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Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not Hardcover – 26 Jan 2012

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA; 1st edition (26 Jan. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199827265
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199827268
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 3 x 16.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,057,624 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


clearly and engagingly written (Eleanor Rosch, Times Higher Education)

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, editor of The Churchlands and Their Critics, and co-editor of Mind and Religion.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By C. BLEASE on 18 Jan. 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
1. This book is not just about science and religion.
2. It will deepen your understanding of human cognition.
3. The author uses what he knows about cognition to lodge some very interesting ideas in your mind-brain, and it wont feel like a chore.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 8 reviews
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
A MUST READ for those interested in science or religion 3 Dec. 2011
By B. Cunningham - Published on
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. 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!!
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Thought-provoking read on science and religion 6 Dec. 2011
By Kristina - Published on
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.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
User-friendly Gem of a Journey 14 Jan. 2012
By lstieb - Published on
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!
Very informative without being biased 22 May 2014
By Zena Plvanik - Published on
Format: Paperback
Amazing book by a smart man. If you're thinking about buying this book, just do it, you won't regret it.
interesting and provocative 11 Jun. 2015
By David B Stone - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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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