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Why Religion is Persuasive: How Religious Rhetoric Taps into Intuitions Underlying Religious Thought


Empirical reality often clashes with our scientifically uninformed intuitions. These intuitions would lead us to believe that the Earth is stationary while that burning yellow light in the sky is the celestial body that moves. Though inaccurate, these intuitions provide enough of a working mental model to suit our needs. One could pass through life believing in a geocentric solar system and function properly, as generations upon generations of human beings did. Many of our intuitions and modes of perception were not cobbled together by evolution as tools for discerning truth, but rather for building approximations of reality that were useful to our ancestors. A number of skewed ways of thinking (from a scientific perspective) have come down to us and are well known to psychologists. A few prominent examples are confirmation bias, self-serving bias, in-group bias, group consensus bias, and personification bias (Newberg and Waldman 253-257). These biases are often the intuitive “default” in our thinking and take conscious effort to suppress. However, the fact that these biases can produce false conclusions does not entail that any thinking influenced by them must lead to false conclusions. Take, for example, group consensus bias. That a group of experts believe something can be a good reason to believe that it is probably true, though with a different group a consensus would not provide a good reason to believe it at all. The point here is simply that these intuitive biases are legion in our thinking.

Among these built-in proclivities for thinking in certain ways are religious and supernaturalist biases. Just as human beings are biologically “prewired” to learn language from their social environment, thinking in terms of the supernatural may also be inborn. With language the specific semantic content is not inborn, but the general proclivities are there. Perhaps learning religious concepts comes naturally in a similar way. This isn’t to say that people are born with any innate “knowledge of God” or sensus divinitatis, but simply that human beings are generally susceptible to thinking in terms of religious conceptualizations (which are almost always in abundant supply in the surrounding culture, particularly in its rhetoric). Developmental psychology has shown that children are often intuitive creationists (Kelemen 295-296). Indeed, cognitive scientist Jesse Bering tells us that, “By her own accounts, even Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind from nineteen months of age, spontaneously pondered, ‘Who made the sky, the sea, everything?’ prior to being taught how to communicate” (Bering, “Creationism”). These examples show why empirically vacuous claims about gods, souls, afterlives, and so on are rhetorically effective: they fit well with people’s prescientific intuitions. In this paper I will explore how these intuitions shape beliefs about gods as supernatural agents, drawing on examples from the Koran, before finally considering their impact on beliefs about the soul and related afterlife beliefs.

Explaining our surroundings and the situations that we experience is a primary human drive. We create order out of chaotic environments and complex phenomena through language, constructing narratives and myths to situate ourselves within the larger sphere of the world. One of the prime reasons for these myths and narratives is to establish one’s relationship to other human beings, to events, and even to oneself. This is not just a creative process, where narratives and myths are plucked from the imagination without constraint, but a process where our senses and psychology interplay and interact to mould the stories that we tell and the beliefs that we hold. And as with any way of understanding the world, we often feel that there are better or more correct kinds of explanation which compete with other explanations. Thus explicative and explanatory narratives and myths—and their connected belief systems—often use rhetoric to sway opinion in their favor.

Where do God and religion fit into this process? The pantheon of deities and their central role in various cultures have always played an explanatory role in our mythic narratives. The Koran (mirroring many other holy books) says: “It was God who created the heavens and the earth” (14:31). But why do so many people find this type of rhetoric persuasive? The answer is that it is natural for human beings to think in terms of agents acting upon the world, and gods are agents (Whitehouse 30).

