How Not to Criticize the (Evolutionary) Cognitive Science of Religion – By Jonathan Jong

Jonathan Jong on Fraser Watts and Léon Turner (eds.), Evolution, Religion, & Cognitive Science: Critical & Constructive Essays

Fraser Watts and Leaon P. Turner (eds.), Evolution, Religion, and Cognitive Science: Critical and Constructive Essays, Oxford University Press, 2014, 272pp., $99
Fraser Watts and Léon P. Turner (eds.), Evolution, Religion, and Cognitive Science: Critical and Constructive Essays, Oxford University Press, 2014, 272pp., $99

That human beings are incorrigibly religious is an anthropological truism if ever there was one. Always and everywhere, most people participate in what we — lay people and academic specialists alike — would recognize as religious activities, even if there is some uncertainty over how to define “religion” and its cognates. Whatever else the evolutionary cognitive science of religion (ECSR) might be, it is at least an attempt to explain why religion is so cross-culturally and historically ubiquitous. To be sure, this is hardly a novel enterprise; ECSR is but the latest in a long series of efforts to explain religion, beginning at least as far back as Xenophanes of Colophon in the 5th century BCE, and featuring such luminaries as Lucretius Carus, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and more recently, Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud. For the past 25 years or so, scholars and scientists from diverse fields — including religious studies, history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology, and biology — have come together to ask old questions afresh, armed with shiny new theoretical assumptions and research methodologies. Marx’s historical materialism and Freud’s id-ego-superego are out; Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the cognitive turn in psychological science are in. Supplementing traditional participant observation and the close-reading of texts are laboratory- and field-based experiments, neuroimaging studies, “Big Data” analyses, and computerized semantic text analysis. The fruits of this labour have been aptly — if a tad sensationalistically — summarized in a litany of books with titles like Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, Religion Explained, and The Belief Instinct.

Now, Watts and Turner have seen it fit to add to the verbiage of ECSR texts by producing Evolution, Religion, & Cognitive Science: Critical & Constructive Essays, a sort of commentary featuring sage advice for researchers and perhaps readers. This sort of inter-disciplinary scrutiny is generally a healthy thing, and this nascent field could certainly do with more thoughtful interrogation. After all, there have been and still are many approaches to understanding religion, and ECSR scholars ignore this wealth of extant knowledge at their epistemic peril. Nevertheless, this particular effort to critically analyze ECSR falls short of the mark, not least because of its inconsistency in grasping its subject matter.

As Léon Turner’s excellent introduction to the volume clearly recognizes, some of the difficulty faced by Evolution, Religion, & Cognitive Science comes from the ambiguity over what its target — the evolutionary cognitive science of religion — is. Is it, as some of the contributions in this volume imply when they discuss “the standard model” in ECSR, a single, generally accepted theory about the evolutionary and psychological origins of religion? Or is it, as others suggest, a set of methodologically related approaches to the study of religion that, while implying certain basic theoretical assumptions, are nevertheless theoretically diverse? Or is it, as I am more inclined to assert, a social phenomenon within which there is at best only tenuous agreement over either method or theory? Admittedly, it is hardly the fault of the would-be critics of ECSR that their target is so amorphous. However, many of the contributors to Evolution, Religion, & Cognitive Science nevertheless seem tempted to impose on ECSR some semblance of coherence, if only for the sake of having a fixed target to criticize. This penchant for systemization is unfortunately misled, and the resulting attempts to produce taxonomies of theoretical approaches within ECSR are predictably unilluminating. The reason for this is that if there is any core — any fundamental theoretical assumption or central methodological principle — to ECSR, it is that religion is a socially (and scholarly) constructed category. There is no definition of religion that can successfully specify necessary and sufficient conditions that make some phenomenon religious; as it were, there is no such thing as religion per se, only recurring non-essential constituents thereof. The methodological upshot of this theoretical assertion is the fractionation of religion into various empirically tractable or theoretically meaningful elements: costly commitment to supernatural agents, widespread intuitions about the ontology of persons and the afterlife, individual and/or collective rituals, the social dynamics within and between religious groups, etc. It seems oddly remiss that an allegedly critical volume on ECSR would have neglected to identify this piecemeal approach as a significant characteristic of ECSR.

