Faith and Cognitive Science of Religion

Beginning with an emotionally charged narrative of religion, this episode turns to Myron Penner, a professor of philosophy, and Brad Jarvis, our host. Their conversation ranges across faith and science, exploring the ways that cognitive science informs religious experience. Now that science has “found out” religion, is faith undercut? Or does religious experience transcend the observations of science?

Just a quick note before we get started: we’re about to share the reflections of a queer person’s traumatic experience in an Evangelical worship service, a recounting which also mentions drug use. If you’d rather not hear that, we invite you to skip ahead to the six-and-a-half minute marker. Thanks.

Episode 001

  • Title
  • Guest
    Myron A. Penner
  • Date
    November 6, 2020
  • Category
Podcast Team

Sophia Ducey, Brad Jarvis, Stephen Bau

Season 1 — Episode 001

An Interior Reflection

A Religious Experience


Unfortunately, I just looked at my search history. When I was sitting in bed late last night—high—I asked Google about the end of the universe.

Somewhere along the rabbit-trail, it appears that I wondered how long it would take for the heat death of the universe to transpire. A fair few years, it turns out. Somewhere around 10100. Dreadfully interested in etymology, I looked up what that number is called. A googol, apparently.

Surely, my high self took this to mean that Google is intending to usher in the closure of the universe (which we ought not to rule out at this juncture.) But this, the second law of thermodynamics extended ad nauseum, captures my attention. This end is found in all the chaotic masses of matter that we experience isolated across the universe until no atom touches another. It sounds rather undignified, this petering-out death, like the never-ending bald-patch of all that is.

But luckily the end of the universe will not be like that. There exists a god who loves us, after all.

Have you ever been hugged flesh-tight? Face pressed into a rapidly stifling chest, ears flattened by arms, legs tangled with the other’s like Chestnut roots, hair grasped by its own roots in—someone’s—strong fingers. Your senses end with another’s being. Is this your lover? If they fail to let go, it hardly matters. If you are not seized with hyperventilation, you will be, soon.

Music was spreading, a moon-pulled-sea. Flooding the room with half-hearted bass-notes, it was hardly inspiring. Regardless, in the repetition, I think people found emotion. I finally realized that I could open my eyes. Looking around, I saw the gentle, wet faces of lovers, gazing up to their beloved.

Perhaps they were just trying to read lyrics, so as not to fail at the communal-karaoke at hand. Nevertheless, my eyes tried to join in with some tears of their own, but it was impossible. I was stifled against the totalizing flesh of the lover, grasping me in this, his temple. Instead, the sea of my eyes sank back from my perception. Awash in horror; my body was reifying external terror with internal suppression. The water filtered down, filling my lungs slowly. Ineffably. The repressed oceans in my eyes had flooded to the place of least resistance.

That’s when hyperventilation stops.

That’s when drowning starts.

The collapse of my being gathered in my constricted throat. Final erasure spread from lungs to toes who tapped despite themselves, to the repetitive pound of kick-drum waves. This death is not the scattering of ashes that I once saw on a Vietnamese beach, rarified across ocean currents. Nor it is universal heat-death. Rather, this is a deep-sea crush. The light—my light—could no longer escape. No longer?

Could it ever?  

But everyone around me was swaying on their feet, wet smiles slathered across their faces. Evidently, their tears were able to escape. They were free.

But wait. Why then did they stay here? Perhaps it’s because their tears were not terror-stricken. They loved him. So why does the furthest reach of my being scream? Why can’t I love him? It must just be the rebellion of my flesh.

“Quiet now,” I whispered to myself, “soon even that far-flung reach will be His” (it seems, indeed, that His control extends even to grammar.)

My universe has been swallowed. What then can remain? Wrapped in rapture, my arms flail until it feels like they might rupture. Well, my arms think they are flailing. But they are no longer mine. They are, in fact, His. And He folds them on His lap.

                     Where they shake,

                                             ever so slightly.

                                                                     Ever so        silently.

I claw my way up to my—His—feet and apologetically scoot down the aisle. His wet eyes look back at me from the chic frames of worshippers. He is everywhere I look. I can’t escape Him. Soon I—He—will be vomiting into a toilet, wondering where the deadness in His soul comes from. He won’t answer. Then He will drag my—slightly, silently—rebelling frame back. Worship is only half done.

“My god is an awesome god…”

Fast-forward a googol years, give or take a few. Heat may be dead, but the word “cold” fails to understand the experience. “It,” indeed, fails to capture the ontological end at hand. 

Positive entropy has been carried to its beyond-cold conclusion. As if “conclusion” can be attributed to a pathetic closure like this. Like a cheap sentence forever unfinished, this universe of ever-rarified being leaves us with an obnoxious ellipsis, no less than the stultifying black hole of a god’s entrapment, declared in a song. It turns out that God’s death is just as totalizing as God’s embrace.

How absurd.

Brad: Wow, that is a powerful story. And I don’t know if there’s a better illustration out there of how faith means different things to different people. 

Sophia: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just like, I found that as we’ve started to gather and have these shift conversations, there’s so many stories that are poignant–that felt sense of faith or disbelief, you know, that that rejection of or rejected by that comes up as we explore “what is faith?” “What is religion?” It’s been extraordinary to me to share in the journeys with so many.

Brad: So let’s just give some context. My name is Brad, I’m the host here at the Shift podcast. And the producer, if we are using formal titles, is Sophia. And Sophia, welcome here. It’s been a journey to get us to this place. And I think about all the conversations on all the plans we’ve considered and pondered, and how we face down a whole bunch of different challenges. But we’re finally here. This is episode one.

