Why is it that essentially across cultures and throughout history
people have believed in supernatural beings? And not just any old supernatural beings, but very
specific sort of narrow band of those. What’s going on there? What is it about the human mind that makes us
really receptive to those? I work primarily in an area called cognitive science of religion. It’s called that because we take insights from the cognitive sciences
to try to better understand religious expression, how people think about gods. How does magic and ritual work?
All kinds of areas of human religious expression. We try to understand, well, how do human minds work? Because for ideas to become widespread enough, to be shared
amongst various people that we would call them religious, there’s got to be some sort of natural anchors in the way minds work
that help explain why it is they keep coming up over and over again. Why are we so attracted to them? And so cognitive science of
religion relies on cross-culturally recurrent patterns that are hard to explain in terms of cultural particulars.
We look at developmental patterns. We use experimental data. We’ll put people in unusual kinds of circumstances and get them
to think. We can rely on neuroscientific data and pathology. So, for instance, when things go wrong. It’s not the case that human minds are just sponges,
they just absorb whatever is in their environment, or they’re not sort of famously called a blank slate. It’s more like a landscape, or an ecosystem, where certain
things are going to grow in certain places, but not others. Certain ideas are going to be easier
for human minds to process than others. Andy Meltzoff has shown that infants selectively attend to human
faces and their environment right after birth. I mean, within hours after birth. They’ve got really lousy visual
acuity, but yet they selectively attend to human faces and can imitate certain kinds of facial expressions. I mean, just
think, they’re doing this before they even know they have a face. But it’s also the case with the naturalness of religious thought.
Children are naturally going to see design and purpose in the world. They are going to assume that that purpose is explicable in terms of
someone has brought it about or they’re going to naturally think that some things are right and some things are wrong. These natural
propensities that undergird religious thought are just part of the ordinary equipment that humans have, regardless of culture.
It doesn’t mean culture doesn’t matter. Culture can provide input, in terms of the particulars of the afterlife
belief, or the god belief, or the creation story, or whatever it is. Human minds are a fertile soil for these plants
that we might call religions. Culture gets to decide which plants are going to grow to a
certain extent, but the plants are going to grow.