Gods – 5 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods)

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by Neil Godfrey

Earlier posts in this series:

Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-12)

Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-13)

Gods – 3 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods) (2020-07-14)

Gods – 4 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods) (2020-07-17)

Where Does Morality Come From? — a fifth mental tool (2020-07-18)

Another Interlude with Morality — Why Moral Beings Can Be Brutes (2020-07-19)


Brian Greene discusses a conversation he had with Richard Dawkins on our proclivity to be led “irrationally” by our “mental tools”:

In a one on one conversation his views were very similar to mine. . . . I was saying to him, There are times I go around the world and I will do things that are utterly irrational. I’ll knock on wood for good luck. I’ll speak to my dead father: I know that he’s not really there. I’ll pray to god on occasion if I think that I can use that backup. Not because I think that there’s some bearded individual in the sky; it’s just a behavioural tendency that I find to be comforting and useful. And I said this to Richard. And he said, I totally get it. . . . In fact, I don’t like to sleep in a house that has a reputation for being haunted. . . . For me it was such a beautiful human moment where we were just like being human beings. And he said, We’re both sinners. And I agreed. We are both sinners in that sense, because we know how the world works, we know this doesn’t make any sense, and yes it’s still part of somehow how we behave in the world.

Brian Greene Shares His Surprising Take on Religion and Science 6:50 – 8:00

When our respective mental tools work together we might conclude that amazing things can happen. Our Agency Detector, we might say, like to take the hand of our Theory of Mind in order to intuit the agency’s intention. Does that agent coming in our direction want to kill and eat us? But what about when we experience unexpected fortune or misfortune? As social animals we are very attuned to social consequences of what we do or fail to do. We know there are rewards for conforming to social expectations, rewards for even doing more than is normally expected to profit our social group, and punishments for acting against the interests of our society. If we suddenly find ourselves confronted with an unexpected reward or disaster we like to have an explanation for the change in our fortune. Focus on some examples before continuing.

Sudden death, famine, crop-failure: if we cannot understand the sudden event in terms of our basic (naive) non-reflective grasp of physics and biology then we readily turn to seek some agency or social blow-back to explain what has happened.

Extraordinary luck in life, hunting, crop yield, social favours: ditto.

We have seen how easy it is to imagine the existence of “minimally counterintuitive” agents like spirits or gods, persons without bodies, yet who, like any other person, are interested in social and personal relationships and behaviours. And being without bodies, they are invisible. And being invisible, they can intrude and make themselves aware of behaviours that are hidden from the rest of us. They know what people do in secret. And as persons without bodies that are also moral agents, with an intuitive morality like the rest of us (and as covered in recent posts). They have an interest in punishing and rewarding us.

Gods enter the story because of having particular sorts of minimally counterintuitive properties. Many have unusual powers or invisibility that would allow them to bring about the fortune or misfortune without being directly detected. Perhaps more importantly, their invisibility or super-knowledge gives them strategic information about what people do in secret. Hence, the gods could be acting to punish or reward moral failings that no human could know about. In this way, fortune or misfortune can be easily understood as the action of an agent, motivated by moral concerns. These moral concerns, too, are cross-culturally recurrent because of another mental tool: Intuitive Morality (Boyer, 2001). (Barrett 193)

Further on Intuitive Morality:

Intuitive Morality generates non-reflective beliefs about what constitutes moral behavior. One author has suggested that from an early age, children appear intuitively to differentiate between moral codes and social conventions (Turiel, 1998link is to earlier post discussing Turiel). Though the precise catalog of moral intuitions is a matter of continued empirical research and debate, it appears as though individuals and groups converge upon general rules of behavior that typically frown on murder, adultery, theft, deception, treachery, and cowardice, especially as directed toward one’s own group. These moral intuitions may have a different quality to people than mere regularities of behavior or useful guidelines that might be amended at a later date. Rather, people regard them as immutable (Boyer, 2001; Lewis, 1947 [there is no explanation for this citation in the work I am using]; see also Katz, 2000 for suggested evolutionary origins of morality).

