Robert McCauley - Why Religion is Natural (And Science is Not)

December 5, 2011

Host: Chris Mooney

Over the last decade, there have been many calls in the secular community for increased criticism of religion, and increased activism to help loosen its grip on the public.

But what if the human brain itself is aligned against that endeavor?

That's the argument made by cognitive scientist Robert McCauley in his new book, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.

In it, he lays out a cognitive theory about why our minds, from a very early state of development, seem predisposed toward religious belief—and not predisposed towards the difficult explanations and understandings that science offers.

If McCauley is right, spreading secularism and critical thinking may always be a difficult battle—although one no less worthy of undertaking.

Dr. McCauley is University Professor and Director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture at Emory University. He is also the author of Rethinking Religion and Bringing Ritual to Mind.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture E. Thomas Lawson, Robert N. McCauley

Comments from the CFI Forums

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I really like this podcast.

It brought to mind the seperation of the functions of the brain hemispheres.

http://www.web-us.com/brain/right_left_brain_characteristics.htm

I wonder if at birth, we begin thinking with our right hemisphere (intuitive) and develop the left brain functions (rational) at a later stage with the acquisition of knowledge. Perhaps this might also be an evolutionary process, where the right hemisphere brain function in animals developed before the left hemisphere function (combined with) in higher order animals.

Any suggestions?

Posted on Dec 05, 2011 at 6:14pm by Write4U Comment #1

I’d suggest your reading McGilcrist’s The Master and His Emissary. Great TED video available and discussions on Somasimple.com as well.

Posted on Dec 07, 2011 at 5:07am by Barrett Dorko Comment #2

Great interview.  One thing Chris missed in the introduction is that the two books he mentioned, ‘Re-Thinking Religion’ and ‘Bringing Ritual to Mind’, were actually co-written by Dr. McCauley and Dr. E Thomas Lawson, who was my mentor in the scientific study of religion.  Dr. Lawson helped found the Institute for Cognition and Culture at the Queen’s University of Belfast.  He would be an interesting guest on Point of Inquiry.

Posted on Dec 08, 2011 at 9:11pm by mimshow Comment #3

Welcome to CFI, Mimshow

Looking forward to your posts.

Posted on Dec 08, 2011 at 10:02pm by Write4U Comment #4

Can science itself come to an end? A stupid question really.

  Political correctness has destroyed American archaeology and is destroying human genetic research by manufacturing native and ethnic hostility to blood sampling. It is destroying medical and agricultural exploration and use of exotic genetic material on anti corporate, anti-capitalist, and anti-western precepts.
  Environmentalism is now driven by organizational survival and fund raising incentives, psychological importance and attention incentives, and radical left anti-civilization incentives. It seeks to destroy scientific and engineering advances in fossil fuel exploration, recovery, and use. It seeks to destroy nuclear power science and engineering. It pretends to promote research in renewable energy use but always somewhere, never here. It fully endorses only conservation which is a paradigm of diminishing returns. That means a poorer society with fewer resources for everything including science.
  Liberalism has produced ever worsening educational systems and results, especially where science is concerned. Time is squandered on the cult of self esteem, the rituals of show and tell, and endless liberal browbeating of collective guilt, multiculturalism, and promotion of homosexuality and other favored causes.
  Scare mongering scam artists and egotists are learning how to undermine and supplant the whole panoply of modern medicine and nutrition from vaccination to genetic engineering.
  Lawyers, empowered by ever bigger stronger government that plays a dominant role in ever more aspects of life continue to increase the cost and regulatory burdens of everything in general and research in particular. Then they conspire to prevent any potentially beneficial findings of research from ever being applied.
  Crops, animals, and human health are increasingly endangered by removal from use of old chemical pesticides and medicines and coupled with disincentives and regulations that restrict the development of new. Magic, fad, and folklore are presented in their stead.
  These are just a few of the most obvious seeds of the destruction of science, rationality, and civilization.

