Religion, Cognition, and the Myth of Conscious Will

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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  • 1 Loyola University Chicago

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Abstract

Characteristic of the recent cognitive approach to religion (CSR) is the thesis that religious discourse and practice are rooted in an inveterate human propensity to explain events in terms of agent causality. This thesis readily lends itself to the critical understanding of religious belief as “our intuitive psychology run amok.” This effective restriction of the scientific critique of agent causality to notions of supernatural agency appears arbitrary, however, in light of evidence from cognitive and social psychology that our sense of human agency, including our own, is interpretive in nature. In this paper I argue that a cognitive approach to religion that extends the critique of agent causality to the folk psychological experience of conscious will is able to shed light on several characteristically religious phenomena, such as spirit possession, ritual action, and spontaneous action in Zen Buddhism.

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