Sophia: Yeah, here we are. I can’t believe we finally got here. We were just contemplating like, “when did we start this?” “When did this conversations begin to happen?” And it really took a life of its own, it really came to us through us went sideways and back around again. Just like the conversations about faith and religion and testing and questioning our beliefs about so many parts of life and what meaning we place on those

Brad: Right. Our guest today for the interview portion of the podcast is Myron Penner. I think he’s done a remarkable job of processing that. We’re really grateful to have his thoughts injected in this. But just before we go into that, we just wanted to alert our listeners that we can be found on shift That’s our website address. And because shift is such a generic name, a lot of the different domains were taken, but we can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and on Facebook as shift podcast ca. That’s our handle on each of those. So you’re welcome to come and interact with us there and find further thoughts of ours. And just before we launch that, I wanted to explain where the “Shift” name came from. Do you want to explain how that arose for you, Sophia?

Sophia: We began to gather and be in conversation with so many people who were at a phase in their lives where what they believed as a child, what they knew to be true, what they valued, was shifting greatly. Like it seemed like everything, that was the House of Cards upon which they built, their life was falling down. Or they were knocking it down because things were happening in their lives that they realized that house no longer represented who and what they were. And so from that we said “what’s the common denominator of all of these people?” And it really was “shift.”

Brad: And so we’re talking like the whole concept of shift arose from this awareness of a simultaneous deconstruction where we can question things and process and investigate what our underlying assumptions have been both internally, culturally relationally, however, that works. But also, there’s an element of simultaneous reconstruction, which is something that we’re investing in. It’s not just tearing things down and asking questions to try and show deficiencies and things. But it’s so that we can build something more resilient and stronger for ourselves and in our midst. And so that’s, that’s kind of a privilege for me to be a part of that whole journey and to add my energy and thought into that, but I’ve been so grateful for having you kind of steering the ship and bringing your enthusiasm and your style of leadership to the team that we’ve assembled. We have such a good team. When I think about the the people around this, who are supporting this initiative and adding their skills and talents to it. I’m humbled.

A Conversation

Myron Penner on the Cognitive Science of Religion

And now we get to launch this first episode. And here’s Myron Penner with the Cognitive Science of Religion.

Well, it’s my pleasure to be here with Dr. Myron A Penner. And today we’re going to be talking about the cognitive science of religion, or as we will abbreviate it, CSR. But before we get into that, can I get you to introduce yourself and sort of give people a snapshot of who you are?

Myron: Sure, well, let me first off, say, it’s great to have this opportunity to talk with you about cognitive science of religion and some applications to the life of faith. As you said, I’m Myron Penner, I’m a professor of philosophy here at Trinity Western University. I’m starting my 16th year here at Trinity, and I teach in the philosophy department, and my areas that I work and teach in here are in just kind of basic introduction to philosophy, critical thinking, that kind of thing, as well as some specific topics in philosophy of religion, and the way in which science kind of interacts with religion.

Brad: Yeah, and I’ve, I’ve heard you address some of the stuff that we’re going to be talking today. And I think it’s just so meaningful, it’s so on point for where we are as a culture, as a society and some of the issues that we’re wrestling with. So cognitive science of religion, I think, cognitive, like dealing with the brain, that’s pretty obvious. And science, we understand the scientific process. But I wonder if I could get you to take a crack at defining religion for us? 

Myron: Sure. Well, like any good academic, the first thing I’m going to do is just punt. And say, so religion is one of those concepts that even though there are many academic disciplines that study religion, defining religion in a term that’s going to in a way that’s going to satisfy everybody, is really hard to do. Because there are features of practices that certainly seem religious, that when you try and identify: “Well, in virtue of what is this particular practice part of a religion?” It seems like we can apply that to all sorts of other areas, too. And so then the boundaries between what counts as a religion and what doesn’t count as a religion becomes kind of porous. And so when it comes to these scientific approaches to the study of religion, a lot of the scholars doing some of the psychological research, they don’t even go there in terms of defining religion, because it doesn’t really actually, they don’t need to do that in order to do their work. Instead, what they’ll do is they’ll look at a specific behavior, or practice or belief that is centrally part of a recognizable religion. And then they’ll study that and see “what does that tell us about the life of the mind that is operative at sustaining that practice?” 

Brad: Right. So I think right off the hop, it’s important for us to recognize that we’re working from some implicit and intuitive definitions that aren’t that crystallized there, they’re not that that clear, or necessarily that cohesive. But I think it’s also important for us to, explain to our listeners that we’re not coming from an outside perspective, this isn’t, you know, a critique from the outside. We would both define ourselves as religious in some capacity. So there’s something about it that’s drawing us in personally, and so we’re seeing it from the inside. 

Myron: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. And often when people hear science and religion, right, even listeners so far, they might already starting to be thinking about the way in which they’ve been told or maybe experienced a conflict between science and religion, where they’ve kind of been, you know, exposed to certain ideas within their own kind of religious practice and have been told that that conflicts with science or maybe they’ve come to the religious life through a different means, and they’ve been exposed to some kind of conflict. That’s not kind of the paradigm that we’re operating with now. And the interesting thing about CSR is that you’ve got a recognition among scientists, right? Social scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, that religion is extremely important in human life and experience and has always been, as long as there have been homosapiens. They there has been expressions of life that are that can be deemed religious. And so in recognition of just the importance, and some might argue even the centrality of religion in the human experience, they thought, well, this needs to be studied and understood. And so that’s kind of the mindset. And I think, actually, it’s, it’s helpful in a way, because it gets us away from thinking that science and religion have to be in conflict. In fact, you can use the very good methods of science that have been developed to study the religious life and to see what we can learn. And so regardless of whether you’re a person who is a participant in a religion or not, there is something there to see. But for those people, for whom, practically, you know, being a participant in a religious community, is a central part of their life, or is a significant part of their life, it’s interesting to kind of see, well, what what can we take away from this area of study that could be helpful for us to understand even our own lives?

