Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion
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59 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2006
Tremlin's book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the cognitive foundations of religion. It is well-written, scholarly, and effective in summarizing and distilling some of the main contemporary ideas concerning the cognitive/biological bases of belief in supernatural agents.

The book primarily defends the thesis that belief in gods and other supernatural agents is an evolutionary by-product of cognitive faculties- specifically, agency detection and 'theory of mind'- that evolved to serve the more mundane adaptive function of dealing with complex social environments.

Although plausible naturalistic explanations for the origins of religious belief may contribute, in the context of a broader argument, to undermining the case for the objective existence of gods, Tremlin does not discuss the potential relevance of such explanations to the question of God's existence in this book. Whether or not this is a positive or negative omission will be up to individual readers to decide.

My primary criticism of the book is that it neglects to adequately discuss the powerful emotional motivations for belief in supernatural agents as entities capable of relieving existential anxieties (fear of death, disease, misfortune). Any theory which attempts to explain the origins and persistence of religion without considering the emotional needs satisfied by god beliefs is, I feel, critically incomplete.

Emotional motivations underlying God beliefs are discussed more fully in S. Atran's excellent book (which defends a similar thesis to Tremlin's), In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and in M.D. Faber's book, The Psychological Roots Of Religious Belief: Searching For Angels And The Parent-god. I recommend also R. Buckman's book, Can We Be Good Without God?: Biology, Behavior, and the Need to Believe and R. Hinde's book, Why Gods Persist.

Apart from this (I think significant) omission, students interested in the cognitive/biological bases of religion will be well rewarded (in this life) by reading Tremlin's book.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2008
Tremlin gives us an outstanding book that looks to the mental machinery of homo sapiens in order to find where indeed God and his spiritual brethren live. In excellent fashion, the book introduces the reader to an up-to-date account of the evolutionary origins of the human mind and offers convincing speculation grounded in the evidence that there is of the selective pressures that produced such a wonder that sits atop our spinal column.

A key insight given to the reader is that agents (namely other people) were one of the most, if not certainly the most important aspects of our evolutionary environment. Detecting other agents (which also includes animals) and being attuned to clues that often signal them drove our mind to evolve the ADD or agency detection device. Every time that you hear an unfamiliar creak in the middle of the night and your mind seriously entertains the notion that it was a burglar's step and not temperature contraction among the boards, you know you have a working ADD. Every time a hunter sees a leaf move and raises a rifle, you know they have a working ADD.

Tremlin goes on to persuasively argue that the ADD is one of the most crucial aspects for building a mind capable of seriously entertaining and believing in the notion of supernatural beings. Why did you have that car accident immediately following entertaining thoughts of cheating on your spouse? There must have been an agent involved who knew your impure thoughts and became displeased with you! And this agent must have special powers to interrupt normal physical causality with psychological causality!

But detecting and entertaining the notions of agents that probably aren't really there doesn't give us God or Apollo or Thor. Indeed, that takes another special human thought process, our theory of mind or what Tremlin dubs the ToMM - Theory of Mind Mechanism. The ToMM evolved as a specialization of our hyper-social species because whether hypothesizing about what is going on in the mind of the salesman you are wrangling with or with an enemy who is saying peace but who has eyes that say War! - a working theory of mind is of particular survival value. Building upon the evidence for ADD, Tremlin argues successfully that all the various god concepts are a combination of detecting an agent and then theorizing about what is going on in their head.

Adding nuance to his argument, the author then expounds how just any old god concept doesn't entrance the mind. Drawing much from Pascal Boyer's work on counter-intuitiveness, Tremlin synthesizes a growing consensus in the field of cognitive science that minimally counter-intuitive (MCI) concepts are most memorable and relevant. A god that eats spaghetti with a water-hose, drinks dirt, and exists only on every third Thursday won't last long in the minds of humans. He would be too outlandish, or put in the more technical language, he wouldn't achieve a cognitive optimum. On the other side of the coin, a god that is normal except for having the ability to make magic rocks won't make it either; he'd be too mundane. The most cognitively optimal concepts for gods, Tremlin argues, are the ones that utilize the human template and violate it in a strategically important way, such as having access to juicy tidbits (omniscience) like knowing if Brother John got a DUI when he was in Cleveland. Socially strategic information is very important to people (as it tells us who will be good cooperators and who won't be) and therefore it is a prerequisite for any gods who wish to be believed in.

God also has to be practical. And as Tremlin mentions repeatedly, abstract notions of gods that are often entertained by theologians and philosophers don't have many believers. What good is it to believe in a god that is merely the first cause of the universe? If he can't help you with your life, he isn't of much use. A god such as that also doesn't activate our mental templates that generate inferences. This is why theologians who decry anthropomorphic conceptions of god will never make much headway with the congregation. Worshippers may lose the answer of "god is man in the clouds" when asked about the notion, but more often than not, in their "on-line" thinking, such a notion will be utilized. Tremlin cites the experiments conducted by Justin Barrett to back this up.