Our physical and mental world is full of agents, and our minds are constantly inferring their actions. If the neighbor’s lawn has been mown, even if it was not directly witnessed, we automatically infer that either she has cut the grass or hired another human being to do so. The inference of agency is ubiquitous as a mental tool for Homo sapiens. Interpreting a strange creaking sound in the night as an intruder’s foot upon a squeaky board—not simple temperature contraction—utilizes what Justin Barrett has dubbed our mind’s Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD) (Barrett, “Foundations” 31-32; Tremlin 77-78). As a mental tool the inference to agency is nearly a default cognitive perception (Boyer 145). Indeed, as Todd Tremlin puts it, “Because agents are the most relevant things in the environment, evolution has tuned the brain to quickly spot them, or to suspect their presence based on signs and traces” (Tremlin 76). Why this is so makes perfect biological sense. The cost of false positives—such as thinking that a coiled rope is a snake at first glance—is very low, resulting in a mere shock. But the result of a false negative—thinking that a snake is a rope—can cost you everything in biological terms (Guthrie 50-56).

Extending this principle into the social realm, it is easy to see why we are always looking out for agents. If a husband comes home smelling like flowers, his odor may have been caused by a walk through a blooming field, or it may be the perfume of another woman that rubbed off on him. To the wife, the nonagent explanation is of little consequence, but the explanation positing another agent carries grave consequences. Thus, even where no obvious agent is involved, inferring that an agent was responsible is a seductively powerful explanatory scheme, as it should be. For, as in the lawn mowing example above, these types of explanations often turn out to be correct. If an event or circumstance needs to be explained, positing an agent often does the job nicely.

However, this tactic becomes trickier when explaining events that no natural agent—human or animal—is capable of producing. In these situations human beings often keep the inference of agency, but modify the type of agent involved. Supernatural agents are thus inferred from situations where no natural agent could possibly provide a plausible explanation. Consequently, these situations often invoke questions of a religious nature. Sacred texts, such as the Koran and the Bible, often imbue phenomena that can be understood entirely naturalistically (in our contemporary scientific age) with supernatural agency. The resulting rhetoric is deeply ethos-empowered: the suite of existential questions present in all human cultures—Where did we come from? How did we get here?—are often answered by positing an overarching supernatural agent: the Deity. With a supernaturalistic explanatory scheme in place, explaining causation in nature and causation in large-scale social trends by reference to this deity-agent invokes a deeply ethos-driven rhetorical effect. Who can match the credibility of the Creator of the universe? To get to the root of this, certain aspects of human psychology must be unpacked.

Within human culture the ubiquity of—and massive variation in—religion and supernatural belief are defining characteristics of our species. Critiques which claim that supernatural beliefs are as absurd as obvious fictions like Santa Clause or fairies are caricatures that misunderstand the issue. Such superficial critiques fail to critically evaluate the role that supernatural beliefs play, why the human mind is so apt to hold them, and why they are persistent even in the face of naturalistic explanations. As psychologists Justin Barrett and David F. Bjorklund write,

Belief in gods requires no special parts of the brain. Belief in gods requires no special mystical experiences, though it may be aided by such experiences. Belief in gods requires no coercion or brainwashing or special persuasive techniques. Rather, belief in gods arises because of the natural functioning of completely normal mental tools working in common natural and social contexts (21)

As previously mentioned, human beings believe in gods in part because gods act as agents, and agents—at least natural ones—are indisputably part of the world. And, as Barrett points out, quite ordinary cognitive functioning can cause human beings to hold extraordinary beliefs. But although agents are a normal part of our physical and mental life, and gods are agents, gods are still rather distinctive from natural agents. As Barrett and many other cognitive scientists of religion point out, gods fall into a class of concepts that are “minimally counterintuitive.”

Minimally counterintuitive (MCI) concepts typically violate one (or a few) intuitive assumptions about a conceptual category. Barrett’s illustration is clarifying:

Create an MCI the following way. First, take an ordinary concept, such as ‘tree,’ ‘shoe,’ or ‘dog,’ that meets all of the naturally occurring assumptions of our categorizers and describers. Then violate one of the assumptions. For instance, as a bounded physical object, a tree activates the nonreflective beliefs governing physical objects, including being visible. So make the tree invisible (otherwise a perfectly good tree), and you have an MCI (Barrett, “God” 22).

