Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

Justin L. Barrett earned degrees in psychology from Calvin College (B.A.) and Cornell University (Ph.D). He served on the psychology faculties of Calvin College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and as a research fellow of the Institute for Social Research. Dr. Barrett is an editor of the Journal of Cognition & Culture and is author of numerous articles and chapters concerning cognitive science of religion. His book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004) presents a scientific account for the prevalence of religious beliefs. He is currently Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind. — from “Contributing Authors”, p. xxiii, of Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science.

If I want to ensure a good harvest, I might take care in preparing my field, fertilize, use the best seeds possible, weed, and irrigate. I might also pray or conduct a ritual or in some other way try to get some supernatural help. If I wish to join a community or society, I might register or pay dues or even undergo an initiation ceremony. But I might submit myself to an initiation that appeals to ancestors, spirits, or gods. (Barrett, 179)

Thus begins Justin Barrett’s contribution to Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science. The title of his chapter is Gods. His contribution is an exploration of why it is that people around the world, and for ages past, have made appeals to superhuman or supernatural agencies. It’s not as if the idea of “god” or “spirits” are unique in their ubiquity. Other beliefs are also found in common throughout the human experience: people universally believe in other minds; they also believe in the constancy of physical laws. It’s not only gods and spirits that are some sort of universal.

Barrett begins his discussion by how it is that people come to believe anything at all. And this brings us to the work of psychologists and their experiments on people at different stages of development. One thing has become clear: our minds don’t simply register “the world as it is” through our senses and accordingly “map reality” into our heads like a sponge responding to finger pressures to register this or that “reality point”. No, our minds are a storehouse of modular processing machines. Nothing enters that is not pre-processed in some way:

[The mind’s] normal functioning may better be likened to a workshop equipped with lots of specialized tools for processing particular classes of information. These mental tools arise with built in biases that influence which bits of information will be attended to and how that information will be represented (which might include its being distorted). (Barrett, 180)

There are two types of belief, Barrett explains:

1. Reflective Beliefs

If someone asks you if you believe in something, your answer will draw from a reflective belief. You will know you are not alone in those beliefs. Examples of reflective beliefs:

  • Toyotas are more reliable than Yugos
  • E=mc2
  • pumpkins are orange
  • Michael Johnson holds the world record in the 200 meter dash
  • Harvey Whitehouse is six-feet, five-inches tall

2. Non-Reflective Beliefs

Non-reflective beliefs, in contrast, operate in the background without our conscious awareness. These beliefs may not be consciously accessible and do not arise through deliberation. Rather, our minds produce non-reflective beliefs automatically all the time.


  • People act so as to satisfy their desires.
  • Rainbows exhibit six bands of color.
  • Raccoons and opossums are very similar animals.
  • People from outside my group are more similar to each other than people inside my group.
  • Animals have parents of the same species as themselves.
  • My pants are blue.

Non-reflective beliefs do not depend on verbal reasoning and statements. We can even identify more nonreflective beliefs by studying babies. Babies, we can tell from their eye-gaze, believe non-reflexively that

  • solid objects cannot pass directly through other solid objects
  • unsupported objects fall
  • inanimate objects must be contacted before they may be set in motion whereas people need not be . . . .

So where do these nonreflective beliefs come from? We are not taught them. How do they arise? . . .

Continued in next post in this series . . . . . 

Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.

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6 thoughts on “Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)”

  1. I’m having a slight problem working out how Barrett establishes what are pre-reflective beliefs and what are reflective. The second pre-reflective belief that you list – “Rainbows exhibit six bands of color” is particularly odd since the classic Newtonian version gives seven colours – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. However that description was certainly culturally/historically/linguistically determined. When Newton formulated this, he seems to have added orange (which until not long before had not been distinguishable linguistically from red) and indigo to make the number up to the seven notes of the musical scale (https://www.the-scientist.com/foundations/newtons-color-theory-ca-1665-31931.

    Now I know that this is nit-picking, but the reason I nit-pick is to show that if Barrett is mistaken about the banding of the rainbow – which may be a learnt and reflective belief rather than pre-reflective, what’s to say that some of the other beliefs he lists aren’t also in fact reflective – e.g “people from outside my group are more similar to each other than people inside my group”? By what method does Barrett’s determine the “pre-reflective beliefs”? I think that this is an important question to ask, because it looks like these will form the foundation for his subsequent argument, and if they aren’t well established then the whole edifice may be unstable.

    1. Good point. I was half expecting such an objection arising from the brevity of my precis and now regret being too quick. Barrett’s explanation:

      Our color-perception faculty biases us to see a rainbow as exhibiting distinct bands of color, a process called categorical perception. So firmly entrenched (or so intuitive and obvious) is this belief about rainbows, that it makes teaching the truth about rainbows (that they exhibit a full color spectrum) difficult. Students may find the explanation unconvincing or quickly forget it as it conflicts with their intuitions. (183)

      Further, non-reflective beliefs are actually formed before we can articulate them in speech. Now I think about it I should have made this point in the post. When we are asked “how many colours are in the rainbow?” we recall or reflect on our memory and turn the information into a reflective belief in order to say “x many colours”. Reflective beliefs “read off” our non-reflective beliefs, as Barrett says.

