Minimal Intellectualism and Gods as Intuitive Regress-Blockers

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


What is the role of explanation in shaping and sustaining religious beliefs, if any? This chapter tackles this question from the perspective of the framework known as the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR). CSR has been generally dismissive of ‘intellectualist’ approaches to religion emphasizing the explanatory role of religious beliefs. Here, I argue, first, that some of the arguments against intellectualism found in the CSR literature are overstated and that some ‘minimally intellectualist’ propositions concerning religion are not only compatible with CSR but are indeed implicit in some of its core, ‘foundational’ theories. Secondly, I look at ultimate explanations of origins, arguing that, with respect to the latter, explanations appealing to the will and actions of minded agents have an intuitive advantage vs. other kinds of explanations, and that, again, this follows from core CSR theories. Gods, I argue, are better regress-blockers than, say, inanimate causes, and this follows from the deeply rooted intuitions about basic ontological kinds which CSR theorizes about.


Cognitive science of religion Minimally counterintuitive concepts Regress stopper Intellectualism Religion as explanation Pascal Boyer 


  1. Ahn, W., C.W. Kalish, D.L. Medin, and S.A. Gelman. 1995. The role of covariation versus mechanism information in causal attribution. Cognition 59: 299–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Astuti, R., and P.L. Harris. 2008. Understanding mortality and the life of ancestors in rural Madagascar. Cognitive Science 32: 713–740.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Atran, Scott. 1989. Basic conceptual domains. Mind & Language 4: 7–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. ———. 1998. Folk biology and the anthropology of science: Cognitive Universals and cultural particulars. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21: 547–569.Google Scholar
  5. ———. 2002. In gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford University Press: Oxford.Google Scholar
  6. Atran, Scott, and Ara Norenzayan. 2004. Religion's evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27: 713–730.Google Scholar
  7. Baron-Cohen, S. 1997. Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  8. Barrett, Justin L. 1999. Theological correctness: Cognitive constraint and the study of religion. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 11: 325–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. ———. 2000. Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4: 1–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. ———. 2004. Why would anyone believe in god? Altamira Press: Walnut Creek.Google Scholar
  11. ———. 2008. Why Santa Claus is not a god. Journal of Cognition and Culture 8: 149–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. ———. 2009. Coding and quantifying counterintuitiveness in religious concepts: Theoretical and methodological reflections. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 20: 308–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. ———. 2011. Cognitive science, religion and theology : from human minds to divine minds. West Conshohocken: Templeton Press.Google Scholar
  14. Barrett, Justin L., and Melanie A. Nyhof. 2001. Spreading non-natural concepts: The role of intuitive conceptual structures in memory and transmission of cultural materials. Journal of Cognition and Culture 1: 69–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Beard, M., J. North, and S. Price. 1998. Religions of Rome: A history. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.Google Scholar
  16. Beattie, J. 1964. Other cultures. Routledge: London.Google Scholar
  17. Bering, Jesse M. 2006. The folk psychology of souls. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29: 453–462.Google Scholar
  18. Bloom, Paul. 2004. Descartes’ baby: How the science of child development explains what makes us human. Basic Books: New York.Google Scholar
  19. ———. 2007. Religion is natural. Developmental Science 10: 147–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. ———. 2009. Religious belief as an evolutionary accident. In The believing primate, ed. Michael Murray and Jeffrey Schloss, 118–127. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Boyd, R., and P.J. Richerson. 1985. Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago University Press: Chicago.Google Scholar
  22. Boyer, Pascal. 1994. The naturalness of religious ideas. Berkeley University of California Press: Berkeley.Google Scholar
  23. ———. 2002. Religion explained: The human instincts that fashion gods, spirits and ancestors. Vintage: London.Google Scholar
  24. ———. 2003. Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7: 119–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Boyer, Pascal, and Charles Ramble. 2001. Cognitive templates for religious concepts: Cross-cultural evidence for recall of counter-intuitive representations. Cognitive Science 25: 535–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Carruthers, Peter, and Peter K. Smith. 1996. Theories of theories of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Cartwright, Nancy. 1983. How the Laws of physics Liet. Clarendon Press: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Churchland, Paul M. 1981. Eliminative materialism and the propositional attitudes. The Journal of Philosophy 78: 67–90.Google Scholar
  29. Craig, William Lane. 2003. The cosmological argument. In The rationality of theism, ed. P. Copan and Paul Kenneth Moser, 112–113. London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  30. Davidson, Donald. 1973a. On the very idea of a conceptual scheme. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 47: 5–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. ———. 1973b. Radical interpretation. Dialectica 27: 314–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. De Cruz, Helen, and Johan De Smedt. 2010. Paley’s Ipod. The cognitive basis of the design argument within natural theology. Zygon 45: 665–684.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. ———. 2011. The cognitive appeal of the cosmological argument. Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 23: 103–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. ———. 2017. Intuitions and arguments: Cognitive foundations of argumentation in NAtural theology. European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 9: 57–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Dennett, Daniel. 1987. The intentional stance. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  36. Diamond, J. 2012. The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies. Penguin Books: New York.Google Scholar
