Psychology and Biblical Studies


SBL Annual Meeting Papers, November 2010

For review only; do not distribute

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Constructing Yahweh:
A Case Study in the Cognitive-Critical Method of Biblical Studies


John Teehan
Hofstra University

The cognitive science of religion, as a discipline still in formation, offers varying ways to address the question of how it is that humans come to entertain belief in supernatural beings, such as gods, and how it is they come to hold the particular beliefs about such beings that they do. While there are, of course, disagreements within this developing paradigm there is sufficient consensus to allow me to work with a model that enjoys generally wide support within the field.  This cognitive model proposes that religious beliefs, such as belief in gods, are by-products of mental tools—cognitive and emotional predispositions—designed through evolution to promote the survival and reproductive success of our ancient ancestors. This does not imply that religious beliefs are themselves adaptations that promote evolutionary ends, although once such beliefs become culturally available they can come to serve adaptive roles.1

These mental tools, or cognitive predispositions, shape the way we process information and consequently how we formulate beliefs. In terms of religion, how and what we think about, for example, gods is a result of the way these cognitive tools organize our experiences. I should point out here that while these mental tools are situated in the brain this does not ignore the influence of the cultural and historical context. These tools give rise to beliefs having certain common, general features, but the specific content of these beliefs will be a result of the interaction with the particular cultural/historical context.2

My thesis is that the findings of CSR can serve as a tool for the critical study of religious texts such as the Bible. If—and it must be admitted that at this juncture the findings of CSR must be taken as provisional, although I find them compelling—the human mind is comprised of mental tools that shape the way we think and feel about gods, then it follows that these tools will also influence what we say and what we write about gods. If this is so then we can should be able to detect this influence in the pages of Scripture. This is what I mean by the cognitive-critical method of Biblical studies. Just as the historical-critical method has allowed us to gain a deeper insight into the composition and function of Biblical texts, so too may the cognitive-critical method provide us with a fresh perspective on these ancient texts.

I must say that I do not see this method as necessarily inconsistent or in conflict with other methods of Biblical analysis. In fact, since our cognitive tools work in concert with environment stimuli (both cultural and physical) to generate beliefs the cognitive-critical method will be most effective working in concert with the findings of a historical-critical Biblical analysis. In one sense, what I am proposing is a version of a historical-critical method, a cognitive/historical-critical method, if you will. I must also point out that of course I am not the first to apply the methods of cognitive science to a reading of the Bible, although I believe that my work constitutes one of the first book-length treatment of this topic.3

What I would like to do today is to use the Biblical character of Yahweh as a case study in the cognitive-critical method. Given time constraints, and the complexity of the textual treatment of Yahweh, this discussion must be limited and general, but I hope I will be sufficient to serve as an argument for the value of a cognitive-critical method. Of particular interest to me is the topic of religious morality, and the relationship between religious morality and religious violence. My work focuses on the moral function of god-beliefs, and on the cognitive tools that give rise to our moral intuitions and emotions, and so that will be a focus in my talk. But before we can turn to that we must first set out just which mental tools are most salient in terms of god-beliefs. This too is a complex issue and so for the purposes of this talk I will focus on two such tools: what are referred to as an Agency Detection Device (ADD), and a Theory of Mind Device (ToM).           

Researchers have made a compelling case that the human mind is sensitively tuned to detecting the presence of agents—i.e. beings that act with intention.4 When presented with a situation of under-determined stimuli the default position of the mind is to bring as much significance to our perception as is possible.5 Interpreting an uncertain perception in terms of agency accomplishes this, for agents have intentions, and those intentions may have consequences for us, for good or for ill. Detecting agency in the face of uncertain stimuli primes us to respond to potential danger. And we must recognize that there does not have to be an actual agent present to set off this device. The perception of movement in an underdetermined situation is sufficient to trigger this tool. This cognitive strategy is well attested to both experimentally and in terms of common experience. Psychologists are providing evidence that the tendency to interpret the world in terms of intentionality is manifested very early in human development—a tendency so robust that Deborah Kelemen has described our basic conceptual strategy as one of “promiscuous teleology.”6

