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Religious experiences are interpreted through priors from cultural frameworks supported by imaginative capacity rather than special cognition



In this commentary of McCauley and Graham’s book on mental abnormalities and religions, we identify a number of challenges, and present possible extensions of their proposed research. Specifically, we argue that no specialized religious cognition should be assumed, and instead suggest that the cases of mental abnormalities discussed in the book specify particular instances of religious content, and that other disorders may show a more causal relationship to religiosity. We argue that the discussed religious content may be best explained in the con- text of cultural frameworks and their contribution to experiencing the world through priors and predictive processing. Moreover, cognition required to understand and engage with religion, but not special to it, might crucially involve our capacity for imagination, supported by memory. Disorders in imagination are therefore expected to show like- wise dysfunctions in religious phenomena.
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021, Oce 415, e Workstation, 15 Paternoster Row, Sheeld, S1 2BX
Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion 7.1 (2019/2021) 39–53 JCSR ISSN (print) 2049-7555 JCSR ISSN (online) 2049-7563
Keywords: cognitive science, religion, mental disorders, cultural frameworks,
predictive processing, imagination
R E A I 
P  C F S 
I C R T S C
V  M
Coventry University
M L
Masaryk University, Brno
In this commentary of McCauley and Grahams book on mental
abnormalities and religions, we identify a number of challenges, and
present possible extensions of their proposed research. Specically, we
argue that no specialized religious cognition should be assumed, and
instead suggest that the cases of mental abnormalities discussed in the
book specify particular instances of religious content, and that other
disorders may show a more causal relationship to religiosity. We argue
that the discussed religious content may be best explained in the con-
text of cultural frameworks and their contribution to experiencing the
world through priors and predictive processing. Moreover, cognition
required to understand and engage with religion, but not special to
it, might crucially involve our capacity for imagination, supported by
memory. Disorders in imagination are therefore expected to show like-
wise dysfunctions in religious phenomena.
In Hearing Voices and Other Matters of the Mind, McCauley and Graham
discuss a relatively neglected but extremely important topic of similarities
between religious phenomena and mental disorders (McCauley & Graham,
2020). ey are to be congratulated for investigating this topic with care and
the required depth. e examples they picked to illustrate their point, such as
the depression of Mother Teresa, or the scrupulosity of Martin Luther, speak
40 Valerie van Mulukom and Martin Lang
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
to the imagination and make the religious experiences real to the readers (even
if some examples, like Martin Luther’s, may border on the overly speculative).
McCauley and Graham also champion a highly interdisciplinary approach,
as is necessary for the topic at hand, reected in their “ecumenical natural-
ism.” In doing so, they advance the meta-theoretical framework of the Cog-
nitive Science of Religion (CSR), which we wholeheartedly embrace. Indeed,
complex phenomena such as religious experiences are best approached by
a synthesis of multiple levels of investigation (Lang & Kundt, 2020). Not-
withstanding the benets of such an approach, a multilevel investigation of
religious phenomena also presents important challenges for researchers, some
of which are manifested in the work of McCauley and Graham. We discuss
these challenges and provide suggestions for future research.
Naturalism and Religious Cognition
McCauley and Graham frame their inquiry into the relationship between
mental disorders and religious phenomena as “ecumenical naturalism.” Ecu-
menical naturalism combines earlier propositions by McCauley and Bechtel
(2001) regarding explanatory pluralism of cognitive sciences with philosoph-
ical naturalism. Such a combination lays a solid meta-theoretical foundation
for their investigation without the need to reduce religious phenomena to
pathological manifestations of the human mind (sensu Freud, 1907). at
is, ecumenical naturalism allows McCauley and Graham to investigate how
“many features of religious experiences rely on maturationally natural cog-
nitive processes that underpin much of ordinary mental life” (McCauley &
Graham, 2020, p. 28). However, while arguing that religious experiences
are facilitated by “ordinary cognition” (p. 5), McCauley and Graham also
maintain a concept they call “religious cognition,” rendering it unclear what
exactly religious cognition is, if not simply ordinary cognitive systems engag-
ing with religious content. While we agree that neurocognitive mechanisms
underlying religious phenomena likely did not evolve for this reason, putting
forward a concept of religious cognition may confuse the reader to thinking
that McCauley and Graham suggest that there is a special type of cognition
dedicated to religion, which by their own admission, McCauley and Gra-
ham claim not to do. is potential confusion is exacerbated by the fact that
the book intentionally focuses on specic religious avors of mental disorder
(labelled “religious disorders” in the book; e.g., scrupulosity), which again
suggests an impairment in specically religious mental mechanisms.