These things being said, there are some glaring omissions in the book. Death and afterlife beliefs are only summarily dealt with, the notion of sanctification (blessing or cleansing) wasn't covered in depth, and a discussion of the cognitive phenomenon of "essences" such as "sin" in religion was nearly absent (although it was covered in its ontological iteration).

However, despite the omissions, this is still one of the best books available on the topic and the aspects of religion that Tremlin elucidates with power easily outweigh what he leaves out. Students of religion and anyone interested in a grounded psychological explanation of religion will not want to miss this. And, as Tremlin says in the conclusion, a cognitive-scientific explanation of religion isn't about explaining it away (although certain people will still see it that way). It is rather about garnering a deeper understanding of this human phenomenon we call religion and what it can tell us about ourselves.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
There is a scene in one of the "Naked Gun" movies in which one of the characters asks another to tell him what happened, starting at the beginning. The other character then proceeds with the line "4.5 billion years ago Earth was a sphere of molten lava." I had used this line as a joke many times, although most people did not find it all that amusing. To my great shock and surprise, "Minds and Gods" starts off with the equivalent of this joke in full earnestness and for the first 40% of the book gives an excruciatingly prolonged background material on everything from human evolution to physiology and morphology of the brain. Most of this material is readily available in numerous other introductory texts, most of which would do it much better justice. At the very least this material should have been relegated to a couple of appendices. As it is, after the main theses of the book is briefly introduced at the very beginning of this book (religion is all about gods), we have to wade through a chapter after chapter of material that makes you wonder (sometimes aloud) where is it all going. Which brings me to another problem with this book: even the material on religion proper seems to rely too much on other secondary sources. There is very little in terms of original and unique contribution to the subject.

The one big thesis of this book is that religion is all about "gods" (loosely defined), and everything that deals with "gods" is religion. There are several major problems with that thesis. First of all, on one hand the author is forced to be flexible enough about what he means by "goods" when applying his template to such "atheistic" religious systems as Buddhism, while at the same time not giving any consideration to the all too frequent personification of non-human agents in physical sciences ("nature"), social sciences ("society") or humanities ("history"). No clear distinction between all of those anthropomorphizations is made, and we are left with a vague idea of the reasonableness of this categorization. In fact, the more deeply we get into the "Minds and Gods" the more we are convinced that the basic thesis of the book is nothing but a description of religion, rather than any kind of "explanation."

Another problematic feature of the book is the author's dismissal of theology and any deeper and systematized approach to religion. In the author's view, what really matters when it comes to the naturalistic study of religion are the low-level religious instincts, and not any definitive set of beliefs. This approach completely dismisses the fact that all of us can develop derived instinct from the more primitive ones through reflection and practice. What usually makes people want to study different religions is precisely this development of higher-level instincts. By dismissing them out of hand, the author removes one major motivational drive for wanting to study religion in the first place.

It is encouraging to see that there are researchers out there who are attempting to give a fuller account of religion as a natural phenomenon. However, all of the books that have been published thus far on the subject fall short of a more rigorous treatment of this fascinating subject. Most of the work in this field has more of a flavor of philosophy than a social science. We can only hope that we don't have to wait for a more rigorous treatment much longer.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2008
I'll just say that Todd really does a good job solidifying his arguments, and doesn't leave much out. He chooses his words very carefully and draws heavily on previous peoples work (Justin Barrett, Ilka Pyysiainen, Pascal Boyer are constantly being referenced). His careful wording, in turn, requires that much more attention when reading. Sometimes I would get through 5 pages and feel totally wiped out mentally. And this was my first experience with a book on this subject. But when I got done I felt like I had such a solid understanding of how religion works. It's about 200 pages. Great book.

My Summary:

Modularity: Tremlin describes that the brain is composed of several specialized locations. These specialized locations are called modules. The brain has a very large number of modules. One module might be in charge of mathematics, another area might be in charge of knowing who your mother is. There are lots and lots of modules in the brain, all of them combined give rise to consciousness.

Agency Detection Device (ADD): Tremlin describes our ability as humans to see agents. We know the lion is deadly when it's hungry. The shaking bush, could have a snake in it, makes us nervous. Our ability to see these "agents" is extremely widespread. Gods are always agents, actively influencing our lives.

Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM): Humans are extremely good at knowing what other people are thinking. When we see someones expression alone we usually have a handle on where their mind is at. This is known as our theory of mind mechanism. And gods are almost always aware of what we are thinking, and know our deepest secrets. They are usually involved in exploiting this subject; which is so vastly important to us as humans.

Explanation of the Variety of Religions: So the "folk" idea of religion, Usually involves a god that is a man, who takes care of your crops and brings good weather, and helps you win a football game/war. Gods are agents influencing the most important aspects of our lives. But there are gaps in logic that are ultimately faced, like why is god a man, who created him, etc. So theologians must find ways to explain these things, making god infinite say. But the "folks" rarely listen to theologians, they basically make the religion up to fit their everyday life. Which explains why most Christians have no idea what's in the bible.

When the theologians take the religion too far away from the "folks", the religion usually splits. And this explains the large number of different churches there are today. And now that folk life is changing faster then ever, new religions are spreading along with it. Religion and society go hand in hand.

