Elisa Järnefelt
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Scientific article in Cognition

This article reports experimental studies in which I with my colleagues found that non-religious adults both in the US and Finland increasingly assessed natural entities, such as giraffe, maple, rock and river, as purposefully made by some being when they had to rely on their spontaneous impressions of the entities. 

When looking into factors that might strengthen this type of inference even further, we found that, among these non-religious individuals, it was not the belief in God that consistently increased this kind of reasoning tendency. Instead, it was beliefs in agentive nature and the Earth (for example, a belief in Nature as a powerful being). 

These findings lend empirical support to the notions that, from its cognitive basis, the tendency to think that some being(s) has purposefully made things in nature is a feature of automatically forming everyday reasoning, not solely a cognitive tendency of religious individuals. 

The findings regarding the strengthening factors also suggest that this tendency does not increase further solely in relation to a monotheistic or Abrahamic God-belief but, in relation to a much wider scope of conceptions of supernatural or superhuman beings of which some are not necessarily regarded as religious or supernatural by the believers themselves (e.g., the idea of agentive Nature).

In the future, this can partly help to explain why people – both religious and non-religious – so often misunderstand the physical-causal nature of natural processes and instead explain the phenomena in relation to intentions and purposeful design. For example, a common misunderstanding regarding the evolutionary process is to think about evolution as an intentionally or purposefully designing force. 

Understanding the anatomy of underlying spontaneously forming biases in human reasoning is essential when developing more effective ways to teach scientific knowledge. 

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Elisa Järnefelt, Caitlin F. Canfield & Deborah Kelemen (2015): The divided mind of a disbeliever: Intuitive beliefs about nature as purposefully created among different groups of non-religious adults, Cognition, 140, 72-88. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.02.005