Once agency is detected, other mental tools are triggered that categorize the type of agent we may be dealing with. By assigning an agent to an Ontological Category, such as Animal, or Person, we open a mental file containing a wealth of detailed information characteristic of such agents. When faced with an urgent situation of perceptual uncertainty, the default position of using the most significant model is triggered. As humans are the most significant aspect of our environment—they are the most dangerous, and the most valuable—we will often anthropomorphize and categorize the undetermined agent as Person. This opens up that cognitive file and makes available a rich set of intuitions about what humans are like, and how they behave.7

One of the most important intuitions we have about humans is they have a mind—so our ToM is triggered. Humans bring a sophisticated ToM to social interactions. We recognize other humans have intentions, wants and desires; they make plans, they can become frustrated, angry, happy, sad; they can also mask their intentions deceptively, and be deceived themselves. ToM provides us with access to other people’s minds.8

We can now turn to a consideration of gods. Religious beings also can be fit into ontological categories, but are distinguished by possessing counter-intuitive traits—for example, human-like beings that are capable of becoming invisible or non-human animals that can speak. Gods, for example, fit into the ontological category of Person, and this classification generates inferences about such beings based on the expectations captured by this category. But gods are supernatural in that these beings possess traits that violate the natural expectations for members of the ontological category. This provides a formula for generating religious concepts. Pascal Boyer, who has done some of the seminal work in this area, writes: “Religious representations are particular combinations of mental representations that satisfy two conditions. First, the religious concepts violate certain expectations from ontological categories. Second, they preserve other expectations.”9

It should be clear why religious entities must violate normal expectations. If an ostensible god had only the traits natural to all persons then that being would not be a god, it would be a human. It is the violation of natural categorical expectations which designates an agent as supernatural. What might not be as clear is that our conception of gods must also preserve expectations generated by ontological categories. However, if we keep in mind the evolutionary origins of our mental tools this should become more evident. The function of our mental tools is to provide information that can be used to successfully navigate our environment in pursuit of survival and reproduction. Placing an entity into a category generates practical information without having to go through a risky trial-and-error process—a concept that does not preserve some categorical expectations is useless. It no longer fits into an ontological category and so provides no information on how to act. 

This sets a constraint on god-concepts. As Scott Atran puts it, “Gods and other supernatural beings are systematically unlike us in a few general ways—more powerful, longer lived, more knowledgeable...—and predictably like us in an enormously broader range of usual ways.”10 If a conception of God does not preserve some categorical expectations then we have no idea of how to respond to that being. A conception of God as literally “wholly other” would be useless. Without categorical traits God would be an irrelevant concept, but without violations of categorical expectations God would be an insignificant and forgettable concept. This leads Boyer to claim that this “two-fold condition …is sufficient to account for the recurrent features of supernatural concepts the world over.”11  In the current parlance of the field these concepts are referred to as Minimally Counter Intuitive (MCI). So, “god” is an MCI concept, i.e. it meets many of the expectations of an ontological category—in this case that of Person—while violating some of those expectation.

These MCI concepts, since they are constrained by structures of the brain characteristic of all humans, are not culturally determined but provide a universal template for religious representations; the supernatural beings we meet in various guises in the world’s religions are built upon this template. Culture does, of course, play an important role in fleshing out the concept, still we must be careful not to commit the common mistake of allowing the diversity of religious forms and ideas to “blind us,” as Boyer says, “to the underlying recurrent features” shaped by evolutionary pressures12—and this applies to the conception of Yahweh, as well.

Discussing Yahweh is a complex task. Throughout scripture we encounter many descriptions of Yahweh, stemming from different time periods, expressing different authorial perspectives. We do not we find, a single, coherent depiction. This, of course, is not unique to Yahweh, but is commonplace throughout religions. But the complex, at times inconsistent, representations of Yahweh do not impede a cognitive analysis. Rather it is just what we should expect if Yahweh is understood as a concept, culled from ideas generated by evolved cognitive processes, and then formalized in scripture, written to serve various political and theological interests. As we evaluate the claims made about Yahweh we find that these representations still cohere as expressions of the cognitive processes we have discussed.

