Great Minds Think Alike?: How Humans Process Religious Belief

June 16, 2017

What goes on—cognitively speaking—in the minds of people of different faiths or no faith? How does the brain process religious belief? On June 2, leading cognitive scientists gathered at Georgetown to discuss their research on the cognition of religious belief. Their presentations converged onto a similar finding: Religious cognition manifests similarly in the brain across cultural and religious boundaries.

Dr. Adam Green, assistant professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Psychology and co-organizer of the conference, explained in his opening remarks that this area of research is essential because people from different belief systems often think that people from other faiths are fundamentally different from them.

“While beliefs vary across context and cultures and while members of one faith or faction might think of members of another group as fundamentally different from themselves, it’s probably more true that the basic characteristics of the brain are likely to be very much the same no matter where that brain grows up or in what cultural, political, or religious context it’s placed.”

These findings, Green noted, could lead to greater interreligious understanding. “It may be possible to think of mind and brain as a kind of safe space, a neutral territory, where a conversation about deep-lying commonalities [across faiths and cultures] can begin,” said Green.

Religion and the Mind

The conference opened with the assertion that all humans share a common lack of belief: “We are all equally born unbelievers,” explained Dr. Miguel Farias from Coventry University. According to Farias’ study, religious belief is not an innate feature of the mind but is, in fact, artificially cultivated. Farias explained how the mind understands religion, stating that “religion consists of seeing the world as humanlike”—that is, of anthropomorphizing the world around us.

Interestingly, the conference revealed that there are not only similarities in how people cognitively process belief across cultures, but also how they understand un-belief.

Dr. Will Gervais from the University of Kentucky explained that through various experiments, he was able to confirm that atheism is cross-culturally stigmatized—people across diverse cultures are more likely to attribute immoral actions to atheists than to believers. Moreover, when asked to construct the face of an atheist, individuals tend to select attributes that make the face look untrustworthy, hostile, unlikeable, and monster-like.

Advancing Interfaith Dialogue

Understanding these similarities in cognition of religion across believers can advance interreligious dialogue, conference participants claimed. Through his research, Dr. Jonathan Jong from the University of Oxford has discovered that among other factors, interfaith dialogue is most successful when models—individuals who have persuasive power—perform this behavior for others to emulate.

A further finding was that synchronous rituals such as marching or drumming have the potential to increase prosocial tendencies and can hence function as powerful tools to foster interreligious understanding. “Believing is an embodied phenomenon. Attempts to foster understanding across boundaries ignore this fact at their peril,” Jong cautioned.

An Imperfect Science

While researchers have had much success conducting cross-cultural studies, challenges to this type of research remain. Dr. Zach Warren from the Asia Foundation, who conducts research in Afghanistan, explained that religion is a sensitive topic in Afghanistan, and research conducted by westerners on religion can often invite the wrath of local clerics. He discussed how the hurdles of widespread illiteracy, the locals’ experience of constant insecurity, and the general unfamiliarity with tools such as surveys can change traditional research methodologies.

“In talking about the challenges we’ve faced in the field, we think this might have some relevance for work that others are doing or are planning to do across cultures, and may lead to improvements in future studies of religious cognition.”

For more information on the “Cognition of Belief” conference, and to view videos of the panel discussions, please visit the event page.

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