Talk at International Congress for the Psychology of Religion

Posted on August 26, 2009


I have given my talk and have put the PowerPoint slides up on this site. The talk before mine, by Frazer Watts, in some ways prepared the ground for my own talk as it discussed the Boyer account at length. It made a number of the sensible objections that are out in the field but also made a single remark at the end which was just plain wrong and that I had to comment upon. Watts claimed that Boyer and the others think there was a time when humans had purely naturalist beliefs and that religious beliefs represent a fall. This is definitely not the case – Boyer and the others argue that religious beliefs are natural and have been with us as long as people have had the raw mental capacity to think about such beliefs. I referred Watts and the people in the room to Robert McCauley’s paper “The naturalness of religion and the unnaturalness of science“, which I have blogged about previously.

I had thirty minutes for my own talk, which really is not enough for a talk and question, so I had to hurry through my presentation. At the end I got a question about how it is that cognitive mechanisms underdetermine supernatural beliefs and explained that having counter-intuitive beliefs still greatly underdetermines the content of those beliefs – ghosts are people who lack a physical body but that does not tell you whether these people are friendly, like cricket or any of the other things that real people differ about. The differences will have significant, potentially functional, implications in specific religions, however. Adherents of an anti-cricket god are unlikely to join the Australian eleven for the next Ashes tour.

After the talk I had a chat with a guy from Singapore who was wondering how the D.S. Wilson account would wokr in the case of the religious communnities there. I explained that religious beliefs are used by individual communities to identify in-group members, aiding in-group co-operation and making the groups more capable of successfully competing against other groups. I added that, thanks to the secure nature of Singapore society, this competition takes on a peaceful nature, less likely to be the norm in weakly ordered societies with more than a single faith group – there, violent opposition is much more probable.

I had expected people to make remarks as to the reductionist nature of my approach but, I guess, who felt that way simply thought what they thought and did not feel like making their beliefs felt. I had, also, prepared the ground for such questions by pointing out that the story I tell in the paper is only partial and is definitely open to further additions.