Gods fill a major explanatory niche

Couple with Intuitive Morality otherwise inexplicable fortune or misfortune, and an important explanatory niche arises that gods fill naturally. By working in concert with these non-reflective beliefs, god concepts gain reflective plausibility. The more non-reflective beliefs that converge upon a candidate reflective belief, in this case the belief that gods exist and act, the more likely it is to become reflectively believed. (194)

Further, is it not only a natural step from there to finding out ways to win the favour of those gods for oneself?

Agency After Death

Sometimes our mental tools find themselves in conflict with one another. Our naive biology device tells us clearly that anyone who has died no longer can live, no longer needs food, no longer can be part of one’s life in a real sense. But our understanding of minds is not necessarily tied to our raw understanding of biology. I have hyper-linked the studies or discussions of the studies cited in the following:

But children’s understanding of minds allows and even encourages the idea that mental functions continue after death (Bering, 2002; Bering, Hernandez-Blasi, Bjorklund, 2005). Data from children and adults in different cultural settings suggest that two of our mental tools. Naive Biology and Theory of Mind, offer conflicting non-reflective beliefs concerning death—perhaps especially the death of a loved one (Bering, 2002, Boyer, 2001)

When we think about what others are thinking we usually do so in an abstract sense. We can think about their mental states, their intentions, quite apart from their actual bodies. It is not difficult to imagine how beliefs in ancestor-ghosts might arise, and how their values, wishes, might be called upon to explain unexpected tragedies or good-fortune in our lives.

I’ll give this series a break for a little while but do hope to return to continue Barrett’s explanation for “why people believe in particular divine attributes”. Why is it that we believe gods with super-knowledge, super-powers, down through the generations?

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.




Gods – 3 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods)

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by Neil Godfrey

In brief, people believe in gods because gods gain tremendous support from the natural and ordinary operation of mental tools. Note that because mental tools and their processing biases arise primarily as a consequence of biological endowment plus essentially universal features of human environments, the factors that prompt belief in gods in Melanesia are the same as those that prompt belief in Scandinavia. Below I sketch several ways in which god concepts receive this support. The first way concerns how god concepts are minimally counterintuitive.

a minimally counterintuitive concept pixabay

As per the previous post, by mental tools we mean the way our brains come equipped with agency detection, with a theory of mind, with a basic set of inferences about the physical and biological environment.

Also as per the previous post, the more inferences we can bring into play from our various mental tools and apply to any proposition or idea, the more likely we are to reflexively or intuitively believe that idea. Our mental tools prepare us to expect our environment to behave in certain ways; that is, we intuitively expect objects to fall when they are unsupported, that foods are made of organic matter, that self-propelled and goal-directed agents act with intent.

Concepts that violate in major ways these properties that our mental tools have come to expect are not plausible and not entertained in our thinking for very long. An example Barrett gives is of a dog that

    • experiences time backwards
    • is born or a rhino that mated with a bullfrog
    • sustains itself on graphite
    • speaks Latin
    • changes into cheese on Thursdays

Such a dog violates so many non-refective intuitions or inferences we expect a dog to have that we no longer have a “portable concept of a dog” at all, but rather “a laundry list of features that do not seem to hang together.” That sort of concept won’t be shared or last easily. We can say that highly counterintuitive concepts don’t last.

However, a dog violates just one or two expectations that our mental tools prepare us for is still easily understood, remembered, and shared: e.g. a dog that is as large as a small horse. Or, minimally counterintuitive concepts can last.

Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts

Take a statue that hears prayers. The statue meets all the expectations of our “naive physics” tool; but it has one extra attribute — a mind, or at least what our theory of mind tool leads us to expect of minds. That is a concept that is easily understood. It conforms to what we intuitively expect of both objects and minds.

A statue that hears prayers may only involve a simple transfer of mental properties to an artifact. Except for this one transfer of property, the artifact meets ordinary intuitive expectations for artifacts (that is, non-reflective beliefs), and the mind of the statue meets ordinary non-reflective beliefs about minds. . . . Compared to how massively counterintuitive concepts could be, successful religious concepts tend to be rather intuitive. They conform to non-reflective beliefs governing the sorts of things that they are—their intuitive ontology. Hence, general plausibility is maintained. But being only slightly or minimally counterintuitive provides god concepts with another asset: facilitated transmission. (186)

We avoid a laundry list of oddities. The statue that hears prayers does not, for example, violate our theory of mind tool. The statue does not hear prayers yet completely misunderstands them; it does not hear prayers that are uttered many miles away; and so on.