Distinguishing gods as minimally counterintuitive is an important step in understanding the intuitive (and by extension rhetorical) pull that they have on the human mind. For instance, if I were to tell a group of people that there is a tree on campus that could sing songs, turn neon purple on command, and fly like a helicopter, most would be incredulous and my rhetoric relaying the story would fail. However, if I relayed a minimally counterintuitive tree concept, like a tree that could hear one’s whispers on moonlit nights and grant wishes, it would be more likely to convince. (Notice the social component of this more believable concept.) By contrast, flatly counterintuitive ideas are not useful in for perceptual schemata. For instance, a god that eats spaghetti with a water hose, drinks dirt, and exists only on every third Thursday won’t last long in the minds of human beings. That god would be too outlandish; in the jargon of cognitive science of religion, it wouldn’t achieve a cognitive optimum (see, for example, Todd Tremlin’s Minds and Gods and Harvey Whitehouse’s Modes of Religiosity).

On the other side of the coin, a god that is a normal person except for having the ability to make magic rocks won’t last as an idea either—that would be too mundane. There are many minimally counterintuitive supernatural concepts that are not gods—such as ghosts, ancestral spirits, and angels—but they differ from gods in very important respects. For one, as Todd Tremlin explains, gods have more social relevance:

Ghosts, witches, and similar representations go so far as to activate our social mind systems, including the mental mechanisms of social exchange. As a result, these kinds of representations hold a special salience the world over. Usually, though, they are treated as agents that need to be dealt with as one deals with other humans. What these concepts ultimately lack is the counterintuitive property that makes gods the focus of serious religious commitment: full access strategic information, including people’s moral qualities. Only god concepts capitalize on the mind’s most powerful cognitive systems and have the counterintuitive properties capable of generating serious personal and social commitment (Tremlin 122).

As Tremlin notes, the most cognitively optimal concepts for gods are the ones that utilize an anthropomorphic template and violate it in a strategic way, such as having omniscient access to social information.

This access to strategic information brings us to another key concept about how gods are constituted in the human mind—theory of mind. This useful perceptual schema evolved as a specialization of our hypersocial species because it has particular survival value (Tremlin 80). For its intuitive characteristics it is dubbed the Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM) by Tremlin (80). Further discussions about the theory of mind’s role in religious cognition can be found in Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust, Justin L. Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, and Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. Whether hypothesizing what is going on in the mind of a sexually competing peer, or in the mind of a potentially deadly enemy or animal, an adept and engaged ToMM is exceedingly important. When we recognize that we are interacting with another agent,

Our knowledge of agents links physical causality to mental causality. Agents, we intuitively assume, have minds. They are things that think. Agents have feelings, intentions, and an array of private beliefs and desires. Their behaviors, we also assume, are motivated by these beliefs and desires (Tremlin 80).

Being able to anticipate the potential actions of other agents because we know that they possess a mind—a mind that can feel hunger, pain, lust, or love and act on those desires—is one of the vital aspects of human social life. Indeed, one of the primary impairments of autistic children is that they lack the ability to theorize about other minds (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith 37). Since the ToMM is primarily a social navigation and survival tool (TOMM is only useful in a world with other minds), and the human social world is of central importance to human beings, the primary type of mind that we attribute to agents is the one that we understand the best—our own. This may be why gods have minds with human characteristics.

Carrying this forward, Tremlin argues that all god concepts are the result of suspecting the presence of an agent and then theorizing about what is going on in its disembodied mind:

First, of all the objects in the environment, agents matter most. The connection?—gods are agents. Second, humans understand the world, and particularly agents, in light of minds. The connection?—gods have minds. These facts are exceedingly trivial, but they are also exceedingly explicative. They tell us exactly what kinds of things gods are and how we think about them (86).