Taking a hard stance on the non-existence of true religious cognition cre-
ates somewhat of a problem for the main goal of the book, which is to explore
the continuity between religious cognition and specic cognitive structures
impaired in patients suering from depression, obsessive-compulsive disor-
Religious Experiences and Cultural Priors 41
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
der, or individuals on the autistic spectrum (Figure 1.1, p. 3). According
to McCauley and Graham, this approach should serve to inform both our
understanding of religious experience and of mental disorders. e former
(research on mental disorders informing the CSR) can indeed be reached if
we assume that religious cognition is just ordinary cognition. Examining the
neurocognitive mechanisms that underlie mental disorders expressing hyper-
or hypo-religiosity should help us better understand mechanisms facilitating
religious experiences.
However, the latter goal (religious experience informing the research on
mental disorders) is more equivocal until we assume the existence of actual
religious cognition. While we agree that there are interesting similarities in
certain features of religious experiences and mental disorders and highlight-
ing them bears merit, sometimes, the similarities appear tenuous and depend
on religious content rather than religious cognition that could enrich our
understanding of the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms. For example,
it is dicult to see what researchers on depression can learn from the partic-
ular case of Mother Teresa when not assuming specic neurocognitive mech-
anisms related to her religious conviction.
e main underlying cognitive mechanism that is considered shared
between “religious” and “ordinary” depression is a strong sense of abandon-
ment, whereby a previously felt connection or attachment is lost, which
results in desolation, feelings of unworthiness, and ultimately, depression.
While this clearly can underlie both cases of “ordinary” and “religious
depression, it is not clear that a lost connection to the Christian God is cog-
nitively dierent from a connection to a close loved one. A relationship with
the Christian God has been likened to, and explained by, the attachment
theory (Granqvist, 2020; Granqvist, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2010). According
to attachment theory, God takes a place much like a parent would, who,
when disappointed or disapproving of the individual’s actions, may retreat
their aections and attention. If God and God’s love features in someone’s
life as a human person and their love, then the loss of such presence and love
would be (at least) equally devastating. us, while there may be a common
underlying cognitive mechanism – processes of attachment for example –
McCauley and Graham have focused on the content instead: loss of a con-
nection to God instead of a human loved one. Again, this helps elucidate the
mechanisms facilitating relationships to supernatural deities but likely not
the mechanisms of depression.
Chapter 2, on hearing voices, is another example of how the discussed
cases of mental disorders may be explained by religious content rather than
religious cognition. At the core of this chapter lies the argument that hearing
voices and other forms of hallucinations may not be considered a disorder
42 Valerie van Mulukom and Martin Lang
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
or pathology if it is not accompanied by other symptoms of mental disor-
ders such as schizophrenia, if frequency and duration are low (a recurring
argument in the book that we agree with) and if there is narrative or social
support. Cultural expectations inuence how people represent their experi-
ences as voices or inner speech or thought (Luhrmann, 2012), for example
through narratives (van Mulukom, 2017). Religion clearly provides a cultural
framework by which the phenomena can be understood, but also shaped:
thoughts formulated in words make available the objects of narratives (“lan-
guage processing”; McCauley & Graham, 2020, p. 63). ey become both
available and accessible: “Peoples specic interpretations of their experiences
are made more probably by (among other things) how culturally imaginable
or readily available the interpretations or descriptors are” (p. 60). is means
that religion is not associated with a special type of cognition to interpret the
world with, but rather a cultural framework. By way of simile, the voices one
hears may be in German or French, or in secular or religious “language.
