Last week I described some recent cognitive research on the (rather unfortunate) naturalness of creationist reasoning. Another important body of work in the “cognitive science of religion” concerns how religious ideas are transmitted between generations. And the name Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist from Washington University of Saint Louis, is rightfully synonymous with this well-known research.

Boyer’s detailed model provides something of a more nuanced version of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s view of religion being an ideological parasite that worms into the minds of unwitting hosts (i.e., gullible children) and inoculates them against all forms of secular reason. In Boyer's book Religion Explained, he lays out a very elegant scientific model that shows how the evolved human mind is especially vulnerable to religious concepts because they exploit our everyday, mundane, run-of-the-mill thought processes. What makes a particular concept “religious” or supernatural, says Boyer, is its counterintuitiveness—the extent to which it violates our innate assumptions about basic aspects of the natural world.

Take the spirit of Elijah, for example, who one evening every Spring between 1978 to 1983 sprinted invisibly through my house in Virginia and downed a glass of Manischewitz wine. That’s what I was led to believe by my parents anyway, who theatrically acted out this popular Passover ritual in which—once everyone at the Seder has dipped their hardboiled eggs in the Israelite’s tears and stuffed themselves sufficiently with Matzo ball soup and Gefilte fish—the youngest child at the table is instructed to go to the front door and invite Elijah inside. While the child’s standing there with the door open, his mouth agape and the hair on the back of his neck bristling, the spirit of Elijah sweeps through the house, tosses back a glass of wine at the Seder table, and then whisks away to the next Jewish home. (In reality, the father traditionally drinks the wine while the child is standing at the door and the empty glass is exhibited as evidence of Elijah’s passing through.)

As the youngest child in my own family, I had no idea who this Elijah character was and I doubt my secularised parents did either. It wasn’t until long after I started shaving that I discovered Elijah was actually a prophet mentioned in the Old Testament that some Jews believed would appear before the coming of the Messiah. Somehow over the centuries Elijah happened to get cast as an alcoholic ghost in this Passover ritual and now makes regular appearances in the American suburbs, crying wolf on the Messiah each new year and getting baited with Manischewitz just as Saint Nicholas is baited with Toll House Cookies. I can assure you, however, that I fell for it every time and that he scared the hell out of me.

Boyer would say that much of the reason I was so affected by the Elijah ritual is that the concept of a spirit who slips through walls and drinks from a glass with invisible lips violated my intuitive understanding of what a human being is and what a human being does. These counterintuitive aspects of Elijah, then, get us latter-born Jews to really perk up our ears when our parents tell us about this mysterious character.

Boyer sometimes uses the term ‘sticky’ to describe religious concepts. They’re especially hard to shake, he says, because they’re continually grabbing our attention by virtue of the fact that they challenge our innate understanding of the humdrum world. In Elijah’s case, it’s being a person and therefore having a mind that works like any person’s mind. That is to say, you didn’t have to be told that Elijah has a mind basically like ours; you just inferred that he’s got human thoughts, interests, and desires rather than, say, those of a red squirrel. Yet, then again, he’s not exactly like us after all because he’s also an invisible person. And that grabs our attention and makes him especially memorable.

With Boyer’s catalogue of supernatural ideas, just about any religious concept you can conjure up has this same basic formula: take a run-of-the-mill bit of the everyday and add a flash of color in the form of a contradiction in terms. It’s the reason my six-year-old Catholic nephew (it’s a long story) very passionately described for me recently—while whistling inadvertently through the gap that used to be his two front teeth—how Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Yet when I asked him who Jesus was, he couldn’t exactly say. Blowing off your own biological death isn’t exactly doable, and thus the Christian concept of resurrection is fabulous fodder for enticing over to the good Lord those little ones who’ve only just grasped the fact that death is irreversible.

The beauty of Boyer’s model is that it can account for otherwise mind-boggling cross-cultural variation in religious concepts. His counterintuitiveness formula explains why thousands of people flocked recently to a home in Bangalore city to witness what many hailed as a miracle. It seems a small marble statue of the 19th century Indian saint Shirdi Sai Baba fluttered its lashes during a routine cleaning and decided to spring open its left eye to have a peak at the world. Boyer’s model can also explain the Lord Ganesha phenomenon that occurred a few months prior to the blinking Baba case, just a stone’s throw away on the map in Mumbai. Statues of this elephant-headed deity, who happens to be the Hindu patron of sciences among other things, started slurping milk from spoons offered by religious devotees. What possessed the very first person to raise a tablespoon of milk to a piece of stone carved into the shape of an elephant’s trunk we may never know, but like the one-eyed Sai Baba these thirsty Lord Ganesha statues really got people talking.

The reason such religious statues garner our attention, argues Boyer, is that we have an inborn concept of what makes an inanimate object an inanimate object. Moving on its own accord, seeing, and having biological functions just aren’t on that list. So when word gets out that a lifeless artifact has breached natural law—bleeding paintings, crying figurines, blinking statues—the news spreads like wildfire, propagating myths, sparking debate, and renewing faith.

