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Cognitive Theories

“Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary study of mind and intelligence, embracing philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, and anthropology.” Paul Thagard in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available online.

Recent cognitive theories have not yet been fully integrated into the social science of religion, but researchers have many opportunities to expand the scope of cognitive science (Bainbridge 2006).  Wuthnow (2007) provides an introductory overview of the issues, extant literature, and potential for research avenues with regard to cognitive theories and religion.

There are actually several distinguishable cognitive theories of religious phenomena, they are:

  1. Attribution of Intentionality: Perhaps the most widely influential theory currently in the cognitive science approach to religion holds that faith in supernatural beings is a cognitive error that naturally springs from the way the human brain evolved (Boyer 2001, Barrett 2004, Abbott 2003).
  2. Cognitive Consistency: Theories in this sub-category argue that humans have a natural need to form consistent mental models of the world, and thus they will exert effort to resolve any contradiction between two beliefs, or between a belief and a behavior (Festinger et al. 1956, Festinger 1957).
  3. Cognitive Efficiency: This kind of theory postulates that the human mind naturally seeks simple models of reality, and that humans will tend to avoid extreme cognitive effort. This perspective is similar to, but distinguishable from, cognitive consistency theories (Miller 1956, Newell 1990, Boyer 2001, Allport 1954, Bainbridge 1995).
  4. Modes of Memory: Harvey Whitehouse has argued that different styles of religion are based in different parts of the brain, specifically in different memory structures (Whitehouse 2004).
  5. Pragmatic Epistemology: Whereas some theories consider religion to be the result of cognitive errors, this theory argues that religion serves the interests of the individual and thus is true for that very reason (James 1948).


Abbott, H. Porter. 2003. “Unnarratable Knowledge: The Difficulty of Understanding Evolution by Natural Selection.” Pp 143-162 in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, edited by David Hermann. Stanford, California: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Allport, Gordon. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Boston: Beacon Press.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 1995. “Minimum Intelligent Neural Device: A Tool for Social Simulation.” Mathematical Sociology, 20: 179-192.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 2006. “Social Cognition of Religion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29 (5):463-464.

Barrett, Justin L. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Walnut Creek, California: Altamira.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. 1956. When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, Illinois: Row, Peterson.

James, William. 1948. Essays in Pragmatism. New York: Hafner.

Miller, George A. 1956. “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” The Psychological Review 63: 81-97.

Newell, Allen. 1990. Unified Theories of Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Wuthnow, Robert.  2007.  “Cognition and Religion.”  Sociology of Religion 68(4):341-360.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.
On its most basic level, religious belief refers to views toward the supernatural. Usually paired in research with measures of religious tradition and religious behavior, measuring religious belief allows researchers to gain insight into what respondents are thinking concerning the supernatural. One of the most common religious belief measures is whether or not respondents believe in God. A new strain of research is focusing not just on if individuals believe in God, but specifically what they believe God to be like. The images of God variables are used to create various scales that have proven to be highly predictive of attitudes and behavior. Probably the most common religious belief measure used in religious research is biblical literalism. This variable grouped with religious tradition and religious behavior is a common set of religious controls for any statistical model. Beyond these religious beliefs, a less-used list of other beliefs exists. Belief in Hell, Jesus, salvation, Satan, angels, demons, heaven, or the "end times" provide a rich palate of possible research opportunities dealing with religious belief. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:

View related items in Measurement Wizard Scales:

Religion conceptualized as a way of responding to life's problems, in contrast, for example, to political or psychotherapeutic responses. Without using the term, Richard F. Larson (1968) shows how to measure a religious problem-solving perspective.
"Life satisfaction is a cognitive assessment of an underlying state thought to be relatively consistent and influenced by social factors" (Ellison et al. 1989).
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