Is Religion Natural? The Chinese Challenge

Professor Justin Barrett
Fuller Theological Seminary

Project Summary

Research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has converged on the thesis that tendencies toward religious and spiritual thought, feelings, and actions may be part of largely invariable human nature. The fact that the world’s largest nation—China—is officially secular, allegedly has a long history of dominant non-religious philosophies, and reportedly has a large proportion of atheists challenges the naturalness of religion thesis, doesn’t it? 

From “the Chinese Challenge” project, which has now concluded, we have gathered more evidence that the cognitive mechanisms that allegedly encourage religious thought and action are present in contemporary (and were present in past) Chinese populations. It may be that, contrary to some scholarly suggestions, vitalistic reasoning (which allegedly underlies traditional Chinese medicine and other Chinese traditions concerning qi), may not be among those mechanisms. This evidence supports the claim that underlying religious expression throughout the world is a suite of cognitive mechanisms largely the product of normal human development in essentially any human environment. These mechanisms inform, constrain, and encourage cultural expression that we recognize as ‘religious.’ Special culturally specific and historically contingent conditions are not required to give rise to religion. In that sense, the naturalness thesis has been supported.

New questions raised by this study include:

  • Why do Chinese children and adults show a relatively weaker bias toward teleofunctional reasoning about the natural world? Is it a result of formal education differences or other cultural differences?
  • Why do ancient Chinese texts give evidence of high gods being associated with reward as much or more than punishment? How do these new data bear on the “fear of supernatural punishment” theory?
  • If vitalistic reasoning is so common among young children when thinking about illness and disease, including in the Far East, why was it so uncommon among Chinese children? Could it be that the relative absence of vitality reasoning in Anglophone cultures is not peculiar to them for the reasons currently thought (such as cultural neglect or override)?

Journal Publications

2013
Kelemen D, Rottman J, Seston R.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(4)
2013
Ryan Nichols
Journal of Cognition and Culture, 13 (201–230)
2011
Ryan Nichols
Philosophy East & West, 61 (4)
2011
Kelly J. Clark, Justin T. Winslett
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
2013
Ryan G. Hornbeck, Justin L. Barrett
International Journal for the Psychology of Religion

Project Details

Project Duration

1 June 201130 September 2015

Core Funding Area

Big Questions

Region of Activity

Asia

TWCF Number

0020

Amount Awarded

$1,481,954

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