Book Review: Minds and Gods

Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion
by Todd Tremlin
Oxford University Press, 2006
256 pages (2006 Kindle Edition; 2010 Paperback)

Review based on Kindle edition.


For centuries, finding and proving the true nature of religion was a matter of taking divine revelation, perhaps a mystical experience, and adding syllogistically sound logic. Get both the papal and political power on board and you have an enforced dogma.

By the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, new discoveries from the world of the Ancient Near East and developments in the sociology of religion and comparative religions took the discussion of religion out of the hands of the church as its sole arbiter.

These developments, however, are far from being the final word or the final field to take on the problem of what makes the religious tick. The Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) has made some incredible advances in a short time, and in the last decade experiments by cognitive scientists to find the connection between religion and the mind are far from being ignorable. (Pick up a schedule for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and sessions on cognitive science and religion will not be hard to find.)

Todd Tremlin’s book, Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion, is one of several books out on the subject of CSR.  It is also a fascinating book to read.

“The central claim of this book,” writes Tremlin, “is that understanding the origin, composition, and persistence of religion and the supernatural beings it features requires an understanding of the evolved human mind.” In other words, who we are today as religious beings has a history far older than we may think.

The critical period in the development of the modern mind took place from about 1.8 million to 11,000 years ago. Thus at the most basic level of cognition, our modern brains still function much like the brains of the Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. This turns out to be one of the keys to understanding the nature and persistence of religious thought.

Tempting as it is, reproducing the full argument of a book of this scope in this review is impossible, but there are still some interesting points to consider.

Tremlin argues for essentially a person centered view of religion. “In short,” writes Tremlin, “the brain is central to what comes into the body and what goes out; it interprets and interacts with the external world, and it governs the physical systems and mental conceptions of our internal world.”

Tremlin spends significant time examining what went into the evolution of the human cognitive state and argues that human beings come prepackaged with certain essential and universal processes that lead to the production of gods.  It is “useful” says Tremlin, “to call the brain hardware and the mind its software.” It is the software that I find immensely interesting.

“Our minds remain adapted to a Pleistocene way of life,” he writes, “the mental modules we use today are the same ones our hunting and gathering ancestors used to survive in their own unforgiving Pleistocene world.” Survival as a species requires the ability to anticipate the actions of others, that is, to have a sensitivity to other minds.

The two most important of these mental tools are the Agency Detection Device (ADD), which recognizes the presence and activities of other beings around us, and the Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM), which ascribes sentience to agents and tries to interpret their intentions.

Without ADD and ToMM, we risk attack by predators. These help us in “identifying the people and creatures that cross our paths.” We may mistake movement in a bush for a predator, but there is less to lose by getting to safety than in ignoring it.

This survival mechanism is in part what has allowed human beings to attribute agency and minds to unexplained phenomena and perhaps label it a ghost or a god.

Gods are particularly helpful because they are key to what is important to us—to that moral behavior that enables social success. This means that gods have to connect with us, but also be greater than us. Gods “are a special category of agents that in some ways resemble or are at least spoken about as having human-like qualities yet also possess powers, capacities, and faculties that exceed or break the basic rules of mundane human existence,” writes Tremlin.

Traditionally, theologians warn of over-anthropomorphizing God. There are special attributes of God that human beings do not share and so the average lay person is reminded by theologians to avoid a potential idolatry that can come by making God lower than he is, that is, like us lowly humans.

Tremlin says that the process of anthropomorphism is actually the reverse. “Contra traditional understandings of anthropomorphism, we do not project human-like qualities onto gods but god-like qualities onto humans.”

Our ADD and ToMM abilities create a being that connects with us and we then import a few relevant counterintuitive attributes. “In other words, counterintuitive concepts must conform in most respects to our intuitive ontology. Counterintuitive properties only work because they are grounded in standard ontological categories and supported by other, quite normal expectations that remain true.”

Nobody, says Tremlin, begins with those utterly transcendent and counterintuitive attributes of God that have been codified by theologians over the centuries. They may be official doctrine, but they have less value to the average person because they are less like an actual person.

For ordinary people, gods and humans are very much alike. It is only theologians and religious specialists who present them as radically “Other.” But people who present gods as radically different from the category Person make them incomprehensible and irrelevant as well.

Gods have a foot in both worlds—the earthly and the heavenly—but this is not the only reason they connect with us;  they also resonate with our social and emotional intelligence.

God concepts engage emotional intelligence as actively as social intelligence. Gods are represented in relational terms, as beings that are personal, subjective, interactive, and involved. What is more, they are represented with extraordinary properties that make them uniquely important social agents. As a result, god concepts are capable of evoking exceptionally strong emotional responses that provoke and sustain religious belief and behavior.

For this reason, the idea of God will probably stick around longer than the idea of Mickey Mouse.

In short, we humans, then, were able to adapt to our environments effectively because we developed the ability to detect other agents and attribute (using a theory of the mind) intentions to them. This allowed us to anticipate and outsmart our predators in unique ways. It also could be said to misfire when we attribute agency and minds to misunderstood events, sometimes labeling them gods. Gods, according to this argument, are enduring agents because they are both like us and have just the right number of attributes to be better than us and capable of helping us in our survival.

The discussion of evolution and how we humans develop ADD and ToMM is fascinating to me and I’m sure it is not without its own controversy within this developing field. There are, however, real-world connections for me in this discussion, not all of which I’m willing to explore here.  But let’s take one, for example.

I have observed his point about anthropomorphism enacted in the classroom. Nine out of ten times, if I ask new students in a seminary to explain the orthodox concept of God, most of them fail on the technical details of incommunicable attributes and general Trinitarian distinctions. This is understandable for students taking their first course on Christian beliefs, though not all are newbies to the faith as some have been pastoring for years and many have been Christians most of their lives. It is clear to me that their first perception of God is extremely human. Maybe he lives forever and maybe he can be in more than one place, but generally he’s seen as a super-human.

The other details—that is, those transcendent qualities that concern theologians—are so foreign to them that they are un-relatable and often not memorable. (This I do test on.)

If Tremlin is right about anthropomophism, there is a reason why the incarnation of Christ speaks so clearly over several centuries and why early Jewish descriptions of God are often of the God who walks, has eyes, and hands.

God as human matches our starting point.

Those students who are unaware of centuries of theological development and codification come to school only to find that they have been thinking of God in mostly human terms. In fact, they may not even recognize their own religion when the details are explored. This is the incarnation in reverse. They have dressed up the human in divine clothes.

Lastly, the implications of the CSR for religion in general can be difficult. On the face of it, one could take the work of Tremlin and argue that religion is essentially just an untruth that may have served us previously, but is today no longer needed. Tremlin himself does not argue this point.

CSR “does not set out to challenge the veracity of religious thought and behavior but, rather, to better understand them,” he writes. “Many scientists studying the human brain,” he reminds the reader, “including those who come at it from an evolutionary perspective, are themselves religious, and some researchers working in the cognitive science of religion openly practice a religious faith.”

At the very least, it demands that we re-examine our presuppositions and consider what biology brings to religious experience. For example, one man I knew used to call the goose bumps he felt on a Sunday morning “Holy Spirit bumps.” This made others wonder, why is it that they do not also get these so-called “Holy Spirit bumps”? Perhaps we humans (and I say this with all good intentions) underestimate just how easily we can make things up to account for what we cannot explain. (See, for example, the video of the Holy Spirit Hokey Pokey. It’ll make you turn yourself around and then beat your head into a wall.)

Many evolutionary biologists will tell you that goose bumps come from the days when our bodies were covered with hair. When a person detected a predator (using ADD and ToMM), the hair on his or her body is forced to stand up, making him or her look more fierce.

So the question is, does that agency detecting response more easily create a mistaken theology of undetectable agencies like the Holy Spirit?

But does the work of CSR alone invalidate religion? No. Does it force religious people to surrender to atheism? While some would definitely say yes, this is also not necessary. Current responses by theologians have been slow in coming.  Some are, after all, still busy fighting debates centuries old to notice anything new. Assuming that one does not reject the premise of evolution (which could be the easy way out), there is always the obvious point that could be—and has been—made by a few:  Perhaps this is the mechanism by which God makes religion biologically possible.

Never underestimate the ability of theology to adapt. For example, when the “God helmet” experiment was conducted by Dr. Persinger—an experiment which is focused on the temporal lobe—many claimed to have mystical experiences. Those with higher temporal lobe sensitivity or temporal lobe epilepsy have been known to have heightened religious experiences and claim to feel the presence of God. Should it really surprise anyone if the world renowned atheist, Richard Dawkins, did not experience a presence of God when putting on the Persinger “God helmet” and that he also demonstrated low temporal lobe sensitivity?

One response, however, comes from those who have said that perhaps this sensitivity is God’s biological answer for creating a relationship with his creation. As a good GUI makes computers easier to interact with, perhaps these mental capacities play a similar role. For those who have heightened temporal lobe sensitivity, some have suggested that perhaps it is a gift of God.

Bishop Stephen Sykes at the University of Durham (see end of second video above) says that there is a debate as to “whether one can have a talent for religion and whether that is something like a musical talent, which some people have and other people don’t have.” Many early and medieval Christian mystics might concur with this idea as they often understood themselves as having a particular gift for experiencing God. Meister Eckhart, anyone?

There are a lot of questions to ask. Asking questions (without always having the answers), is, of course, the point of this blog. What does this mean for our abilities to trust what we think? Can theologians speak strictly in soul-body distinctions? One might also argue that for Christian materialists (see this review of Rethinking Human Nature), CSR is an extension of that emerging theology. And even if one rejects the idea of evolution, there are other aspects of brain science (for example, see videos below about split brains) that have theological implications that cannot be shirked.

In any case, it is apparent that theologians have a great deal of catching up to do when it comes to the fast moving field of neuroscience and the new field of CSR. For starters, I’d recommend Minds and Gods. It will take your mind where it has never been before.

For more challenging discussion related to the brain, see also…

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