  37. Durkheim, Emile. 1971. The elementary forms of the religious life. The Free Press: New York.Google Scholar
  38. Evans, E. Margaret. 2000a. Beyond scopes: Why creationism is here to stay. In Imagining the impossible. The development of magical, scientific and religious thinking in contemporary society, ed. K. Rosengren, C. Johnson, and P. Harris, 305–333. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. ———. 2000b. The emergence of beliefs about the origins of species in school-age children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (1982-) 46: 221–254.Google Scholar
  40. ———. 2001. Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of diverse belief systems: Creation versus evolution. Cognitive Psychology 42: 217–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1933. The intellectualist (English) interpretation of magic. Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts, Egyptian University (Cairo) i: 282–311.Google Scholar
  42. Everett, D.L. 2005. Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Piraha. Current Anthropology 46: 621–646.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Frazer, J.G. 1911. The golden bough: A study in magic and religion. MacMillan: London.Google Scholar
  44. Gallup survey. 2014. In U.S, 42% believe in creationist view of human origins.
  45. ———. 2017. In U.S., belief in creationist view of humans at new low.
  46. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Interpretation of cultures. Basic Books: New York.Google Scholar
  47. Gelman, S.A., and G.M. Gottfried. 1996. Children’s causal explanations of animate and inanimate motion. Child Development 67: 1970–1982.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Gervais, Will, K. Willard Aijana, Ara Norenzayan, and Joseph Henrich. 2011. The cultural transmission of faith: Why innate intuitions are necessary, but insufficient, to explain religious belief. Religion 41: 389–410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Gopnik, Alison. 2000. Explanation as orgasm and the drive for causal knowledge. The function, evolution, and phenomenology of the theory formation system. In Explanation and cognition, ed. F.C. Keil and R.A. Wilson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  50. Grimm, S. 2014. Understanding as knowledge of causes. In Virtue epistemology naturalized: bridges between virtue epistemology and the philosophy of science, ed. A. Fairweather. Springer: New York.Google Scholar
  51. ———. 2016. How understanding people differs from understanding the natural world. Philosophical Issues (Noûs supplement) 26: 209–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Guthrie, Stewart Elliott. 1993. Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Hempel, Carl G. 1965. Aspects of scientific explanation and other essays in the philosophy of science. The Free Press: New York.Google Scholar
  54. Henrich, Joseph. 2009. The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior 30: 244–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Henrich, J., J. Ensminger, R. McElreath, A. Barr, C. Barrett, A. Bolyanatz, and J.C. Cardenas. 2010. Market, religion, community size and the evolution of fairness and punishment. Science 327: 1480–1884.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Hinde, Robert A. 1999. Why Gods persist: A scientific approach to religion. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  57. Hollis, S.T. 1998. Otiose deities and the ancient Egyptian religion. Journal of the American Research Centre in Egypt 35: 61–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Hopfe, L.M. 2007. Religions of the world. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.Google Scholar
  59. Horton, R. 1967. African traditional thought and western science. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 37: 155–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. ———. 1993. Patterns of thought in Africa and the west. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Hume, David. 1976. The natural history of religion. Clarendon: Oxford.Google Scholar
  62. Hunt, S. 1998. Magical moments: An intellectualist approach to the neo-Pentecostal faith ministries. Religion 28: 271–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Ingham, J.M. 1984. Human sacrifice at Tenochtitln. Society for Comparative Studies in Society and History 26: 379–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Irons, William. 2001. Religion as a hard-to-fake-sign of commitment. In Evolution and the capacity for commitment, ed. R. Nesse, 292–309. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  65. Jarvi, I.C., and J. Agassi. 1967. The problem of the rationality of magic. The British Journal of Sociology 18: 55–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Keil, F.C. 2006. Explanation and understanding. Annual Review of Psychology 57: 227–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Kelemen, Deborah. 1999. Why are rocks pointy? Children’s preference for teleological explanations of the natural world. Developmental Psychology 35: 1440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. ———. 2004. Are children “intuitive theists”?: Reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychological Science 15: 295–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Kelemen, Deborah, and C. DiYanni. 2005. Intuitions about origins: Purpose and intelligent design in children’s reasoning about nature. Journal of Cognition and Development 6: 3–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Kerenyi, C. 1980. Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson.Google Scholar