If this theoretical framework is correct, it also explains the variation that we see among the complete pantheon of deities. It has long been noted in religious studies that the deities of a culture often reflect the values and characteristics of that culture. For instance, the sometimes brutal depictions of Yahweh in the Old Testament of the Bible reflect the cultural landscape of the time, and the uncompromising yet merciful depictions of Allah in the Koran mirror the mind of Mohammed and his culture. Indeed, as Paul Froese and Christopher Bader put it:

The idea that one’s God reflects something essential about oneself is a popular notion among religionists and nonreligionists alike. The Book of Genesis is clear on the matter: ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image after our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26). Social scientists and psychologists tend to reverse this causal order and argue that individuals anthropomorphize the idea of the supernatural to reflect cultural values and desirable human traits (465).

So supernatural beliefs—including beliefs about gods—are formed out of concepts and perceptions that arise in the natural human mind. Although this does not preclude the existence of the supernatural, it provides a naturalistic framework where we can study and explain supernatural beliefs, and tie them into religious rhetoric present in both holy texts and in the culture at large.

Supernatural concepts (including those about various deities) are usually not the abstract metaphors or philosophical yearnings found in some intellectual schools of thought. Rather, they are practical, explanatory, and reified systems of perception that carry rhetorical weight. Impersonal, noninteracting deities are within the realm of philosophical arguments; but practical and acting deities can have actionable rhetoric attached to them. As Tremlin notes:

It’s telling, too, that in religions that teach the existence of some ultimate power or impersonal divinity—the forces of Tao, Brahman, and Buddha-nature, the creator gods of many African tribes and of early American deists—such ideas are almost completely ignored in favor of more personal or practical deities (123).

Indeed, the simple American invocation “God bless” is quite illuminating on this point. Unpacked, the statement implores a supernatural agent to interrupt the causal structure of reality on behalf of a person or group. Unless God is an active agent in the world, His prominence is drastically reduced, and the rhetoric attached to Him is lame. As Pascal Boyer writes: “First, religious concepts are represented by people mostly when there is a need for them. That is, some salient event has happened that can be explained in terms of the god’s actions” (Boyer 138). Thus, one of the primary functions of the rhetoric of supernatural agency in the Koran and other holy texts is to point to prominent events. When the salient event has been proffered, the explanation that it was the result of an acting agent fits perfectly with the profile of human cognitive patterns. Given that humans are already prone to see events as the products of agency, the perceived understanding that a listener gains will be especially rhetorically effective if the supernatural agent is imbued with a theory of mind closely related to the listener’s culture.

Natural events, scientifically understood, are impersonal and lack intentions. But events like earthquakes deeply and personally affect human beings. The mode of thought that understands such events as the intentional actions of an agent with a human-like mind will be advantageous, for it imparts a semblance of social understanding of the events. The agents offered as explanations are particularly memorable minimally counterintuitive god concepts with relevant strategic information. This makes a superbly efficacious recipe for religion because it is both biologically primed and culturally transferable. It is no wonder that 19th- and early 20th-century secularists’ predictions that religion would wane as scientific knowledge increased have largely failed to materialize.

Science cannot explain events in the socially salient and relational manner that religion does. While it can and does explain cause-and-effect relationships between human beings and the natural environment (such as climate change), it cannot offer intentional or agency-driven accounts of nature. This is one of the reasons why some philosophers of science have remarked that scientific thinking does not come naturally in explaining nature in terms of natural cause and effect. In A Grammar of Motives Kenneth Burke’s pentad of dramatism contains the elements act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. But scientific explanations often leave out major elements—notably mind and intent—relating to agent, agency, and purpose. In other words, there is no Zeus intentionally lobbing lightning bolts. So a naturalistic construal of lightning may be less psychologically satisfying because there is no relational agent, and hence no drama or social meaning. Thus scientifically explicative rhetoric lacks many of the primary ingredients that humans find relevant. Since the human mind evolved in a manner that biases explanations of salient events to include some form of supernatural agency, religious rhetoric invoking supernatural agency will always enjoy an advantage (at least to some individuals) over scientific explanations.

