Cognitive sciences: a perspective on spirituality and religious experience

Kevin S. Seybold

in Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2012 | ISBN: 9780199571390
Published online August 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199665037 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Textbook in Public Health

Cognitive sciences: a perspective on spirituality and religious experience

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  • Public Health and Epidemiology
  • Palliative Medicine


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The cognitive sciences consist of a group of disciplines interested in studying the mind. Psychology, linguistics, computer science, artificial intelligence, philosophy, and neuroscience are just a few of the fields that contribute to this approach to mind, and religious and spiritual experiences are now included as subject matter in this method. This chapter will review how spirituality and religious experience are understood from the perspective of the cognitive sciences. Included in this review will be a discussion of current thinking in the field regarding the origin of religion. A leading approach to this issue comes from evolutionary psychology, which argues that behaviour (including religious behaviour) can be understood as evolving through natural selection, often involving the social emotions, altruism, and cooperation. An important controversy within this approach is the extent to which religion (and its associated behaviours and experiences) is an evolutionary adaptation. In addition, the question of why a person believes in God or gods will be considered, particularly the view that humans use ‘mental tools’ that bias how we develop all of our mental concepts, including religious/spiritual ones. The chapter will also review evidence from the neurosciences dealing with what religion/spirituality and the associated experiences look like in the brain. Is there a consistent set of brain areas or brain circuitry associated with religious and spiritual experiences? If so, what might that tell us about the function of religion? Finally, the chapter will consider what the evidence from the cognitive sciences and the neurosciences suggest regarding the relationship between spirituality and health, and what the putative mechanisms involved in this interface might entail for healthcare.

Chapter.  6172 words. 

Subjects: Public Health and Epidemiology ; Palliative Medicine

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