“Oh Friar, damned souls use the word banishment to describe hell.”

Scott Douglas Jacobsen

There is a new course on the block on the cognitive science of religion (edX, 2017; The Ubyssey, 2017). It comes riding the wave of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, movement continuing to make inroads into the alternate-to-Academia educational route, i.e. more affordable, more points of intake, more variation in content depth and course length, and so on.

The host of the course is edX while the material is taught by Dr. Azim Shariff from the University of California, Irvine (University of California, Irvine, 2017). I have been a scholar there. It is a lovely campus and community. Dr. Edward Slingerland also is part of the course (The University of British Columbia, 2017). They’r basically asking, “So why do some believe, have faith that is, and others do not?”

The funding is coming from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Slingerland said that the course uses “the tools of cognitive science and evolutionary theory to explore and understand religious behaviour and belief.”

The assumption, or primary premise, in the course is naturalism. If granted as the premise, then the rest of the course, at least according to the descriptions, follow from it.

There are views on the functional utility of religion, for survival in an evolutionary perspective. Some see it as a means of social control, as per the social control hypothesis, which “posits that religion has historically been controlled by social elites who trick the populace into contributing resources for their own gain” (The Ubyssey, 2017).

Professor Daniel Dennett posits that religion is an invasion of the mind, of sorts, where the cultural abstraction has a neurobiological parallel in the real world, in the brain (Tufts University, 2017). That religion is this points to the idea of the phenomena – religion – as a virus that attacks the mind: hijacks it.

After sufficient ‘hijacking’ of the mind, the host of the virus of religion goes about for the propagation of the idea, akin to memes from Dr. Richard Dawkins – the most prominent of the New Atheists’ ‘Four Horseman’, to other suitable hosts: other human beings – so the theory goes.

Another idea is that it is a means of anxiety reduction through a strong sense of agency – so to speak – with religion giving that sense of control over our lives. I suppose this may implicate not even necessarily concrete ideas but simply notions of freedom of the will, or free will.

If you remove the tacit premise of naturalism, the longstanding view is that, in general, one’s religion is true, so the benefit may come from having the correct belief, or justified true belief in the theological phraseology.

The cognitive science of religion course views religion in the naturalistic frame, as a social benefit:

Grand temples, for example, could serve a symbolic social purpose and create solidarity among groups that could help them outcompete others, explained Slingerland. (The Ubyssey, 2017)

Alongside the social benefit view could be the impairment of the ability for theory of mind, for making natural events somehow the result of agency, by impairment in this context becomes excess theory of mind, of seeing other people as having minds but also natural events too, e.g. Poseidon and Zeus, or Yahweh in modern cases.

It seems like an interesting course. If I get the time, I may take it; if you do, please send me an email at scott.d.jacobsen@gmail.com to know what it’s like.


edX. (2017). The Science of Religion. Retrieved from https://www.edx.org/course/science-religion-ubcx-religionx-0.

The University of British Columbia. (2017). Edward Gilman Slingerland III. Retrieved from http://eslingerland.arts.ubc.ca/.

The Ubyssey. (2017, September 26). Massive online course from UBC investigates religion from a cognitive science perspective. Retrieved from https://www.ubyssey.ca/science/edX-course-science-of-religion/.

Tufts University. (2017). Daniel C. Dennett. Retrieved from http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/.

University of California, Irvine. (2017). People: Azim Shariff. Retrieved from http://sharifflab.com/staff/.

One thought on ““Oh Friar, damned souls use the word banishment to describe hell.”

  1. Jesus, the problem is that when you use the evolutionary perspective, there’s not much in the way of human communicative endeavour that *can’t* be viewed as a virus.

    Thought experiment: Try to name for me just one thing that humans do that can’t also be interpreted using the virus metaphor.

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