Mental Disorders and Religiosity
Establishing that McCauley and Graham refer mostly to religious content,
we suggest that there are other disorders, which may be particularly enlight-
ening to hone in on mechanisms required for religion, rather than mecha-
nisms merely involved (cf. brain lesion studies, like Cristofori et al., 2016).1
For example schizophrenia, which is discussed in Chapter 2 in the context of
auditory verbal hallucinations, is associated with religiosity in a more general
way (Gearing et al., 2011). A crucial aspect of schizophrenia is abnormal
dopamine signaling, which may lead to (psychotic) experiences with aberrant
salience (Kapur, 2003). Dopamine release is implicated in the “stamping-in
of memories that attaches motivational importance or salience to otherwise
neutral environmental stimuli (Wise, 2004). If dopamine contributes to a
feeling so unusual but also signicant that it is often interpreted as “sacred,”
then it may be a crucial factor in religious experiences (Deeley, 2004; Geertz,
2010).2 If this hypothesis holds true, then one would also expect that, con-
versely, abnormally low levels of dopamine are associated with hyporeligiosity
– and this is indeed the case. Patients with Parkinson’s disease – a disease
marked by low levels of dopamine – frequently experience reductions in reli-
1. Aside from a potential underlying shared mechanism between schizophrenia and
religiosity, there is also important research suggesting that, depending on the
culture, religious/spiritual coping may be benecial for adherence to treatment in
schizophrenia (Gearing et al., 2011).
2. It has been suggested that imagistic religious rituals induce dopamine release
with referentially open stimuli (Deeley, 2004) the interpretation of which needs
a referential framework.
Religious Experiences and Cultural Priors 43
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
giosity (Butler, McNamara, Ghofrani, & Durso, 2011; McNamara, Durso,
& Brown, 2006). is suggests that cognitive abnormalities can inform us
about aspects of religiosity without the need to claim that dopamine is a
religious chemical or the only mechanism facilitating religious experience,
for that matter.
Furthermore, there are other cognitive abnormalities directly related to
changes in religiosity that may be of interest, namely, epilepsy. While the
research on the connection between epilepsy and religious experiences ini-
tially allured many researchers to speculate about the presence of this disorder
in important religious gures (Dewhurst & Beard, 1970) or make simplistic
claims about the god part of the brain, we believe that a careful and informed
interdisciplinary research on epilepsy can be extremely fruitful. Indeed, epilepsy
may be associated with sudden personality changes, which can include changes
in religiosity (Hansen & Brodtkorb, 2003), thus creating an opportunity to
investigate whether the cognitive mechanisms that are aected by epilepsy are
causally involved in religiosity (or in cultural frameworks more generally).
However, even if a disordered brain-mechanism related to epilepsy may be
crucial for facilitating religious experience, a cultural framework enveloping
these experiences is still crucial. e ictal experience (i.e., during a seizure)
can involve a variety of ecstatic sensations, including sensory hallucinations
and erotic sensations (Hansen & Brodtkorb, 2003). On closer inspection,
some reported experiences include common religious components, such as
feeling a presence, hearing voices, and receiving messages (Hansen & Brod-
tkorb, 2003). erefore, it may be the case that people experiencing these
phenomena have heard about these phenomena before, but only in a reli-
gious framework (regardless of whether they themselves are religious), and
therefore are prone to interpret the experience as such.
Cross-cultural variation in religious cognition and content
Our argument that McCauley and Graham focus mostly on the religious con-
tent of mental disorders that is crucially dependent on specic religious con-
texts suggests that this issue would best be investigated cross-culturally. For
instance, it would be interesting to examine whether some psychopathology
is more likely to be cross-culturally associated with religious contexts, but this
goes beyond the goals of the McCauley and Graham book. Indeed, despite
acknowledging that religion can “colour” experiences through the cultural
framework it provides, the focus of the book is heavily biased toward mono-
theistic – and, in particular, Abrahamic – religions, which is sometimes called
out (p. 78) but not always (p. 91). In the light of the discussions of narrow
sampling in psychology and related elds (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan,
2010; Sears, 1986), we believe that the conclusions oered by McCauley and
44 Valerie van Mulukom and Martin Lang
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
Graham are limited by the overt focus on the U.S./Christian populations.