If “religion” is a polysemic term in ECSR, then “evolution” may be even more so. Some contributors to this volume seem to be preoccupied with a narrow conception of evolutionary approaches to human behavior that was more in vogue in the 1980s and 1990s than it is now among ECSR researchers. On this view, the job of an evolutionary science is to identify evolutionary adaptations: traits that were genetically hard-wired as they were selected for in our phylogenetic past for conferring on our ancestors some reproductive advantage. The contributors to Evolution, Religion, & Cognitive Science therefore devote an undue amount of space to the question of whether religion is a trait that evolved as an adaptation or one that emerged as a by-product of other adaptations. This is a silly question, or at least a question that ECSR researchers do not seriously ask; as we have seen, religion is not a trait or even a fixed cluster of traits. The question of whether or not religion is an adaptation is thus poorly posed. To complicate matters further, ECSR researchers take a variety of viewpoints on what counts as an evolutionary adaptation. These days — as Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson’s chapter on Darwinian cultural adaptation demonstrates — one cannot even take for granted that evolutionary scientists are primarily interested in biological evolution. Even among researchers who are primarily interested in biological evolution, many — myself included — have rejected traditional, gene-centric views; indeed, Purzycki, Haque, and Sosis’s chapter in the present volume takes a dynamic systems approach that all but rejects the distinction between genetic and environmental factors. The inclusion of Richerson’s and Sosis’s work — which has already been influential in ECSR for a few years now — in this volume makes others’ outdated critiques more disappointing than they otherwise would be. For example, co-editor Fraser Watts’s chapter, which seems to take Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s 2009 summary of Pascal Boyer’s 2001 popular paperback Explaining Religion as an adequate current account of the cognitive science of religion, accuses ECSR of being committed to and confined by the view that naturally-selected automatized computational modules “bear the whole burden of explanation”. If this view has ever been held by anyone, it was long gone from serious scholarship by the time I entered the scene as a graduate student in 2008.

While no one can expect a single volume to provide an exhaustive evaluation of the field in all its glorious diversity, the recurring tendency — particularly by the philosophers and theologians in this volume — to caricature ECSR by focusing on one particular (and, perhaps, particularly absurd) theoretical perspective — is too cheap a trick to justify the price of the book. Philosophers and theologians are apt to be annoyed when scientists make silly generalizations about religion; I hope they are not too hurt when I say that evaluations of ECSR should be based on its more rigorous research output, rather than paperback popularizations thereof.

Another abiding theme in Evolution, Religion, & Cognitive Science is that of the compatibility of ECSR, either with religious faith and practice or with other scholarly approaches to the study of religion. On the first point, the contributors seem anxious to assert that ECSR entails no direct and strong implications for philosophy and theology, though not entirely without reservation. Aku Visala and Michael Ruse both raise potential challenges for religious believers, not from ECSR itself, but from wider issues within naturalistic Darwinism. While I am somewhat disappointed that the editors did not feel moved to include a dissenting voice amongst this placid consensus, I am more bothered by the limp defenses of the view that the alleged naturalness of religious belief may count in favor of theism. Whatever the merits of this view, it seems strange that it could possibly enjoy the endorsement of any theologically orthodox Christian (or Jew or Muslim), for at least two related reasons. First, even if we grant that religious beliefs come naturally in human cognitive development, this fact is obviously consistent with both an atheistic and a theistic view; to think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. Second, it is unclear if the claim that theism is natural is a defensible one. After all, the kinds of gods that people ostensibly naturally believe in seem to be, if not strictly anthropomorphic, then at least super-human. Furthermore, the claim that God is a possible object of cognition and perception — such that the psychological faculties posited by some ECSR theories can accurately “detect” God in the environment — is, according to the classical theism of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, simply idolatrous. The idea that human beings evolved the capacity to pick out God in much the same way that we evolved the capacity to pick out prey and predators is therefore anathema to Abrahamic theists, as it reduces God to the level of creaturely things: God is, in this view, like a delicious deer (or a hungry tiger) that triggers our attention from peripheral vision. There is a very large gap between the implicit theology of ECSR and the traditional view of God as ipsum esse subsistens. Would-be defenders of the faith from the acid of naturalistic Darwinism may well find themselves as unwitting heretics.

