A Decade of Books on the “Relgion is Natural” Theme

“Another atheism book?” my husband mumbled as I carried to the night stand a new hardback book. In fact, not. Edmond knows I study atheism and yes, I have Hitchens, Dawkins and Epstein lying around the house. But the new hardback book I’m carrying is actually the opposite. It is in a category of books I’ve read a lot in the last decade, books with titles like these:

Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs (Justin Barrett, 2012)

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not (Robert McCauley, 2011)

The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (Jesse Bering, 2011)

Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith (Andy Thomson, 2011)

Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter our Understanding of Religion (3 volumes, Patrick McNamara, 2006).

Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Justin Barrett, 2004)

Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion (Lee Kirkpatrick, 2005)

Religion Is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and what to Expect When they Fail (Loyal Rue, 2005).

In Gods We Trust: the Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Scott Atran, 2002)

Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society (David Sloan Wilson, 2002)

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Roots of Religious Thought (Pascal Boyer, 2001)

It was actually these books, many of which are part of the field called the cognitive science of religion, that launched me on my career as a psychologist who studies why some people do not believe in God.

I read back into the 1990s, tracking the emergence of a new understanding of religious belief, beginning with Stewart Guthrie’s (1983) Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) and Pascal Boyer’s (1994) The naturalness of religious ideas: A cognitive theory of religion.

Why do religious and spiritual beliefs exist in every human culture? Authors of the ‘religion is natural’ school have argued that religious beliefs and behaviors, broadly construed, result from natural selection, or at least are by-products of evolved human nature. The human mind evolved to be able to imagine and make hypotheses about other people’s motives, desires and likely future behavior. This social intelligence facilitated alliance building, allowing those individuals to rise in the social hierarchy of their group. If you are constantly thinking about motives and intentions, then you may see agents when they aren’t actually there, as in Guthrie’s Face in the Clouds. Justin Barrett, Jesse Berring and others of the authors listed above propose that belief in supernatural agents is an automatic consequence of this belief in the existence of others’ minds.

A complementary argument, more common among anthropologists than psychologists, is that religious belief and practices are found in every culture because they promote group cohesion and the ability to trust and be altruistic towards group members, as discussed by Scott Atran, Richard Sosis and David Sloan Wilson. Others note that the propensity for self-transcendence and hypnotism could promote ritual healing, positive thinking, and optimism, as described by authors in McNamara’s edited volumes.

I found these ideas intriguing, impressive, rich, informative, fascinating, disconcerting and occasionally infuriating.

Some experimental psychologists say that we all go through our lives doing “mesearch”. Suspending disbelief, I wondered:

If religion is part of evolved human nature, why am I color blind to God?

Logically, the alternatives are: God (and supernatural) belief is not as natural or normative as the cognitive science of religionists say it is,
We nonbelievers are statistically peculiar; we live in the tails of the bell curve.

Blanket statements about the nature of the human mind are risky and usually not helpful, and may even be incoherent. In my view, what is more reasonable, at least given the state of current knowledge, is restrict our statements about what is natural for humans to a given ecological context. In a technological society with insurance, hospitals, banks, 24 hour convenience stores and scientific explanations for natural disasters, we have less need to make close alliances with neighbors against disasters, rely on ritual healing, or draw on our supernatural beliefs to to explain the death of a loved one.

But focusing on what is natural in contemporary society still raises questions.  Both believers and nonbelievers rub shoulders today. Jesse Berring is an atheist who says he personally experiences automatic magical thinking, which he then over-rides with logic. But other nonbelievers appear to have little magical thinking, such as the atheists I describe in my 2011 paper, Exploring the atheist personality: well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists, Buddhists, and Christians. Some people can be contented nonbelievers, focusing on improving this life without diverting energy into philosophical questions of why humans exist or worrying that life is meaningless.

Contemporary humans occupy a special place and time in human history. Existential security, which Norris and Inglehart say facilitates a materialist stance, is limited to some regions of the developed world.  Religious belief and non-belief thus may co-exist (and conflict) because of of our species’ relatively recent (last few hundred years) emergence from traditional societies.

I hope to blog regularly on these and other topics related to the intersection of humanism/atheism and psychological research. Feel free to post (or email me) your ideas and questions.