Brad: Yeah. And what’s interesting, too, like you mentioned, the centrality of that. I think, what I’m seeing is a whole bunch of people in, flux on how important how central that’s been, where they grew up, and it was very central, it was very central to their, childhood experience. And now, you know, they’re approaching a level where they’re making their own choices, and there’s a level of development that’s happening, and that the centrality is not, it doesn’t feel as urgent or as important. And I think this is an important conversation, even for that dynamic too, to sort of process in that is important, and what are the earmarks, that have been meaningfully connective? And when we’ll get into some of the ways that they’ve been meaningfully disconnected to, which I’m excited to talk about. 

Myron: For sure. And I think like I run into people all the time, between the ages of 18 and 65. For Whom the adults Yeah, well, a few borderline cases regardless of the age, but be that as it may. I run into people all the time for whom the deposit of faith that they were given, or the categories for interpreting God and the good life and everything in between heaven and earth, and everything in between, don’t seem to be working for them anymore. And this happens to adults at different stages of lifespan. But this can be disorienting no matter what stage you’re at, when this undergoes when you undergo this, this kind of change. And what I’ve found in conversations with people who are experiencing this kinds of kind of transition were things that they would have just, you know, literally died for, they are starting to wonder whether they’re even true and more than more than whether they’re even true, they’re wondering, as they look at their own lives, what kind of damage that they experienced as a result of this, this kind of theological heritage that they’ve been had been given. What I’ve found is that discussion about the scientific study, talking about results from the scientific study of religion is very helpful to them, actually, because it gives them some tools and categories to understand both where they have come from, but also where they might journey towards. And so it’s, it’s been an interesting place just to be.

Brad: That’s such a critical aspect for this. Because it seems like there’s that polar possibility that’s presented, either you buy on the whole way. And like you said, you’d actually die for certain beliefs or you just abandon the entire thing. There isn’t a comfortable middle ground that people find in that. And I think what we’re talking about is finding that middle ground and being comfortable in the discomfort of it. And I think if we can build a community that is willing to roll with that and work with each other’s journeys, where they’re at, I think that’s a hugely robust community that I’m interested in being a part of and and contributing to, and I’m not so much interested in contributing to one that just perpetuates habit and routine and unthinking systems that have been, as you say, damaging to people but also, as I think about my history, some of the stuff I get hung up on is “how much am I perpetuating stuff that’s been damaging to others unknowingly?” Right? And, and that’s the stuff that kind of keeps me up at night like, What do I have to own for my own history? We’re starting to get into something I want to help, I want your help to, to identify and unpack when you’re talking about cognitive science, one of the quick and easy ways that you sort of categorize cognition is in system one and system two level thinking, can you clarify those two?

Myron: Sure. Let me just take a crack at doing it this way. In the 50s, and 60s, psychologists, and psychology as a discipline underwent what’s called the cognitive revolution. And this was the experience that psychologists had of recognizing that as a species, it seems like we are coming into the world, inclined to think a certain way, believe certain things, have a certain set of tools that help us kind of navigate the world. And so it was a move away from the idea that the mind is a blank slate, and that culture just gives us everything that we think is true about the world. A key insight from the cognitive revolution was in many key areas that it goes actually the other way, where we’d find some things very easy to believe in terms of cognitive architecture, the tools that we have to process our experience mentally. And so then, coming out of that, that, you know, that insight got apply to lots of different areas and study. Scientists who study species level cognition, right, these these kind of mental tools that we have simply in virtue of being human. a psychologist, Harvard psychologist, Nobel Prize winner by the name of Daniel Kahneman, he and his team, they pioneered this language of system one and system two. And the book that lots of people have read here is called Thinking Fast and Slow. And just the basic idea is that we’ve got a whole set of cognitive processes that operates super quick, very fast, they are primed to give us quick outputs about our environment based on very quick, very minimal stimuli. And that does a lot of work for us mentally. But in addition to those quick and automatic system one kind of tools, we also have a set of mental tools that enable us to use kind of a slower reflective state way evidence, deliberate, act more slowly, and some might say a different type of slow reflective rationality, we have that capability as well. And we should, you know, not think of hard and fast boundaries between system one and system two, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. And certainly, oftentimes, when system two gets engaged, we’re just reading off what our intuitions for system one have told us anyway. And, and they can influence one to one another, you can through slow and slower and reflective practices actually train your intuitions to see the world a certain way. And so it’s not a hard and fast boundary between these two types of processes. But, but that’s kind of one backdrop to the cognitive science of religion, because what scientists who have studied religion from a cognitive perspective have discovered through all sorts of interesting research and experiments that they’ve done across lifespan and across cultures, is that the cognitive tools that drive religious beliefs, practices and behaviors are primarily system one. And so we’ve got a suite of mental tools that, from an evolutionary perspective, have evolved for very specific purposes. And when you put these tools in one toolbox, it makes it very easy to believe in gods, it makes it very easy to believe in supernatural agents. It makes it very easy for ritual practices that are part of religion to bind groups together and all sorts of interesting things. And so that’s kind of the CSR in a nutshell, its trying to understand what what cognitive tools are specifically important for beliefs and practices and behaviors that are part of the religious life.