While we do not want to discuss at length the need for understanding
religion outside of the so-called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial-
ized, Rich and Democratic) populations (Newson, Buhrmester, Xygalatas,
& Whitehouse, 2020), we would like to highlight the possible drawbacks
of implicitly assuming that one type of religion is “prototypical” (McCau-
ley & Graham, 2020, p. 79). In the eld of linguistics, a paradigmatic shift
took place when Chomsky proposed the concept of generative grammar
(Chomsky, 1957), introducing a theoretical framework through which all
languages could be analyzed and their universals unveiled. is proposition
revolutionized linguistics, similar to how the study of religion was revolu-
tionized by the inception of the CSR. However, Chomsky took English to
be the default or prototypical language, from which the grammars of other
languages diverged. Regardless of the historical inaccuracy of English even
being close to a proto-language, this means that all kinds of cognitive oper-
ations had to be postulated to t non-English languages (essentially, coming
from non-WEIRD populations) in the same underlying cognitive grammar.
For example, he postulated that in languages where “wh-” question words
(“what,” “where,” etc.) do not appear at the beginning of a sentence, would
move “covertly” (i.e., in one’s head outside of conscious awareness, not in
spoken or written language) to the beginning of the sentence for syntacti-
cal operations to be presumed equal across all languages (Chomsky, 1995),
despite there not being an a priori reason or a reason based on cognitive prin-
ciples for the wh-words to appear at the front of the sentence. e CSR has
done well to embrace the diversity of religions but it is important to continue
relying on ample cross-cultural and comparative work when studying uni-
versals to avoid potential biases related to using one religion as prototypical.
Moreover, understanding the cultural evolutionary history of particular
religions (i.e., the historical processes that formed religions under various
socio-ecological conditions [Lang & Kundt, 2020; Sosis, 2020]) could help
us elucidate why religious content may be more typical for some disorders
than others in particular social systems. For example, some religious tradi-
tions may include harsh, punitive, and omniscient deities that help to stabi-
lize cooperation among anonymous co-religionists (Lang et al., 2019; Noren-
zayan et al., 2016; Purzycki et al., 2016).3 While such beliefs play important
societal functions and are favored by cultural evolution, they also non-trivially
interact with “maturationally natural capacities” and may cause distress and
3. In this respect, we found the argument that some traditions (e.g., Protestantism)
may push their members further on the psychopathology continuum (e.g., in
scrupulosity) intriguing and see this as a fruitful intersection of the CSR research
with cultural evolutionary theories.
Religious Experiences and Cultural Priors 45
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
anxiety from fearsome gods (Flannelly, 2017). On the other hand, the cul-
tural evolution of omnipotent deities may also have important by-products,
for instance, the belief that such omnipotent deities can help people in dif-
cult situations. One study of participants in the extreme ritual of the ai-
pussam festival in Mauritius showed that painful acts of devotion celebrating
Murugan (a Hindu god of war) was associated with later improvements in
participants’ self-reported well-being (Xygalatas et al., 2019; see also Tewari
et al., 2012). ese examples suggest that mental health may be aected by
specic religious settings in complex, non-linear ways (Lang, 2020).
Predictive Processing and Priors
Cultural frameworks such as religions further inuence phenomenologi-
cal experiences as do individual dierences in cognition (e.g., the capacity
for absorption). For example, whether the boundary between self/other or
inside/outside the mind, is “porous” rather than “bounded” varies between
individuals and cultures (Luhrmann et al., 2021; see also McCauley & Gra-
ham, 2020, p. 52). Whether the boundaries are porous or bounded deter-
mines whether a person is thought to be able to receive thoughts, emotions,
or knowledge directly from outside sources (such as through telepathy or
divine inspiration). is means that beliefs may dier interculturally prior to
even having an anomalous experience such as hearing voices. In other words,
dierent religious traditions would provide dierent priors for their adher-
ents to interpret their unusual experiences (in a predictive coding or process-
ing framework; Clark, 2013), which would aect the specic manifestations
of particular disorders. e extent to which religious concepts are woven to
the everyday fabric of life in various cultures would create dierently strong
priors for the top-down generative models in the minds of particular reli-
gionists (Taves & Asprem, cf. Lang & Kundt, 2017) and impairments in
the self-monitoring capacity may be more readily populated with religious
concepts in some cultures over others (Fletcher & Frith, 2009). at is, pri-
ors such as a religious framework or other socially supported interpretation
can help frame the event into a religious experience. Crucially, these priors
would aect whether individual cultures encourage or stigmatize psycholog-
ical abnormalities.
