Does religion make us smart?

Posted on November 2, 2008


Christophe Heintz, a friend of mine from the KLI, has an interesting post concerning institutions that make us smart on the cognition and culture blog:

Evolutionary psychologists are mainly attacked for underestimating or ignoring the plasticity of the mind: they seem to underplay the role and extent of learning. To my knowledge, they are much less accused of ignoring or underplaying the sharpening of the second blade of ecological rationality: changes in the environment often lead to increase in individual’s and group’s cognitive power. Gigerenzer et al. talk about (mental) heuristics that make us smart; taking ecological rationality seriously should lead us to speak also about engineered aspects of the environment (such as institutions) that make us smart.

Christophe’s point is a very good one. In particular, it should be made more often by people who work in the cultural-genetic co-evolution tradition. The question he asked me in relation to this post is whether religion is an institution that makes us smart. As I hadn’t thought about things in quite that way previously I had to think about the question for a couple of days. Being forced to look at things from a different perspective is one of the great things about doing interdisciplinary work.

Christophe was particularly interested in the implications that David Sloan Wilson’s view of religion has for his question. In that case, the basic point has to be that one way in which we become smarter is by cooperating cognitively. Since religion, on Wilson’s Durkheimian view, acts to forge cohesive societies, it helps us in this very important respect. In effect, it changes the social environment in a way that makes possible the use of distributed heuristics – Simon’s blades are interconnected and it becomes unclear what is environment and what is cognitive mechanism. The heuristics become distributed both in terms of allowing a number of people to cooperate at the one time and by retaining the information so that people can cooperate over time. Obviously by ‘heuristics’ I am not speaking here of the kinds of examples, such as anchoring and adjustment, that Kahneman and Tversky talk about nor even about the kinds of heuristics that Gigerenzer discusses. Instead, I am fully taking on Simon’s view of bounded rationality with the implied result that ‘it’s heuristics all the way up’. As I have said in a previous post, I think this view is made all the more plausible if heuristics are seen to be working with Johnson-Laird’s mental models – another cognitively parsimonious view of reasoning.

There is a down side to the way that religion makes us smart. At the same time as it assists people in cooperating on various tasks, including on cognitive ones, it standardly acts to undermine cognitive progress. The point to be made here is hardly original. Basing cognitive authority on social authority or revelation as well as requiring adherence to ideas that do not bear up under investigation creates an unavoidable tension between practices that maintain religion and good cognitive practice. To a certain degree people are able to compartmentise but it should be hardly surprising that religious institutions are much better at retaining knowledge than at obtaining it. I can see this even in the example of the Catholic university across the street from my own – it combines first rate scholarship with a dearth of original work.

This leads to the suggestion that religion makes people smarter when there is relatively little scientific advancement but stupid once science has got going. But, then, that’s bounded rationality for you.