Is Religion Natural? The Chinese Challenge

Project Lead: Dr. Justin L. Barrett
Post-Doctoral Researchers: Dr. Melanie Nyhof, Dr. Ryan Hornbeck, Dr. Justin Gregory
Thrive Center Staff: Gregory Foley, Tyler Greenway, Rebecca Sok
Project Dates: July 1, 2011 – June 30, 2014
Funded By: Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) at $1.6 million

As part of “The Chinese Challenge” project, funded by TWCF and led by Dr. Justin Barrett and Dr. Ryan Hornbeck in collaboration with Dr. Liqi Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, we have examined a variety of topics related to religion and cognition among the people of China. These topics range from the study of supernatural beings in ancient Chinese texts to the study of natural cognition in children. Initial findings from six Chinese Challenge studies were released in April 2014. Additional findings and full reports of the research are forthcoming as journal articles, books, book chapters, and infographics. Further information summarizing some of these findings and directing you to further resources is available through the below Work Projects.

Research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has converged on the thesis that tendencies toward religious and spiritual thought, feelings, and actions may be part of largely invariable human nature. The fact that the world’s largest nation—China—is officially secular, allegedly has a long history of dominant non-religious philosophies, and reportedly has a large proportion of atheists challenges the naturalness of religion thesis, doesn’t it? This project and its collection of selected sub-projects will address this big question empirically using state-of-the-art techniques. The project has been designed with two aims in mind:

  1. Scientifically address one of humanity’s big questions
  2. Create a blueprint for a new and growing body of scholars to continue asking and answering such questions in the world’s largest nation

The project is comprised of ten coordinated work-packages (WPs) involving 11 relevant experts, including collaborations between scholars from Fuller, University of Oxford, Boston University, Grand Valley State University, Cal State Fullerton, and the Chinese Academy of Science.

On conclusion of the project, the Chinese Challenge Conference was held in Hong Kong on April 23, 2014, where researchers from the Thrive Center for Human Development, Boston University, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and other institutions, presented initial findings from their research.

Read the Chartbook

Would you like to learn more about “The Chinese Challenge?” We created a chartbook that will tell you about the experiments we used, our findings, and the implications of this research. OPEN THE CHARTBOOK

View the Infographics

We created several infographics to help illustrate key aspects of the study that are easy to share with your colleagues or friends through email and social media. VIEW THE INFOGRAPHICS

Watch the Conference

Watch videos of the presentations that took place at the project capstone conference in Hong Kong. WATCH THE VIDEOS

Learn About the Work Projects

Continue scrolling on this page to read about each of the 10 work projects that make up “The Chinese Challenge.”

Work Projects

Further summaries of some of the findings are available here. Please click below to learn more about what each of the project’s work-packages has learned thus far.

  • Primary Investigators:
    • Deb Kelemen
    • Liqi Zhu
  • Summary: Work-Package 1, led by Dr. Deb Kelemen and Dr. Liqi Zhu sought to examine teleological reasoning (i.e., how we think about purpose or design). Previous studies have found that when forced to choose explanations for the origin or function of various things, events, or beings, participants preferred choices that included a purpose for those things, events or beings, over choices that lacked purpose, even among non-religious adults who habitually think in causal, mechanistic terms. Although previous research examining this cognition has been administered in primarily Western contexts, findings from their recent study in China are similar. Although Chinese students’ biases to purpose-based explanation are less pronounced than American students’ overall, when required to think at speed, Chinese undergraduates show equivalent tendencies to default to a purpose-based view of nature. The results of this research strongly suggest that a bias to see purpose in nature is a universal feature of human cognition that while not driven by cultural religiosity or explicit religious indoctrination, may provide a natural and pan-cultural foundation to religious belief.
  • Further Reading:
    • Kelemen, D., Rottman, J., & Seston, R. (2013). Professional physical scientists display tenacious teleological tendencies: Purpose-based reasoning as a cognitive default. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 1074-1083. doi:10.1037/a0030399
  • Primary Investigators:
    • Melanie Nyhof
  • Summary: Work-Package 2, led by Dr. Melanie Nyhof, examined intuitive beliefs about the relationship between the mind, soul, or spirit and the body. More specifically, Dr. Nyhof examined children’s perception of illness causation by focusing on different sources of illness (e.g., contagions, loss of vitalism or energy, psychological causes). Results revealed that children in China prefer contagion over vitalism as an explanation for illness and prefer vitalism over psychological and immanent justice causes. In the US study, the findings were similar. However, in comparing the data from the two countries, initial analyses indicate a greater preference for vitalistic explanations among the Chinese children. In comparing the data from the two countries overall, children in China were more accepting of multiple explanations for illness than children in the US. The findings suggest that vitalism does play a role in children’s understanding of illness and that this role is especially pronounced for children in China even though, overall, contagion is the most preferred explanation. In addition, there appear to be both age and culture-related differences concerning the acceptance of multiple explanations for illness. In line with several other work-packages in this project, these findings provide evidence that is suggestive of cognition foundational to religious belief.