While McCauley and Graham discuss this process of “background beliefs
and expectations” inuencing interpretations in the source monitoring sec-
tion of Chapter 2, they do not refer to predictive processing explicitly. We
suggest that the predictive processing framework can provide a more parsi-
monious explanation for the discussed phenomena (van Elk & Wagenmak-
ers, 2017) than source monitoring, which we argue is more closely involved
with assessing the status of the thought (i.e., derived from external or internal
46 Valerie van Mulukom and Martin Lang
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
sources; Johnson & Raye, 1981), and to which we return below. Indeed, the
eect of degraded inputs or bottom-up signals, whether due to external cir-
cumstances (e.g., unreliable sensory signals due to low levels of lighting, etc.)
or internal circumstances (e.g., trauma) has been suggested to be an opportu-
nity for religious interpretations, or top-down priors, to sweep in (Schjoedt
et al., 2013a, 2013b). Besides a reduced reliability of bottom-up signals, an
increased reliability of top-down priors, such as the presence of material reli-
gious artefacts, can further steer the experience (Clark, 2013).
Imaginative Capacity Underlies Religious Representation
Despite the caveats highlighted in the previous sections, we believe that
McCauley and Graham would agree there are neurocognitive mechanisms
not dedicated to religion but required for religion. In the current section,
we will argue that imagination may lie at the center of religious beliefs and
behaviors, and may be at the foundation of such cognition (van Mulukom,
2019), and suggest some possible extensions for the work that McCauley and
Graham have put forward.
e ability to imagine a god is a recurring underlying theme in Chapter 2,
3, and 5: e ability to hear the voice of God is supported by practicing one’s
imagination; a reduced ability to “imagine” the presence of God is associated
with depression; and the inability to imagine other minds is associated with
reduced religiosity in individuals on the autism spectrum. Imagination dened
as the cognitive capacity to simulate mental representations in the absence of
external input shares with religion its involvement with content that “tran-
scends the here and now” (van Mulukom, 2019). Given the transcendental
nature of religion, we argue that the capacity for imagination is a prerequisite
for religious experience (regardless of the ontological status of supernatural
beings, places, and so on). In other words, imagination is at the core of the
ability to engage fully with religion. We now investigate whether mental dis-
orders with religious content have similar abnormalities in imaginative ability.
Pentecostalists engage in certain prayer techniques such as imagining oneself
talking to God and imagining observing the church from God’s point of view
to increase their feelings of connectedness to God (Luhrmann, 2012). Such
practice increases the ease of imagining over time, which in turn contributes
to plausibility or felt realness of the experience (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973,
1993; see also, van Mulukom et al., 2016). e process by which thoughts
are assessed has also been called source monitoring or reality monitoring
(Johnson & Raye, 1981). Importantly, reduced source monitoring, such as
in individuals with high levels of fantasy proneness or absorption, may cause
imaginings to appear more real (van Mulukom, 2020). Higher levels of per-
ceived realness can in turn inuence beliefs following from religious experi-
Religious Experiences and Cultural Priors 47
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
ences. Scrupulosity might be an instance of this – the thought-action fusion
entails that thoughts are thought real to the extent that they can be perceived
as actions in of themselves. is can prove debilitating, especially when com-
bined with rumination, or an excessive simulation of (imaginary) threat.
Besides individual dierences, excessive belief in the imaginary (“delu-
sions”) is crucially manifested in mental disorders such as schizophrenia.