Brad: Right. So I appreciate that you’ve defined system one and system two. And then you’ve also done the hard work of blurring those lines. It’s really easy to make the categorization right? We’ve got these these two types of thinking. But I think it’s also really important for where we’re at to blur those lines. And to explain that they feed each other there’s a two way street between the two. But if we start to reflect on how system one has worked in religious life, maybe you can give some examples as as to how you’ve seen that or or some of the trends that are visible in that just to sort of make it concrete for people.

Myron: Sure. So, researchers tend to kind of identify a number of system one type mental tools that have been significant for the religious life. So for example, we come into the world primed to engage phases, to read mental states, and infants hours from the womb, will start to mimic faces that they see. And the capacity to, you know, be in a room full of people. And where you can kind of see that some person is angry, and some person is hitting on that other person and some person is walking towards you, because it looks like they want to ask you something, right?

This is stuff that I mean, we can certainly enhance these abilities. But we come into the world primed to read mental states off of other faces, and act in accordingly. There’s interesting research to show that if you’re in a room, and I mean–psychologists are very devious people, let me just put that out there–but where, you know, if you if you give people the opportunity to cheat in some way, but you have posters with eyes on them, they tend to act more honestly, right? Because there’s even just that you ask them Is there anybody else in the room? They’ll say, No, but system one kicks in and they see a face and it just prime’s certain things where you feel like you’re being watched, right. And so, so that’s kind of one example of system one being relevant for the religious life. And, but I can even say other things like agency detection. We hear noises of a certain sort, and we just automatically assume that there’s something responsible for it. So right, you know, we’re in a room right now. But if you heard like, a rustling of some sort, like a, like a, “ch-ch-ch-ch,” you’d think, “oh, there’s some kind of animal” it’s like, you don’t slow down, you don’t think, you know, weigh evidence, you don’t necessarily form an argument to the conclusion that there’s some kind of furry creature running around, it just happens, right? And so the capacity that we have to automatically attribute certain events as the product of agency is part of our mental architecture.

Brad: So filmmakers are as devious as psychologists. 

Myron: I know exactly, exactly. Oh, and they can, it’s so true. I mean, priming all sorts of things in our environment to engage these intuitions that we have. Another one is the very natural way that we have to attribute certain things to, to explain things in terms of purpose and design. There’s some well known studies, where they asked children cross culturally, you know, questions like, “Well, why are the rocks so pointy?” right, and that the children will just automatically say, well, “so that the animals don’t sit on them,” or they’ll give some kind of explanation in terms of design and purpose. And it seems like we have this– It’s, it’s easier for us to explain to jump to shortcuts that explain things in terms of design and purpose, because it kind of fits a coherent narrative.

And interestingly, when this research is, is extended, to communities of people for whom they are expressively, atheist or agnostic, not religious in any kind of reflective way, when you when put in experimental situations, where they’re, in real time having to do lots of different tasks at under cognitive load is the term, they will tend to default to explanations that involve purpose and design. And that suggests to researchers that even when system two is telling you that there’s no purpose or design, when you’re under a cognitive kind of effort, you default to what’s easy and natural. And that’s what system one is telling you and you default to explanations of certain things in terms of purpose. So, so you put these together: agency detection, the ability to read mental states, and to attribute things in terms of design and purpose, you put those tools in the same box, and it seems to be very natural, then, that creatures that have those mental tools will interpret their own lives and experiences in some kind of religious context. And so that’s, kind of a gist of some of the major features of this cognitive approach to the study of religion. And of course, you know, there’s all sorts of interesting things that are that are being studied from the way in which not only species or populations evolve as biological organisms, but also societies and cultures, and what kind of ideas are the ones that are going to contribute to human flourishing, and which ones are most successful? And how does that factor into religion too, so there’s a whole rich field of study. And University of British Columbia right here in BC is one of the best places in the world for scientific approaches to the study of religions and [there are] very, very prominent people that are there working and lots of students that study These things. 

Brad: Cool. Well, I’ll put that in the show notes. 

Yeah, there’s so much thinking about this and development of ideas. And they’re breaking our defaults in some ways, where we’re starting to analyze things that we just assumed were true because of how we grew up, how we were instructed, what we learned, or what we experienced. And we didn’t even know their options. And now we’re discovering that there are and and that’s, that’s destabilizing.

What does science tell us about faith? 

Myron: Well, what science tells us about religious faith in the experience of religion is that it’s roughly—more than roughly—in measurable ways. The same set of mental tools that are brought to the religious life are utilized in whatever denomination you’re a part of, within the Christian family, whether you’re Baptist or Pentecostal, or like me, Mennonite Brethren, the way in which you navigate the religious life is using the same kind of, cognitive architecture. But it also tells us that that’s true of other religions as well, whether you know, it’s Islam or Hinduism, and Buddhism–doesn’t matter, you name the the list of comparative religions that you found today, or also throughout history. It’s the same minds that we bring to the world of experience and the same mental tools that are activated in particular ways to attribute certain things as the result of supernatural agents, or as the product of our ability to read mental states are to infer things in terms of design and purpose. Of course, it gets tuned differently throughout different factors that are a part of that. But it’s interesting to, for example, you know–once once you kind of have the language and of, you know, these different kind of mental tools to look for example, at, you know, the experience of, religion as presented in Hebrew Bible, for example, or in the pages of the New Testament, and there’s lots of different kind of cognitive explanations that can be given for what is experienced and what comes across the page. Now, some people might think, “Well, does that mean that there’s nothing to it?” And I don’t certainly don’t think that that’s true. But it is interesting–it’s not like we’ve explained religion away, just by pointing out that there’s a common kind of cognitive architecture here. But it does, I think, it has raised some interesting questions about what it means to to be an image bearer and to be someone who is inclined towards thinking that, you know, that there is something beyond this world. 

