Explanatory Limits in the Cognitive Science of Religion: Theoretical Matrix and Evidence Levels

  • Lluis OviedoEmail author
Part of the New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion book series (NASR, volume 4)


Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) has developed for almost 20 years naturalistic explanations on religious mind and behavior, opening that field to scientific scrutiny. Scholars used to study religion from a more humanistic tradition or a hermeneutic approach could feel surprised by the application of biological-evolutionary, cognitive and neurological means to better explain religion. Not too confident with the new approach, many traditional students of religion, like theologians, religion philosophers, phenomenologists, and even psychologists, were often dazzled by the exhibition of new terms, concepts and ways to understand religion, beyond the traditional frames. Time is ripe for an assessment on the plausibility that these new theories exhibit, taking into account their respective frameworks and the reported empirical evidence.


Cognitive science of religion Mentalizing Autism spectrum disorder Cultural evolution Explanation of religion Cognitive bias Modulariry of mind Computational theory of mind 


  1. Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why would anyone believe in god? Altamira Press: Walnut Creek.Google Scholar
  2. Barrett, Nathaniel. 2010. Toward an alternative evolutionary theory of religion: Looking past computational evolutionary psychology to a wider field of possibilities. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 78: 538–621.Google Scholar
  3. Barrett, Justin L. 2017. Religion is Kid’s stuff: Minimally counterintuitive concepts are better remembered by young people. In Religious cognition in China, ed. Ryan G. Hornbeck, Justin L. Barrett, and Madeleine Kang, 125–137. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baumeister, Roy F., E.J. Masicampo, and Kathleen D. Vohs. 2011. Do conscious thoughts cause behavior? Annual Review of Psychology 62: 331–361.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bering, Jesse. 2002. The existential theory of mind. Review of General Psychology 6: 3–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bering, Jesse M. 2003. Towards a cognitive theory of existential meaning. New Ideas in Psychology 21: 101–120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blackmore, Susan J. 2006. Conversations on consciousness. Oxford University Press: New York.Google Scholar
  8. Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion explained: The human instincts that fashion gods, spirits and ancestors. London: Vintage.Google Scholar
  9. Bouwman, G., and M. van der Maten-Abbink. 2008. Godsbeelden en Existentiële Theory of Mind: een vergelijkend onderzoek tussen jongeren meten zonder een autisme spectrum stoornis [God images and existential theory of mind: A comparative research between youth with and without a pervasive developmental disorder]. Psyche & Geloof 19: 12–26.Google Scholar
  10. Brezis, Rachel. 2012. Autism as a case for neuroanthropology: Delineating the role of theory of mind in religious development. In The encultured brain: An introduction to neuroanthropology, ed. D.H. Lende and G. Downey, 291–314. Harvard: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  11. Bulbulia, Joseph, Armin W. Geertz, Quentin D. Atkinson, Emma Cohen, Nicholas Evans, Pieter Francois, Herbert Gintis, Russell D. Gray, Joseph Henrich, and Fiona M. Jordon. 2013. Cultural evolution: Society, technology, language, and religion. In Cultural Evolution, ed. P.J. Richerson and Morton H. Christiansen, 381–404. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Caldwell-Harris, Catherine, Caitlin Fox Murphy, Tessa Velazquez, and Patrick McNamara. 2011. Religious belief systems of persons with high functioning autism. Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society 33: 3362–3366.Google Scholar
  13. Churchland, Paul M., and Patricia Smith Churchland. 1998. On the contrary: Critical essays. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.Google Scholar
  14. Clark, Andy, and David Chalmers. 1998. The extended mind. Analysis 58: 7–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. 1994. Origins of domain specificity: The evolution of functional organization. In Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture, ed. L.A. Hirschfeld and S.A. Gelmen, 85–116. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Day, Matthew. 2007. Let’s be realistic: Evolutionary complexity, epistemic probabilism, and the cognitive science of religion. Harvard Theological Review 100: 47–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Deacon, Terrence W. 1998. The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the brain. London: WW Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  18. Dennett, Daniel Clement. 1993. Consciousness explained. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  19. ———. 2006. Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  20. Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA.Google Scholar
