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What Religion is Really All About

'Existential theory of mind' as the essence of religiosity

As an evolutionary psychologist who has only fairly recently started really focusing on religion, I’ve been impressed by what a difficult topic religion actually is. Religious systems are complex, cross-culturally diverse, and hard to define. Religions vary in whether or not they explicitly evoke a concept of god(s), for instance, and religious social systems often swallow up other kinds of social systems that are not themselves inherently religious. For example, systems of morality, ritual, philosophy, and community can get tangled up with religion in some societies, but exist independently of religion in others. So it can be challenging to identify the essence of religion cross-culturally: what’s unique about the kind of worldview we consider ‘religious’, that sets it apart from ‘non-religious’ worldviews? Adding to the confusion are concepts like ‘spirituality’, which can seem very similar to religiosity in some but not all respects.

Despite the complexity of religion, I think there’s one way of conceptualizing it that does a particularly good job of capturing its essence. To describe this concept, I’ll use the term ‘existential theory of mind’. This specific term was coined by psychologist Jesse Bering [1], but as a general concept, existential theory of mind has been researched by many evolutionary and cognitive psychologists of religion.

What's 'theory of mind'?

To understand existential theory of mind, we should first clarify the meaning of regular ‘theory of mind’ (ToM). Technically speaking, ToM refers to an ability to form ‘second order mental representations’ [2,3]. For our purposes, however, we can think of ToM as the cognitive system that humans typically use to engage in social interactions with other people. By engaging your ToM when you interact with someone else, you are able to attribute human mental states – such as thoughts, emotions, and intentions – to that person. It’s adaptive to engage your ToM when interacting with another person, because your ‘theory’ will usually be correct: the other person usually will, in fact, have a normal human mind. So if you assume they do have such a mind, you’ll generally be able to have a more successful social interaction than you would if you assumed that they had no mind, or some kind of non-human mind. By the same token, engaging your ToM can be a highly unproductive way of interacting with an entity that lacks a human mind. If you’re struggling to learn how to play the guitar, for example, you won’t help matters by becoming angry at the guitar for not making your song sound better, or by begging it to behave like a more cooperative musical collaborator.

What's 'existential theory of mind'?

Now that we’ve clarified what ToM is, what do we mean by existential theory of mind (EToM)? The idea of EToM is that people tend to engage their ToM in interactions not just with other people, but with ‘existence’ in general. That is, humans seem naturally inclined to perceive their lives as ongoing interactions with some kind of transcendent mind(s) that, at least in some respects, seem(s) human-like. Across cultures, this transcendent mind-like power may be conceptualized as an explicitly-specified god or gods, or in more abstract terms (such as a universal spirit, karma, or ‘the force’). When people engage in EToM, they seem to be expanding the focus of their regular ToM, to include not just other people but ‘the universe’ in general. They perceive a universal mind which seems to emanate from outside the ordinary world experienced by humans, and which seems stronger than any power emanating from within this world.

EToM is a useful way to conceptualize the essence of religion, because it seems like a good description of the mental processes that underlie what we would identify as ‘religiosity’ cross-culturally. Further, EToM seems to dissolve the barriers not just between different cultural manifestations of religiosity, but between the concepts of religiosity and spirituality. Spirituality, just like religiosity, is in essence a tendency to engage in EToM. I’ve collected some data that support this view of the equivalency between religiosity and spirituality, and once I publish those studies I'll say more about them.

Conclusion: Why EToM?

In this post I’ve hopefully clarified the meaning of both ToM and EToM, and established why EToM is a good candidate to be considered the essence of religiosity and spirituality cross-culturally. But even if we do see EToM as a reorientation of regular ToM, away from a normal social context and towards ‘the universe’ in general, this view raises new questions. The primary question it raises for me, as an evolutionary psychologist, is why evolution would have produced a human nature that seems so predisposed towards EToM. Is the tendency towards EToM simply an accidental by-product of our ToM adaptations, or does EToM have some adaptive function in its own right? This question has already received considerable attention from evolutionary and cognitive psychologists, but in my view has not been conclusively answered. I’m currently addressing it in some new research of my own, which I’ll also have more to say about in future posts. Until then, thanks for reading, and see you soon.


1. Bering J. M. (2002). The existential theory of mind. Review of General Psychology.

2. Premack D. & Woodruff G. (1978) Does the chimpanzee have a ‘theory of mind’? Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

3. Baron-Cohen S., Leslie A. M. & Frith U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition.