The Cognitive Science of Religion

Can cognitive science find the areas of the brain that make us religious?
Can cognitive science find the areas of the brain that make us religious? | Source

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 why religion is cross-culturally popular, which cognitive mechanisms ensure its popularity, how did they evolve, and which psychological traits dispose us to belief? Of principle concern is how religion became so pervasive when its associated behavior is a costly use of time and resources. Would natural selection favor such wasteful endeavor, or is our tendency to piety a by-product of other adaptive traits? The following sections summarize key findings in the cognitive science of religion.

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 which violate our intuitions about the world are particularly captivating and memorable. They performed an experiment to compare the memorability of intuitive and counterintuitive objects. The counterintuitve 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 and memorable. However, the experimenters 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 and physically human, but which can read your mind and pass through walls is more likely to be remembered than a god with no human features. 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. | Source

2. Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD)

A rustle in the bushes could be caused by a gust of wind or a falling branch. A 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, where people who made more false-positives about potential threats were more likely to survive. This is because the cost of assuming a threat is negligible, while the cost of failing to detect a threat could be fatal. Simply put, it's 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, we'll chide `lady luck' when we experience misfortune, complain about gremlins in our machines when something breaks, and anthropomorphize animals and objects. Gods may be another example of our propensity to invent 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, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. However, it is a collaborative field, accommodating data from anthropology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, ethology, and the social sciences.

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 the 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 reduced.

This tendency to anthropomorphize is probably caused by a "theory of mind" module in the human brain. This evolved to help us infer the desires, beliefs, and intentions of people who might deceive us. However, 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. Religious Concepts Are Easily Communicated

Building on the notion of memes, Dan Sperber explained how popular religious content is typically accompanied by evolved cognitive biases that cause us to attend to, remember, and communicate it. Our tendency to remember minimally counterintuitive objects or to invent intentional agents are examples of cognitive biases that help to spread religious content. Contrary to memetic theory, this content isn't usually transmitted intact, but is transformed by an individual's existing beliefs, biases, and desires (like Chinese whispers). Furthermore, if this content is accompanied by public representations and institutions, it will receive further advantages. Thus, public displays of devotion, churches, and other social, political, and educational institutions all serve to spread religious ideas.

Of key importance is how minimally counterintuitive (MCI) gods violate some of our intuitions, but confirm others via their mundane or anthropomorphized characteristics. This compromise allows us to infer the moods, desires, and intentions of our gods within coherent narratives that can be easily communicated. Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan found that many religious narratives optimally relate a majority of factual, mundane, or intuitive information, with relatively few mentions of miraculous events.

Another factor that makes religion popular is the emotion elicited during 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. | Source

Social Benefits

The following four sections look at how religion may be more than just a functionless by-product of other cognitive mechanisms. These sections explore the adaptive social advantages of religious belief and behavior.

5. Dual Inheritance Theory

If useful information such as social norms and moral rules (e.g. love thy neighbor) is included in a narrative, the information receives a transmission advantage if the story includes a minimally counterintuitive object. Religious narratives may therefore increase the commonality of adaptive, pro-social information. This co-opting of evolved cognitive biases for an alternative, social role is an example of Dual Inheritance Theory.

The evidence suggests that this interplay between genes and culture is quite intricate. For example, we may have evolved new cognitive biases that encourage religious belief for socially beneficial reasons. The following sections provide some examples.

6. Religion Provides Social Advantages

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 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 humans have evolved to consider the existence of punitive supernatural agents, and to respond with increased displays of moral, pro-social, and cooperative behavior. This is likely to be adaptive, meaning it provides advantages that aid the survival of its adherents and the groups they belong to.

The Research of Jesse Bering

7. 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 pro-social 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 advertises their special alliance to potential collaborators.

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.

8. 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 use? Richard Sosis and Joseph Bulbulia suggest a solution called costly signalling theory in which religion's onerous practices demonstrate a performer's genuine commitment to their beliefs. This costly behavior signals to others that the performer is loyal to their community and will not abandon their commitment to cooperate. The community therefore benefits from an easy way to distinguish contributors from free-riders.

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 and others 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 claim that costly displays can bring in new believers too. Joseph Henrich suggests that cultural learners evolved to detect these costly signals as evidence of the credibility of the performer's beliefs. In the ancestral past, cultural learning would have been exploited by individuals who held one belief but espoused 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.

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

Palliative Benefits

The next four sections investigate the role religion might play in alleviating particular anxieties. As with the social benefits of religion, these sections outline another way in which religion may be more than a functionless by-product.

9. Religion and the Fear of Death

Jesse Bering found that people intuitively attribute emotions, desires, and beliefs to the dead. For example, they'll say a dead person still loves his wife, believes his wife loves him, and wants to be alive. However, they're far less likely to attribute biological qualities to the dead, such as hunger, thirst, sensory perception, or a functional brain. This disparity appears to be caused by an intuitive 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.

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.

10. Existential Anxiety and Terror Management

Anxiety is elicited when an uncontrollable or uncertain threat looms on the horizon. It's 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.

Many `mortality salience' experiments have measured the effects 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. Afterwards, 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 found that atheists showed reduced belief in gods after thinking about death. Terror Management Theory claims 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'll still be reluctant to sell their soul to someone, and will describe important events as having a hidden meaning that taught them something significant. Jesse Bering's research into how people believe thoughts, desires, and emotions survive death, or how we cheat less when told a supernatural agent is watching us, are further examples of implicit beliefs that are at odds with explicitly held atheistic beliefs.

It is implicit, unconscious, religious beliefs such as these that appear to be strengthened by existential anxiety. Future research may attempt to understand why explicit religious beliefs are also sometimes strengthened.

