Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Theological Incorrectness

The growth of cognitive science has been one of the major intellectual advances of the last few decades. Largely kicked off by Noam Chomsky’s rethinking of the human aptitude for language, and attracting noted popularisers (such as Steven Pinker), it has been spreading across intellectual life. That humans have finally created something that is vaguely analogous to human cognition in its operation (computers)—something, moreover which we can “see” inside of—may have had something to do with this. (Chomsky works at MIT, after all.)

D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t presents the application of the findings of cognitive science to the study of religion. One of the strengths of the book is its presentation and synthesis of the work of a wide range of scholars.

Slone starts with two observations which are striking, given that religion is supposed to provide absolute truth: there is more than one religion in the world and religion contains all sorts of things people have to guess at (since most of us do not get to chat with the various superhuman beings religion postulates) (p.vii). But it is the difference between what people say they believe when “formally” asked and what they believe and do when making more rapid or personal decisions—the reality that received ideas from one’s culture (including theological ones) play only a partial role in what people say and do (p.4)—which is the starting place of the book’s analysis.
The book has great chapter titles. Chapter One (Religion Is For Dummies and Romantics) notes, building on the work of psychologist Justin Barrett, how common it is, across religions and cultures, for people to believe what they are not supposed to, given the tenets of the religion they adhere to. A fact that, Slone points out, much analysis of religion neither pays attention to, nor can cope with.

When people engage in “online” (rapid, tacitly informed, cognitively constrained, prereflective) representations they often engage in abductive reasoning—constructing general principles to explain particular events (p.10). “God willed it” is a form of abductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning is efficient, in the sense that it provides answers without the effort of logical deduction (or, for that matter, empirical checking). Slone’s argument is that we use familiar cognitive processes that have evolved in ways that encourage religious belief, but often not theologically correct religious belief.

Before proceeding with his analysis, Slone argues for the scientific study of religion—noting both religion and science display differences between folk representations and reflective theories (p.12)—and critiques various traditional approaches to the study of religion. The first attempts at serious study he divides into naturalists (religion has a natural origin) and nonnaturalists (it does not), the latter further divided into socioculturalists (religion was generated by society or culture) and transcendentalists (religion comes from the interaction with supernatural reality). All of them were subject to postmodernist critique, not least because it became obvious that reliance on texts and “official” doctrine produced idealised, and thus inaccurate, pictures of religion as it actually was in the world (p.27).

Chapter Two, Religion Is What Your Parents Say is an extended critique of cultural explanations of religion. Slone brings out just how porous the concept of ‘culture’ is and how dubious use of it as an explanation (particularly for behaviour that is both variant with cultures and common across them). Included is both a nice description of postmodernist critiques and a useful critique of them. As he says:
Philosophically speaking, postmodernists have not explained anything. They have merely restated the question and affirmed the consequent (p.40).
The collection of data has been very useful, but its use has been greatly restricted by inadequate analytical approaches (p.45)

Chapter Three Religion Is Perfectly Natural, Not Naturally Perfect examines the use of cognitive sciences to study religion. The point is to concentrate on the ‘representations’ (what and how people think about religion) not on the content-claims of religious systems (much of which refer to imagined beings and forces not amenable to direct observation). Slone notes that Chomsky’s work is foundational for modern cognitive science because it gave confidence to the claim that culture is how it is because of the way our brains work, not the other way round (p.48).

The research has found that people use available conceptual schemes, but different ones in different circumstances (p.53). But certain features of the human cognition are more general (distinguishing between objects and agents, for example).

So, what makes a conceptual scheme religious?
A religious representation is representation that postulates the existence of superhuman agents (p.55).
As agents, they can act. Hence humans doing things to gods and gods doing things to humans (e.g. ordination, which apparently occurs in some form or other across religions) are both basic features of religion. And we have a natural tendency to over-attribute agency, since to under-attribute it tends to be more dangerous (p58).

We have an intuitive ontology, a sense of what is in the world, typically covering five categories—natural objects, artificial things, plants, animals, humans (p.60). Objects that people typically categories prototypically, not according to rigorous classical definitions (p.70). Religious representations violate that intuitive ontology, but do in a way that is surprising and thus memorable (i.e. “cognitively optimal”).

Such representations can be transferred doctrinally or “imagistically” but how counterintuitive they are will affect how easily they can be transferred. God being formless but omnipresent is harder to transfer than recently deceased ancestors can hear your prayers (p.63).

Chapter Four, Buddha Nature sets out how powerful and pervasive the notion of superhuman agents is in religion. Even in Theravada Buddhism, which allegedly is nontheistic. In reality, the notion that Buddhism is nontheistic is, Slone argues, a rather modernistic version of Buddhism transmitted to the West in response to the impact of modernist Protestantism and not reflected in folk Buddhism. So, Theravada Buddhism has a nun problem because it took a monk and a nun in lineage (ordination) succession to make another nun: the nun lineages all died, out so it is no longer possible to make another Theravada Buddha nun (Pp81-3).

Chapter Five (W.D.G.D.: What Does God Do?) looks at how people actually think about God (rather than as they are theologically supposed to). In particular, the persistence of the notion that we are a “locus of control” even in the face of theological notions of (for example) Predestination.

We are intuitively inclined to see causes, even when evidence is ambiguous. Add our tendency to abductively attribute agency, and religious reasoning clearly operates with natural human cognitive tendencies and is greatly advantaged in transmission if it does so:
… human beings are more likely to believe and employ a religious idea if it is (fairly) consistent with the accords of everyday cognitive concepts and inferences (p.91).
A nice example is how Calvinism was the dominant original theological position among the Puritans but Arminianism has come to dominate American Protestantism (Pp93-6). Effective preaching (and effective ritual) works with the natural processes of human cognition (p.98), particularly the tendency to attribute agency and cause (p.99).

The hypothesis that effective rituals need to:
… balance the special agent rituals (those rituals in which humans are recipients of actions from gods via priests) and special patient rituals (those in which gods are the recipients of actions from humans (p.99)
is applied to the rise of Baptism in American Protestantism, as the Puritan (now Congregationalist) and Presbyterian downgrading of baptism (to deal with children of members who had not experienced a common conversion event) led to a lot of conversions to Baptism, which used adult baptism as a central ritual event (p.100).

The central thesis Slone draws from the work of scholars engaged in the cognitive study of religion is:
Rituals and other religious activities … seem to follow from religious concepts. Yet the religious concepts do not determine, per se, what follows. Rather, it appears that cognitive processes drive the thoughts and actions of religious believers at both the individual and cultural levels (p.100).
The decline in Calvinism, which its deprecation of human agency, is a case in point.

Slone argues that long-running religious controversies make sense in terms of the patterns of human cognition:
The conceptual tension between divine sovereignty and free will, which has preoccupied some of the greatest minds in history, is a natural tension in Christianity that results from how the mind works. Since humans rely so heavily on notions of self-/human agency, it is difficult to believe that superhuman agents control everything. Yet, if they don’t, what exactly is the nature of their power? (p.101)
A tension which preliminary research suggests occurs across cultures.

One can see how human cognition might find any particular solution problematic. Not sure that that means human cognition is causing the inherent intellectual difficulty, however.

Chapter Six (I Would Rather Be Lucky Than Good) looks at luck beliefs (which show similar patterns across human cultures) and how the mind deals with probability. There is considerable research that humans tend to imbue things with purpose (grist to the natural law philosophy mill, of course) and have often very poor probability intuitions (e.g. ask a class how likely they feel it would be for two of them to have a birthday on the same day: their estimates will be much lower than the actual likelihood—in a class of at least 23, over 50%) (p.116).

The brute fact that Slone bases his analysis on, and explores in Theological Incorrectness is that religious people believe all sorts of things that, in terms of the doctrines of their religion, they should not. That is, religion as a cognitive and cultural experience is not defined by the doctrines of theologians.

But nor is it defined by “culture”. As Slone points out in his conclusion:
… cultural theories of religion are impoverished by lack of understanding of how the mind works and thus of why humans think what they and do what they do. Sociocultural theories of religion assume that the mind is a blank slate that learns what to think from culture. Not only is this mind-blind assumption inaccurate but it is illogical … Were humans merely cultural sponges we would find that each culture would be autonomous, confined and homogeneous … This paradigmatic assumption does not fit the facts.
A better explanation for why people believe what they “shouldn’t” is that people have active minds that are continuously engaged in the construction of novel thoughts and the transformation of culturally transmitted ideas (p.121).
If we look to the human mind we find that:
Three very important aspects of cognition that constrain religion are intuitive ontology (what kinds of things are in the world), intuitive causality (how do these things work), and intuitive probability (how things are likely to work). These basic cognitive capacities not only allow us to perform important functions required for survival, like analysis and prediction of environmental activity, but also produce postulations and presumptions that might be, on reflection, systematically incoherent. In this sense, theological incorrectness is a natural by-product of the cognitive tools in our mind-brains. (p.122)
And it is to evolution that we need to look to understand where those cognitive capacities come from, and why they are like they are. Not that that is a counsel of despair, moral or otherwise:
Religions preach ethics because people are prone to “ethical” behaviour, not the other way around (p.123).
Slone then makes a claim that strikes me as being too strong:
One can say, therefore, that religion is not a cause of behaviour per se. It does not determine how we think or act.
It is not the only determinant, but to suggest that belief does not have logics, and that people do not act on those logics, is just silly. Leninism, Nazism, liberalism: the doctrinal differences between these political ideologies really do matter. I take his point that cognitive habits act upon doctrines, but it is also true that people can (and do) adopt particular doctrines and act upon them. Consider this rather nice TED talk on how basic religious beliefs affect business (and other) practices.

A point Slone then immediately appeals to himself, as he concludes his book arguing strongly that religion can only be studied properly in the light of our understanding of how human cognition works: it must be scientifically grounded. Slone notes that such scientific “reductionism” no more abolishes other ways of comprehending things than knowledge of how light and sight works abolishes appreciation of the beauty of a Monet painting (p.124).

Theological Incorrectness is a fascinating excursion through religion as it ‘is’, its distance from religion as it ‘ought’ and the use of cognitive science to explicate that distance.

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