When the imaginary, that is content that transcends beyond the here and
now, is no longer perceived as such and is considered as real, we might call
this “hyper-imagination.” Conversely, “hypo-imagination” refers to impaired
ability to imagine (for a similar framework, linking mental disorders to cre-
ativity, see Flaherty, 2005). McCauley and Graham suggest that in the case
of hypo-imagination, it becomes impossible for the individual to feel God’s
presence. Indeed, since the Christian God is faceless and invisible, imagina-
tion is required to invite His presence during prayer. However, depression
compromises imagination (Williams et al., 1996) and reduced or blocked
imagination during prayer means that no connection to God can be made,
plunging the praying individual into feeling abandoned by God, which in
turn further reduces the ability to imagine in a vicious cycle.
eory of Mind, like future event imagination, relies on autobiographi-
cal information and involves imagining an alternative perspective to one’s
own perspective in the here and now (Buckner & Carroll, 2007). Autism, in
this sense, may be considered a decit in imagination as well (see also Roth,
2007; though cf., Visuri, 2019). McCauley and Graham point out that autis-
tic individuals may develop an “ersatz” eory of Mind by systemizing their
social experience, in particular in terms of social conventions rather than
psychological insights about other people’s minds. is ersatz theory is a fac-
tual representation of what might have happened without the requirement of
an imagining of another person’s mind. A similar distinction might be made
between semantic and episodic memory: whereas the former is the storage
of factual information, the latter involves storage of remembered personal
experiences including an experiential aspect through which the imaginer can
relive the experience (Tulving, 1985b). Indeed, autistic individuals display a
similar decit in episodic memory as compared to semantic memory (Crane
& Goddard, 2008), as do individuals with depression (Williams et al., 1996),
suggesting an important role for (the feeling of) experience (or “autonoetic
consciousness;” Tulving, 1985a).
Given that religion requires a capacity for imagination to represent gods
minds (Purzycki & McNamara, 2016), it would stand to reason that religios-
ity is impaired in autistic individuals. However, it has also been argued that
in religions with bodiless supernatural agents, religion might be easier for
autistic individuals, as they do not have to engage with full persons (Visuri,
48 Valerie van Mulukom and Martin Lang
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2018), and can, as it were, create them in their image. However, due to this
increased idiosyncrasy, such religiosity does not always get picked up by stud-
ies of religion (Visuri, 2020).
Furthermore, weaved throughout the book is an underlying tenet that a
coherent, stable sense of self contributes to mental wellbeing, whereby an inter-
ruption of this sense of self is connected to mental disorders (Waters, 2014).
A healthy sense of self or identity is crucially supported by narrative, which
weaves one’s past, present and future together into a coherent whole (McAd-
ams, 2001), stored in and accessed from autobiographical memory. rough
their support of identity, narratives are crucial for psychological wellbeing
(Baerger & McAdams, 1999), and deciencies in narrative or identity are
associated with psychopathology (Neimeyer, 2000). However, contrary to
McCauley and Graham (p. 99), we argue that narrative thought comes natu-
rally and automatically (Bruner, 1986) and is required for the establishment
of an identity (McAdams, 1993, 2001). ese narratives are ways of telling
ourselves and others who we are (i.e., our identities), and religiosity can be
an important part of that. Religious rituals, especially high-arousal ones, can
contribute signicantly to such narratives (van Mulukom, 2017).
To conclude, in so far that one of the main functions of autobiographical
memory may be to provide the building blocks for imagination (Schacter &
Addis, 2007), and that narrative and other social constructions may rely on
imagination (van Mulukom, 2020), we do not have to postulate additional
cognitive systems to account for religious experiences. In Chapter 2, McCau-
ley and Graham explicitly propose ve cognitive systems that may underlie
hearing voices: source monitoring, language processing, agency detection,
eory of Mind, and “penchant for narrative.” Of these, we have covered all
except for agency detection and showed that the capacity for imagination,
supported by memory, plays a crucial role in all of them. In the interest of
space, we will not contribute further to the agency detection debate (in the
CSR), and will simply agree here that it is likely that humans are “naturally
poised to detect intentional, purpose-driven agents” (McCauley & Graham,
2020, p. 63), and suggest that this may be another (predictive) prior inuenc-
ing human perception (cf. Andersen et al., 2019).
