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Neil Van Leeuwen — Religion as Make-Believe: A Theory of Belief, Imagination, and Group Identity

Religion as Make-Believe: A Theory of Belief, Imagination, and Group Identity (book cover)

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. Neuroscientist and philosopher 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.

Neil Van Leeuwen

Neil Van Leeuwen is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Neuroscience at Georgia State University and a recipient of the European Commission’s Marie Curie Fellowship. His research has been featured in The New York Times and The Atlantic and on NPR. His new book is Religion as Make-Believe: A Theory of Belief, Imagination and Group Identity.

Shermer and Van Leeuwen discuss:

  • His own personal religious journey (or lack thereof)
  • What is “make-believe” and “pretend play”?
  • Believe vs. make-believe
  • “I think” vs. “I believe”
  • Beliefs and imagination: “many religious beliefs are imaginings of the sort that guide make-believe play, though they are imaginings that become central to the religious actor’s identity and guide symbolic actions that express sacred values.”
  • Factual belief vs. religious credence
  • Four principles of factual belief:

    • If you factually believe it, you can’t help believing it.
    • Factual beliefs guide actin across the bard.
    • Factual beliefs guide inferences in imagination
    • Factual beliefs respond to evidence.
  • Tanya Luhrmann’s How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others
  • Ben Alderson-Day: Presence: The Strange Science and True Stories of the Unseen Other
  • What does it mean to “take God seriously”?
  • General religious credences vs. personal religious credences
  • Willing suspension of disbelief
  • Group identity
  • Sacred values
  • The Puzzle of Religious Rationality:

    • Solution 1: Religious belief as delusion
    • Solution 2: People are gullible
    • Solution 3: Religious belief as rational
    • Solution 4: Displaced content (Gould’s NMA)
    • Solution 5: Murky contents (God is 3 persons in 1)
    • Solution 6: No content
    • Solution 7: Belief in belief (Dennett)
    • Solution 8: Weak belief
    • Solution 9: A distinct cognitive attitude
  • What is “that still small voice” we all hear in our heads?
  • When people say they “hear the voice of God” what does that mean?
  • Normal “voices within” vs. hallucinations and psychoses
  • Psychiatrist Milton Rokeach’s book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
  • Anomalous psychological experiences
  • Sleep paralysis and other cognitive anomalies
  • Belief in angels and demons
  • Sensed presences
  • Empirical truths, religious truths, mythic truths
  • How people come to religious belief vs. how they leave religion
  • Witches and witchcraft.

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This episode was released on June 11, 2024.

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