And the concept is easily communicated. If only one person has a belief then that belief is a mere oddity. It is when groups of people share the same beliefs in supernatural agents that we have religious beliefs.

So what makes a good religious belief? The cognitive approach to religious beliefs proposes that the best candidates are those that violate only one or two intuitive expectations.

Those that violate a small number of intuitive assumptions can actually make for very strong candidates. Concepts that meet most non-reflective beliefs, but violate just a small number (e.g., one or two at a time) have been called minimally counterintuitive (MCI) concepts (Barrett, 2004; Barrett & Nyhof, 2001). A dog that speaks Spanish would be a minimally counterintuitive concept. A dog that gives birth to kittens would be MCI. A dog that can never die would be MCI. Such concepts enjoy good conceptual integrity and as such are easily remembered, recalled, and shared. Further, the counterintuitive feature may help the concepts to stand out against a backdrop of more mundane concepts, hence improving their salience and the attention devoted to remembering them. Experiments show that MCI concepts are transmitted more faithfully than ordinary or simply unusual ones (Barrett & Nyhof, 2001 ; Boyer & Ramble, 2001*). (187 f. * link is to pdf)

But not all minimally counterintuitive concepts are likely religious beliefs. What makes some better than others?

Take, for example, a potato that vanishes whenever you look at it versus a potato that talks. Both potatoes are counterintuitive but the vanishing potato scores poorly in terms of inferential potential. That is, some concepts more readily generate inferences, explanations, and predictions than others do. Some concepts excite a greater range of mental tools and some mental tools more completely. Consequently, they touch on more human concerns and, due to the convergence of many non-reflective beliefs, carry more reflective credibility. Even if I had some evidence of a potato that vanishes whenever someone looks at it, not much follows from its discovery. A potato that talks? Now that sets the imagination running a bit, especially at suppertime. (188)

Religious belief systems are mostly populated with intentional agents, minimally counterintuitive intentional agents — to be taken up in the next post.

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.


Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

Explorations into why we believe and think the way we do should be shared as widely as possible and not restricted to scholarly publications. Hence these posts. (They cover ideas that we have presented before in different ways as they derive from different researchers, but slightly different perspectives on the same fundamental concepts can deepen our understanding of the matter.)

In the previous post we began with the point that we have two types of beliefs: reflective and non-reflective. Here we identify where these different types of beliefs come from. We will see in future posts how this model explains why belief in gods and spirits is in effect universal.

Where Non-Reflective Beliefs Come From

We are not taught everything we know. We are born with a brain that comes pre-packaged with a set of tools that enable us to make reliable inferences about how our world works.

These mental tools automatically and non-reflectively construct perhaps most of our beliefs about the natural and social world. Non-reflective beliefs arise directly from the operation of these mental tools on inputs from environment. The vast majority of these beliefs are never consciously evaluated or systematically verified. They just seem intuitive, and that is usually good enough. (Barrett 182)


We focus on four of these mental tools.

Our Naive Physics Tool

Even as infants we “know” that physical 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
    • must be supported or they will fall
Our Agency Detection Tool
    • automatically tells us that self-propelled and goal directed objects are intentional agents
Our Theory of Mind Tool

Theory of mind gives us non-reflective beliefs concerning the internal states of intentional agents and their behaviors: Continue reading “Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)”


Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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.


Believers more childish than childlike

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor of New Testament Craig Keener writes very long and very detailed scholarly books about Jesus. He also presents himself as having converted from atheism to Christianity. Do a web search on Keener and atheist and you’ll find many sites likewise presenting him as a poster-boy for how atheism stood no chance against the intellectual inquiries of Keener into the Christian faith. But then you read Keener’s own testimony about his “atheism” and conversion and you learn he became an atheist at the ripe age of nine and converted to Christianity at the mature age of fifteen. A lost soul in search of a home?

