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Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not Hardcover – November 1, 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199827265
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199827268
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,098,867 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"McCauley's book is a superb introduction to the problems of intuition, reflection, science, and religion, opening up an entirely new way of looking at the debates concerning science and religion from a cognitive perspective." --Journal of the Cognitive Science of Religion

"McCauley's richly illustrated and wonderfully accessible book is an intellectual treat. He brings the emerging Cognitive Sciences to bear on the issue of the cognitive awkwardness humans typically feel when trying to grasp the concepts of Theoretical Science, as compared to the cognitive naturalness we typically feel when contemplating the doctrines of Religion. Unlike others, McCauley has no particular doctrinal axe to grind here: he is simply concerned to understand a gulf that is familiar to all of us. This is a book that will engage everyone." -- Paul M. Churchland, author of The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul

"Robert McCauley is a philosopher of science and was a pioneer in creating a cognitive science of religious thought and behaviour. No one could better explain what he calls the naturalness of religion and the unnaturalness of science. In the past, discussions of 'science' and 'religion' have been as sterile as they were poorly informed. McCauley re-examines this contrast in cognitive and evolutionary terms. He shows how our mental systems make religious belief so easy and scientific thinking so difficult, and explores the consequences of these divergent ways of thinking for the future of religious organizations and scientific knowledge." -- Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained

"In Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not, McCauley strikes a pleasing balance between erudition and precision, and between accessibility and sophistication. This is the best book I have read on the cognitive science of religion and on the cognitive science of science. McCauley makes an exciting contribution to each area and places the so-called science-religion debate on entirely new ground. " -- Justin L. Barrett, author of Why Would Anyone Believe in God?

About the Author

Robert N. McCauley is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor and Director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Culture at Emory University. He is the co-author of Rethinking Religion and Bringing Ritual to Mind.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By B. Cunningham on December 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a marvelous book about the differences between science and religion. It is scholarly enough to make McCauley's arguments persuasive, and accessible enough to make it a pleasure to read.

McCauley presents a compelling case for the claim that religion is a cognitively natural human activity, whereas science is not. He starts with the concept of `maturationally natural systems,' that is, human cognitive systems that operate automatically, unreflectively, and (mostly) unconsciously. Maturationally natural systems are those that were so evolutionarily advantageous that they became (nearly) invariable capacities of the human mind. They include things like language, face recognition, and most importantly, "theory of mind."

The phrase "theory of mind" refers to the human cognitive capacity to interpret behavior in terms of the mental states of agents. McCauley explains how evolutionary selection pressures resulted in "hyperactive agency detection," a natural human tendency to interpret events in terms of agents and their actions.

According to McCauley, hyperactive agency detection is at the core of the cognitive naturalness of religion. Religions universally invoke what McCauley calls "minimally counterintuitive agents" to explain a wide array of natural phenomena. In effect, religion is getting a free ride on some of our most basic cognitive capacities. As McCauley puts it, religion is like a Rube Goldberg device, a collection of functionally unrelated mechanisms strung together to serve a purpose outside their proper domain.

In essence, the naturalness of religion is a consequence of the naturalness of the cognitive systems it activates.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Kristina on December 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This was an enjoyable and interesting read. According to the author, for evolutionary reasons, some things are easier than others for people to think (what the author calls cognitive naturalness). For example, we find it easy and "natural" to explain events in terms of agents and their intentions (i.e. the boy hit his sister because he finds her annoying). According to the author, religious explanations or ways of thinking usually fit well with our "natural" cognitive impulses or biases (i.e. the deity made the boy sick because he hit his sister), while scientific explanations or ways of thinking very often do not fit well with our "natural" cognitive impulses or biases. Partially as a result, religion is pervasive and persistent, while science is rare, fragile, and requires enormous institutional support.

Overall, this book offered a persuasive explanation for the pervasiveness and persistence of religiosity - that religion is cognitively appealing - an explanation that I had not encountered before. While the faithful may not find this book likable, it should certainly offer them reassurance that religion is going to stick around without too much effort on their part. On the other hand, the book offers a cautionary tale for supporters of science, because it suggests that science will only persist if we maintain the environment in which it thrives and if we continually invest the resources that are required to sustain it. This book will be an interesting read for those interested in science or religion, and, particularly, for those interested in the relationship of those two domains with public life. Highly recommended.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By lstieb on January 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Robert McCauley has written a user-friendly gem of a journey into the ancient - and now, modern - world of science vs. religion. By "user-friendly," I am referring to the surprising ease with which a lay man, fascinated by this age old debate, may enthusiastically enter into McCauley's unparalled work and vision. His unpretentious, non-judgmental, often witty and always engaging writing style is an invitation that reads, "Academic credentials in this field absolutely not required!" Yes, WHY RELIGION IS NATURAL AND SCIENCE IS NOT, is a challenging read ... so chew slowly, taste mindfully, swallow carefully, but most importantly, enjoy the meal: McCauley serves gourmet food for thought in this triumphant book destined to become a classic. I will return to it time and time again!
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