How cognition supports religion and religious thoughts and behaviors has
been the target of decades long research. In their book, McCauley and Gra-
ham examine an under-investigated corner of that research: the overlap
between cognition in mental disorders and cognition involved in religion. In
this article, we have pointed out some caveats of their approach as well as pos-
sible extensions of their research proposal, in particular referring to cultural
Religious Experiences and Cultural Priors 49
© Equinox Publishing Ltd. 2021
frameworks, predictive processing, and imaginative capacity. e interaction
between mental disorders and religiosity is a rich and fascinating aspect of
cognitive science, and we applaud McCauley and Graham for bringing so
many interesting aspects together into a coherent book.
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In this commentary on An Introduction to the Cognitive Science of Religion by Claire White, I reflect on how the lack of clarification of a key concept, i.e., cognition, leads to a distorted image of the field. This is because different strands of research can now be represented in a cognitivist context. I also ask to what extent this field is still concerned with research on cognitive mechanisms and constraints and whether the cognitivist paradigm truly represents most of the field. I argue that other theoretical frameworks, such as predictive coding theory, cultural evolution, and complex adaptive systems are recently of importance in the CSR and should be rendered in similar detail as the “standard model” of the CSR framework. I further suggest that some shortcomings in the explicit communication of conceptual definitions may be to blame for theoretical misunderstandings and a feeling of a biased image of the discipline.
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Significance The sensory presence of gods and spirits is central to many of the religions that have shaped human history—in fact, many people of faith report having experienced such events. But these experiences are poorly understood by social scientists and rarely studied empirically. We present a multiple-discipline, multiple-methods program of research involving thousands of people from diverse cultures and religions which demonstrates that two key factors—cultural models of the mind and personal orientations toward the mind—explain why some people are more likely than others to report vivid experiences of gods and spirits. These results demonstrate the power of culture, in combination with individual differences, to shape something as basic as what feels real to the senses.
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Reliance on convenience samples for psychological experiments has led to the oversampling of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) populations (Henrich et al. 2010a). Our analysis of academic articles from six leading psychology journals revealed a significantly lower but still very high percentage of studies from Euro-pean and English-speaking nations (92%), compared to a decade ago (95%), largely due to more studies from Asia (6%). Further analysis of four cognitive science of religion (CSR) journals showed how a more representative field is possible (67% from the Western and Other region), with proportionately more studies in Latin America (4%) and Africa (7%) than psychology (<1% each). Thanks to its interdiscipli-nary nature, CSR is in a good position to address "WEIRD" problems and may be able to offer psychology methodological and epistemolog-ical tools that involve diversifying sample populations, increasing ecological validity, capturing the causes and consequences of cultural variation , and developing novel methodologies. Despite the challenges, we encourage more researchers to embrace the lessons offered by CSR's history of global and interdisciplinary research. Where WEIRD identifies the populations we need to stop privileging, conducting work that is not just Worldwide, but also In Situ, Local, and Diverse (WILD) is what researchers themselves can aspire to. Just as nineteenth century "armchair anthropologists" were replaced by generations of ethnogra-phers who went out into the real world to study human variation, so modern day psychologists need to conduct experiments outside the lab with suitably heterogeneous populations.
