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Steps to an Ecology of Mind

The meaning of the attempt of cognitive psychology to deal with religious phenomena is clearly reductive, at least in the exposition of Boyer and some other authors, as they attempt to describe ‘how religion works’ or to ‘explain religion’. Indeed, religion can become a kind of cognitive development associated with certain characteristics of the human mind, prone to host certain strange ideas, but still consonant with our cognitive structure. In this sense Boyer speaks of the ‘parasitic’ character of religious ideas, which lack any specific ‘cognitive module’, but rather live within other well identified mental structures, such as the ‘attribution of agency module’, the ‘moralizing codification processor’, or the ‘contingence managing unit’. The challenge is enormous for theology because there exists a broad question regarding the reality of religion, and also the danger that these theories could be construed as ‘factual’ explanations and, indeed, eliminate any notion of transcendence. It must also be said that this briefly reviewed research does not exclude any theological explanation and use. There is still a long way to go to assess its meaning for, and relevance to, theological explanations of salvation history. This must take into account a new mediation for the understanding of religious faith, and even for the reflexive approach to the theological endeavour. The initial approach has been offered and even if we deem the present research into religion and cognition as still quite immature and in progress, it is possible to draw some lessons; first, the need to rethink the meaning of religious experience in the light of the new knowledge between natural aptitude and the event of grace or divine gift. In this sense, it would be very helpful to rethink the different stages of salvation history as a development and succession of different cognitive models. Indeed it is still needed to trace the cognitive changes in the relationship between God and humans, as they unfold an evolutive path at different historical periods, for example through the mental structure linked to the idea of ‘covenant’, its precedents, and its development. The theology of faith may surely benefit from the new cognitive methods, as we are able to better locate what in human nature corresponds to the input we deem to be divine revelation.