Connor Wood summarizes the thesis of Robert McCauley’s book Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.
McCauley believes that maturationally natural systems get at the core difference between science and religion – religion relies on them, while science shuns them. Since our minds find it easier to see the world in terms of persons and goals, religions often construe the world as being goal-oriented and animate. Meanwhile, science challenges our basic, gut-level assumptions by insisting that the world is not filled with personality and agency, that nature is not goal-oriented. Because this mechanistic view of nature goes against our basic cognitive predispositions, it takes effort to achieve it. Science, in other words, is hard. And religion is just what comes naturally.
Wood counters with ideas from Tanya Luhrmann that religion isn’t necessarily so easy and intuitive; “that modern American evangelical Christians work very, very hard to develop their spiritual senses – that prayer is work, in other words.”
McCauley is almost certainly right that the human brain finds it easier to think in terms of personality and agency than in terms of mechanical causation. We’re prone to making predictable cognitive errors – something Francis Bacon already pointed out in the 17th century – and one of them is to see creatures where none exist. But it’s not obvious that this tendency toward cognitive error explains everything about religion, or even most of it. Despite the fact that religiosity is apparently correlated with agential (that is, social) thinking, and that people with social-cognitive deficits, such as those on the autism spectrum, tend to be less religious than average, religion clearly does require significant work. After all, McCauley’s argument isn’t that religion is a social thing and science isn’t (although that would be an interesting book); it’s that religion rides our basic cognitive predispositions, whereas science counters them. If it takes serious effort to learn how to be religious, how to coax the brain into producing spiritual experiences, then McCauley’s argument may need some rethinking of its own.
Wood seems to think that McCauley’s thesis is more or less on target, though perhaps needing a more nuanced take on faith. I have McCauley’s book and will get to it eventually.