Groundbreaking Research Illuminating How We Think About God


The impact of religious beliefs has been widely investigated by social scientists, and that science continues to develop. For example, there’s evidence that belief in God offered the evolutionary advantages of nurturing prosocial behavior and bonding across large groups. However, the psychological nature of religious belief itself has been relatively under-investigated. That is now changing with the work being undertaken by researchers as part of “Gods in Minds: The Science of Religious Cognition,” an initiative funded by grants totaling more than $3,000,000 from the John Templeton Foundation.

Sir John Templeton was concerned that humankind’s concepts of God are often limited. He was convinced that our present reality is one of knowing little about how the human mind engages with the idea of God or what he called “ultimate reality,” or how humans relate to God. Now, twelve teams of scholars—examining cultures from the U.S. to India to Afghanistan, and individuals from young children to adolescents to adults—are asking about the cognitive processes and representations that shape the human mind. Online data is being gathered from more than a dozen countries across four continents, and from religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists. This groundbreaking work aims to integrate the disparate insights that arise from different schools of psychology and help shift the scholarly focus from questions about the effects of religious thinking to questions about the nature of religious belief.

People experience the presence or absence of God in a myriad of ways. Some are firm in their belief that God exists, while others are equally certain that God is nonexistent. Some feel the divine is akin to a person with whom one can have a relationship; for others, the divine is impersonal or plural, like a set of forces that exist within the cosmos.

The complexity of religious belief is a crucial variable in this new work. Theory of mind—that is, the capacity for reasoning about the content of another mind—is utilized in some of the projects. One team is looking at how mental health—in the form of depression, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and autism spectrum disorders—impacts religious cognition. They are also considering common religious experiences such as the dark night of the soul, and the loss of boundaries reported in various kinds of ecstatic religious experience.

Another area concerns the psychological notion of attachment, as developed by psychotherapist John Bowlby. His empirically-verified schema describes how children experience the love of their parents, from securely dependable to disturbingly untrustworthy, and tracked the substantial impact that this early sense has upon an individual’s subsequent relationships. But how might an individual’s attachment style, as it is called, affect their perception of God? And how would this possibly impact psychological wellbeing?

The research teams are exploring these fundamental questions and ideas, and all twelve of the projects, listed below, are setting the framework for how we think about and understand God.

  • Jeff Larsen and Michael Olson of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, and Ralph Hood of the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, are investigating cognitive representations and visual imagery among Christian perceptions of Jesus.
  • Paul Bloom and Konika Banerjee of Yale University are looking at how beliefs in God relate to the sense that life’s events have a reason and direction, and even whether atheists indulge in “karmic bargaining.”
  • Kathryn Johnson, Adam Cohen, and Morris Okun of Arizona State University, and Joshua Hook of the University of North Texas, are asking whether abstract representations of God can be measured, and how the qualities of divine transcendence, ineffability and mystery develop.
  • Jennifer Talevich, Stephen Read, and Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California are using computational models to investigate attachment to God, and how humility before God manifests itself cognitively.
  • Rebekah Richert of the University of California, Riverside, is examining the developmental trajectory of representations of God, including how children’s ideas about God relate to those of their parents.
  • Liane Young of Boston College and Adam Waytz of Northwestern University are bringing together an interdisciplinary team ask how perceptions of God’s mind change across development and how theory of mind impacts religious cognition.
  • Pehr Granqvist of Stockholm University and Mary Main and Erik Hesse of the University of California, Berkeley, are developing a parallel to the Adult Attachment Interview, the Representation of God in Relation to the Self Interview, and will use it to investigate how mental representations of God are linked to more general attachment representations.
  • Ryan McKay of Royal Holloway, University of London, Jonathan Jong of Oxford University, and Jamin Halberstadt of the University of Otago, New Zealand, are studying how negative emotions affect people’s belief in God, and conversely how belief in God impacts experiences of negative emotions.
  • Frank Fincham and Ross May of Florida State University and Shanmukh V. Kamble of Karnatak University, India, are looking at the construction of representations of God and gods in large samples of adults and children in different religious cultures.
  • Carissa Sharp and Zhen Cheng of the University of Oregon are researching the structure of representations of God, with a special emphasis on understanding how and why people differ in thinking about God, primarily in terms of one role (e.g. creator) versus multiple roles (e.g. savior, judge, king).
  • Adam Green, Fathali Moghaddam, and Zach Warren of Georgetown University are examining whether fundamental processes involved in the perceptions of causality are linked to the development of belief in God.
  • Robert McCauley of Emory University and George Graham of Georgia State University are investigating how the study of abnormal psychology might illuminate the normal processes underlying cognitive representations of God in healthy individuals.

More information about the Gods in Minds initiative can be found here.