Salient events are used heavily in the rhetoric and narrative of the Koran. One illustrative passage reads:

It is He who has made the earth a resting-place for you and traced out routes upon it that you may find your way; who sends down water from the sky in due measure and thereby resurrects a dead land …; who has created all living things in pairs and made for you ships and beasts on which you ride, so that, as you mount upon their backs, you may recall the goodness of your Lord. (43:10-11)

In the preindustrial society of the Middle East where Islam was born, seasonal changes held an important place in the minds of inhabitants. Indeed, the natural climate cycle was an intimate part of their lives. The climate-related events noted in the Koranic passage above could easily be interpreted as the intentional actions of an agent. The passage conforms to the conceptual framework sketched out previously. There is a salient event (the seasonal changes that alter the biosphere) that needs to be explained. A nonnatural agent must be inferred since the scope of the action outweighs a natural agent’s abilities. This supernatural agent is minimally counterintuitive and has access to strategically important social information, making it a god. And with the culture supplying the theory of mind, this god becomes an intentional and relational being with localized characteristics. As Theodore Jennings points out, “explicative use of god-language is important not only because it is so widespread, but also because it answers to a basic human need: the need for pattern, order, regularity” (152). The rhetoric of supernatural agency generates conceptual coherence out of the world very effectively.

The presence of these rhetorically effective cognitive patterns in human beings is fairly well established, though they may not be perfectly understood or described. However, human beings and their ways of thinking vary greatly, and not everyone perceives the world in supernatural ways, or in the locally orthodox religious manner. Today we find scientific naturalists and unorthodox religious dissenters, and it seems that even in the days of the Koran there were skeptics that needed convincing of its supernatural claims.

As the rhetoric of the sacred text reveals, agency is not universally inferred by everyone for all situations. Addressing unbelievers, the Koran asks: “Do they not reflect on the camels, and how they were created? The heaven, how it was raised on high? The mountains, how they were set down? The earth, how it was made flat?” (88:17) This rhetoric implies that only an agent—Allah—can account for the origins of the things in the world. Indeed, this rhetoric seeks to legitimize a specific theological message through an explanation of events. Jennings notes that “Explicative god-language is the use of god-language to identify a structure which explains an event or to explain or ‘legitimate’ structure” (159). The structure that this Koranic passage seeks to explain is that of the world. It is working off of the tacit assumption—an intuitive explanation in the mind of the reader—that an agent is required. Crafting its questions in a manner that begs the inference of agency (The camels—how were they created?) is a rhetorical device to persuade the reader of the legitimacy of the Koran’s answer. Needless to say, the agent in this scenario is Allah, and He has all of the previously unpacked characteristics of god concepts that are intuitively compelling to the human mind. If this rhetoric isn’t enough to convince the audience of the rightness of the Islamic conceptualization of the world, the passage goes on to describe that it is aimed at those who “turn their backs and disbelieve,” and that if they do not submit to its teachings, “God will inflict on them the supreme chastisement” (88:25-26). Thus Allah is shown to have access to strategic social information (one’s beliefs), making Him not only a very salient agent in the world, but one whose rhetoric is best heeded.

Interpreting world events or the world’s condition as the intended result of a supernatural agent is a hallmark of Islamic theology. As Taner Edis writes:

There is plenty of popular superstition and a tendency to see natural events in terms of divine reward and punishment. For example, after earthquakes in Muslim lands, which result in much more devastation than in technologically advanced countries, some popular preachers will invariably declare that the quake was a divine punishment brought on by Western consumer ways, or maybe they allowed too many women to uncover themselves (85).

