Jan 11, 2012
Our minds are better suited to religion than they are to science because religions engage a variety of our maturationally natural cognitive systems, whereas science requires forms of reflection that largely supersede and correct the deliverances of those maturationally natural systems. Religion involves cognitive representations and cognitive processing that come naturally to human minds, while science traffics in radically counterintuitive representations and in forms of cognitive processing whose acquisition and mastery require disciplined reflective activity across many years of formal education.
With regard to their cognitive products: Religion’s modestly counterintuitive representations, icons, myths, stories, and rituals are materials that every normal human mind finds familiar and easy to use by the time that we have reached school age. By contrast, science’s radically counterintuitive, abstract theories, mathematical representations, and elaborate experimental designs pursued in unusual and often exotic environments are difficult to comprehend and remember, let alone create.
With regard to their characteristic cognitive processes: Popular religion requires no more than the abilities to deploy a variety of domain-specific cognitive systems that almost all humans effortlessly acquire in the first six or seven years of life. These include such maturationally natural capacities as following narratives; drawing inferences about agents, their states of mind, and their conduct; recognizing objects and places that merit special treatment and motor routines (just like environmental contaminants do); and understanding that kin relations carry special responsibilities. To learn and do science demands that people not only become literate (including mathematically literate), but that they gain command of other sophisticated forms of thought, such as deductive, probabilistic, and abductive inference. Theologians sometimes bring similar forms of reflection to bear on religious materials, but neither theology nor even literacy is necessary to acquire or participate in popular forms of religion. Most religions in the history of our species have had no informal theology, let alone formal theology, theologians, or theological schools.
Robert McCauley is the William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor and the director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture at Emory University, and the author of the new book Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not.