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Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering is Associate Professor and Director of The Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago. A specialist in the cognitive science of religion, he is the author of The Belief Instinct (2011, W. W. Norton) and three other books. His experimental research on the intuitive foundations of afterlife beliefs, as well as other studies in the psychology of religion, are regarded as landmark contributions to the discipline. As a popular science writer, Jesse has also written on the subject of religion (specifically, on the nature of unbelief) for a wide range of media outlets, including The Guardian, Scientific American, Slate, and many others. His latest book is A Very Human Ending: How Suicide Haunts our Species (2018, Doubleday).


Religious Intuitions and the Nature of “Belief”

Issue: 8:3 (the thirty first issue)
Scientific interest in religion often focusses on the "puzzle of belief": how people develop and maintain religious beliefs despite a lack of evidence and the significant costs that those beliefs incur. A number of researchers have suggested that humans are predisposed towards supernatural thinking, with innate cognitive biases engendering, for example, the misattribution of intentional agency. Indeed, a number of studies have shown that nonbelievers often act "as if" they believe. For example, atheists are reluctant to sell the very souls they deny having, or to angrily provoke the God they explicitly state does not exist. In our own recent work, participants who claimed not to believe in the afterlife nevertheless demonstrated a physiological fear response when informed that there was a ghost in the room. Such findings are often interpreted as evidence for an "implicit" belief in the supernatural that operates alongside (and even in contradiction to) an individual's conscious ("explicit") religious belief. In this article, we investigate these arguably tenuous constructs more deeply and suggest some possible empirical directions for further disentangling implicit and explicit reasoning.