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The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural

Belief in a deity or an afterlife could be an evolutionarily advantageous by-product of people's ability to reason about the minds of others

Jesse Bering

Figure 8. In an experiment designed to determine...Click to Enlarge Image

Although many psychologists have studied evolution's imprint on the human mind, scant attention has been given to one particularly remarkable human trait—our widespread belief in the supernatural. Could a belief in a deity or an afterlife be evolutionarily advantageous? Or are these beliefs a by-product of our ability to reason about the minds of others? The author and his colleagues have studied children to determine at what age they will believe that a spirit is trying to send them a message, or assert that a deceased agent (i.e., in the "afterlife") has attributes such as anger or thirst. The author argues that, despite the social quagmire surrounding all things religious, the rigorous study of supernatural beliefs by psychological science can be important for a complete understanding of human cognitive development.

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