In Genesis 1 we read of the cosmic power of Yahweh, who creates order from chaos by the power of his words: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). We follow the creative acts of God’s words through six days, culminating in the creation of humans. Immediately, we are presented with an agent acting with purpose and verbal intelligence—like a Person—but able to summon the world into existence by the mere expression of his will—a clear category violation, and one with important implications. A being so powerful in creation can also be powerful in destruction. However, we are also given information that shows Yahweh fulfills many other expectations of Persons.

This is made vivid in the creation of humans, as we turn to the second account of creation. Here Yahweh creates Adam not by simply calling him into existence but by taking dust from the earth to form Adam’s physical being, and then breathing into Adam’s nostrils, bringing him to life (Gen. 2:7). These are physical acts involving hands and lungs and a mouth, and actual work in putting the materials together. Then we hear that Yahweh “planted a garden” (Gen. 2:8) and issued directions on how Adam could use that garden, setting a penalty for disobedience (Gen. 2:16-17) and sometime later we find the god “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). All of this is consistent with what we know about Persons and so they are intuitively acceptable depictions of Yahweh. One might ask, of course, if this picture is consistent with an incorporeal, purely spiritual being, but such a question may not even occur to a believer reading this passage because these physical descriptions are natural inferences from the ontological category Person. These implicit expectations about Persons structure our thoughts about God and are just as much part of our conception of God as are the more dramatic supra-human attributes. Theological doctrine to the contrary notwithstanding, in Scripture and in the daily reflections of believers, God is conceived in human terms.13

Stewart Guthrie has pointed out that the line between human and divine was not always drawn as distinctly as we assume it to be today.14 This comes across in a somewhat startling way if we reflect on Yahweh’s reaction to Adam’s disobedience. His initial response is, as might be expected of a Person, to become angry and curse Adam for his transgression. Then, however, Yahweh reflects on the implications of what has happened:

Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden….and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24).

What comes across, from a strictly literal reading of the text, is that Yahweh banishes Adam and Eve from paradise not because of their sin—that punishment was already set out in earlier verses—but to protect his divine prerogatives: having sinned once Adam may sin again and attain immortality. To prevent that, God cast him out. What is more striking, however, is how malleable is the line between mortal person and divine supra-person. Adam and Eve have become like gods by acquiring moral awareness. If they were to eat from the tree of life they would, presumably, become gods. God is like a member of the category Person in having moral knowledge but unlike a typical member by virtue of immortality—a human who had both would be a god.

Of course in these stories we are not told that God is like humans in having moral knowledge but that in possessing moral knowledge humans share in the divine. Here, in one of the first accounts of Yahweh, we are told that an essential part of his divinity is that he possesses knowledge of good and evil. Throughout the Hebrew Bible we are reminded of the moral nature of Yahweh. This moral sensibility is displayed emphatically in the story of Noah:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground” (Gen. 6:5-8).

We all know how this ends: Yahweh sends a flood that kills every man, woman and child on earth, with the exception of Noah and his family, and the animals he saved. As an indication of the nature of God, this story does not serve to Yahweh’s credit. Evil as man may have been, could it have justified mass murder of the children and infants that perished in the divine punishment? Furthermore, we are informed that once the slaughter was over and the waters subsided, Noah offered a sacrifice that pleased God, prompting him to reconsider his acts and promising never to do again. The impression we are left with is of God acting impulsively with murderous rage, and then when his anger is sufficiently vented, he calms down and regrets his action, vowing to act better in the future. More damning, there is an appalling lack of foresight on the part of Yahweh. His drastic, destructive act was aimed at eliminating evil from the world—to wipe out the evildoers, and start over from scratch. As such, it was a singularly unsuccessful strategy.

This story raises serious problems as a tale of a morally Perfect Being who is also proposed to be omniscient and omnipotent. It follows from those attributes that Yahweh a) could have discriminated the evil adults from the innocent babes, and wrought destruction on the sinful alone, and b) should have foreseen that the generations following Noah would also sink into sin and come up with a more effective strategy. Of course, one may argue that this story is not to be understood literally but rather as a cautionary tale of the costs of sin, and from such a perspective such problems do not arise. While that point is well taken, it is more telling that this tale was accepted as a faithful account of Yahweh’s action in the world, and is still accepted as such in some corners of the world—and understanding it in that way is a more immediate expression of religious cognition than any theological interpretation.