Tremlin also argues that Gods must have an intuitive attribute in order to be influential on people. For instance he must be a man, and he is your friend. And he has a set of rules for you to follow. But there also must be something counter-intuitive to him to make him seem magical. For instance he knows what you're thinking. Or he can control the sun. Or he makes earthquakes when he's angry. When the right mix of "intuitive" and "counter-intuitive" ideas come together, the reward is the "folks" spreading the idea and the religion prospering.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2011
I found Tremlin's articulation of the cognitive theory of religion (that religion is the byproduct of other cognitive evolutionary adaptations) to be very concise and very readable. He presents it in logical order and without cluttering his argument (as Atran does) by trying include a crash course on evolution in general. Tremlin avoids the tangents, and he also avoids judgements on religion itself.

Tremlin focuses primarily on one argument - that our propensity to believe in supernatural beings is the byproduct of two evolutionary adaptations in the brain: a hyperactive Agency Detection Device (adapted to detect the presence of agents, especially predators, hidden in our ancestral environment) coupled with a very complex Theory of Mind Module (our cognitive ability to form a theory of what another person or agent knows, thinks, or intends). According to Tremlin, we are thus prone to ascribe agency even where it does not exist, and, having done so, we create a theory of mind for these unseen agents.

Tremlin also explains why some god-concepts are more successful (more likely to catch on) than others. His discussion of successful supernatural agents as "minimally counter-intuitive) is especially helpful.

One area where Tremlin may find criticism is his rather narrow definition of religion as "belief in supernatural beings." This alone will bring challenge from many in the academic study of religion, but for those who object to this definition, let us say then that Tremlin is addressing merely this aspect of religion, which his indeed pervasive.

My own criticism of this work is that Tremlin's argument that we are interested in these supernatural agents because they have access to strategic social information is unconvincing, and does not come close to explaining the sort of awe and dread with which human beings have tended to approach the divine. My own "folk theology" would imagine that we are attracted to gods because of what we believe they can do for us (or to us) rather than because of what they know about whom.

But as an introduction to the field of the cognitive study of religion, this is a very helpful text exactly because it is so concise and focused. It is definitely remaining on my shelf next to Atran and Boyer.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2013
Let me start out by saying I had great expectations for this book and look forward to the second edition - rewritten following my prescriptive suggestions below. Having read Dawkins and Ridley, I claim the first 110 pages (of 200) of Minds and Gods are unneeded; but more importantly, needlessly tedious. The other two authors do a much better, more complete, and more interesting job with the basics. The gist of the book occurs near page 110 and lasts 3 pages. The remainder of the book is derivative on itself. Next, every topic in the book is repeated three times. (I actually started counting, and eventually stopped, to verify.) Finally, the other authors include many elaborate, descriptive examples in their books. Tremlin includes all the references,but almost no examples. To improve the second edition, compress the first 110 pages into about 15 pages (firstly by not repeating each item three times and secondly by referencing Dawkins and Ridley extensively). In the remainder of the book, remove the triple repeats and then include interesting examples from the source already referenced to bring the page count back up to the publisher's target. I predict the second edition will be a best seller!
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on December 23, 2014
Wish I could have read my own review of this book before I bought it. Tremlin does have a couple of important things to say, but they could have been said in ten or twelve pages. If you can grasp the following, you probably don't need to read this: humans have evolved as social animals, therefore we are highly skilled at figuring out what others are thinking--so good, in fact, that we tend to imagine that non-human entities of various kinds (from Mickey Mouse to a haunted house) are also busily engaged in motivated thought. We humans are also highly skilled at figuring out which objects in the world are "agents" (active causes of effects)--so good, that we tend to look for the "agents" behind events which in fact don't have direct causes. Put those two together, and you have what Tremlin claims to be the basis for religious cognition. Useful and probably valid information--but, the writing here is so very labored and is so filled with unnecessary exemplars that the pace is slowed to an agonizing crawl. The book also contains too many generalizations--the author downplays "personality types" and differing cognitive modalities, evidently finding it irresistibly convenient simply to lump us all together. Finally, the author defines a number of things in ways that I simply don't recognize. "Art," for instance, is defined here as an organized system. And death, according to Tremlin, is something we humans understand intuitively.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2012
Humans are consummate agent seekers. We need to be for survival: that crackling in the brush could be a predator-agent, not random noise; that rock pattern could have been laid out by an enemy tribe-agent, not deer. To people 10,000 years ago, it was thus natural to ascribe the inexplicable motion of the sun to a sun-god; the mysterious force of a flowing river to a river-god. Eventually we became more sophisticated and condensed it all into one super-agent: God.

Modern science provides a picture of the universe that looks beautiful to some, too bleak for others; no God who listens because this agent is only in our minds.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone from theologians who want to critically examine their formalistic systems for the rationalization of faith, to scientists interested in the origins of religion, to religious people interested in behavioral science and what it might be able to explain, to dyed-in-the-wool atheists.

Ultimately this book is not going to change what you believe in (that is the nature of deep-rooted agent belief according to the book), but it should make you seriously think about what you believe.

The drawback of the book is its academic (read: somewhat dry) style, and the fact that it takes a little while to get to the point at times.
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