Brad: Right? So like, our defaults are that God has a certain character, for example, or God operates a certain way. I mean, on a level, a different level of reality operates a certain way, right? And then you’re tinkering with the foundational blocks of understanding when you start to ask some of these deeper questions. And that is destabilizing stuff.

The fascinating questions that you’re referring to there; the important questions that I think we each need to deal with, I think we all have the opportunity, but also the kind of imperative to wrestle with this stuff, and to dig into this stuff. But the default perspectives that we have that we’re starting to challenge individually, and not just like corporately, but across huge swaths of society, are right into this, like, “How does God operate with our minds?” “Is faith all in our heads?” “Is it all just kind of a self convincing?” Is it? Is it some kind of reinforcing confirmation bias? Is that all faith is or? Or is there, I liked what Krista Tippett said about faith. She, about God, God is the reality behind the reality. And I think that, kind of pushes into this to where we can understand some things. But there’s a level to that, that we can’t understand. And we’re not there yet. And so it would be an interpretation of this to say that science explains it all the way. Like it, just it just brushes it off. All of my defaults are gone. And I just abolish the entire thing. But that doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t ring true there. There’s too much–like you’re saying–there’s too many interconnections, there’s too much resonance in this for it to just all be wrong.

And so where and how do we find a place to even wrestle with some of that stuff where there are very limited avenues. I’ve grown up in multiple denominations of Christianity. So different sects and formulations, all founded in the same. There’s similarities in the statements of faith. And at a certain level, we would say, “Yes, we all agree,” but there’s a lot of division and even hostility that still permeates between some of those differences. And when I look at it as a sum total, it’s, tempting to say “they’ve all got a wrong, like, collectively, and they’ve all made their definitions of what they are in opposition to who somebody else is, as opposed to positively they’re looking at it negatively.” And, and then what we’re not like those people, so we know who we are, right? In a similar way, you know, the constant joke: Canada knows what Canada is, because we’re not Americans. But there’s more, there’s got to be more to definition, there’s got to be more to understanding of who we are in a positive sense. And I think that’s what you’re getting at–that there is something there that we can, we can explore and tease out and understand. And it is bigger than that. It does jostle some of our defaults, but it doesn’t mean we have to get rid of it all. That’s a short circuit in and of itself. Right?

Myron: Yeah. And I think your question earlier about what science can teach us about faith. And I think that, on this kind of model, of trying to study and understand religious beliefs and behaviors, when one key takeaway is that religion is and and faith is universal, in that, it’s found in all times and places, and it’s, and it’s, you know, there is there is a certain kind of, perspective in certain times and places, particularly in western kinds of liberal societies, that well, if we just educate people enough, we’ll just kind of eradicate religion and magical thinking and everything that goes a part of the religious life, because people once people, you know, will have science or they’ll have enough kind of tools at their disposal, they can, they can get away from from that. But what, what, what cognitive science helps us see is that it’s extremely difficult to eradicate religion, simply in virtue of the fact that when we come into the world, we have a set of tools that is just going to really incline us towards the religious life, right. And, as research has shown, system two is reflected in atheists and agnostics. We default to what our kind of intuitions are telling us about the world. There’s interesting research here to to show that in, societies where religiosity is quite low, where you have extreme, you know, downward trends over the last decades in participation in, in organized religion, you have an almost inversely proportional upward trend in terms of belief in non traditional supernatural agents like UFOs, the healing power of crystals, elves, those kinds of things. And what that seems to suggest to researchers is that, again, whether it’s organized religion or other non traditional kind of supernatural agency, it’s hard to kind of get rid of our inclination to interpret our world in these ways. And so that’s just kind of an interesting fact. And and so then it kind of raises the question to say, Well, if religion isn’t going anywhere, and you know, in what, what is that? What does that tell us for how we should live in the world?  

Brad: Yeah, I think to articulate the destabilization of getting rid of defaults. The question that I have is, do I only believe the ways I do because of what I’ve encountered? And that’s the cognition like, the tools that I’ve got interacting with the reality that I’ve experienced is, is that the only reason that I have faith and that’s why it becomes destabilizing, I think what you’re pointing out is that there’s something bigger that we’re tuning into. And I think we have to be mindfully deciding what that is.

Myron: Yeah. And I think what it does as well,, is it helps us see that just because a particular religion or a particular congregation is successful, that doesn’t mean that it’s true. And by successful we’re talking like numerically successful, right? Because one thing that seems clear from this kind of trajectory of research is that religion is very good at at helping identify who’s on your team, right? There’s lots of ways in which religion can kind of use these cognitive tools to help us identify who is like me in a way that I can trust them. And it’s and it’s good at identifying people in your community, who are, you know, freeloaders, people who want the benefits of community, but don’t necessarily want to invest. If you are in church with them, enough time, they will be identified. And, either, in really robust, and like numerically thriving religious communities, they will be sufficiently shamed and ostracized, so that it’s you just have the true believers left. And so that’s the other side of it.

