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Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified 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. Those cognitive systems evolved to solve other problems our human ancestors faced (hunting, social dominance, lie detection, etc.). Religious thinking and behavior employ the very same cognitive systems. That is why religion feels - and is - so natural.

McCauley goes on to explain the variety of ways in which science is a cognitively unnatural human activity...

--Unlike religion, scientific theories are often esoteric and counterintuitive in the extreme. Think: General Relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics, evolutionary biology, etc.

--Unlike religion, scientific activities are often rigorous and exacting in the extreme. Think: the development of the Periodic Table, the Human Genome Project, the creation of the Large Hadron Collider, etc.

--Unlike religion, science depends on a very specific combination of cultural elements, including literacy, long term education, freedom from religious and political repression, the allocation of resources to theoretical research, and so on. This combination of cultural elements is both historically rare and inherently fragile.

Perhaps the most important difference between science and religion is the fact that science involves procedures that result in the SYSTEMATIC DETECTION OF ERRORS. The scientific norm that experimental results must be repeatable to be valid is an example of how science systematically detects errors. More broadly, scientific research is largely a matter of collecting, recording, generating, and analyzing evidence. That evidence is marshaled for or against scientific hypotheses, with the result that false theories are detected (eventually) and scientific progress is made. According to McCauley, systematic error detection is virtually unique to science, and altogether absent in religion.

The book culminates in a number of surprising conclusions that follow from the unnaturalness of science and the naturalness of religion. Among them... Science is no threat to the persistence of religion. Science depends more on cultural and institutional support than religion does. Science's continued existence is fragile.

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not is a compelling account of the cognitive foundations of two fundamentally dissimilar human activities. The book reveals how the dissimilarity between science and religion is far deeper, and its implications far broader, than previously recognized. It's is a real eye opener for people interested in science, the study of religion, and cultural analysis more generally. Highly recommended!!
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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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on May 22, 2014
Format: Paperback
Amazing book by a smart man. If you're thinking about buying this book, just do it, you won't regret it.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The reader should be aware that, despite the popular-sounding title, the writing is rather dry and academic. The main points are that we have an evolved individual tendency towards religious belief because of a sensitive innate agency detection feature, whereas science requires certain artificial conventions and disciplines, both at a personal and institutional level. I think this is correct, but, as a popular exposition, the book could be profitably shortened and simplified.
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7 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Is there really 'a raging battle' between both approaches? That I'd doubt somewhat. There always have been men of religion thinking scientifically, too, and scientists with a religious background - and that 'science requires a lot of work' doesn't render it wrong - it only says one's got to do one's intellectual homework there, which in religion one's at least able to avoid. Maybe that's why religion is quite natural to us - thinking is hard, and we dislike hardship - no matter what side of the ship is moving faster, port or starboard... (BTW - the Baha'i say that both religion and science are the wings of man - with one failing he would fall ;)
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6 of 91 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The true science of religion, or the empirical psychology of religion, is for all practical purposes impossible. For the psychologist/scientist would have to be internally familiar with the religious experience of the most profound religious men, and at the same time be able to look down from above, "objectively", on these experiences. Both cannot exist at once so any purported "empirical" studies are impossible; attempts to attain such are interesting exercises in literature (William James) or this type, more arrogant propaganda from the mills of academic scientism.
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