This is a work in progress attempt to unify psychological and anthropological theory of religion. It is a different approach than the one taken in Religious or Secular, however, it is my hope that over time I can join these two approaches into a more robust model of religion. I am leaving the draft available to the public for feedback. If any piece of this draft is used in other work, please cite it appropriately, and be aware that the draft is likely to change considerably as time goes on.
Both psychology and anthropology have provided us many tools to study religion. However, there seems to be an insufficient level of integration between the two attempts. Taking models from cognitive psychology and models from anthropology, and showing how they can work together, can provide us with an added level of understanding of the nature of religion.
To that effect, I propose an integration between recent work in fMRI research and Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion, along with some changes in the way surveys are done when performing research on religion.
- Issues with Some Models
- Cognitive Studies
- Religioid Beliefs
- Circular Definition
- Smart’s Seven Dimensions Revisited
Issues with Some Models
- Ethnocentric view of religion
- Issue with defining religion around that which is “counterintuitive.”
- Religion as inherently anthropomorphizing?
- Focus on Christian belief systems.
The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief
Harris et. al. utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare brain activity when individuals accepted or rejected both non religious and religious beliefs. “[J]udgments about the nonreligious stimuli presented in our study seemed more dependent upon those brain systems “involved in accessing stored knowledge,” while judgements about religious stimuli “showed increased signal in the medial parietal regions regularly associated with self referential tasks.” (p. 6).
An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system
Another region of the brain which religion seems to manipulate is the VLPFC, a region of the brain which seems to have an impact on the higher level processing of pain. In the study, when pain was induced in people, religious people experienced a less severe reaction when looking at religious imagery.
Should we call the beliefs that are addressed in the aforementioned studies “religious beliefs?” If so, then anyone who holds a belief which has a collective action on the indicated regions of the brain would indicate the existence of a religion. It may indeed be the case, but such a definition may indicate that every single person is religious, at least to some extent. Before making such an extreme case, perhaps we should simply call the beliefs “religioid beliefs.” They are indicators of religion, but not necessarily defining characteristics. This somewhat weaker position makes the argument for this model easier.
One might want to argue that the definition is circular, as it rests on a number of existing archetype religions. Well, in order to create a defintion for something, we need to have archetypes. Whether or not the archetypes reasonably fit a given definition, produced by the end of the process, we always start with a collection of things we call “x” and then compare and contrast them so that we can produce a defintion. If I want to define “fruit,” I would first look at a collection of things generally considered to be fruit, and also things generally not considered fruit, and see if it is possible to create a defintion which reasonably includes the archetypes and excludes things generally not considered to be fruit.
The same has been done here. The studies of the objects in question are our archetypes. Archetypes do not rely on a definition for inclusion into the group. Their inclusion is our a priori knowledge.
Smart’s Seven Dimensions Revisited
Ninian Smart, instead of trying to define religion, came up with seven characteristics that religions often share. The seven dimensions of religion, as expressed by Smart are ritual, material, doctrinal and philosophical, experiential and emotional, social and institutional, and the narrative and mythic (citation). Yet something can be a religion and not include some of these dimensions. Likewise, there are secular systems which include some of these dimensions. So in order to use this model, we would first need to be confident that the phenomenon that we are studying is indeed a religion.
Probably one of the most damning examples of a nonreligion, which contains most, if not all elements of Smart’s Seven Dimensions, is government. It contains every element. Voting for the ritual dimension, flags for the material dimension, government enforced law for the doctrinal and philosophical dimension, national pride for the experiential and emotional dimension, citizenship for the social and institutonal dimension, and the history of the founding of the government, and how it came to be in its current form, for the narrative and mythic dimension. So we either have to call government a religious institution, or have to provide something more in order to first identify something as a religion, before using Smart’s Seven Dimensions.
That is what the cognitive model addressed here does. But there is great utility in Smart’s Seven Dimensions, and that utility increases exponentially when integrated with the cognitive model here. Once a religious cognitive state is identified, we can then address how each instance of one of the dimensions relates to that cognitive state. In doing so, we can define a religion as a set of cultural elements which act to establish, reinforce, or otherwise interact with religioid beliefs.
Christianity as an Example
Let us first consider the religioid belief: the belief in a god. There are probably others in Christianity, but the cognitive studies referenced seem to focus largely on god belief. Christianity includes all seven dimensions of religion, and all seven can be related to the god belief. Rituals include baptism, prayer, and the eucharist. All of these are directly or indirectly connected to the belief in the Christian god. Baptism is an acceptance of Christ and therefore god (citation?), while prayer and the eucharist are both ways to gain a connection with god. The material aspect of the religion includes the cross, which represents the sacrifice of Christ, and reinforces the existence and actions of god. There aren’t too many other symbols in Christianity, as Christianity largely rejects the use of icons. The doctrinal and philosophical dimension is extensive and includes that there is only one god, the existence of sin, and the absolution of sin by accepting Christ, all of which tie directly to the existence of god and reinforce the worship of god.