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Synthesizing diverse strands of theory and research, this compelling book explores the psychology of religion and spirituality through an innovative attachment lens. Pehr Granqvist examines the connections between early caregiving experiences, attachment patterns, and individual differences in religious cognition, experience, and behavior. The function of a deity as an attachment figure is analyzed, as are ways in which attachment facilitates the intergenerational transmission of religion. The book also shows how the attachment perspective can aid in understanding mystical experiences, connections between religion and mental health, and cultural differences between more and less religious societies. Granqvist's conversational writing style, concrete examples, and references to popular culture render complex concepts accessible. For further info and order, see: For podcast interview:
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The emergence of large-scale cooperation during the Holocene remains a central problem in the evolutionary literature. One hypothesis points to culturally evolved beliefs in punishing, interventionist gods that facilitate the extension of cooperative behaviour toward geographically distant co-religionists. Furthermore, another hypothesis points to such mechanisms being constrained to the religious ingroup, possibly at the expense of religious outgroups. To test these hypotheses, we administered two behavioural experiments and a set of interviews to a sample of 2228 participants from 15 diverse populations. These populations included foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, and wage labourers, practicing Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, but also forms of animism and ancestor worship. Using the Random Allocation Game (RAG) and the Dictator Game (DG) in which individuals allocated money between themselves, local and geographically distant co-religionists, and religious outgroups, we found that higher ratings of gods as monitoring and punishing predicted decreased local favouritism (RAGs) and increased resource-sharing with distant co-religionists (DGs). The effects of punishing and monitoring gods on outgroup allocations revealed between-site variability, suggesting that in the absence of intergroup hostility, moralizing gods may be implicated in cooperative behaviour toward outgroups. These results provide support for the hypothesis that beliefs in monitoring and punitive gods help expand the circle of sustainable social interaction, and open questions about the treatment of religious outgroups.
The puzzle of the evolution of imagination and fiction is that realistic representations of the world are expected to be more helpful for survival than fictional ones. In this chapter, I argue that this puzzle disappears when one understands that imagination relies on the brain network that also supports remembering and experiencing, and that memory—typically considered a realistic representation of events—is reconstructive like imagination is. The flexibility of the recombination of memory details lies at the basis of mankind’s adaptive capacity for creative generativity, allowing them to think of a wide variety of events and ideas. Narrative allows for this generativity of events and ideas to be shared efficiently with others, and fills in the gaps between prediction and experience, while balancing accuracy and consistency. Moreover, imagination and narrative imbue events with meaning and motivate people into action, thus crucially supporting human culture.
Recent work on the evolution of religion has approached religions as adaptive complexes of traits consisting of cognitive, neurological, affective, behavioural and developmental features that are organized into a self-regulating feedback system. Religious systems, it has been argued, derive from ancestral ritual systems and continue to be fuelled by ritual performances. One key prediction that emerges from this systemic approach is that the success of religious beliefs will be related to how well they are connected to rituals and integrated with other elements of the religious system. Here, I examine this prediction by exploring the rich world of Jewish demonology. As a case study, I briefly survey the historical trajectory of demonic beliefs across Jewish communities and focus on one demon, a ruach ra'ah , that has survived the vicissitudes of Jewish history and maintained its relevance in contemporary Jewish communities. I argue that it has done so because of its linkage with a morning handwashing ritual and its effective integration into the core elements of Jewish religious systems. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Ritual renaissance: new insights into the most human of behaviours’.
This book endorses an ecumenical naturalism toward all cognition, which will illuminate the long-recognized and striking similarities between features of mental disorders and features of religions. The authors emphasize underlying cognitive continuities between familiar features of religiosity, of mental disorders, and of everyday thinking and action. They contend that much religious thought and behavior can be explained in terms of the cultural activation of maturationally natural cognitive systems, which address fundamental problems of human survival, encompassing such capacities as hazard precautions, agency detection, language processing, and theory of mind. The associated skills are not taught and appear independent of general intelligence. Religions’ representations cue such systems’ operations. The authors hypothesize that in doing so they sometimes elicit responses that mimic features of cognition and conduct associated with mental disorders. Both in schizophrenia and in religions some people hear alien voices. The inability of depressed participants to communicate with or sense their religions’ powerful, caring gods can exacerbate their depression. Often religions can domesticate the concerns and compulsions of people with OCD. Religions’ rituals and pronouncements about moral thought-action fusion can temporarily evoke similar obsessions and compulsions in the general population. A chapter is devoted to each of these and to the exception that proves the rule. The authors argue that if autistic spectrum disorder involves theory-of mind-deficits, then people with ASD will lack intuitive insight and find inferences with many religious representations challenging. Ecumenical naturalism’s approach to mental abnormalities and religiosity promises both explanatory and therapeutic understanding.