Brad: So that’s the other side of it. It’s not wrong. Or it’s not inherently right, because it’s popular, but it’s also not inherently right because it’s unpopular. And, and that’s where there’s another angle to that religion thing of where we’re the only ones who have got it. So as long as you hunker down with us, you’re good.  And that’s another mindset that becomes tricky. In this right, it defaults to that system when thinking we belong. And we have to process all the stimuli that are available, you just kind of decide, right?

Myron: Yeah, no, I think I think that’s right.

Brad: And so working from that perspective, I think it’s important for us then to, to push out again, and, and so we understand the process of religion, helping us to connect with each other and decide who or figure out who’s on our team. There’s also this angle: that it helps us to decide who’s not on our team. And and then we can make simple decisions about what those people look like, or what is something that’s attributed to them. And how does that work at work itself out in CSR too? What does CSR say about that angle to it? Where we’re looking at the exclusion-exclusionary aspects of a — ?

Myron: Well, I think, what it does is it helps us kind of understand these practices. And it gives us the space to ask this question. This feels right to other people in a certain way, it feels kind of natural and maybe it makes you feel good, within the confines of your own religion, to demonize a certain group or to other people in ways that make this kind of boundary really clear; about who’s in and who’s out. It gives space to ask this question: am I feeling good about that practice? Because it’s actually part of authentic faith? Or am I feeling good about that practice, because it’s my kind of cognitive inclinations, right? And so, and that kind of cautionary tale, I think, is told over and over again, about different aspects of the religious life, just because something feels good within a religion, or it gives us maybe a degree of confidence or certainty that we’re on the right path, and that we are landing at the center of God’s will.

Is that sense of, product of, authentic and God honoring of faith? Or is it a product of the fact that “man, it  feels so good, just because it fits my it’s taking a lot of cognitive boxes, and it’s really, it’s really scratching those itches.” I think another area too, is the different church cultures, if we want to talk about that, incline us towards different, biases, I think, for example, certain traditions are very quick to navigate every aspect of of daily life in terms of God’s plan and God’s purpose. And it certainly, as we said earlier, with system two, you can kind of train system one in, you know, in that in certain ways. But, just because something, obviously seems like it’s the product of design– Once we kind of understand that, we’re kind of primed to see design everywhere. And it’s not just Christians, for example, that think of things in terms of design. It’s not even just in a religious context that we see things in terms of design, but we have this kind of purpose-driven cognition in a certain way. I think it raises a good question to say, “Hmm, am I seeing evidence of design in this particular case?” Because it is a product of how God has orchestrated things specifically for that moment, for that purpose? Or am I seeing design just because system one is kicking in and it’s quick and easy, and it helps me tell a story that explains things to me right?

Brad: I heard a story by an atheist, almost a parable, right? Of two ships are sailing and one hits something and sinks and the other one sails safely, onto a destination, and the people on the safe boat say, Well, God saved us. And it’s like, well, what does that say about what God actively did with the other ship?

Myron: So yeah, but but but here’s the thing. So I think the, for me that the takeaway from the science here is twofold. One is to say, Well, you know, simply simply because people have very understandably, you know, maybe seen are grateful and, and see their own, trying to make sense of why they survived and why they didn’t in terms of some kind of divine plan, that that, you know, doesn’t mean that it was part of any overarching plan. However, at the same time, understanding just a little bit more about the the strong kind of cognitive push to towards those kinds of explanations makes it makes them more natural as to why they would do that. And, you know, you can understand there’s lots of, of cognitive momentum to try and fill out the story in terms of meaning and purpose and plan, right? And so it makes it more understandable in some way… even if it doesn’t make it more likely to be true.

Brad: Yeah, exactly. And when I heard that, as a, I’m going to call it a parable, from an atheist that was really–it was convicting to me–I realized that my I’m seeing myself in the mirror, I don’t like what I see. Because, I would have, you know, just made that default assumption, without the corresponding default assumption that, you know, God visited demise on other people.

Myron: You can even apply it more specifically to like a real, a very strong kind of Reformed theology that operates in terms of theological determinism, where the only way you can preserve a sense of God’s sovereignty is if God is kind of micromanaging every aspect of every part of the cosmos in ways that are specifically a part of God’s plan. So to use the system two system one language, what you get there, maybe one way to think about it is that we have this natural kind of system-wide inclination to see things in terms of design and purpose. And we have also, as part of our cognitive toolkit, reflective systems to processes that try and organize what system one is telling us into into some kind of coherent narrative and tune the right way, you get theological determinism in Reformed theology where you have God being responsible for all sorts of things, right? So just because that’s, well, “it’s got to be part of a plan and purpose.” And so it’s an interesting kind of layer to understanding differences between different theological traditions. 

Brad: Yeah. And, and sometimes it’s difficult to have dialogue across those boundaries. And that brings us to the next point that I want to bring up with you: How do we have those conversations, that do contravene those, boundaries? We have boundaries that that are established, because of certain traditions or certain systematized understandings. And and now we’re in this place where a lot of us are in the same boat of questioning where we came from, but we’re questioning in completely different ways or in a different order, or whatever.

And I think this opens up some really great opportunities for dialogue and for exploration of a bigger journey and a broader sort of understanding, but I don’t mean understanding when like a questioning, figures sort of pondering about what’s really going on here. And we’re all kind of extracting from the system, one deterministic, or simplistic kind of ways of understanding how the world operates, and who, what the nature of God is, and how a hands on God has been in, in, you know, dictating certain things in our life, or the opposite–how God hasn’t been operating, or has been absent or whatever. And now, we’re just jostling all these ideas togethe, all these different interpretations and impressions and stuff. How do we, how do we do that well?