      It is most efficient to present non-reflective beliefs in propositional forms but as many of these ‘beliefs’ arise preverbally, they are not cognitively represented as propositions but as information processing tendencies. When people reflectly report them (often when turning them into reflective beliefs), they may use propositional language. To stress this relationship between non-reflective and reflective beliefs, and for efficiency, I use propositional forms for both.

      The lists of such beliefs that are produced by respective mental tools are taken directly from Barrett’s chapter but I have removed his citations for each list. Each citation refers to experiments conducted on infants. Thus:

      Concerning itself with the properties of bounded physical objects,

      Naïve Physics generates the non-reflective beliefs that objects: tend to move on inertial paths, cannot pass through other solid objects, must move through the intermediate space to get from one point to another, and must be supported or they will fall (Spelke, Phillips & Woodward, 1995).

      The Agency Detection Device automatically tells us that self-propelled and goal directed objects are intentional agents (Baron-Cohen, 1995).

      Theory of Mind gives us non-reflective beliefs concerning the internal states of intentional agents and their behaviors. For instance, agents act to satisfy desires. Actions are guided by beliefs. Beliefs are influenced by percepts. Satisfied desires prompt positive emotions (Wellman, Cross & Watson, 2001).

      Among others, Naïve Biology generates the non-reflective beliefs that animals bear young similar to themselves, and living things are composed of organic matter and not artificial substances (Simons & Keil, 1995).

      I was unable to locate the first and last of the following citations to elaborate. Perhaps if anyone has access to any of them and can send me copies, I might be able to elaborate here. The references cited in the above paragraph:

      • Spelke, E. S. Phillips, A. and Woodward, A.L. (1995) ‘Infant’s knowledge of object motion and human action’ In Sperber, D. Premack, D. and Premack, A. J (eds.) Causal Cognition: A multidisciplinary debate, pp. 44—78. New York: Oxford University Press.
      • Baron-Cohen, S. (1995) Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind, Cambridge, MA: MIT Bradford.
      • Wellman, H., Cross, D. and Watson, J. (2001) ‘Meta-analysis of theory of mind development: The truth about false-belief’ Child Development, 72(3), 655-684.
      • Simons,D.J. and Keil, F.C. (1995) ‘An abstract to concrete shift in development of biological thought: The insides story’ Cognition, 56, 129—163.

      Barrett’s explanation draws upon similar explanations among many other cognitive researchers. I first posted about these ideas as presented by Pascal Boyer. I decided to post about Barrett’s take simply because he had a chapter titled simply “Gods” and it included a subsection “Why People Believe in Gods” and I thought, “How straightforward is that!” What I find particularly interesting is that Barrett is also a believing Christian. He says (paraphrasing), “Just because I can identify the chemical reasons my wife loves me, that does not mean I stop believing she loves me.” So drawing on Barrett’s discussion makes an interesting defence against critics who poo-pooh the model as another sign of atheist angst against god.

      Appreciate the question you raised.

      1. Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply, but I’m still having difficulty with the way Barrett deals with “Theory of Mind” that you’ve quoted above. Barrett himself describes these pre-reflective beliefs thus:
        “they are not cognitively represented as propositions but as information processing tendencies”.
        The notion that these pre-reflective beliefs can have any theory of mind seems implausible, since surely by definition theories are reflective, but that might simply be a problem of terminology. But as regard the details of it, I can’t see that pre-reflective nature of these “information processing tendencies” (or as I might say, pre-structured perception of the world) can include propositional content as complex as “actions are guided by beliefs. Beliefs are influenced by percepts”. I think that “percepts” and “beliefs” are reflective, intellectual concepts, and surely have no place in cognitively primitive “information processing tendencies”.

        However, I’m not sure that the theory he is propounding really needs this “theory of mind” at all (and I await to see how he deploys it). My feeling is that, at the base level of our pre-reflective take on the world, all that is required is a general sense of “agency” or “intentionality” (his Agency Detection Device) to account for the development of the beliefs in god(s).

        1. Is the following excerpt of any assistance in grasping Barrett’s idea? I have taken it from his book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? – pp. 4-5

          Describers are devices that our minds automatically use for supposing the properties of any given object or thing once it has been identified by a categorizer.6 For instance, whenever a baby (or an adult) recognizes something as an object— whether a rock or ball or cat or unknown thing—it automatically assumes that the thing has all the properties of a bounded object: occupying a single location at a time, not being able to pass through other solid objects, being subject to gravity, being movable through contact, requiring time to move from one place to another, and so forth. The object describer generates all these property-related expectations even if the particular object in question is unfamiliar. The living-thing describer automatically ascribes nutritional needs, growth, death, and the ability to reproduce its own kind to those things categorized as animals. Though no firm evidence exists that the living-thing describer operates in infancy, it seems to be functional by around age five. The agent describer, better known as the Theory of Mind (ToM), kicks into action once the agency detection device recognizes something that seems to initiate its own actions and does not merely respond mechanistically to environmental factors. The ToM then attributes a host of mental properties to the agent in question—percepts that enable it to negotiate the environment, desires that motivate actions, thoughts and beliefs that guide actions, memory for storing percepts and thoughts, and so forth. . . . . .

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