Keener addresses the “problem of evil” for believers in God in Where was God when tragedy happened?—Exodus 1:22. He begins by reciting the most common of religious mantras: goodness and justice will always win in the end. Every child is taught this to be true in order to protect them from the traumatic reality of the real world.

Keener’s conclusion is the saddest of all, the fantasies of childhood have never left the adult:

God does not always prevent tragedy—but he does ensure his plan for the future of his people and for ultimate justice.

Indeed, Exodus resounds with the recognition that God, while not always stopping human wickedness, does not look the other way:

Adult view: God looks at the suffering of people having their children murdered now but can think only of his “long-term plan” so watches them suffer and die. Don’t worry, you Jews dying in Auschwitz; some of those responsible will be hanged at Nuremberg! Comforting — except that God won’t even tell them that much!

Consider how God would return against the next generation of Egyptians what Pharaoh had done. Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the first plague would turn the Nile to blood (7:20).

Lovely. “Next generation” who were not responsible for the suffering he had just witnessed get to be punished, not to mention the killing of entire species of Nile-dwelling creatures. A professor of New Testament seriously writes that this is the beginning of “God’s justice”!

Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); the last plague would strike Egypt’s firstborn children (12:29).

Of course. Kill the sons, whether infants or mature adults, of the generation who bore no responsibility for the earlier crime against humanity. Kill the innocent, even adult first-born. Rob the innocent parents of their firstborn children.

And a mature adult who writes serious books about the historical Jesus teaches fellow-believers that this is God’s justice.

Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile (1:22); God would drown Egypt’s army in a sea of reeds (14:28).

Only a child could imagine this as “justice”.

Though long-delayed, justice would come. As we often say in the African-American church, “God doesn’t always come when you want Him to, but He’s always right on time.”

“Always comes right on time” — like, a generation after the cruel deaths and pain inflicted on an entire race, so late that he finds he has only innocents left to kill. “Always comes right on time”.

Thus are the teachings of a serious adult professor of New Testament and author of academic works.

A soul having found a home remains protected from the realities of life by means of the perpetuation of childish fantasies.




Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Neil Van Leeuwen
Neil Van Leeuwen

I’m looking here at a thesis on the nature of religious belief, Religious Credence is Not Factual Belief, by Neil Van Leeuwen that was published in the journal Cognition last year. The author has also made his article publicly available on academia.edu. A commenter brought the article to my attention in the context of disagreements over the relationship between religious beliefs and Islamic terrorist attacks. One reason I am attracted to Van Leeuwen’s ideas is that they appear to be consistent with anthropologist Scott Atran’s views of the nature of religious belief that I have discussed previously.

First point to notice (and it is critical to the entire argument) is that Van Leeuwen chooses to speak of “religious credence” as opposed to “religious belief”.

Many philosophers and cognitive scientists have a habit of using the word “belief” as though it refers to one simple sort of cognitive attitude. . . . But, I will argue, if we examine the matter carefully, we will soon find empirical reasons to think this habit is a source of confusion. 

We tend to focus on differences in the content of “beliefs” (evolution, creationism; death is final, immortal soul) but in doing so we may be talking about distinctly different attitudes that fall under this one word. He draws the analogy of jade. In popular usage there may be only one kind of jade, but to chemists there are two distinct entities:

jade (2)

The general “taken for granted” assumption is that the only difference between a scientific and a religious belief is the content and that it is the different contents that guide behaviour.

Here is an adaptation of a diagram Van Leeuwen uses to portray the general understanding that there is only one kind of “belief” that is set against other cognitive attitudes. Belief (of any kind) by its very nature stands opposed to other forms of cognitive attitudes:


Van Leeuwen argues against this understanding of belief and believes that on closer inspection that religious “belief” has characteristics in common with other attitudes like imagining, hypothesising, acceptance in a context and conditional assumptions. Factual beliefs, he says, do not share these characteristics. To keep the distinction clear he uses “credence” when speaking of the cognitive attitude associated with religion:


So what are the characteristics that set religious credence apart from factual belief in Van Leeuwen’s view? And what is the relationship between factual beliefs and religious credence? Do they really have more than their content to distinguish them? Continue readingReligious Credence is Not Factual Belief: 1″