Further Reading:

  • Primary Investigators:
    • Liqi Zhu
  • Summary: Liqi Zhu led Work-Package 3, which focused on beliefs concerning the afterlife and prelife of beings. Much of the previous research examining these beliefs has produced conflicting results, and therefore Dr. Liqi Zhu’s study possesses great potential to shed light on this area of study. Furthermore, this study importantly included both children and adults. Results from her studies showed that 77.0% and 63.9% of 4-5 years old preschoolers claimed humans and animals would die respectively, which was lower than adults’ responses (both 100%) and higher than the percent of preschoolers who believed artifacts would die (3.2%). Although fewer Chinese participants held an afterlife belief compared to Western counterparts, more than half of adults mentioned that thinking of an afterlife made them feel better (i.e., reported feeling comfortable and cherishing life) and those who did not believe in an afterlife reported a fear of death.

Further Reading:

  • Primary Investigators:
    • Justin Barrett
    • Ryan Hornbeck
  • Summary: Work Package 4 was led by Dr. Justin Barrett and Dr. Ryan Hornbeck and focused on children’s understanding of intentional agents. Significant among the accomplishments of this project is the further support for the preparedness hypothesis, which argues that children initially develop a general understanding of minds that readily accepts superhuman ability (i.e., perfect perception, perfect knowledge). Lacking in this area of research was an investigation of children from environments in which supernatural agents (e.g., ghosts, gods, or God) were less prominent. It could have been the case that previous support for the preparedness hypothesis was a result of repeated exposure to believed supernatural agents. China provided such an opportunity as children are often either introduced to deities as beings that are not actually believed in or they are introduced to various deities with varying characteristics. Results were similar to previous studies indicating that children readily grasp superhuman ability at a young age, and only later begin to selectively apply limitations to appropriate agents. These findings provide further support for the preparedness hypothesis and provide evidence for pan-cultural human cognition that enables and encourages religious belief.
  • Further Reading:
    • Foley, G. S., Greenway, T. S., & Barrett, J. L. (in preparation). Children’s understanding of intentional agents: Revisiting the preparedness hypothesis.
  • Primary Investigators:
    • Justin Barrett
    • Ryan Hornbeck
  • Summary: Work-Package 5 was also led by Dr. Justin Barrett and Dr. Ryan Hornbeck. This work-package focused on religious rituals in China and whether these rituals contained elements similar to those observed in other cultures. Studies examined both Special Agent Rituals (SARs; i.e., rituals in which the supernatural or special agent is acting) and Special Patient Rituals (SPRs; i.e., rituals in which the supernatural or special agent is being acted upon). Rituals examined by this study were primarily SPRs, but one SAR was identified, the Buddhist kaiguang Ritual Form Hypothesis (RFH) predicts that SARs should feature higher degrees of sensory pageantry—more “smells and bells”—than SPRs. In SARs these special effects help to communicate to ritual audiences that a supernatural agency is present and acting in some manner relevant to the ritual function. Kaiguang, however, scores low on sensory pageantry relative to SPRs. Kaiguang participants describe a ritual setting that is calm and, aside from the reading of sutras, fully without sound.