11. 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 greater 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. 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. They 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. Other investigations have discovered that negative emotions such as grief, guilt, and stress can also strengthen religious belief; and that religion increases life-satisfaction, happiness, well-being, and self-esteem. These and similar works are explored within comfort theories of religion that focus on religion's palliative benefits.

12. 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 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 identified rituals as repetitive, ordered, meticulous, rigidly unchanging, and bereft of goal-related actions. Flawless performance of a ritual therefore requires extensive cognitive resources. This swamps working memory, preventing the hazard from eliciting further anxiety.

Religious rituals are compelling because they co-opt our evolved 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 social concerns, such as natural disasters or crop failures, 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 etiological 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. | Source


The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion

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 HADD, an intrigue for MCI objects, 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've been co-opted or `hijacked' by the super-stimuli that copiously appear in religious narratives (gods and spirits). 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 the cognitive mechanisms that define it appear to have acquired an additional, adaptive role to that which they were originally selected for.

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's 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

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Comments 81 comments

Colleen Swan profile image

Colleen Swan 2 years ago from County Durham

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

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand Author

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 :)

smileysock 2 years ago

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?

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

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

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand Author

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).

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 2 years ago from New Zealand Author

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.

fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

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."

Hendrika profile image

Hendrika 24 months ago from Pretoria, South Africa

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.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 24 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 24 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

James Herrera profile image

James Herrera 24 months ago from Los Angeles, California

Really great information, a lot of insight. Thank you

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 24 months ago from New Zealand Author

Thanks for commenting James. Glad you liked it.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 24 months ago from San Diego California

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 profile image

Thomas Swan 24 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 24 months ago from Houston, TX USA

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.

Robert Sacchi profile image

Robert Sacchi 24 months ago

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.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 24 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 24 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 24 months ago from Houston, TX USA

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?

Robert Sacchi profile image

Robert Sacchi 24 months ago

Thank you.

Tanara Lee profile image

Tanara Lee 24 months ago

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.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 24 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 24 months ago from Houston, TX USA

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 profile image

Thomas Swan 23 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

Buildreps profile image

Buildreps 23 months ago from Europe

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 profile image

Thomas Swan 23 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 23 months ago from Houston, TX USA

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.

Katie Armstrong profile image

Katie Armstrong 22 months ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

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.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 22 months ago from New Zealand Author

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 profile image

Katie Armstrong 22 months ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

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 profile image

Thomas Swan 22 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

G Ivanova profile image

G Ivanova 22 months ago

This is great information and very informative. Thanks!

DreamerMeg profile image

DreamerMeg 19 months ago from Northern Ireland

Very interesting article, almost a book!

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 19 months ago from New Zealand Author

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

CatherineGiordano profile image

CatherineGiordano 19 months ago from Orlando Florida

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 profile image

Thomas Swan 19 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

BibiLuzarraga 19 months ago

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.

CatherineGiordano profile image

CatherineGiordano 19 months ago from Orlando Florida

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.

Asa2141 profile image

Asa2141 19 months ago from Boise

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.

CatherineGiordano profile image

CatherineGiordano 19 months ago from Orlando Florida

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."

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 19 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 19 months ago from New Zealand Author

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 profile image

Thomas Swan 19 months ago from New Zealand Author

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..

BibiLuzarraga profile image

BibiLuzarraga 19 months ago from Doral, FL (Greater Miami)

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

Nadine May profile image

Nadine May 19 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

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.

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 19 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

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

Lady Guinevere profile image

Lady Guinevere 19 months ago from West Virginia

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!

wordswithlove profile image

wordswithlove 19 months ago from Pennsylvania, USA

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.

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia

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.

Thomas Swan profile image

Thomas Swan 19 months ago from New Zealand Author

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.

wordswithlove profile image

wordswithlove 19 months ago from Pennsylvania, USA

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.

MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 19 months ago from South Africa

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!

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia


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

wordswithlove profile image

wordswithlove 19 months ago from Pennsylvania, USA

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?

Asa2141 profile image

Asa2141 19 months ago from Boise

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?

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia


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).

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 19 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

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

BibiLuzarraga profile image

BibiLuzarraga 19 months ago from Doral, FL (Greater Miami)

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.

Asa2141 profile image

Asa2141 19 months ago from Boise


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"?

BibiLuzarraga profile image

BibiLuzarraga 19 months ago from Doral, FL (Greater Miami)

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.

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 19 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

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".

BibiLuzarraga profile image

BibiLuzarraga 19 months ago from Doral, FL (Greater Miami)

Thank you, Austinstar :)

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia

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.

wordswithlove profile image

wordswithlove 19 months ago from Pennsylvania, USA

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.

BibiLuzarraga profile image

BibiLuzarraga 19 months ago from Doral, FL (Greater Miami)

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

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 19 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

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.

wordswithlove profile image

wordswithlove 19 months ago from Pennsylvania, USA

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?

EdwardJLongo profile image

EdwardJLongo 19 months ago from New York, New York

Astounding site full of spirituality . . . Edward

tony mcnaughton profile image

tony mcnaughton 19 months ago

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 !

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia


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.

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 19 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

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!

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia


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

maybe you could start a Hub about it?

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 19 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

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 :-)

MonkeyShine75 profile image

MonkeyShine75 19 months ago from Los Angeles, California

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

Asa2141 profile image

Asa2141 19 months ago from Boise

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.

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 19 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

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?

Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 18 months ago from Northeast Ohio

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

readerssquare profile image

readerssquare 17 months ago from Punjab, India

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.

jonnycomelately profile image

jonnycomelately 17 months ago from Tasmania

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.

Evleen Sharma 6 months ago

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

Will Apse 4 months ago

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.

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    Thomas Swan537 Followers
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    Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He specializes in the cognitive science of religion.

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