  21. Dubin, Nick, and Janet E. Graetz. 2009. Through a different lens: Spirituality in the lives of individuals with Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 13: 29–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ekblad, Leif, and Lluís Oviedo. 2017. Religious cognition among subjects with autism spectrum disorder (ASD): Defective or different? Clinical Neuropsychiatry 14: 287–296.Google Scholar
  23. Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. 2008. The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  24. Feil, E. 1986. Religio: Die Geschichte eines neuzeitlichen Grundbegriffs vom Frühchristentum bis zur Reformation. [Religio: The history of a modern basic concept from Early Christianity to Reformation] Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Fodor, Jerry Alan. 1983. The Modularity of mind: an essay on faculty psychology. Cambridge: MIT press.Google Scholar
  26. Fodor, Jerry A. 2000. The mind doesn’t work that way: The scope and limits of computational psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.Google Scholar
  27. Geertz, Armin W. 2008. How not to do the cognitive science of religion today. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 20: 7–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. ———. 2014. Origins of religion, cognition and culture. Routledge: London.Google Scholar
  29. Gregory, Justin, and Greenaway, Tyler. 2017. The mnemonic of intuitive ontology violation is not the distinctiveness effect: Evidence from a broad spectrum of persons in the UK and China during a free-recall task. Journal of Cognition and Culture 17 (1–2): 169–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hauser, Marc D., Charles Yang, Robert C. Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael J. Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky, and Richard C. Lewontin. 2014. The mystery of language evolution. Frontiers in Psychology 5 (401): 1–12.Google Scholar
  31. Hinde, Robert A. 1999. Why gods persist: A scientific approach to religion. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. Horst, Steven. 2013. Notions of intuition in cognitive science of religion. The Monist 96 (3): 377–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hutchins, Edwin. 1995. Cognition in the wild. MIT press: Cambridge MA.Google Scholar
  34. Jablonka, Eva, and Marion J. Lamb. 2005. Evolution in four dimensions: Genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.Google Scholar
  35. Jack, Anthony Ian, Jared Parker Friedman, Richard Eleftherios Boyatzis, and Scott Nolan Taylor. 2016. Why do you believe in god? Relationships between religious belief, analytic thinking, mentalizing and moral concern. PLoS One 11: e0149989.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Jenson, J. Christopher. 2015. The belief illusion. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 67: 965–995.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Jones, James W. 2016. Can science explain religion? The cognitive science debate. Oxford University Press: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Juarrero, Alicia. 1999. Dynamics in action: Intentional behavior as a complex system. MIT Press: Cambridge MA.Google Scholar
  39. Kemmerling, Andreas. 2014. Why is personhood conceptually difficult? In The depth of the human person: A multidisciplinary approach, ed. Michael Welker, 15–44. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.Google Scholar
  40. Kundt, Radek. 2015. Contemporary evolutionary theories of culture and the study of religion. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.Google Scholar
  41. Laidlaw, James. 2007. A well-disposed social anthropologist’s problems with the ‘cognitive science of religion’. In Religion, anthropology, and cognitive science, ed. Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw. Durham: Caroline Academic Press.Google Scholar
  42. Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic books.Google Scholar
  43. Lewens, Tim. 2015. Cultural evolution: Conceptual challenges. Oxford: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lindeman, Marjaana, and Jari Lipsanen. 2016. Diverse cognitive profiles of religious believers and nonbelievers. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 26: 185–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. McCauley, Robert N. 2011. Why religion is natural and science is not. Oxford University Press: New York.Google Scholar