Viewed in context with Chinese cultural norms, however, these data may be verifying RFH logic in new dimensions. If the purpose of sensory pageantry in SARs is to communicate supernatural presence and activity via a sensory contrast with everyday settings, it can be argued that kaiguang achieves just that. Concerning everyday settings, Chinese urban landscapes tend towards an obstreperous phantasmagoria of bodies, sounds, and smells. In such contexts, a ritual that conveys near perfect silence may be a superior means of indicating that a special agent is present. These findings provide support for and interesting amendments to RFH, in turn indicating that natural cognition may underlie the structure of religious rituals.

  • Further Reading:
    • Hornbeck, R. G., Bentley, B., Hao, C., Bentley, B. D., & Barrett, J. L. (in press). Testing “Ritual Form Hypothesis” in China.
  • Primary Investigators:
    • Ryan Nichols
    • Liqi Zhu
    • Gang Huangfu
  • Summary: Ryan Nichols, Dr. Liqi Zhu, and Dr. Gang Huangfu led Work-Package 6, which focused on religion and moral development. One portion of this Work Package contained an experimental study and found that Chinese participants’ moral judgments of wrongness are considerably more sensitive to the filial relationship and the power relationship of the wrongdoer to the participant than are judgments of Western participants, with Chinese participants saying that the action of one’s father or one’s superior are less wrong than say Westerners. This study also found that Western participants’ judgments of others’ morally wrong actions predict what the participants believe they ought to do about it, but this relationship was not observed as strongly in Chinese participants. This finding somewhat clarifies the different forms of moral motivation at work in the two cultural traditions. A third finding from this study reveals that Chinese participants are willing to deceive secular authorities at considerably higher rates than are Western participants, a result found whether Chinese participants were faced with lying to police on behalf of their father, their supervisor, or a stranger. These findings provide interesting insights into the role culture plays in shaping moral attitudes and behaviors.
  • Further Reading:
    • Nichols, R. (2013). The origins and effects of Confucian filial piety: How culture was made to solve an evolutionary problem for parents. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 13, 201-230.
    • Nichols, R. (2011) A genealogy of early Confucian moral psychology. Philosophy East and West, 61, 609-629.
  • Primary Investigators:
    • Kelly Clark
    • Justin Winslett
  • Summary: Work-Package 7 was led by Dr. Kelly Clark and Dr. Justin Winslett and examined pre-Qin texts in order to test claims that the Chinese are non-religious and non-dualistic. Many philosophers of China and religious studies scholars claim that “the Chinese” are not religious, have no belief in an afterlife, have no high Gods, and are naturalistic. However, the results of Dr. Clark and Dr. Winslett’s study seem to instead provide confirmation of supernatural punishment theory. Texts were coded for the names of divinity (di, shangdi, and tian) and cross-coded for strategic knowledge (of people’s moral lives), and punishment of wickedness/injustice or reward of righteousness/injustice. In 28 out of 30 pre-Qin text, over 700 passages in support of the supernatural punishment theory were found. These findings provide further evidence of important religious similarities across cultures.
  • Further Reading:
    • Clark, K. J., & Winslett, J. T. (2011). The evolutionary psychology of Chinese religion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 79, 928-960. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfr018
  • Primary Investigators:
    • Justin Gregory
  • Summary: Justin Gregory led Work-Package 8, which examined Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) Theory. MCI Theory argues that minimally counterintuitive ideas (as opposed to intuitive or more counterintuitive ideas) are more likely to be remembered and passed on to others. Previously, no study had studied the transmission of MCI ideas as the product of an ecologically valid act of communication. The prior assumption has been that better remembered ideas are therefore more likely to be communicated (and transmitted). [not sure if results are in at this point]
  • Further Reading:
    • Hornbeck, R. G., & Barrett, J. L. (2012). Refining and testing “counterintuitiveness” in virtual reality: Cross-cultural evidence for recall of counterintuitive representations. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 23, 15-28. doi:10.1080/10508619.2013.735192
  • Primary Investigators:
    • Ryan Hornbeck
  • Summary: Ryan Hornbeck led Work-Package 9, which examined spirituality within virtual reality. Recent research has shown that residents in largely secularized countries often use immersive, virtual reality worlds as a source of so-called ‘spiritual’ experiences. Though this appropriation may seem curious at first glance, if religious/spiritual susceptibilities are part of human nature, one might expect that even in the absence of religious traditions (or, per China, in the face of systematic indoctrination toward naturalism/materialism), such drives will still find expression—albeit sometimes in novel, unorthodox ways. This seems especially the case in China, wherein preliminary work conducted by Dr. Hornbeck has revealed that ‘spiritual experiences’ or ‘spiritual transformation’ are common (24% of interviewees) reasons given for playing the online video game World of Warcraft. These findings suggest that human minds may predispose a striving for ‘spiritual’ experiences – a predisposition strong enough, apparently, that people will create these experiences from secular materials where religious traditions are largely absent. Work-Package 9 seeks to use the ‘coding and quantifying emotional experiences’ (CQEE) diagnostic scheme in conjunction with ‘Q’ sensor (a biofeedback device recently developed at MIT) wristbands and ethnographic fieldwork to map self-reports of ‘spiritual’ experiences in rigorous terms meaningful to CSR (with respect to cognitive systems involved in religious behavior, what are these ‘spiritual’ experiences?) and in the daily rhythms of those who pursue such experiences (in the context of each participant’s life, what needs or desires do these experiences satisfy?). In effect, this project bears on the Naturalness Thesis by using quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate why and how human minds in secular environments precipitate ‘spiritual’ experiences from ordinary materials. [not sure if results are in at this point]

