Defining Religion Using Cognitive Science

Religion is a concept with multiple meanings and a long history of debate. It has been used to describe scrupulous devotion, a belief in a distinctive kind of reality, and a system of practices that unite people into a moral community. It has also been defined as a combination of beliefs, identity, and culture. In recent times, interest in a more encompassing and less subjective approach to the idea of religion has grown, spawned in part by the development of cognitive science.

The challenge of defining religion has led to debates across disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, sociology, religious studies, psychology, philosophy, and, more recently, cognitive science. In the past, scholars have favored substantive definitions that determine membership in a religion by virtue of a particular belief or set of beliefs. However, such approaches tend to overlook the complexity of social life. In response, some scholars have embraced functional definitions that determine membership in a religion in terms of the unique role a form of life plays in people’s lives. Others have opted for polythetic definitions that recognize that different social forms of life often display many of the same features and use the notion of “family resemblance” to identify crisscrossing and partially overlapping patterns.

In light of the recent focus on cognitive science, there is renewed interest in whether it might be possible to develop a scientific theory that causally explains why various features consistently appear together. Ideally, this theory would be biological or neurological — that is, something that human beings are hardwired to have.