I want to bring this science to a wider audience, and to trump that popular encyclopedia (that shall remain nameless) for being horribly incomplete :)

Colleen Swan from County Durham on October 26, 2014:

Thank you for this deeply informative essay which provokes a number of thoughts and ideas. Nicely illustrated-another excellent hub.

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