Is Religion a Cognitive Mistake?

Mark Vernon is an agnostic journalist who writes for the Guardian in the U.K. His opinion column on October 19 was about a new book by a sociologist on the origin of religion. I can’t comment about the book, or Vernon’s comments about the book. I wanted to touch on the second paragraph in his column was about the “dominant evolutionary story for the origin of religions,” which is called “byproduct theory.”  He explains:

The human brain evolved a series of cognitive modules, a bit like a smartphone downloading applications. One was good for locomotion, another seeing, another empathy, and so on. However, different modules could interfere with one another, called “domain violation” in the literature. The app for locomotion might overrun the app for empathy and, as a result, the hapless owner of that brain might discern a spirit shifting in the rustling trees, because the branches sway a little like limbs moving. The anthropologist Pascal Boyer calls such interpretations “minimally counterintuitive”. They can’t be too random or they wouldn’t grip your imagination. But, clearly, they are not rational. Religion is, therefore, a cognitive mistake. It might once have delivered adaptive advantages: swaying branches could indicate a stalking predator, and so you’d be saved if you fled, even if you believed the threat was a ghost. But rational individuals such as, say, evolutionary theorists now see religious beliefs for what they really are.

Basically, this theory purports that all those who subscribe to a religion have had a download error in their brain. If my empathy “app” has a cyber battle with my locomotion “app” and there is a significant collision, I will take a blowing leaf as God (or “a” god) telling me to give more money to church. In other words, the only reason I go to a Sunday service or read my Bible or preach is because the rational part of my brain has been cursed with a religious blue screen of death.

To call religion a “cognitive mistake” means that only those who haven’t had this “domain violation” (i.e. those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion) are the “righteous” ones. Only they have arrived at truth. Only they know the true meaning of life. We lesser, primitive, traditional, and bigoted people are left to recover from own “smartphone” accidents.

Talk about exclusive. This doctrine is as arrogant as it gets. Its proponents are just as self-righteous as the church member who raises his nose at you if you missed the service last week.

Religion, however, is not a cognitive mistake. It is, as is any worldview (not unlike Vernon’s) an attempt to find meaning, purpose, fulfillment, and happiness that all people are hard-wired toward. Whether you are religious (“moralistic”) or not (“relativistic”), you seek for these things. I would argue that Vernon is an agnostic in order to be happy. If, in his own heart and mind, he thought himself miserable, would he remain an agnostic? Probably not.

Furthermore, every worldview is an attempt to appease the guilt of not measuring up to what our hearts know we should amount to. Everyone knows they should be better than they are. The sad truth is that we cannot make ourselves better and appease our guilt on our own. Neither moralism (“good living”) nor relativism (“do whatever I want”) will give us true meaning and atone for our failings. Is there a third way to live?

Thankfully, there is. We call this the gospel and it is altogether different than what Vernon would call “religion.” The rustling trees is not seen as a spirit shifting to woo or guide. Rather, the gospel says that God has broken into creation and spoken to us and acted on our behalf. He comes to mankind, rather than demanding service as all other religions and their “gods” do. This God became a servant, and a suffering one at that. The gospel climaxes in the person of Jesus, the God-Man, who dwelt among us. He gives true purpose, meaning, and eternal happiness to those who believe. He is more just than the religious type would claim and he is more loving than the moralist would believe. It cost God to love us. He is loving because he saves us by grace, not through our good deeds. He is just because he only removes our guilt and his wrath because his Son Jesus paid the penalty we deserved by dying on the cross. As Tim Keller puts it, “The gospel says you are more flawed and wicked than you ever dared believe; but at the same time you are more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope.”

Christianity is not a coloring book of creative cognitive accidents. It is based on a historical event that happened in time and space. The Bible testifies to it; history confirms it; and one day Jesus will return to his saints and restore all creation.

Even the faulty apps that plague my futile, mistaken human brain.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Warren says:

    As desperately sad as it may be, with respect to this sort of rhetoric, we can argue until we’re blue in the face but there’s not much that’s worth doing until God’s Holy Spirit has prepared their hearts to receive God’s truths. When that happens, wow.. just plain WOW!

    1 Corinthians 2:14 (NIV)
    “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”

    2 Corinthians 4:4 (NIV)
    “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. ”

    Luke 8:11-12 (NIV)
    “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”


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