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on December 3, 2011
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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on June 11, 2015
I found the early going a bit too academic for me but the final chapter which was great made it more than worthwhile.
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on December 28, 2014
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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