Mentalizing, Ontological Confusions, and Religious Belief

Does religious belief turn more on theory of mind or on ontological confusions?

Posted Dec 17, 2015

The Role of Mentalizing in Religious Understanding

Many cognitive scientists of religion have argued for the critical role of what psychologists call “theory of mind” in understanding and using religious representations.  Theory of mind is a general term that encompasses human beings’ abilities to mentalize, i.e., to recognize intentional agents and to be able to draw inferences with comparative ease about their states of mind, including their beliefs and emotions.  Cognitive scientists of religion have speculated that, to the extent that representations of the gods depend upon understanding them as intentional agents, mentalizing deficits would interfere with people’s abilities to understand a good deal about religious beliefs and practices. 

Because a prominent symptom associated with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) is difficulties with theory of mind, I proposed that autistic persons might find a great deal about religion difficult to comprehend.  As I noted in an earlier blog, Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues provided evidence in a series of studies for decreased religiosity and decreased probability of belief in God among people with ASD, compared to controls.  Their analyses of their findings also suggested that the critical variable driving those differences was the impaired theory of mind capacities of people with ASD.

The Cognitive Science of Religion, Like All Science, Is Complicated

The August publication of an article in Science examining the replicability of one hundred recent findings in three prominent psychology journals demonstrated how complicated scientific stories often are.  Those stories are complex for reasons having to do with both analytical methods and experimental designs, at least.  For example, on the methodological side, no single standard for what should count as the replication of an empirical result exists.  Should it turn on assessments of probabilities or effect sizes or both (or on other considerations as well)?  If so, how similar should such assessments be from the original study and its replication?  With regard to design, replications should, presumably, mimic the specified experimental conditions, apparatus, and procedures, but for a host of reasons, that is often difficult, if not impossible, to do.  The attempts at replicating the one hundred findings yielded evidence that could be interpreted as supportive in somewhere between 36% and 68% of the studies, depending upon which standards of support are employed.  Not even the studies that fell outside the 68%, however, showed that the original results were misleading or mistaken.  If one study does not make a compelling case, two studies, especially two studies yielding conflicting results, are unlikely to settle matters either. 

Source: WikimediaCommons

New Findings from Finland

I raise these issues because new papers, both published and, as yet, unpublished, have obtained results that appear contrary in some respects to the general trends in Norenzayan’s earlier findings about theory of mind capacities and religiosity.  The experimental psychologist, Marjaana Lindeman, and her colleagues at the University of Helsinki carried out a large on-line study with more than 2700 Finnish participants.  Their study broadly resembles the last three studies in the earlier Norenzayan research.  Both use data from various on-line surveys and tests (for example, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test) to assess participants’ facility with theory of mind, their levels of religiosity, and various other features.

The new Finnish research did not show strong relationships between facility with theory of mind and empathic abilities, on the one hand, and religious belief, on the other (where the latter was measured on the basis of participants’ responses to a Supernatural Belief Scale).  Among the cognitive and affective factors the Finnish researchers examined, core ontological confusions predicted religious belief best.  Such confusions would include holding that the entire material world is alive, that minds can touch each other, or that inanimate phenomena have purposes.  Crucially, their findings suggested that such core ontological confusions were thoroughly independent of theory of mind capacities.

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