About Catherine Caldwell-Harris

Catherine Caldwell-Harris is Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University. She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard College in psychology and her PhD in cognitive science form UC San Diego. Her broad training has led her to conduct research in several areas within the cognitive and behavioral sciences, including cross-cultural psychology foreign language learning, bilingualism, and individual differences in cognitive/personality styles. Her research that is most closey related to humanism includes studies of atheists' experience of awe and their repudiation of magical thinking. She has also documented low religious belief in individuals with Asperger Syndrome. Dr. Caldwell-Harris is currently developing a new project to study religious doubt in Turkey. She will be blogging about how findings in the behavioral sciences can inform and enrich our lives. She welcomes questions about the intersection of psychological science and daily life.

6 comments on “A Decade of Books on the “Relgion is Natural” Theme

  1. Hi Catherine,
    I just stumbled across this and thought I’d chime in with a few thoughts.
    First, although I’m very much in this camp — I was happy to see that you even included my book in your list (yay!) — I think it’s just looking for trouble to refer to religion or irreligion as “natural” or “unnatural”. The fact that religious and magical thinking occur spontaneously, automatically, effortlessly, etc. doesn’t make it any more “natural” than alternative ways of thinking that require motivation and effort.
    Second, I think a good analogy is provided by optical illusions: We see them automatically, but can “override” them given a sufficiently convincing (to us) demonstration that that they are in fact illusions. For example, two equal-length lines will appear to you to be unequal in length if presented in the context of a few other strategically placed lines. Upon seeing this, you come to believe that one line is longer than the other. If someone then encourages you (or for some other reason it occurs to you) to look at the lines again while covering up the illusion-producing context, or to measure the lines with a ruler, you’ll probably change your mind and conclude that, contrary to your initial impression, the lines are actually equal in length. Like Jesse Bering’s magical thinking, the optical illusion occurs spontaneously, but you can then “override” it with new information.

    This analogy also highlights, I think, a couple of important aspects of the religion/atheism problem. For one, notice that if you were to see the original illusion, but you never had occasion to re-evaluate your assessment by changing the context or getting out a ruler, you would go the rest of your life continuing to believe that those two lines were unequal in length. If you imagine that everyone has seen the illusion, but only some people have seen a convincing demonstration that it was in fact an illusion, you would have individual differences in beliefs about whether the lines were unequal or not. The thing about religious beliefs, though, is that there is no “ruler” that we can readily whip out to demonstrate unambiguously that they are false. (Indeed, if you had never seen a ruler and didn’t understand how they work, you might well not be persuaded by a measurement demonstration to abandon your initial conclusion about the optical illusion.)

    Another interesting thing about optical illusions is that even after you have been persuaded that your initial conclusion was erroneous, you still see the illusion; it doesn’t suddenly just go away. I like the way Rob Kurzban talks about this in his wonderful book “Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hyypocrite”: Two different parts of your brain (i.e., different mechanisms or modules) simultaneously hold contradictory “opinions” about the equivalence of the two lines, and which one “wins out” over the other in guiding your behavior is a function of any number of variables. Like Jesse, I think magical thinking is every bit as universal as vulnerability to optical illusions, and no matter how hard-core an atheist you are, you will still at least occasionally get angry at your car when it fails to start or curse your computer when it crashes. Guthrie did a great job of demonstrating how pervasive such thinking is across all walks of life, including in science itself.

  2. Professor Kirkpatrick –

    Lots of interesting things here to respond to. I do like the analogy of with the Müller-Lyer_illusion — readers, see it yourself here:


    Important questions raised here are: Are beliefs similar to perception, in that we humans have automatic beliefs (like internal perceptions) that are then over-ridden by reflective beliefs, often by drawing on explicit knowledge?

    My own phenomenology is no: supernatural beliefs of all kinds strange to me. Justin Barrett would say that is because I’ve been a practicing scientist for 30 years, and grew up in a household that prioritized reflective cognition (with an atheist college professor historian father, and religious humanist mother, who never brought religion into the household, favoring practical here-and-now reasoning with us kids).

    Professor Kirkpatrick, let’s start a dialog on this topic, while taking advantage of the fact that we are blogging on a humanist website. Many of our readers are scientists and others who have spent their life practicing “reflective” cognition. These readers may thus have considerable practice in avoiding what Guthrie, Barrett and others consider the human default: assuming that a human-like (or agentive) cause is behind significant events.

    It could be useful to put together a questionnaire that has items like those in Guthrie and in Barret’s books, including items like getting mad at one’s car or computer. Humanists on this website could respond to this — perhaps a doodle poll that would give immediate feedback. Of course self-report is vulnerable to people answering in a manner consistent with their explicit self-concept, so let’s think of a way (if possible) to minimize this tendency and thus make the questionnaire as useful as possible.

    Readers, do you have experiences where your first explanation for something was supernatural or agentive, and then you self-talked yourself out of this interpretation? Here’s one of mine (not a supernatural example, but one where I assume mentalizing capacity where none is scientifically warranted):

    I tried to kill a spider in my bathroom but missed. The next day I woke up with spider bites. My immediate interpretation: that spider was angry at me and trying to get back at me! Then I reminded myself that was nonsense, the spider doesn’t have such sophisticated mental reasoning abilities.


  3. Pingback: Humanists value logic and reasoning — but do we have our supernatural moments? | The Humanist Community Project

  4. Hi Catherine,

    I like to quote Arthur Miller when reflecting on my life long atheist stance when he said, to the best of my recollection, “I have no talent for faith”. I too grew up in a secular house but the supernatural just never felt, well, natural.

    My current research is on atheists and prejudice but I’m very interested in the evolutionary roots for belief. There is something unsatisfactory to me about the social cohesive model. It seems an unnecessary hurdle to jump. It assumes there is useful to the idea of the supernatural. Why should it be useful?

    Like pattern seeking behaviour is natural and beneficial it is not perfect. This and other natural and beneficial human behaviours can be commandeered after the fact for reasons that benefit an individual, society or simply the meme itself.


    • Regarding: but I’m very interested in the evolutionary roots for belief. There is something unsatisfactory to me about the social cohesive model. It seems an unnecessary hurdle to jump. It assumes there is useful to the idea of the supernatural.

      Yes, some scholars have claimed that a useful aspect of supernatural belief is the belief that a higher power is rendering punishment (there is article about this called God is the best punisher). However, religious practices can facilitate social cohesion by fostering ingroup altruism, different religious traditions do this in different ways (e.g., showing others you are a cooperating because of the costly signal of prayer and other requirements of the religion).

      What do you think about the evolutionary roots of belief?

  5. I don’t doubt that believing in an all seeing all knowing supernatural punisher can be useful. I’m looking at the work of Gervais et al and they make the assertion that there is an evolutionary origin to prejudice against atheist on moral grounds based on the idea that religions were useful to creating social cohesion and allowed groups to exist in large enough numbers as to control the freeloaders. This seems like a stretch and unnecessary for their primary argument and conclusion. I think they have establish good evidence in their research that Americans perceive atheists as immoral and that this explains the prejudice. The specific appeal to that particular evolutionary origin is interesting but not necessary.

    Many things can elicit social cohesion other without an appeal to a personal deity. Cheering for the Boston Bruins fosters social cohesion. Singing together can foster the same etc. Dr. Luke Galen demonstrates quite well that there are minimum standards when reaching conclusions about religions role in morality. For instance priming people about god makes them act more moral. But then so does priming for secular constructs such as police and groups etc.

    Current prejudice may have is roots in the moral question but it may be as much to do with the way American today perceive religion i.e. a moral compass a la the Ten Commandments than any evolutionary social cohesive function.


    I think religion (the belief in a deity that is all knowing etc that is personally involved in the affairs of humans etc) is essentially a meme. The culture that surrounds religion I think are part of the evolution of that meme to protect itself and self replicate. The original meme co-opts normal, useful psychological mechanisms that were selected for. For example pattern seeking. It’s clearly useful and clearly can on occasion be imperfect. But it generally works. The religious meme takes advantage of pattern seeking run amok. From this point of view religion does not provide any useful advantage to humans other than by accident. Religion is useful to religion.

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