Indeed, the religious teachers that make such pronouncements are utilizing God as an explanatory device, and these pronouncements flow directly from a literal reading of the Koran. Such pronouncements pepper the text: “It is He who ordains life and death, and He who alternates the night with the day. Can you not understand?” (23:80). While many believers interpret these passages in a metaphorical way, and many religious scholars would scoff at interpreting earthquakes as divine will, Islamic and contemporary American culture make it obvious that there are many people who do not see God as a metaphor. These believers see Him as an active supernatural agent with real causative powers in the world, powers that are not sublime or ambiguous, but matter of fact in the manner of God caused B because of A. Thus the rhetoric that taps into this point of view will undoubtedly be persuasive to many.

The rhetoric of supernatural agency is so effective not only because it works in a top-down trajectory, but from an eruptive bottom-up one as well. The Koranic passages that try to convince us of the explanatory power of God in observed events and situations can be generalized (with some caveats) to similar forms of rhetoric in other sacred texts and in religious discourse. It works in a top-down manner by tapping into cognitive pathways and modes of thinking that are nearly ubiquitous among human beings. It is utilized in an eruptive bottom-up fashion by its articulators because they have the same general cognitive architecture as every other human being. The detection or inference of agency, the application of theory of mind to this agent or agents, and the minimally counterintuitive characteristics of god concepts makes for a deeply compelling and deeply convincing recipe for religion. That this rhetoric has been enshrined as sacred text in the Koran and other holy books follows from these observations. Indeed, the rhetoric argues for and articulates the very way that many people see and view the world, its events, and their interrelationships. As Jennings writes: “The use of god-language to display the antecedent conditions of causality as a mode of explication … can be seen as a specific form of such a logo-logical or meta-explicative use of god-language” (159). God and the pantheon of other postulated deities serve a deeply human need—giving structure and meaning to the world as we humans have evolved to perceive it. This is why the rhetoric of supernatural agency is—and probably always will be—a powerful part of human communication.

Souls are a another powerful part of the rhetoric of religion. Without an intuitive belief that we possess an immaterial essence instead of just a biological brain, threats of hellfire or promises of paradise would hold little persuasive value. Again, we can look to developmental research with children to see the most intuitive default thinking in humans:

[Jesse Bering] put on a puppet show for a group of pre-school children. During the show, an alligator ate a mouse. The researchers then asked the children questions about the physical existence of the mouse, such as ‘Can the mouse still be sick? Does it need to eat or drink?’ The children said no. But when asked more ‘spiritual’ questions, such as ‘does the mouse think and know things?’, the children answered yes (Brooks 31).

Belief in souls requires a dualistic conception of human beings where the mind of an individual is conceptually separable from the body. Unlike a scientific, monistic view of individuals where the mind is an epiphenomenon of the living brain, a dualistic conceptualization sees individuals as having a soul that “is typically represented as the conscious personality” (Bering, “Souls” 453). The alligator-and-mouse experiment bears this out. From an early age human beings (across cultures) conceptually separate cognitive and biological processes, and even though we learn that biological bodies die, it is much more difficult to conclude that immaterial personalities die (Pyysiainen 94). There are several reasons for this difficulty. Bering’s “The Folk Psychology of Souls” cites a study conducted with 5-month-old infants ascertaining their ability to reason about the law of continuous motion as it applies to human bodies:

Like any material substance, human bodies cannot go from A → C without first passing along the trajectory B (a continuous space between two points). For inanimate objects, infants are surprised (i.e., look longer) when the object disappears from behind one barrier and then seems to emerge from behind another adjacent barrier. In the case of a human who violates the law of continuous motion, however, 5-month-olds are not surprised (i.e., they do not look longer at this event than the non-violation event) (454).

Infants, it seems, already have the foundations for thinking of humans (at least in part) in nonmaterial ways. Their intuition seems to be that while inanimate objects cannot violate the law of continuous motion, animate objects can because they possess agency (an immaterial property) and can exhibit goal-directed behavior. If this intuition is carried into adulthood, it becomes obvious why human beings can entertain the notion at a funeral that “he’s up there smiling down on us” when the inert decedent is really in a casket. On Justin Barrett’s account there is evolutionary logic behind this way of thinking: “Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability” (Brooks 31). And the subjective experience of dreams, where the “person” “leaves” the sleeping body, also seems to (partly) explain why the human mind naturally demarcates between the (seemingly) immaterial cognitive and material biological aspects of human beings.