Besides the (potentially idolatrous) hand-wringing over philosophical and theological implications, this book also attempts to address the relationship between ECSR and other efforts to study and understand religious phenomena. Here too, there seems to be some motivated eagerness to reduce any visible conflict between ECSR and other approaches; typically, the prescription is for the new, young upstart field to back down on some of its claims. This seems odd, not least because scientists ought not be interested in reducing theoretical conflict with other approaches, so much as in clarifying where different theories disagree and in figuring out how to adjudicate empirically between mutually contradictory theories. If, as Léon Turner suggests in his chapter on this issue, ECSR and humanistic theorists disagree about the explanatory power of evolved cognitive systems relative to historical and cultural contingencies, then surely the solution is not for one or both camps to back away from their claims lest they step on one another’s toes, but for both parties to specify the testable hypotheses that follow from their competing theoretical perspectives. Scientific disagreements are not to be resolved by appeal to diplomacy but to data. This suggestion that ECSR should “leave space” for humanistic approaches and vice versa seems to misunderstand how science works. In contrast, Timothy Jenkins’s suggestion that ECSR and more traditional forms of social and cultural anthropology can be reconciled by re-thinking how each relates to different time scales is somewhat more promising, albeit rather vague and difficult to follow, at least as presented in his chapter.

Inca Goddess Tiwanacu, Bolivia. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Inca Goddess Tiwanacu, Bolivia. Image via Wikimedia Commons

So far, we have seen how this volume’s contributors’ caricatured or outdated views on ECSR have led them to make errant accusations. The other consequence of this ignorance is that, for the most part, Evolution, Religion, & Cognitive Science fails to provide the constructive feedback that a better-informed critic would make. For instance, very little mention is made about the evidential paucity for the alleged central tenets of ECSR’s standard model. The role of evolved agency detection mechanisms and the mnemonic advantage of “minimally counterintuitive” concepts, to cite two prominent examples, are notoriously under-determined by data, as anyone intimately familiar with the primary research literature knows. There are also theoretical problems that the present critics have neglected to identify. Multiple contributors to the volume — Ilkka Pyysiäinen and Fraser Watts in particular — allude to the distinction between two cognitive systems: variously, the intuitive v. reflective, the implicit v. explicit, the unconscious v. conscious, etc. This is a distinction that has been made in ECSR since in early 1990s, but ECSR researchers have almost always largely run roughshod over the diversity of dual-process and dual-systems theories in cognitive psychology, unjustifiably treating the various competing cognitive theories as more or less fungible. They are not fungible, nor is the distinction between a dual-process and dual-systems cognitive theory one to ignore. Nor, for that matter, should ECSR theorists ignore the many thoughtful criticisms that have been deployed against dual-systems theories in the past decade. All of which is to say that, while the contributors to the present volume are preoccupied with making outdated criticisms of ECSR’s dalliance with certain forms of evolutionary psychology — all criticisms that have been made before — they fail to provide any useful insight on ECSR’s actual problems.

Having enumerated what I consider to be this collection’s major flaws, I shall end by highlighting the more positive aspects of the book, many of which have already been alluded to. Léon Turner’s introductory chapter captures the diversity of ECSR well, though this insight is not consistently applied in subsequent chapters. Three other chapters stand out, from the background of more or less sophisticated caricatures of ECSR. These three describe approaches that are increasingly influential, but sadly still neglected in most popular summaries, here and elsewhere. Benjamin Purzycki and colleagues take the view that religions are adaptive dynamic systems, getting away from a simplistic gene-centric view of evolution. Similarly, Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson examine the cultural evolution of religion in a thoroughly Darwinian fashion. William Bainbridge argues for the value of computer modelling in the scientific study of religion. Having stated my approval of these chapters, in each case, the views presented there can be found elsewhere, sometimes more lucidly; as they are, these chapters are more valuable as counterpoints to some of the other chapters than they are in their own right.

In short, then, Evolution, Religion, & Cognitive Science suffers from a crisis of identity. If ECSR researchers like myself are the target audience, then the book is a failure: there is nothing new here, and some of the older points are now outdated or simply predicated on mischaracterizations. If, instead, the book aims to educate outsiders and novices about the field, its inaccuracies are enough to mislead, and there are certainly better books (and, indeed, shorter articles) that fulfil this goal.