The doctrinal and philosophy dimension also relates directly to the ethical and legal dimension, which is largely founded on the ten commandments, which are the basic rules which god wants us to follow. The experiential and emotional dimension includes miracles. These miracles are often performed by religious figures. But, the power to perform miracles is not a power that saints and other religious figures have themselves. It is power which is derived from god (citation). The social and institutional dimension is quite sophisticated and complex in Christianity. Not only are there institutions of worship, but there are entire hierarchies of these institutions, such as individual churches, diocese, and the Vatican. The Vatican has at its center, the Pope, who is believed to have the most direct communication with god. This is limited to one aspect of Christianity, the Catholic Church, but there are similar roles in other divisions of Christianity. The Pope has power, largely because it is believed that his word is the word of god (address Papal infallibility). Much of the narrative and mythic dimensions comes from the bible. It includes the creation story and the story of Noah and the Ark, and they generally speak of god’s will and divine intervention. The narrative and mythic dimension helps to reinforce the belief in god, but at the same time, the belief in god helps to reinforce the narrative and mythic dimension.
All of the dimensions relate to the god belief. The bulk of the components listed above make little to no sense, without the existence of the Christian god. They are all tied together by that belief. That is what makes the system a religion.
There may be separate cognitive modalities for religious life and mundane life and differences in thought processes with two different aspects of life can indicate the existence of a religion.Something held as true in one modality may be held as false in the other. This may function much the same way as recognizing situational word meaning. Cognitive dissonance may have to do with isolated modalities of thought. In this way, I am reminded of a friend that I had back in high school. He was a devout Christian and believed in the model of creation expressed in the bible. Yet he was also very interested in genetics, and had a solid understanding of the topic. Even though he accepted the science of genetics, he rejected evolution. His knowledge of genetics seemed to exist in an entirely different reality than his belief in creationism.
This partition may also explain various other phenomenon, such as a person acting in very different ways in a religious environment and in his everyday life. The degree of separation between the religious modality and the secular modality varies from individual to individual and from religion to religion (expand and support).
Belief as Choice
One common view seems to be that belief is a choice. However, there are multiple people who research the psychological topic of religion who admit that belief is not a choice. While I do not agree with every position held by Daniel Dennett he does admit the lack of choice in belief (The Spell-Breaker). This is very similar to other cultural phenomena. We do not choose our sexuality, our gender, or even what we like or hate eating. Our actions influence these aspects of ourselves. They are a product of our biology, how we have interacted with the environment, etc, but they are not choices.
As a final point, it seems appropriate to address research methodology. Because we are looking at a system which is centered around beliefs, we need to make sure that we are actually identifying a belief, rather than an absence of belief. When conducting surveys on beliefs, it may be worthwhile to allow the respondent to indicate likelihood and certainty as separate terms. Richard Dawkins attempts to provide some insight into both factors with his belief scale. But it is still incomplete. A person could say that it is very unlikely that there is a god, but be only somewhat certain that this is the case. An advantage of the dual scale system is that it can be used for any belief. This may seem excessive, but we really actually provide this information when conducting research. We will not only state the probability of something being true, but we state how certain we are that this is the case. An example would be something along the following lines.
People are reincarnated after they die:
Not At All
We Don’t Know
Fill in the blanks would work the best:
I am [certainty] certain that it is [probability] that [condition]
To see why this is important, Harris et. al. concluded that while the activity associated with religious stimuli was the same, both in the religious and “nonreligious” group, the cause was somewhat different. However, another interpretation is that the “nonreligious” group was not properly vetted. Instead of being nonreligious, it is possible that the group actually had fairly strong beliefs that there were no gods. Both theories fit the results of the experiment equally well. The issue with the theory presented by Harris et. al. is it does not exactly explain why the results are the same, or how to test to see whether or not the explanation is reasonable. It also does not allow us to make other predictions for use in further investigation. The latter explanation, on the other hand, can be tested, by differing the experiment in various ways, such as separating groups by strength of belief. One possible measure for strength of belief is Richard Dawkins’ “spectrum of theistic probability.” If both the belief in god and the belief that there are no gods are religious in nature, separating strength of belief for the supposed “nonreligious” group in the experiment should result in a stronger response among those who “strongly disagree” with the existence of a god, and little response from those who neither agree nor disagree.
Finally because a religion can be classified as any system involving religioid beliefs, along with elements from Smart’s seven dimensions of religion, we should not limit our questions to beliefs in gods, which seems to be rather common. We should not even limit our research to belief in something. A belief that something does not exist can just as easily satisfy this definition. As such, we need to extend our line of questioning much further.
- The Neural Correlates of of Religious and Nonreligious Belief
- An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system
- The Profile of the American Religious Rejectionist