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Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Relgion

Barbara Herrnstein Smith
Published by Yale University Press in 2010

“A MAN with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”1 This is how social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter begin their book, When Prophecy Fails. They analyzed the reactions of members of a cult, led by Marian Keech, to the failure of her prediction that the world was going to end on December 21, 1955. Barbara Herrnstein Smith uses this investigation as a springboard for her comparison of two tendencies regarding the relationship between science and religion. Smith argues that religious believers and social scientists may respond to unconfirmed predictions by using cognitive contortions, such as selective perception, confirmation bias and miscalculations of probability, to cling to their beliefs.

Smith adopts the metaphor of a mirror to illustrate two forms of error in relating science and religion. On one side is what she calls “New Naturalism,” represented by theorists who interpret religion exclusively through the mores of evolutionary theory and cognitive science. The other side of the mirror represents the “New Natural Theology,” the attempt to establish compatibility between religious beliefs and current scientific theories.

Smith analyzes three books representing New Naturalism. The first is Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Basic Books, 2001). Smith criticizes Boyer ’s defense of a computational model of the human mind as sufficient to explain all religious phenomena. For Boyer, religion evolved by attribution of personality to imaginary beings as a form of defensive mechanism. His explanation of religion by linear cause-and-effect relationships leads him to conclude that religious rituals are meaningless. Smith refutes this idea by acknowledging rituals as enhancers of social cohesiveness, emotionality, and memory.

The second work within the New Naturalism perspective is Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2002). Atran’s basic thesis is that although religion resulted from natural selection, it also meets psychosocial needs, making it an important cultural feature. Smith commends Atran for his rejection of evolution as the only possible explanatory tool, but she also denounces his contradiction in resorting to innate universals to explain behavioral convergences across cultures. For example, he uses Attachment Theory (for such things as attitudes of children toward parents) to explain the formation of attitudes toward deities. Atran’s ideas depart from other New Naturalist accounts of religion in that he takes into consideration experiential learning, cultural resources, and interactions with current environments.

The third work analyzed more briefly by Smith is Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006). Smith argues that Dennett’s explanation reduces religion to the mere “professing” of beliefs, defined as a way of thinking that rejects empirical verification. Smith reasons that creedal professing is rarely central to any religious system. Additionally, she points out that Dennett himself embraces unverifiable hypotheses, such as the dissemination of beliefs by culturally transmitted “memes.”

Smith states her sympathy for the naturalist mindset, but she also presents a series of objections to New Naturalism. First, automatic and computational models are not the most widely accepted representations of the human mind in contemporary science. Second, the use of linear causal mechanisms as explanations of religion is at best an insufficient approach to account for all the complexity in religious phenomena. Third, the New Naturalists’ revisionist views of history ignore historical dynamics in favor of dogmatic theories. Fourth, their adhesion to evolutionary-cognitive, mechanistic explanations is so rigid that they have no motivation to look for any alternative accounts, and in fact rule out existing options. Their devotion to a rancid notion of “rationalism” stifles their ability to understand religion from any perspective beyond their own. Fifth, the large variety of New Naturalistic accounts and their divergent conclusions about religion suggest a lack of methodological reliability. Sixth, considering all possible approaches to religion, the New Naturalist perspective overlooks a long theoretical tradition that emphasized the “systemic, dynamic, and interactive”(87) attributes of religion. Finally, it is difficult to define both religion and belief. For example, not all imaginary beings or forces are necessarily religious (such as superman). Conversely, scientists resort to mechanisms similar to religious concept formation in developing constructs, such as “selfish genes” and “natural selection.” Smith concludes her critique of New Naturalism by stating that religious beliefs are ubiquitous, not because our survival depends on them, but because we respond to religion the same way we respond to any social-cognitive phenomenon.

Shifting to the opposite side of the mirror metaphor, Smith defines the New Natural Theology as “making a series of complex, somewhat paradoxical ideas credible through a skillful use of language” (97). Smith comments on three books as representatives of this effort: John Polkinghorne’s Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (Yale University Press, 2005), Arthur Peacocke’s Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming—Natural, Devine, and Human (Fortress Press, 1993) and John Haught’s Deeper than Darwin: The Prospect for Religion in the Age of Evolution (Westview Press, 2003). According to Smith, these authors accept contemporary accounts of nature while searching for supernatural influences that may give them transcendent meaning. They also tend to focus on phenomena that are unexplained by present data, and resort to ex post facto theological explanations where they can find room for theistic interpretations.

Smith identifies several problems with New Natural Theology theorists. First, these authors use vague language in a combination of philosophical imperatives and archaic theological language, stating merely circular ideas. Second, they subscribe to the concept that “deeper” ideas have a more desirable truth rank, a problem shared with evolutionary psychologists. Third, they use over simplifications to portray Darwinian explanations of religion as reductive. Finally, they emphasize self-refuting arguments in order to demonstrate the naturalists’ inconsistencies.

Smith further discusses the polarization in the understanding of religion. She identifies science and religion as two disconnected realms neither duly established nor stable through time. The two realms cannot be integrated. Those defending traditional views, either scientific or religious, tend to consider dispassionate explanations of the origins of their ideas as personal attacks, and try to discredit these explications by emphasizing their inconsistencies. They often resort to the tu quoque argument: if faith in God can be explained as a consequence of evolution, faith in science can as well be a derivative of evolutionary processes. This polarized debate is characterized by misquotations, misrepresentations, and omissions. On the side of New Naturalism, polarization is fed by the belief that only the methods of thenatural sciences are truly scientific. A large number of scientists, however, argue that research involving human phenomena must include methods of the human sciences. From this perspective, evolutionary and cognitive presuppositions may be honestly questioned from a scientific approach that rejects a deterministic-mechanistic view of humanity.

The polarization of the mirror metaphor, Smith concludes, is asymmetrical. This inequality comes partially from the natural scientists’ exceptionalism, which considers “everything subject to scientific explanation except science” (146). However, theologians and scientists studying religion operate under the same cognitive rules and weaknesses. Even though Western natural science is better at predicting and explaining natural phenomena than are religious beliefs, it is not the only meaningful way of obtaining authentic knowledge.

Smith’s writing style includes the use of many parenthetical qualifiers, making the reading very cumbersome. She would do better to separate supplemental information into clearly stated, independent sentences.

In terms of content, Smith’s arguments are not always well founded. First, the assumption that cognitive processes involved in scientific hypothesizing are equivalent to those of cultic prophesying is not justifiable. Attitudes about scientific hypotheses, even when irrational, typically differ from attitudes toward religious prophecies in important ways. Second, Smith’s concept of human belief as “more or less continuously shifting” (14) can be questioned by those who hold to any concept more precise than this one. Third, Smith does not comment on the implications of the New Naturalist view of religiousness as a constitutional trait for conversion, which would be a relevant topic for a phenomenological understanding of religion. Fourth, the view of science and religion as two unmixable perspectives does not seem coherent with a phenomenological perspective.

On a positive note, Smith repeatedly raises the important question of the dehumanization of scientific accounts of human beliefs. It is not possible to understand human spirituality by using exclusively methods and assumptions borrowed from the natural sciences. Smith also appropriately denounces the contradictory dogmatism of natural scientists who claim to subscribe to falsifiable theorizing. These ideas are sufficient to make Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion a valuable work worth reading.

Cite this article
Sérgio P. da Silva, “Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 220-223


  1. Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (New York: Harper and Row,1956), 3.

Sérgio P. da Silva

Calvin University
Sérgio P. da Silva, Psychology, Calvin College