The psychology of prayer and supernatural causation has received surprisingly little attention from empirical researchers. This paper discusses implicit belief patterns about the causal mechanisms by which God effects changes in the world. We offer a psychological account of belief in supernatural causation based on existing evidence on the efficacy of petitionary prayer and supernatural causation, incorporating mechanisms of psychological self-correction and rationalization, confirmation bias, and folk physics. We propose that religious believers ‘prefer’ modes of divine action that are subtle and indistinguishable from the natural course of events: given that the causal structure of our world is partly inscrutable and that supernatural causation is probably a fiction, beliefs in subtle and unascertainable modes of supernatural causation will be compelling and cognitively appealing because they are more susceptible to occasional confirmation and less vulnerable to repeated disconfirmation. This argument shows that, contrary to what some researchers have suggested, the truth value of religious belief is sometimes relevant in the cognitive science of religion. Religious representations are not only channeled through internal cognitive factors, but are also affected by the outside world, both directly (through experience and feedback) and indirectly (through evolution by natural selection). Researchers in the cognitive science of religion should not shy away from addressing the truth value of religions. In particular, no cognitive explanation of petitionary prayer will be satisfactory unless we take into account that it (probably) does not work.
Maarten Boudry (1984) is a postdoctoral fellow of the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO) at Ghent University. In 2011, he defended his dissertation on the epistemic structures of pseudoscience, consisting of a collection of papers that have been published in Philosophy of Science, Philosophia, the Quarterly Review of Biology, Science & Education, and Philosophical Psychology. He is co-editor, with Massimo Pigliucci, of a volume on the Philosophy of Pseudoscience, which is scheduled to appear in early 2013. His current research deals with the problem of irrationality from the viewpoint of evolutionary epistemology. Other research interests include the conflict between science and religion, methodological naturalism, and skepticism. Together with Johan Braeckman, he also published a book (in Dutch) on critical thinking (2011), aimed at a wider audience.