Closely related to the conceptualizations of souls are widespread beliefs in different forms of an afterlife. Afterlife beliefs seem to come naturally to human beings (Bering, “Souls” 453) and are certainly pervasive in society. Bering cites statistics that put the level of belief in life after death in the United States at 95% (453). Furthermore, in Bering’s 2002 study individuals of varying afterlife beliefs were asked questions about the mental states of a supposed victim of a fatal car crash. Although their “continuity” responses (responses that imply that consciousness does not cease at death) were of lower frequency than their religious counterparts, many “extinctivist” individuals (who think that consciousness ceases at death) were likely to affirm that certain mental processes of the victim were still operating after he had died. Bering concluded that since it is an epistemic impossibility to know what it is like to be dead if death is permanent unconsciousness, it is intuitive to think of death from a conscious perspective (i.e., by running a “simulation” of consciousness). This accounts for the apparent contradictions in the stated beliefs of individuals who did not believe that consciousness survives death and yet answered as if it did. From the standpoint of rhetoric it becomes clear why the concepts of “Heaven” and “Hell” (and the various afterlife concepts in other religions) can hold so much persuasive power while being neither here nor there in empirical reality. If Bering is correct that afterlife beliefs are naturally intuitive (and I think he is), then any rhetoric trying to persuade on behalf of something related to an afterlife will be very effective to a large number of individuals, as it taps into these intuitions.

Biblical rhetoric often implicitly assumes these intuitions. Take, for example, St. Paul’s words: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8, KJV). This idea of being “absent from the body” not only assumes dualism, but could not be believed without an established intuitive architecture for souls that can violate physical laws. The advantage of this type of rhetoric is that it does not have to present any real evidence because the only “evidence” required is the listener’s own intuitions about souls and the continued existence of consciousness after death (whether these intuitions are correct or not is beside the point). Another clear instance of taking these intuitions for granted is Luke’s crucifixion account: “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46, KJV). Like the outlandish dirt-drinking god imagined earlier, which would not survive cultural transmission because of our cognitive constraints, accounts like this would be unbelievable (and its attached rhetoric therefore ineffective) if not for the way in which the human mind perceives and conceives of the world. Since a person’s mind or soul (or “spirit” and “ghost” here) is conceptualized as separate from the body, it is intuitively plausible for Jesus to command his spirit to go somewhere else, away from his body, at the time of death. That this is part of the core story of Christianity—and that there are millions upon millions of Christians in the world—testifies to the efficacy of this verbal and conceptual rhetoric.

As Kenneth Burke writes, “rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and religious cosmogonies are designed, in the last analysis, as exceptionally thoroughgoing modes of persuasion” (Burke, “Rhetoric” v). But that still leaves us with the question: “Why is religion persuasive”? Burke continues: “Theological doctrine is a body of spoken or written words. Whatever else it may be, and wholly regardless of whether it be true or false, theology is preeminently verbal” (vi). This paper set out to explore the relationship between rhetoric and religion with an emphasis that diverges somewhat from Burke’s. Instead of focusing on the verbal rhetoric of religion (although that certainly remains a vital component), I have argued that the conceptual rhetoric of various religious ideas has a priori persuasiveness. The more specific question is thus: “Why are gods, souls, afterlives, and other components of religion highly credible to human beings even though they are objectively unverified?” The answer is that the intuitions and perceptions that human beings experience when sensing and conceiving of our environment, as well as the cultural rhetoric of religion, predispose us to believe in such things. These two aspects of religious concepts combine to make them particularly persuasive. Religious concepts are conceptually intuitive and rhetorically appealing because of preexisting cognitive biases in the evolved human mind.


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Whitehouse, Harvey. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004.

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