  46. Mele, Alfred R. 2009. Effective intentions: The power of conscious Will. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Menary, Richard. 2010. The extended mind. Mit Press: Cambridge MA.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Nagel, Thomas. 2012. Mind and cosmos: Why the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford University Press: New York.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big gods: How religion transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Norenzayan, Ara, Will Gervais, and K.H. Trzesniewski. 2012. Mentalizing deficits constrain belief in a personal god. PLoS One 7: e36880.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Norenzayan, Ara, Azim F. Shariff, Will M. Gervais, Aiyana K. Willard, Rita A. McNamara, Edward Slingerland, and Joseph Henrich. 2016. The cultural evolution of prosocial religions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 39: 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Oviedo, Lluis. 2015a. Religious cognition as a dual-process: Developing the model. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 27 (1): 31–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Oviedo, Lluis. 2015b. Religion as a language: Exploring alternative paths in conversation with post-reductionist anthropologies. Zygon 50: 982–1001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. ———. 2016. Religious attitudes and prosocial behavior: A systematic review of published research. Religion, Brain & Behavior 6: 169–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. ———. 2017. Recent scientific explanations of religious beliefs: A systematic account. In Processes of believing: The acquisition, maintenance, and change in creditions, ed. Hans Ferdinand Angel and Anne Runehov, 289–317. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Palm, Günther. 2016. Neural information processing in cognition: We start to understand the orchestra, but where is the conductor? Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience 10: 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Panksepp, Jaak, and Jules B. Panksepp. 2000. The seven sins of evolutionary psychology. Evolution and Cognition 6: 108–131.Google Scholar
  58. Reddish, Paul, Penny Tok, and Radek Kundt. 2016. Religious cognition and behaviour in autism: The role of mentalizing. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 26: 95–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Rescorla, Michael. 2015. The computational theory of mind.
  60. Rowlands, Mark. 2009. The extended mind. Zygon 44: 628–641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Schaap-Jonker, Hanneke, Bram Sizoo, Jannine Van Schothorst-Van Roekel, and Jozef Corveleyn. 2013. Autism spectrum disorders and the image of god as a core aspect of religiousness. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 23: 145–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Schüler, Sebastian. 2011. Religion, kognition, evolution: Eine religionswissenschaftliche Auseinandersetzung mit der Cognitive Science of Religion. Kohlhammer Verlag: Stuttgart.Google Scholar
  63. Shults, F. Leron. 2014. Theology After the Birth of God. London: Palgrave MacMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Smith, Aaron. 2014. Thinking about religion: Extending the cognitive science of religion. Palgrave: New York.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Smith, Aaron C.T., and Howard Sankey. 2012. Thinking about religion: Examining progress in religious cognition. In A new science of religion, ed. G. Dawes and James Maclaurin. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  66. Strawson, Galen. 2015. Consciousness myth: Tom Stoppard’s ‘hard problem’ may be the hardest there is – But it certainly is not new. Times Literary Supplement 5839: 14–15.Google Scholar
  67. Szocik, Konrad. 2017. Religion and religious belief as evolutionary adaptations. Zygon 52: 24–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Tallis, Ray, and Igor Aleksander. 2008. Computer models of the mind are invalid. Journal of Information Technology 23: 55–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Tomasello, Michael. 2009. The cultural origins of human cognition. Harvard: Harvard university press.Google Scholar
  70. Turk, Mladen. 2013. Being religious: Cognitive and evolutionary theories in historical perspective. Eugen Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers.Google Scholar
  71. Vainio, Olli-Pekka. 2016. What does theology have to do with religion? Dual-process theory, cognitive science of religion and a curious blind spot in contemporary theorizing. Open Theology 2: 106–112.Google Scholar
  72. Van Slyke, James A. 2011. The cognitive science of religion. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.Google Scholar
  73. Visala, Aku. 2011. Naturalism, theism and the cognitive study of religion: Religion explained? Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  74. Watts, Fraser, and Leon Turner. 2014. Evolution, religion and cognitive science. Oxford University Press: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Willard, Aiyana K., and Ara Norenzayan. 2013. Cognitive biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief and belief in life’s purpose. Cognition 129: 379–391.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Wilson, Robert A. 2004. What computations (Still, Still) cannot do: Jerry Fodor on computation and modularity. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 34: 407–425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Pontifical University Antonianum RomeRomeItaly

Personalised recommendations