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Brains tooled for religion

09 October 2015

Peter Forster looks at cautious findings in a new field of research

The Roots of Religion
Roger Trigg and Justin L. Barrett, editors
Ashgate £60
Church Times Bookshop £54 (Use code CT907)


THIS collection explores the developing field of the cognitive science of religion (CSR), and to a lesser degree the evolutionary study of religion (ESR).

Recent advances in neuroscience have demonstrated that human behaviour is significantly rooted in the physical character of the brain, and CSR applies this to the religious instincts of humankind. Whatever the precise basis of human life in some combination of nature and nurture, it appears from empirical study that the human mind is intrinsically inclined in certain directions — among them, to a religious disposition.

Sociologists have tended to regard religious belief as a social phenomenon, and, therefore, varying very widely across human societies. CSR suggests that, while there is a considerable variety of religious expression from one culture or religion to another, the recognisably similar patterns of religious belief point to a universal human disposition towards religious belief, reflecting a common human nature.

A particularly good chapter by the Oxford philosopher T. J. Mawson examines whether the CSR better supports the view that God has created us with an inclination towards belief in him, or the view that our brains have "made God" for themselves, to satisfy human longings. Mawson argues that, from a strictly philosophical perspective, both are entirely possible; it all depends on where you are starting from. But, given the militant declarations of some well-known atheists, this calm semi-spiking of their guns is a helpful contribution to current cultural debates.

In an elegant final chapter, Roger Trigg argues that, just as the natural sciences presuppose and reveal the constancy and rationality of the physical world, so CSR has begun to reveal a common human nature, which underlies the diverse expression of different religions.

There is an analogy with language. No child is hard-wired to speak English, but the capability to develop human language is rooted biologically in human nature.

From a specifically Christian perspective, the analysis that is emerging from the CSR might be seen to demonstrate that, for a specific revelation of God to be received, human beings need the tools with which to recognise it. Human hearts and minds are not a "blank slate", but are restless until they find their rest in God, as St Augustine famously wrote.

In an age that too readily confines religious belief to a purely subjective world, CSR seeks to demonstrate the objective, biological infrastructure of the human religious instinct. It is in its infancy, but anyone wishing to discover more about this new approach to human religiosity should read this suggestive book.


Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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