Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Purely Devotional Practices

Roughly 50 years ago, as a result of the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholics around the world were suddenly confronted with the celebration of the Mass in their native languages rather than in Latin.  This change occasioned various Catholic splinter groups, such as the Society of St. Pius X, which have continued to perform the Mass in Latin to this day.  Experiencing the traditional Mass, for those parishioners who do not know Latin, can be akin to a purely devotional practice. 

What consequences do such devotional practices have on religious cognition?  Does the performance of rituals and practices with no readily comprehensible linguistic dimension change participants’ religious representations and thinking? When such activities do not involve statements in any familiar language, such as the Latin Mass for some or glossolalia (speaking in tongues) for most, or when they do not involve any statements at all, such as repetitive chanting of some non-linguistic sound, do devotional practices have any effect on religious belief?

Explicit Versus Implicit Cognition

The answers to these questions, of course, turn, in part, on what counts as religious beliefs. Cognitive scientists distinguish between explicit and implicit cognitive processes and states. The conventional notion of religious belief mostly coincides with explicit cognition, which is conscious, deliberate, (comparatively) slow, and often verbally formulated – for example, thinking about how you will word your question for a speaker after hearing a public lecture.  Implicit cognition, by contrast, is mostly unconscious, automatic, fast, and non-verbal – for example, recognizing that your friend is upset from viewing his or her bodily comportment. 

Commonsense psychology assumes the prominence of explicit cognition in human thought and conduct. Probably the most startling feature about research in cognitive science is, however, the hundreds of experimental studies supplying evidence for the formidable (and mostly unrecognized) influences of implicit cognitive processes. This is no less true with religious cognition. Findings in the cognitive science of religion concerning so-called “theological incorrectness” illustrate the impact of implicit cognitive processes on thought and action. Multiple studies show, for example, that anthropomorphic assumptions readily slip into believers’ representations and reasoning about their gods, no matter how sincerely they affirm their explicit, non-anthropomorphic, orthodox beliefs.

The Persistent Intrusions of Implicit Cognition   

Two pressing questions throughout all of cognitive science, not just the cognitive science of religion, are, first, what, if any, variables may temper the influences of implicit cognition on conscious mental life and behavior and, second, whether and when explicit beliefs may not only withstand such influences but, perhaps, even diminish them. A recent experimental study by Travis Chilcott and Raymond Paloutzian with followers of a Hindu devotional tradition has generated interesting findings bearing on these questions. 

The Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava devotional tradition in Hinduism calls for followers to engage in various devotional practices, from worshiping images of Kṛṣṇa with songs to performing service for a guru or a personal icon. Some more experienced followers engage in a second, more esoteric collection of devotional practices, which put particular emphasis on meditation on anthropomorphic dimensions of Kṛṣṇa as, for example, a friend or parent

Chilcott and Paloutzian’s study divided their experimental participants into different groups, based on the frequency and the level of their devotional practices. Their analyses include measures of both the participants’ explicit religious representations (answering a questionnaire) and their implicit religious representations (recalling a narrative). 

Few of either of the two collections of practices involve much of what cognitive scientists would regard as extended reflective activity pertaining to participants’ religious representations. Still, participants who frequently engaged in such devotional practices were significantly less likely to attribute explicit anthropomorphic characteristics to Kṛṣṇa than low frequency practitioners. This suggests that participation in what are, for the most part, non-reflective devotional practices, nonetheless, tends to reinforce theologically correct, explicit representations. Neither those dispositions nor the various devotional practices that seem to elicit them, however, had much effect on participants’ penchant for implicit reasoning about anthropomorphic representations of Kṛṣṇa. Even high frequency, esoteric practitioners characteristically exhibit theological incorrectness when it comes to their implicit cognition. That finding is consistent with the view that the underlying, maturationally natural proclivities of mind driving these effects will persistently intrude in on-line cognition. 

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