Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Comparative Religion


Cross-cultural descriptions of religious thought and behavior in South Asia and America show that people commonly hold ideas and perform actions that seem to be not only conceptually incoherent but also “theologically incorrect” by the standards of their own traditions. For example. South Asian Theravada Buddhists are taught that the historical Buddha is unavailable because he attained enlightenment and achieved parinirvana (“complete extinction”) and yet conceptually and ritually represent him as if he is present and available for petition. Similarly, American Protestants represent the Christian God as having absolute divine sovereignty and yet reveal confidence in an inner locus of control. Furthermore, despite their theological commitments, people in both cultures commonly attribute event-outcomes to the forces of luck and perform actions that try to influence luck, even though luck implies that events are beyond human control. Even more perplexing, people might in turn attribute luck to the wills of superhuman agents, which would mean that luck is not actually luck at all. The widespread existence of such theological incorrectness cries out for explanation because it challenges both scholarly theories and conventional wisdom about how religion works. Religion, it seems, is not simply learned from culture in toto. nor does it determine worldviews. Rather, the actual thoughts and behaviors that religious people have are constrained by how the human mind-brain processes information as much as they are by the contents of cultural systems that people happen to be taught. This dissertation synthesizes research from the cognitive sciences and employs it to explain theological incorrectness. Research findings demonstrate that human beings, regardless of their religious commitments or cultural environments, employ inductive reasoning for most cognitive tasks and therefore infer representations about the world and its working from both culturally learned ideas and from cognitively constrained tacit knowledge, even though, deductively, information from those domains might not cohere systematically. This explains why religious people commonly think and do things they “shouldn’t,” as well as why religious systems undergo constant transformation.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access