To understand the nature of religious belief, we must look at how our minds process the world of imagination and make-believe.
We often assume that religious beliefs are no different in kind from ordinary factual beliefs—that believing in the existence of God or of supernatural entities that hear our prayers is akin to believing that May comes before June. Neil Van Leeuwen shows that, in fact, these two forms of belief are strikingly different. Our brains do not process religious beliefs like they do beliefs concerning mundane reality; instead, empirical findings show that religious beliefs function like the imaginings that guide make-believe play.
Van Leeuwen argues that religious belief—which he terms religious “credence”—is best understood as a form of imagination that people use to define the identity of their group and express the values they hold sacred. When a person pretends, they navigate the world by consulting two maps: the first represents mundane reality, and the second superimposes the features of the imagined world atop the first. Drawing on psychological, linguistic, and anthropological evidence, Van Leeuwen posits that religious communities operate in much the same way, consulting a factual-belief map that represents ordinary objects and events and a religious-credence map that accords these objects and events imagined sacred and supernatural significance.
It is hardly controversial to suggest that religion has a social function, but Religion as Make-Believe breaks new ground by theorizing the underlying cognitive mechanisms. Once we recognize that our minds process factual and religious beliefs in fundamentally different ways, we can gain deeper understanding of the complex individual and group psychology of religious faith.
This brilliant and controversial book reframes our understanding of faith. Van Leeuwen captures the complex nature of faith commitments accurately and with deft philosophical insight. He sees what people do—not what they think they do.
This is an important and richly stimulating book, perhaps the most important on the science of religion for a decade or more. It is required reading for philosophers of mind and religion, for those who work on the psychology of religion, and for all thoughtful people who care about the role of faith in public life.
Neil Van Leeuwen takes readers on a journey from children’s playgrounds to cave art, from imaginary friends to ghosts and gods, drawing on philosophy, psychology, and anthropology to mount a provocative argument that will delight some readers and vex others, but offer a worthwhile adventure for all.
This is a bold and persuasive effort to show that religious beliefs should not be conflated with straightforward factual beliefs. The argument is vigorous and combative. It will provoke lively and helpful discussion, especially among scholars of religion and philosophers willing to venture beyond standard analyses of belief.
Maintaining that religious beliefs and factual beliefs about the everyday world constitute different cognitive attitudes, Neil Van Leeuwen advances a theory that deftly integrates critical findings and insights from philosophy, cognitive science, anthropology, and history. This wonderful book glistens with careful argumentation, splendid clarity, consistent fairness, striking erudition, and what, ultimately, is remarkable wisdom.
A groundbreaking book that makes a substantial contribution to the scientific study of religion. Van Leeuwen’s distinction between factual beliefs and religious credences will help us make sense of some of the thorniest puzzles in the field.
- 312 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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