Why Might Our Minds Be Better Suited to Religion Than Science?

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.

Category: Q&A


11 Responses

  1. Tom Rees says:

    That doesn’t answer the question: “Why might our minds be better suited to religion”. The answer is probably that we created religion using our minds, and the most popular religions are the ones that most effectively appeal to our instincts and cognitive biases.

    But a better way of putting it is that we create culture, and so our culture is dictated and limited by our minds. We call certain cultural practices ‘religion’, but we should be no more surprised at our predisposition for religion than we are at our predisposition for football.

  2. Art is an expression of mind. Theology is only one art form, as it uses philosophy to describe “God”. The problem in today’s world though, is “God”, because everyone thinks that their understanding (“mind” or self) of God is an absolute one.

    Art, though, is affirming of all forms, because art values and affirms creativity, unless religious culture undermines such expression (which it often does and has). Our Bill of Rights does grant the right of “self expression”, but our culture wars have proven that artistic expression of individuals, itself, comes in conflict with religious values. Which should be more important in and to a culture, life and liberty and its morality, or religious ideals and its morality?

  3. Religion is deal with our emotion on the contrary science deal with our reason.Emotion we bring with us inborn on the contrary reason we to learn for survival or say for curiosity. Without reason man can survive but with emotion no one can survive.For emotional response you don’t for want do hard work but for thinking process you work hard.That is wh your minds be better suited to religion

  4. Adam Acosta says:

    Kahneman has the answer here. The dominant parts of the human mind mostly responsible for forming beliefs is swayed by a compelling narrative far more than a logical perfect statistical argument. Religion presents compelling narratives.

  5. Fred Britton says:

    Adam: “Religion presents compelling narratives.”

    In general, I agree, in the sense that these narratives seem compelling to large numbers of people, though not all. This raises the question of why, in every complex society, there are those who not only do not find them compelling, but actually find them very difficult to believe, if not actually absurd.

  6. Paul Souders says:

    Fred: “there are those who not only do not find them compelling, but actually find them very difficult to believe, if not actually absurd.”

    Two thoughts. First, even absurd narratives have relatable human agents, motives, and scales of action. Contrast science which offers only ever-more-accurate statistical models of reality. (Stories about SCIENTISTS can be compelling, but Mars’ orbit would be elliptical regardless of the metallurgy of Tycho Brahe’s nose.)

    Second, even absurd narratives (religious or otherwise) may be compelling; indeed the mix of relatable human motives with unlikely supernatural affects are pretty damn appealing. In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit…

  7. tsammani says:

    As science negates more and more of religion’s myths, the struggle to find a myth that encompasses the scientific quest becomes ever more important. For those not familiar with Alfred North Whitehead, it’s worth checking out his input on these matters. Hard to summarize, but utterly fascinating intellectual material.

  8. Rick DeLano says:

    I am afraid that the mere observation that something comes more naturally to our intellectual apparatus than something else, is not a particularly useful indicator as to whether that something is more useful.

    The problem with the thesis is that it is far too weak, it seems to me.

    “Religion” and “science” are useful precisely to the extent that they are true.

    They are true precisely to the extent that they render our world views objectively more consistent with reality.

    Our world views are objectively consistent with reality, when those world views yield an (implicitly measurable) increase in the power of our species to durably survive.


    Science is never useful at all, if it proceeds from false metaphysical assumptions (for example, the observationally falsified metaphysical theory of neo-Darwinian evolution, which has been scientifically falsified by the discovery of Cretaceous dinosaur bones containing soft tissue C14 dated to modern ages):


    Religion is never useful at all, if it proceeds from false metaphysical assumptions, such as ecumenism.

    Either all religions are false, or all except one are.

    This is a matter of basic logic, and the foundational disaster of the post-Conciliar era in Catholic theology lies in the attempt to fudge this un-fudgeable, utterly certain, and logically necessary deduction.

    That religion will be found to be true, which provides us with clear statements of Revelation; that is, data which could not have been previously known, which will be found to falsify even a universally-accepted scientific hypothesis, such as the neo-Darwinian hypothesis of evolution by random mutation and natural selection.

    On this matter, the final score is Genesis One, Darwin Zero.

  9. @Rick DeLano – the site you link regarding the discovery of modern-era dinosaur protein demonstrates nothing of the sort. The material was dated to the late Cretaceous period, or eighty million years ago.

    Ergo, Science 1, Creation 0.

    Moreover, the study of the protein found in the dinosaur bone supported the hypothesis that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

  10. Rick DeLano says:


    Sorry, your “date” is an hypothesis, based on an assumed correlation between bones and the rocks in which they were found.

    Obviously, the mere fact of the existence of soft tissue immediately falsifies the 80,000,000 year *assumption*.

    The bones themselves; that is, TRex bones from the same Hell Creek formation- supposedly Cretaceous- in Montana, have been directly dated- *the bones themselves, not the rocks*, and yielded “relatively modern ages”.

    That is from a peer reviewed study, linked at the website above.

    Its Genesis One, Darwin Zero, as anyone who clicks the link and does their homework will see very rapidly.

    Sorry, chum, but that’s science.

    It’s a tough thing to watch a beautiful, logical, consistent theory collapse like a house of cards, but it happens all the time.

    Ask Newton.

    If CERN’s superluminal neutrinos are confirmed……..

    ask Einstein.

    It’s the moment of truth for science.

    www. magisterialfundies.blogspot.com

  11. John Jacob Lyons says:

    Our minds are indeed better suited to the understanding of religious rather than scientific concepts. Since we are more likely to accept/ embrace what we understand rather than what we do not, the suggested result follows. However with education, and knowledge of the scientific method in particular, this picture begins to change. I suggest that there is strong positive correlation between atheism/ agnostism and level of scientific education.

    I have also argued elsewhere that we are genetically primed for religiosity. Please google Genetic Priming to see my article that relates to religiosity.

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