Myron: Well, it’s interesting. And there’s lots of different ways to kind of take that question. And it’s going to depend maybe on the specifics of the situation. But I find if one way of kind of thinking about what you’re asking is for someone who is, going through a process of change, and is wanting to kind of move away from the theological categories they’ve been given, or they just don’t make sense anymore. They’re wondering why they’re supposed to hate LGBTQ. They’re wondering why they’re supposed to reject science. They’re wondering, and maybe it occurs to them, maybe they don’t have to reject any and all these ways, and what does that mean? And if they’re moving away from the religion in which they were raised, what then is left for them? Right?

And if that’s, if that’s the gist of the conversation that’s being had, and I’m just going to repeat some stuff, I had some things I said, in conversation with a person who’s asking very similar kinds of questions this week. And for me, as a Christian, and as an anabaptist Christian, the centrality of the life and work and teachings of Jesus are a good place to start to have to process those questions. And interestingly, too, one way to kind of read the Gospels is through the lens of cognitive psychology and see how often Jesus messes up with the system two thinking of his day, right? You have this kind of well developed theological systems that just are counterintuitive and not really conducive to true kind of flourishing. And, so then, that’s a compelling account of religious inter-competing kind of intuitions about what it truly means to follow God, looking at Jesus, in his interactions in, in the Gospels. And so I think there’s a lot there to, chew on for people who are coming from a context of Christianity where, the theology that they’ve been given doesn’t seem to give life and if they’re looking for a way and to navigate their own kind of religious experience in a way that does give and, like I was saying, start with the life of Jesus.

Brad: That’s a great answer, I think. But that’s certainly been compelling to me and looking at it through that framework. I wasn’t given that framework for looking at Jesus’s Life and Times. That you know, Jesus was a radical, Jesus knew what he was about. And there isn’t that sort of awareness. I’ve heard my tradition described recently as not so aware or hopped up on justice. And when I look at Jesus’s life through the lens of what justice is, it brings things a lot more clarity for me that that is what Jesus’s intention was. And when Jesus says, like, I represent God and all of this, that makes a big, big statement to me. And so that gives me a lot to latch on to that’s not just system one: habitual, patterned, predictable understandings like the ritual and routine and tradition. And I’ve encountered lots of different kinds of ritual habit tradition, and they all have something unique about them, and something that’s compelling to understand why they’re valuable, but this person of Jesus, operating in that perspective of justice and crushing oppression…

Myron: And messing with in group out group boundaries, right? You know: women marginalized, oppressed. And so, there too, the things that really contribute to a, in one definition, successful religious movement. Jesus is critiquing and saying that, that’s, not that’s not what my father wants. Right? And so–I paraphrase. I read that in the Message–But it’s so that also provides an interesting lens to, critique contemporary Christian culture is to say, Well, if, you know, if your congregation is very clear on who’s in and who’s out, what would Jesus say about that? Right. And just because, you know, the boundaries that are that are presented, you know, we like them. It’s very natural, they feel good. They help us to identify who’s on our team.

Brad: Well, that’s the thing about system one thinking: it takes less energy, it’s attractive to us because our brains want to be efficient.

Myron: Well, we need to do that in order to survive, and we don’t have the time to always weigh evidence and to always think like, we need to, we need to act a certain, you know, a phrase: “sometimes there’s paralysis by analysis,” and that’s not conducive to flourishing. So it’s not a critique, it’s just an observation, something we should take into account.

Brad: And one of the things that I wanted to address with you too, is the transactional nature of faith, that is then kind of coded into a lot of system one type thinking, as we, as we think about faith that, that it’s transactional. “I do this and I get this output,” right? “I don’t do that. And this happens.” There’s just a lot of input in the system one response kind of understanding.

Myron: Yeah, yeah. So what cognitive psychology can help us see is why, in some cases, it’s hard to grasp and internalize and really live out certain theological claims. So for example, and as you mentioned, we are kind of primed for transactional exchange: tit for tat. And you can understand from an evolutionary perspective, why that would be a good thing, right? We, if we’re going to share resources, and we’re going to collaborate and be on a team, it’s helpful to know, if I give you something, will I receive something in return that’s going to help me survive and help me kind of flourish.

 And, and so we have common cognitive kind of mechanisms that support that reality. Now, put that in a theological context where you’re taught where you’re now presented with the gifts of a good God, who is giving things with that expectation of, it’s not on the basis of merit, it’s not meritorious, it’s just a free gift. It’s not scarce. And perhaps even extended to all right, yeah. And so and so, if, if, in our, you know, there’s a sense in which that’s hard for us to grasp cognitively because we are just so inclined to a different way of thinking about how to navigate the world. And, suppose,  in your good kind of system two moments, you can say “yeah, I accept that and I think that that’s true and I’m and maybe that inspires sorts of gratitude and devotion in your religious life.” But in certain moments of cognitive stress and load, we default to system one, and we think transaction and we think that it’s hard for, you know, in terms of a Christian context, to believe that God truly does love you because you haven’t done enough for God. And that does get fueled and primed in certain theological contexts where, on the one hand, you’re present That God is presenting, oh boy does it. You know, on the one hand, you’re given language of, of grace and love of God. And yet there’s a whole transactional nature of it, you better do this underneath and given the competition between system one and system two, nearly every single time system one’s going to win, right?

