The Roots of Religion

Exploring the Cognitive Science

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Roger Trigg, Justin L. Barrett
Routledge Science and Religion Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     242 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The title of The Roots of Religion: Exploring the Cognitive Science of Religion does not best characterize the discussions presented within this volume. The only chapter that appears to offer anything substantive in the “exploration” of the cognitive science of religion is the introduction by editors Justin L. Barrett and Roger Trigg. Because it includes the developmental history and foundational tenets of the cognitive science of religion (CSR), this chapter could be used effectively as a standalone introduction to the subfield. Although the introduction is comprehensive, Barrett and Trigg want to limit their focus to a specific reception of the subfield: “this book is intent on examining the philosophical and theological implications of CSR” (9). This intention is borne out in chapters that range from expansive interpretations of CSR to nuanced warnings against its approaches and theories. Thus this valuable (and concise) volume that might better be subtitled: “Implications of the Cognitive Science of Religion” or “Reactions to the Cognitive Science of Religion” rather than “Exploring the Cognitive Science of Religion.”

To Barrett and Trigg’s credit, the reactions to CSR presented in The Roots of Religion are far from homogeneous. A reader looking to understand the various “philosophical and theological implications of CSR” might find the array of opinions included here to fairly represent scholarly debate on the subject. This debate appears to be the latest iteration of the historic conflict over the sui generis categorization of religion and religious studies. There seems to be a particularly defensive tone in some chapters; these could belong to a collection subtitled “Anxieties over the Cognitive Science of Religion.” For example, at the beginning of chapter 4, Aku Visala writes, “candidly speaking, we can say that some CSR writers are adamant in proving that their approach is more 'scientific' than other approaches to religion” (55), and the first line of Kelly James Clark and Dani Rabinowitz’s chapter 7 reads, “theism is no stranger to attack” (113). Alternatively, the potential for CSR to support, rather than attack, is presented in chapter 9, “Cognitive Science of Religion and the Rationality of Classical Theism.” T. J. Mawson’s expansive interpretation stretches theories such as the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device to imply that the deity of classical theism is “in some sense more natural to our minds than belief in other gods, which in turn is more natural than complete atheism” (149).

The reactionary defensive postures of both religious adherents and atheists are addressed by John Teehan in chapter 10: “CSR does not entail atheism, nor is it the conclusive case against a religious world-view that some fear/hope it to be” (167). Teehan's evaluation of CSR reflects the mixed reactions of authors included in The Roots of Religion and seems to offer some hope of mediation between them. The strength of this book is in offering something of a preview of how research coming out of CSR might be received by scholars working in various areas of religious studies. It is valid to assume that some scholars will, based on their individual interests, fear or hope for a “conclusive case against a religious world-view.” The Roots of Religion offers the revelation that these individual hopes or fears add up to collective concern over the implications of integrating cognitive (and evolutionary) science into religious studies. Barrett and Trigg offer an exploration then not of the cognitive science of religion, but the reception of it. Considering Teehan’s observation that “contemporary cognitive science, grounded in an evolutionary perspective, 'shakes the foundations' of religious belief in a more profound way than evolutionary theory has done so far” (167) The Roots of Religion is particularly valuable for scholars concerned with what will someday be considered the early reception history of the cognitive science of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Edward N. Surman is a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roger Trigg is emeritus professor of philosophy, University of Warwick, and senior research fellow at the Ian Ramsey Centre, University of Oxford. He was the Founding President of the British Society of the Philosophy of Religion, and from 2008-10 was President of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion. The author of many books on the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science, his most recent have been Equality, Freedom and Religion (2012) and Religious Diversity: Philosophical and Political Dimensions (2014).

Justin L. Barrett is the Thrive Professor of Developmental Science at Fuller Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology, where he directs the Thrive Center for Human Development. He is also a research associate of Oxford University’s School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography. He is author of scores of academic articles and book chapters concerning cognitive science of religion and three books: Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004); Cognitive Science, Religion, & Theology (2011); and Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs (2012).


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