Further Reading:

  • Primary Investigators:
    • Ryan Hornbeck
  • Summary: This project seeks to build upon the Cognition, Religion, & Theology Project (Oxford) successes in developing web-resources that facilitate new research at low-entry cost by developing a research hub especially suited to Chinese CSR. The hub will be located in Second Life (SL), an immersive, virtual world inhabited by millions of residents hailing from over 180 different ‘real world’ countries and wherein Hornbeck has previously managed a laboratory dedicated to CSR research (Hornbeck & Barrett, forthcoming). The hub will include an English and a Chinese face and will feature: (1) A museum that outlines key CSR concepts using colorful, interactive displays; (2) A lecture hall that will host monthly lectures, discussion groups and/or virtual poster sessions; (3) Access to Hornbeck’s existing laboratory and (4) A headquarters for an attached simulation project – the Chinese Spiritual Spaces Project (CSSP). The CSSP is a competition/experiment inspired by modeling and simulation techniques common to epidemiology and economics, wherein researchers comprehend highly complex processes by observing them as they grow from more basic, input conditions. In the CSSP, members of the Chinese SL community will be invited to submit designs for ‘spiritual’ environments that might attract other SL residents. Submissions will include detailed outlines for architecture/grounds & weekly activities as well as an exegesis unto why a proposed space is, in fact, ‘spiritual.’ Designs must not be associated (nominally, at least) with extant religious traditions, and the four most popular designs will be constructed in SL and given two-month leases (spread out over eight months so they don’t overlap). Following construction, CSSP winners will be given a small stipend to host events and activities aimed at generating a community and will supervise (with Hornbeck) the space’s daily affairs. This project, revolutionary (within CSR) in method and scope, extends from two primary objectives: (1) Create ‘spiritual’ environments for Chinese (the spaces will be open to everyone, but the complexities of the Chinese language might be prohibitive for most non-Chinese) who may lack them in ‘real’ life; (2) enable CSR researchers to carefully document the natural growth of modern, quasi-religious communities/phenomena from secular materials. [not sure if these features are all up and running or if any results are in at this point]
  • Further Reading:
    • csrportal.org