So the cognitive kind of psychology helps us understand the lived experience of believers in different ways and why certain things are easy, why certain things are difficult. And so he we talked earlier about how, just because something’s easy to believe, doesn’t mean it’s true. Now, here’s a case where, you know, just because something is difficult to believe that you are the recipient of the, you know, infinite and unmerited grace and love of God, that just because it’s difficult to grasp cognitively doesn’t mean that it’s that it’s false. Right.

Brad: So I guess the final question that I want to ask, and hopefully draw all of this to a close: this is a huge topic, and its implications are massive. And so my question is, what do we do with all this as we survey our landscape that we’ve inherited, and we have more immediate tools for witnessing what’s going on than we’ve ever had before? How about when we’re wired for fear and for, you know, some of the system one habitual response, how do we appropriately respond as mindful human beings in a complicated environment?

Myron: Yeah, I think, one way to respond is–and then we can maybe kind of just draw this full circle from where we started, as far as putting this discussion in the context of science and religion–I think one way to respond is that as we have the data from kind of scientific approaches to the lived experience of people within, various religions, including Christianity, what we see is that there’s a lot of rich data there for us to chew on. And it’s interesting, because it’s a different science and religion interface, then there’s all kinds of conflict model where you have to buy into one or the other. And I think that it levels the playing field in lots of different ways. And I think, too, it’s the people who are working in these fields who are, many of them, not coming from any particular religious kind of commitment. But many are, and there are lots of insiders and outsiders who are going to use that language from the practice and experience of professing religion, that aren’t at the same table and finding really cool things about the human mind. 

And it’s the evolutionary backstory that can help us process what we’re experiencing. I guess, in short answer, there are there are lots things that we can learn about our own experience, wherever we are at, whether that’s someone who is very comfortably in the same Pew that they’ve been occupying for decades, or whether it’s someone who hasn’t darkened the door of a church for decades, or whether it’s someone who’s in between, with one foot in-one foot out, wondering whether there’s a place for them in any kind of religious community, just understanding that we have a set of mental tools that are going to incline us toward the religious just naturally, just cognitively naturally. This is something that I think is worth considering wherever you’re at in the journey. 

Brad: Well, that’s great. I so appreciate your taking the time to be with us here and to share your thoughts with our listeners. Is there any where that you would like to direct listeners for more information that you’re putting out or, or any way that you’d like to–either social media or email address or whatever?

Myron: So I’m happy to talk to anyone and everyone about cognitive science of religion or philosophy, religion or anything related to to these and in between. I’m available at you can track me down at the Trinity website, and my contact information is through there. And we can maybe post some resources on CSR, in the show notes to direct listeners further if they want to have more information.

Brad: Definitely. We will. Thank you so much. 

Myron: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Sophia: Listening in on this rich conversation about faith of Cognitive Science of Religion has made me start to think about why and how do we explore and engage the wonderings and questions of our faith? Whatever those might be. I love, I loved how Myron acknowledged is that many of us are in flux, that we’re starting to notice the deposits of faith that we have received from our families, through generations of our history, communities, and realizing that we’re not blank slates, that we are the result of that ancestral lineage, which makes it sometimes easier, or sometimes harder to believe certain things. Sometimes we have to wonder, are we wired for faith?

Faith in what? But as we evolve our cognitive capacities, we move beyond those conditioned responses and beliefs. We challenge those beliefs, either consciously, or unconsciously. So I’m guessing if you’ve made it through this whole podcast to this point, you’re like me, and many of our listeners in that you’re in questioning mode, whatever word you might use for faith, or spirituality or religion, you’re wondering, what does it all mean? What is who and what am I? What is this world and the transcendent? And how do they all relate to each other? I think that being aware of these two systems of thinking at play within us, can give us a great framework to do practices that allow us to see what our auto responses are that arise within us when we hear certain words or phrases or are in certain life situations, and then move into a place of a bit more, deeper conscious reflection through our cognitive processes, to evaluate those auto responses to determine what are some of our defaults. But also, what are some of our emerging beliefs?

And so one exercise, Brad, if you remember that we’ve done together with some of our ministry, folks in the Shift ministry is saying the word God over and over again, sometimes we say it out loud or quiet, or in different manners of speech, and then asking everyone to take a notice to how does that feel in their bodies? What is the felt sense that arises for them, or maybe any images or words or colors that arise in their inner mind? And sit with that just let the auto response of what God means arise. And just make note of that? And then take it into a cognitive process to look at? What was that? What do I really believe about God? 

Maybe, what did I believe when I was a kid, a teenager, and now and then really asked, What do I really believe? And then when answers come up, say, is that really what I believe? And then wait for that big… “Yes.” Or maybe a “hell no!” This is the process that can be used with many of the questions of our faith, to start to explore, but first somatically to say what arises when I hear the word sin? “Ooh, that’s it,” particularly ones for some people, or what is the word faith means to me. I think as we start to engage or awareness about these two systems of thinking, both automatic response conditioned, and then start to bring that to cognitive awareness, we allow ourselves the gift of awareness, to truly engage the shift that might be going on within us.

I know for me, I’m going to start to take a look at: how can I do the both-and? How can I engage in practices? I think I’ll post those up on our website, shift and I invite you listeners to do the same join the conversation, share, how you’ve been engaging, and relating to these two systems of thinking in your faith journey, and how that awareness has helped you along the way. Join the conversation.

I’d love to hear from you. Join us at

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