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Are Religious Developments Predictable?

Is everything about religious forms and experiences "irreducibly unpredictable?"

Key points

  • Both cognitive scientists of religions and many religious people think that religions will never go away.
  • Some religious people also hold that religious developments are “irreducibly unpredictable.”
  • The cognitive science of religions has shown that religious forms and religious experiences exhibit many recurrent features.

Charles Grandison Finney was the second president of Oberlin College and a prominent leader in the Second Great Awakening, a burst of evangelical fervor that swept across much of the United States in the early decades of the 19th century. Ross Douthat argues1 that the experiences of Finney and of other participants in the Second Great Awakening put to rest Thomas Jefferson’s speculation some years before that traditional Christianity was on the wane and that most Americans would become Unitarians. Douthat suggests that not only was Jefferson wrong about his own time, but he was also wrong about the longer-term fate of evangelical Christianity in America, as evidenced by, among other things, the considerable popularity and attention accorded a recent revival at a small college in Kentucky.

Engines of Religious Resurgence

Douthat points to the regular recurrence of experiences of people such as Finney as the basis for his more general claim that religious eruptions will inevitably arise in human populations. Douthat comments that “every organized faith could disappear tomorrow and some spiritual encounter would resurrect religion soon enough.”

Many cognitive scientists of religions concur with Douthat’s claim, though they highlight somewhat different considerations in its defense. They agree with Douthat about the penchant for some individuals in human groups to have extraordinary experiences, but they stress the inherent appeal to human minds of religious representations (e.g., gods) and routines (e.g., rituals) for framing such experiences. Virtually every culture has such standardized conceptual tools and practices of a religious sort on hand for domesticating such extraordinary experiences. Religions provide tools for rendering many extraordinary experiences culturally acceptable.

Predictable Features of Religious Forms and Religious Experiences

Douthat makes a further assertion with which cognitive scientists of religions are less sympathetic. He holds that the extraordinary experiences in question that regularly resuscitate religious sensibilities in human groups are “irreducibly unpredictable.” With regard to the future of religion, Douthat suggests that we should “always expect the unexpected.”

Cognitive scientists of religions hold, by contrast, that a good deal about religions and even religious experiences is predictable. They maintain that types of religious representations and practices recur across cultures and eras because virtually all successful religions evolve to engage maturationally natural dispositions of human minds, which have no connections either to religions or to one another. These are automatic, instantaneous, mandatory, intuitive responses to various stimuli that pertain to fundamental problems that all members of our species must manage—from detecting agents to recognizing individuals’ faces, avoiding contaminants, parsing people’s utterances, and more. They argue that many cultural products (not just religious representations) mimic such stimuli in order to fascinate human minds.

These, though, are primarily claims about the character of religious forms. Douthat’s claims, by contrast, primarily concern religious experiences. Over the last dozen years, cognitive scientists of religions have discovered regular patterns in people’s extraordinary religious experiences too. In multiple books, Ann Taves and Tanya Luhrmann have analyzed common (and, thus, at least partially predictable) patterns among everything from the emergence of new religious movements to people who hear God talking to them.

None of this is to imply that even most things about religions or religious experiences are predictable. No scientific theories explain or predict everything. If Douthat’s claim for the irreducibly unpredictable character of extraordinary religious experiences is simply to insist that we will always be unable to predict something about such experiences, he is surely right. Still, a good deal about religions (at least the ones that have had an extended run in history) and about people’s religious experiences is less anomalous than Douthat’s discussion suggests.


1. Douthat, Ross. (2023). Why You Can't Predict the Future of Religion. The New York Times.…

2. Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred E. Knopf.

3. Luhrmann, T. M. (2020). How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McCauley, R. N. and Graham, G. (2020). Hearing Voices and Other Matters of the Mind: What Mental Abnormalities Can Teach Us about Religions. New York: Oxford University Press.

4. Taves, A. (2009). Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

5. Taves, A. (2016). Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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