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Why science is more fragile than faith

Don’t assume our brains can leave religion behind, says Robert N. McCauley

Robert N. McCauley, Ph.D.Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

We tend to see modernity in part as a triumph of science--an age when experimental discoveries and analysis have eclipsed religion and other ancient beliefs. And it is our scientific understanding of the world and mastery of technology that will mold the future of human affairs.

Not so fast, says Robert N. McCauley.

McCauley, a philosopher of science at Emory University, looks at the contemporary world and sees it differently: It is science, not religion, that is fragile.

In a new book, “Why Religion is Natural and Science Is Not,” McCauley argues that, if you consider how the human mind actually works, science faces challenges even where it seems ascendant. Religion is too intuitive, too natural a style of thinking, to be gotten rid of.


In contrast, modern scientific thinking is radically unnatural. It is difficult to acquire as a skill, and researchers find that even people trained in science can easily revert to nonscientific thinking.

McCauley’s best-known work, the 1990 book “Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture,” written with E. Thomas Lawson, helped start the scientific study of religious cognition, influencing or foreshadowing well-known thinkers on religion and culture such as Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, and Scott Atran.

Those thinkers have tended to use evolutionary explanations of religion as a means to dismiss it, part of an increasingly fractious war over whether belief has any place in a rationalist world. McCauley himself considers the whole debate over science and religion overblown--it’s like comparing apples and sofas, he says. Even in places that seem to have abandoned religion, like Northern Europe, he questions whether there hasn’t simply been a shift toward a less-organized form of spiritual expression.

As for the unnatural world of science, he’s worried. He spoke to Ideas twice by phone; this interview was edited and condensed from those conversations.


IDEAS: Back in 1990, you and Tom Lawson pioneered the scientific study of religion, by trying to trace the cognitive basis for religion. What’s changed in the field in the last two decades?

MCCAULEY: The changes are huge! Things like social neuroscience didn’t exist in the 1980s much. There are both new tools and new findings. The most prominent tools have been those for neuroimaging. We’re seeing lots of interesting findings. Emma Cohen studied Oxford’s rowing teams. One finding she got is the guys who were rowing in synchrony have far, far higher pain thresholds, by virtue, it looks like, of their joint effort. That seems to resonate fairly closely with what we know about religion.

IDEAS: What popular ideas have emerged that are wrong?

MCCAULEY: The notion that the only options are either that we are a blank slate or an innately wired-up organic machine is unfortunate. There probably is some disposition to respond to certain stimuli in certain ways in a variety of sort of human cognitive systems. But insisting that some things are innately hard-wired seems to me probably too strong a claim in most domains.

IDEAS: Why do you say religion is “natural,” but not science?

MCCAULEY: Religion overwhelmingly depends upon what I’m calling natural cognition, thinking that is automatic, that is not conscious for the most part. Once our attention is drawn to it, we find it fairly difficult to articulate. For example, when we talk, our talking arises pretty spontaneously and yet it’s incredibly complex. We’re conforming to all sorts of rules about our natural language, which we’re usually incapable of articulating.


Science, probably more than any other human intellectual endeavor, supersedes natural cognition. It’s conscious, usually in the form of language. It’s usually slow, it’s deliberative. Science is extremely unnatural. That’s why scientists have to take courses in all these things--and then it’s still hard. The products of scientific reflection are inevitably radically counterintuitive. They challenge common sense.

IDEAS: So where does the scientific mindset come from?

MCCAULEY: Not everything about science is cognitively unnatural. Human minds do go for new ideas. If something seems awry, we instantly leap to a hypothesis of why. That part of scientific creativity, that generation of hypotheses, of new explanatory ideas, that’s of a piece with religious ideas. It’s also the case that humans have a sensitivity to evidence. We do ignore it a fair amount of the time, but not all the time.

So science has a creative side and a critical side. On the creative side, it shares a lot with a lot of things, including popular religion. On the critical side, it’s really quite unique in human history.

IDEAS: We’ve had science for a long time--in various places, and certainly over the last 400 years a seemingly broad advance of science. Why do you worry about it?

MCCAULEY: If you look at the wide range of human cultures over human history, one thing that quickly jumps out is how rare it is. There are many cultures where science is not pursued at all, to this day.


Science doesn’t work if there isn’t a fairly radical notion of freedom of speech. That’s what scientific criticism is about. It takes on common sense. The tough part of modern science in open democratic systems is that science is radically counterintuitive, it’s hard to understand, and unless we have lots of scientists amongst our elected officials, we’re making decisions often times with folks who are not terribly well situated to understand the role science plays and how it operates.

It also needs to be social, to be pursued in lots of different places by lots of different people, sustained by huge research facilities, by professional societies and journals, and all the procedures that stand behind those social creations. Those are extremely complex and extremely expensive. So sustaining science is a very, very costly proposition for humans.

IDEAS: Might science go extinct?

MCCAULEY: Will it be the case that all interest in science and scientific turns of mind will disappear completely? No. But the signs of the last decade or two may now be kind of pointing in that direction, as opposed to the glorious future we so often associate with science and the technology it generates. Science finally is a social activity. Our inclination is to tell stories about great scientific heroes, but it’s a vast social, collaborative, and competitive effort.

Modern science, in its extensive, rigorous form of carrying out experiments in large communities of inquirers engaging with one another, I do think it’s possible that could become extinct.


Michael Fitzgerald is an editor at Latitude News who writes from Cambridge.