There are a few important caveats, however. First, in order for a concept to function properly as a religious concept, and thus to migrate successfully between minds, it must be “minimally” counterintuitive. That is to say, it can’t be so effortful that we can’t wrap our heads around it, such as an invisible tree that changes colors sometimes on Wednesdays, always Fridays and never Tuesdays, except every other week. These concepts are so cognitively taxing that they flicker out while we’re still scratching our heads over them, failing to ever register in the community mindset. For real staying power, a religious concept has to be comprehensible at the very least. It’s not that a thirsty chunk of ivory makes particularly good sense or is logical, but we can easily understand what a religious devotee means when they tell us about one.

Another caveat to Boyer’s formula is that not all minimally counterintuitive concepts are religious or supernatural. Rather, most such concepts, such as the idea of a skateboarding rodent named Stuart who dresses in cardigan sweaters, or a high school senior with spinnerets embedded in his wrists for expelling spider web silk, are clearly in the realm of fantasy. Unlike gods and spirits, these things are not generally believed by people to really and truly exist. Most studies in this area suggest that, when pressed, even young children can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

So why are we so god-awful sober and serious when it comes to religion? What makes religious concepts come to be believed as reality while other counterintuitive concepts are treated as harmless forms of entertainment? You don’t see anyone blowing themselves up over the provenance of Stuart Little’s trousers or consulting Spider-Man’s diary for clarification on his true feelings about abortion and sodomy. (With the possible exception of Mary Jane, as one of my students pointed out to me.)

For one thing, religious concepts are transmitted to children by adults who genuinely believe these concepts to be true. Recent research by Harvard University developmental psychologist Paul Harris and his colleagues, for example, has focused on preschoolers’ susceptibility to adult testimony. There are many things that children must take someone’s else word for: that the earth is not flat; that they have internal workings that make their bodies tick; that unwashed hands are covered with invisible germs; that behaviors are caused by a sponge-like organ inside peoples’ heads; or that there is or isn’t a God and an afterlife. One important take-home point from this research is that young children aren’t as gullible as you may think. At least, they don’t believe everything they hear from just anybody they hear it from. Rather, they’re pretty selective in whom they trust as providing them with factual information.

Harris has found that children “are likely to trust familiar informants; they doubt informants who have proven inaccurate or ignorant in the past; they mistrust informants who elicit dissent, rather than assent, from other people; and initially anyway, they are likely to trust confident informants.” In one study by Harris and his colleagues, preschoolers watch a character making a nonsensical assertion (e.g., that a particular type of fish lives in the trees) and then shown the audience’s reactions to this nonsensical assertion. On some trials, the audience is depicted shaking their heads and frowning as if saying “I don’t buy it” while in others they’re nodding along in agreement with the character. Then, when given two conflicting pieces of information later, on a completely different topic, children trust the audience favorite over the character whose unrelated claims were rejected earlier.

These findings explain why my nieces and nephews are always glancing over at their mothers whenever I tell them something new. Since I’ve played the role of the silly uncle with them before—hunting alongside them for monsters, telling them that there are elves scurrying about under the floorboards, that my cats can speak perfect English, or that I’ve made friends with a lonely giant in Ireland who’s anxious to meet them—they’ve come to regard me as a purveyor of fantastical fibs rather than veridical facts.

The role of their parents, on the other hand, is mostly to disconfirm the preposterous.  It’s to provide them with as clear-sighted a view of reality as they themselves have. For many parents this view is in desperate needs of the scientific equivalent of Windex, but regardless of this fact, most parents genuinely want to teach their children how to distinguish falsehoods from truth. According to Harris, then, religious concepts such as God and the afterlife are transmitted to children by many parents in the same confident vein as being told that the earth is round, that 2 + 2 = 4, and that Amy Winehouse has a few personal problems. You might think the above applies only to extreme views on religion—say, that there definitely is or isn’t a God—but in fact the same applies to the agnostic parent’s “nobody-knows-and-don’t-ever-let-anyone-tell-you-otherwise” type of answer, since it too is conveyed to children as an unflinching fact.

As a final note, if the type of research on religion I’ve been discussing lately in this column appeals to you, why not get involved directly? If you are a student interested in studying religion from the cognitive science perspective, you might wish to consider my own research center, the Institute of Cognition and Culture, at the Queen’s University, Belfast. My students and I are investigating everything from people’s implicit reasoning about the afterlife, to children’s moral behavior when told they’re being observed by an invisible person, to why confession feels so good. I’ll save all that for another post (my research is a bit Sartre, a dash of Darwin, and a lot of cognitive science), but it’s not too late to get your application in if you think you’re a strong prospect and you’re up for the challenge. Belfast has been in the news for some rather unfortunate reasons lately, but it’s also recently been hailed as the “Paris of the North” by the acclaimed Frommer’s Travel Guide. Okay, okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but Northern Ireland is indeed a fascinating place to live and study. And did I mention the Guinness? 

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.