Posted on Dec 09, 2011 at 6:31pm by rg21 Comment #5

This was a wonderful interview, highlighting some of the ongoing scientific research into why religion is so common.

Dr. McCauley suggested that people along the autism spectrum should display less of a proclivity toward common religions, due to their difficulties in representing other minds.  Some data are starting to become available which might address this question.  At last Summer’s meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, Dr. Catherine Caldwell-Harris of Boston University reported some initial results concerning the religious beliefs of high-functioning autistic people.  She found a disproportionately high level of atheism and non-conventional religious beliefs in this population.  While this work is not yet published, to the best of my knowledge, there may be forthcoming evidence that supports this aspect of Dr. McCauley’s thesis.

Posted on Dec 10, 2011 at 5:18pm by David C. Noelle, Ph.D. Comment #6

Another excellent, really stimulating podcast from Chris Mooney.  Thanks, Chris!

I’d love to read Dr. McCauley’s book, as his points not only seem valuable, but have considerable ramifications regarding how we non-believers should communicate with, and otherwise deal with, religious folk on a day-to-day basis.

It seems to me, though, that the terms of discussion should be broadened generally despite the title of Dr. McCauley’s book.
The battle is not simply “science vs. religion,” but rather evidence-based thinking vs. superstition, is it not? The type of automatic / intuitive / uncritical thinking that Dr. McCauley points up is not only the basis of much religion, but of virtually all superstitions, right?  And of course, critical thinking is not confined only to scientific endeavors.

While we might never “get rid of” religion, we have made and are making strides in many parts of the world in literacy and education generally, which at least indirectly dampens our human tendencies toward superstition and consequently makes the world a better place.

Along the same line, understanding history, reading literature, and study of other humanities is conducive to enhancing thinking and reducing superstition, too, perhaps not as directly as a really good grounding in science, but in very key ways, nevertheless.

To think only in terms of “science vs. religion” (as Chris has so often seemed to me to do) really limits understanding of what’s going on in the world, it seems to me.
(Among other things, religion’s most horrific damage is not to science and science education, bad as that is, but to peace and fulfillment among human beings in a hundred other areas of life.)

Posted on Dec 11, 2011 at 9:39am by Trail Rider Comment #7

I have dyslexia so pardon me if I failed to find some rule
about posting too late? I am a new member and I did listen
to this podcast a week ago and found it very interesting.

Pascal Boyer has very similar views too.

I feel for buying the book but I am unsure of if it really tell me
something else than what the podcast did. I’m not a good reader
of much text. So ...

Does any of you recommend his book? He promotes it on
Psychology Today a lot.
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-religion-is-natural-and-science-is-not

Pascal Boyer had a similar title in Skeptical Inquirer many years ago
http://www.csicop.org/si/show/why_is_religion_natural/

Posted on Oct 26, 2012 at 10:11am by FredW Comment #8

I have dyslexia so pardon me if I failed to find some rule
about posting too late? I am a new member and I did listen
to this podcast a week ago and found it very interesting.

Pascal Boyer has very similar views too.

I feel for buying the book but I am unsure of if it really tell me
something else than what the podcast did. I’m not a good reader
of much text. So ...

Does any of you recommend his book? He promotes it on
Psychology Today a lot.
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-religion-is-natural-and-science-is-not

Pascal Boyer had a similar title in Skeptical Inquirer many years ago
http://www.csicop.org/si/show/why_is_religion_natural/

I read McCauley’s book a few months ago and thought it was good, but unless you’re really interested in the topic, I don’t think it’s worth buying.

Posted on Oct 26, 2012 at 11:25pm by mid atlantic Comment #9

I liked listening to the pod cast and read his online texts
so maybe that will do for now. I wait for some breakthrough
of these studies. Can take time. Thanks for telling me.
Much appreciated.

Posted on Oct 27, 2012 at 5:30am by FredW Comment #10