  71. Kincaid, H. 1996. Causes, confirmation and explanation. In Philosophical foundations of the social sciences, ed. H. Kincaid, 58–100. Cambirdge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  72. Kitcher, Philip. 1989. Unification and the causal structure of the world. In Scientific explanation, ed. Philip Kitcher and Wesley Salmon, 410–447. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  73. Lawson, E. Thomas. 1984. Religions of, Africa: Traditions in transformation. Harper Collins: New York.Google Scholar
  74. Lawson, E. Thomas, and Robert N. McCauley. 1990. Rethinking religion: Connecting cognition and culture. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.Google Scholar
  75. Leeming, D.A., and M.A. Leeming. 1994. Dictionary of creation myths. Oxford University Press: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Mantovani, P. in preparation. Representational content biases and the explanation of religious belief. UnpublishedGoogle Scholar
  77. McCauley, Robert N. 2000. The naturalness of religion and the unnaturalness of science. In Explanation and cognition, ed. F.C. Keil and R. Wilson, 61–85. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  78. McCauley, Robert. 2011. Why religion is natural and science is not. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  79. McCauley, Robert N., and Emma Cohen. 2010. Cognitive science and the naturalness of religion. Philosophy Compass 5: 779–792.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Murdock, G.P. 1967. Ethnographic atlas: A summary. The University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburgh.Google Scholar
  81. Norenzayan, Ara. 2013. Big gods: How religion Transformed cooperation and conflict. Princeton University Press: Princeton/New Jersey.Google Scholar
  82. Norenzayan, A., S. Atran, J. Faulkner, and M. Schaller. 2006. Memory and mystery: The cultural selection of minimally counterintuitive narratives. Cognitive Science 30: 531–553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Pals, Daniel L. 2006. Eight theories of religion. Oxford University Press: New York.Google Scholar
  84. Pettit, P. 1995. The virtual reality of Homo Economicus. The Monist 78: 308–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Povinelli, D., and S. Dunphy-Lelii. 2001. Do chimpanzees seek explanations? Preliminary comparative investigations. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 55: 185–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Ray, B. 2000. African religions: symbol, ritual, and ceremony. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  87. Richerson, P.J., and R. Boyd. 2008. Not by genes alone: How culture transformed human evolution. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.Google Scholar
  88. Salmon, Wesley C. 1989. Four decades of scientific explanation. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.Google Scholar
  89. Shultz, T.R. 1982a. Causal reasoning in the social and nonsocial realms. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science 14: 307–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. ———. 1982b. Rules of causal attribution. Monographs for the Society for Research in Child Development 47: 1–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Skorupski, J. 1976. Symbol and theory: A philosophical study of theories of religion in social anthropology. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.Google Scholar
  92. Sosis, R. 2003. Why aren’t we all Hutterites? Costly signaling theory and religion. Human Nature 14: 91–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Spelke, E.S. 2000. Core knowledge. American Psychologist 55: 1233–1243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Sperber, Dan, and Hiram Caton. 1996. Explaining culture: A naturalistic approach. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.Google Scholar
  95. Sperber, D., and A. Hirschfeld. 2004. The cognitive foundations of cultural stability and diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8: 40–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Sperber, Dan, and D. Wilson. 1995. Relevance: Communication and cognition. Blackwell: Oxford.Google Scholar
  97. Swinburne, Richard. 2004. The existence of god. Clarendon: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Talmont-Kaminski, K. 2013. Religion as magical ideology: How the supernatural reflects rationality. Routledge: New York.Google Scholar
  99. Taylor, C. 1971. Interpretation and the sciences of man. Review of Metaphysics 25: 3–51.Google Scholar
  100. Toates, F. 2006. A model of the hierarchy of behaviour, cognition, and consciousness. Consciousness and Cognition 15: 75–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Tylor, E.B. 1871. Primitive culture. Murray: London.Google Scholar
  102. Van Fraassen, Bas Cornelis. 1980. The scientific image. Clarendon: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. van Inwagen, P. 1975. The incompatibility of free will and determinism. Philosophical Studies 27: 185–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Wegner, D.M. 2003. The mind’s self-portrait. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1001: 212–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral : Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. Chicago: University of Chicago press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Winch, P. 1958. The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy. Routledge: New York.Google Scholar
  107. ———. 1987. Trying to make sense. Blackwell: Oxford.Google Scholar
  108. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1958. Philosophical investigations. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.Google Scholar
  109. ———. 1966. Lectures and conversations on aesthetics, psychology and religious belief. Blackwell: Oxford.Google Scholar
  110. Woodward, James. 2000. Explanation and invariance in the special sciences. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 51: 197–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  111. ———. 2005. Making things happen : A theory of causal explanation. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of RoehamptonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations