scilogs Biology of Religion

Robert McCauley: Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

from Michael Blume, 23. April 2012, 23:16

During the last years, cognitive studies of religion became a lively branch of evolutionary studies. But then, the ensuing consensus integrating modules such as Hyper-Agency Detection (HAD), Theory of Mind (TOM) and Reputation Management started to stagnate, especially as many cognitive scientists hesitated to widen their scope.

Not any more. With "Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not", Robert McCauley managed to connect the field with contemporary debates in surprising as well as convincing ways.


The main part of the book is a well-written introduction into the contemporary field of cognitive studies on religiosity. But then, McCauley is expanding the scope, formulating seven conclusions based on the established findings and models:

1. Traditional comparisons of science and religion are misbegotten, as religion is drawing on "maturationally natural" foundations, whereas science has to tackle cognitive biases.

2. Theological incorrectness is inevitable, as abstract "theologies" are fighting with the same cognitive constraints as (other) sciences.

3. Science poses no threat to religion, as any declining religious mythology will be replaced by new, cognitively appealing variants.

4. Relevant disabilities will render religion baffling, for example autism.

5. Science is inherently social, as it takes collaboration and institutions such as peer-reviews in order to overcome cognitive biases.

6. Science depends more fundamentally on institutional support than religion does, as the maximum understanding of scientific theses is "practiced naturalness" (as in literacy), depending on costly educational and institutional investments.

7. Science's continued existence is fragile, as seen i.e. by growing anti-science ressentiments in the USA "defending" their religious, emotional and political identities.

I've read a lot of books in the field, but none has convinced me so much that cognitive studies are of philosophical, societal and even political relevance. A great read, indeed!

See also Robert McCauley's Video-Interview on his new book.    

* German version of this book review at "Natur des Glaubens",

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Natur des Glaubens: Warum Religion natürlich ist und Wissenschaft nicht...


  1. 24.04.2012 | 00:28

    I can only agree with your assessment. I would only add that Bob has also managed to write a very readable book.

  2. John Jacob Lyons Subject
    24.04.2012 | 12:23

    I'm sure that this is a rewarding read. However, if the primary purpose of the book is to establish that religion is natural while science is not, I, for one, need no convincing.

    Empirical work by Barrett, Keleman and others has shown that religiosity appears to be innate. Excellent and persuasive, mainly philosophical, work by Atran, Boyer and others has argued that our natural religiosity is a by-product of several generally adaptive predispositions including Hyperactive Agency Detection. It has also been argued that we have been primed to be religious by an indirect evolutionary process called 'Genetic Priming'. This process was explained in an article on this blog. See

    Yes, religious ideas come naturally to us. The fact that a thorough understanding of science, the scientific method - and evolutionary theory in particular - takes rather more effort appears to be self-evident.

    A huge percentage of adults in the U.S.(90%?) say they believe in god. It is interesting to contrast this figure with a similar percentage (about 90%?)of eminent scientists that describe themselves as non-believers. Evidently, the study of science tends to trump our natural tendency for religiosity.(Interestingly, this is not always the case. I know personally several eminent scientists who are, concurrently, expert evolutionists and committed believers)

    Having said all that, I'm sure that Robert McCauley's book is well worth reading despite my 'tell me something I don't know' reaction to the title.

    My last observation about the title is that it might lure some readers into falling for 'the naturalistic fallacy'. Just because A comes to us more naturally than B we cannot deduce that A is, therefore, more likely than B to lead us toward the truth.

    Now I had better read the book!

  3. Michael Blume @Konrad
    25.04.2012 | 23:39

    Thanks for the reaction. Yes, I repeatedly thought about you as I read Bob's great book.

    And btw - I decided to follow your term of "superempirical" (instead of supernatural) agents and credited you with the respective formulation on my German blog:

    Best wishes!

  4. John Woods God vrs Science
    01.05.2012 | 16:53

    I was brought up Catholic but used common sense
    When I didn't understand something seeing that if there is a God he gave me common sense.
    So far I have found no discrepancy between Science and God. Since God is everything, then studying everything would be trying to find out how God created the universe.
    What I don't understand is where some people have this concept that both God and Science can't exist at the same time. If God created the universe he did it through science ,design, art, psychology, and the rest of the studies.
    I don't think I have to go on and on to explain my point.
    John Woods

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