Workshop Religious Beliefs
Date: May 6th 2015

This workshop will explore the question of what religious beliefs might be. What are the cognitive mechanisms that give rise to them? How should we conceptualize them: as forms of make-believe, factual claims, or something else? The workshop brings together a psychologist, two philosophers and a theologian to discuss views on what religious beliefs might be, and implications of this for theology and psychology.

Keynote speakers

  • Helen De Cruz (VU University Amsterdam)
  • Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University)
  • Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam)
  • Gijsbert van den Brink (VU University Amsterdam)



9:30-10:30           Neil Van Leeuwen

“Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent-like Stimuli in Religious Practice”

10:30-11:00         Coffee break

11:00-12:00         Michiel van Elk

“A ‘Porous Theory of Mind’ underlies religious beliefs”

12:00-13:30         Lunch break

13:30-14:30         Helen De Cruz

“What philosophers of religion believe”

14:30-15:00         Coffee break

15:00-16:00         Gijsbert van den Brink

“I know that my Redeemer lives. The indispensability of factual claims for religious belief”


Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent-like Stimuli in Religious Practice

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University and University of Antwerp)

On one prominent view in cognitive science of religion, humans are wired to be hypersensitive to the presence of agents, where this hypersensitivity is a cause of belief in supernatural entities. Stimuli, such as patterns in clouds, that faintly resemble agent-caused stimuli trigger internal representations of agents. Such representations eventuate in belief, on this view, that there is a supernatural agent. Call this view “Agency Indicator Based Belief” (AIBB). I present three problems for AIBB. First, since ordinary beliefs are not subject to voluntary control, AIBB entails that stimuli-driven supernatural beliefs are not under voluntary control; I review evidence to the contrary. Second (relatedly), AIBB has a hard time making sense of the fact that different religious peoples have widely different responses to agent-like external stimuli. Third, AIBB suggests that supernatural beliefs should be debunkable, in the way that belief a snake is in the grass can be debunked by pointing out a curvy stick; but typical religious credence is not debunkable in this fashion. My view is that responsiveness to agent-like stimuli does play a role in religious credence and practice, but this role is more like the role of props in games of make-believe and theatrical play, as described by Walton (1990). On this view, many agent-like stimuli are incorporated into religious practice because they trigger agency-detection mechanisms, but there is considerable latitude in how they are incorporated, and their use is voluntary and practical setting dependent. Finally, I use this view to explain some anthropological findings of Luhrmann (2012) and experimental findings of Heiphetz et al. (2013, 2014). I call this new approach “Props in the Clouds.”

A ‘Porous Theory of Mind’ underlies religious beliefs

Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam)

In this talk I will first present a critical assessment of the ‘religion-as-byproduct’ view, according to which belief in supernatural agents is the result of the false positives generated by a hyperactive agency detection device and mentalizing abilities. Across a series of empirical studies we found no evidence for the supposed relation between religious beliefs and agency detection biases. Furthermore, in a large-scale study on autism and religion involving more than 100.000 participants, no evidence was found for the supposed relation between hyper-mentalizing and belief in God. Next, I propose the notion that believers are characterized by a different rather than a hyperactive theory of mind. I introduce an empirical investigation of the so-called Porous ToM (PToM), which refers to a ‘porous’ conception of the mind, into which supernatural entities and external thoughts can enter. We developed a PToM scale and confirmed its predictive validity for supernatural beliefs in different studies. The finding that believers are characterized by a PToM fits well with recent work in the field of the anthropology of religion and the psychology of paranormal beliefs.

What philosophers of religion believe

Helen De Cruz (VU University Amsterdam)

To contemporary philosophers, a project like that of Descartes, who aimed to construct a philosophy completely free of preconceptions and untested assumptions, might seem naïve or even pretentious. Nevertheless, in practice, a large part of analytic philosophy is conducted as if philosophy is free from the personal beliefs and baggage of its practitioners. With the rise of experimental philosophy and social epistemology, there is an increasing recognition that philosophical viewpoints and arguments are embedded within a broader cognitive and socio-cultural context. This paper presents a qualitative, empirical study of how personal beliefs and attitudes influence and interact with the professional work of philosophers of religion. My reason for focusing on this discipline is that philosophy of religion is regarded—both by insiders and outsiders—as the philosophical specialization par excellence where personal belief attitudes and philosophical work are intimately intertwined. This was strikingly exemplified by the PhilPapers survey, a large-scale survey of professional philosophers worldwide, where the majority of philosophers of religion leans toward or accepts theism (72.3%), compared to 11.7% of philosophy faculty members who do not specialize in philosophy of religion. I surveyed 150 philosophers of religion about their personal beliefs and attitudes. My results indicate a close connection (but still a distinction) between philosophical views and private beliefs, and diverse motivations, ranging from faith seeking understanding, philosophical education, personal religious beliefs, and a desire for proselytism, for choosing to specialize in philosophy of religion. I also found a surprising diversity of religious views (some quite heterodox) among philosophers of religion. I examine implications of these findings for work in philosophy of religion.

I know that my Redeemer lives. The indispensability of factual claims for religious belief

Gijsbert van den Brink (VU University Amsterdam)

Traditionally philosophers of religion have been discussing the question whether (and if so to what extent) religious views of life consist of factual truth claims. Whereas some of these philosophers seem to reduce (either in theory or in practice) religious belief systems to sets of factual propositions, others have argued for a non-cognitive, non-propositional understanding of religious belief. In their view, far from consisting in factual claims about reality, religious beliefs are e.g. concepts or stories in terms of which people express their basic trust, or their moral commitments, or commend a particular way of seeing the world, or report about certain experiences.  Drawing on work of Vincent Brümmer and others, I argue that whereas religious views of life cannot be reduced to the acceptance of a number of factual statements, neither can the indispensable role of such statements be denied. Factual statements (like “God exists”) can best be described as forming the constitutive presuppositions of religious belief. Moreover, the way(s) in which such factual beliefs arise in religious believers does not predetermine their truth or falsity.