When we treat this tale not as allegory but as an expression of religious cognition it becomes easier to make sense of it. As a minimally counter-intuitive member of the category Person, it makes sense to believe that Yahweh would be grievously offended by the evil acts of his creation, and from bitter disappointment would want to erase his work and begin anew. It also follows intuitively that a powerful person so offended would respond with a display of his power. It is also a common human experience to lash out in hurt and anger, only to regret it once the storm of passion has passed, resulting in a remorseful promise of “never again.” This all makes some sense because this is how people act, and since beliefs about gods are generated by cognitive processes that treat God as a member of the category Person they are intuitively acceptable descriptions of Yahweh. That Yahweh’s lashing out takes the form of a universal flood is a category violation that distinguishes him as belonging to a special sub-set of Persons, and makes of him a memorable being of great significance to humans—i.e. it marks him as a god.

In hearing the story of the flood we are not only informed of Yahweh’s power. We are signaled in an unmistakable manner that this God is an interested-party in moral matters. This also flows intuitively from our mental tools. In conceptualizing God as a Person, and engaging our ToM, we also engage our moral intuitions. But God is no ordinary person: he possesses superior knowledge and has access to our secret deeds and innermost thoughts. As such, God is in a unique position to assume a moral role in society. Belief in a morally-interested God serves as a particularly powerful means of binding a group into a moral community.15 If we understand the moral nature of God in terms of this social function we can make sense of some of the more questionable moral qualities attributed to Yahweh.

As an example, let’s look at the 2nd Commandment: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those that hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex. 20:4-6)

The Israelites are informed, in no uncertain terms, why they need to respect Yahweh’s laws—“for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” This is fascinating admission. What are we to make of a jealous god? From a theological perspective this claim is incongruent with the nature of a Perfect Being; from a cognitive perspective, however, Yahweh, as an MCI concept is defined, at least partially, in human terms. This command, following on the heels of the 1st commandment, clearly set out an exclusive relationship between Yahweh and his people, and it is an intuitive inference that when one’s partner is unfaithful a person will be jealous. However, while jealousy is a human characteristic, it is not a particularly positive one. We often think of jealousy as a weakness, a sign of insecurity. People who are secure in themselves and their relationships are supposed to be beyond the torments of jealousy. And Yahweh is not just any person, he is a god. Should he not be beyond this ugly human emotion? We might think so, until we reflect on the nature of this particular emotional response.

Jealousy, here and elsewhere in the Bible, is the divine reaction to Israel worshipping other gods, and at times is actually discussed as though Israel were an adulterous wife. In evolutionary terms, for a wife to be sexually unfaithful presents the prospect of a man raising a child not his own—and to invest resources in a child carrying someone else’s genes is an evolutionary disaster. The powerful emotions that are triggered in response to even suspected infidelity are evolution’s means of discouraging and punishing such conjugal defections.16 Any human being hearing this description of Yahweh would understand his jealousy, and more importantly, would recognize its ramifications. In the book of Hosea we find this explicitly spelled out:  “And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’….And I will betroth you to me for ever….I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord” (Hosea, 2:16-20). And Israel’s idolatry is portrayed as infidelity, as we hear Yahweh speak as if to his children about their promiscuous mother:

Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her harlotry from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts; lest I strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and set her like a parched land, and slay her with thirst (Hosea 2:2-3)

And just to be sure everyone gets the message: “Upon her children also I will have no pity, because they are children of harlotry. For their mother has played the harlot.” (Hosea 2:4-5)

This divine response presents a shockingly poor model for dealing with marital woes, but the Biblical authors were not concerned with establishing an ideal moral norm. They  drew on their moral psychology, as that was experienced at their level of social development, and expressed, in terms as forceful and as visceral as available to them, the strength and passion of Yahweh’s commitment to his people, and the consequences of breaking the pact with Yahweh.

Indeed, the fact that Yahweh is capable of such emotional extremes is part of what makes him such an effective enforcer of moral norms. For a moral system to work there must be ways of securing commitments to cooperate and to reciprocate. One method is to have a third party with the power to enforce commitments, and punish defections. There is a wealth of research on moral psychology that indicates the importance of punishment in motivating social cooperation;17 and there is a growing body of research in the CSR that points to this being a widespread role of supernatural beings.18 Gods often assume this role for a community, as Yahweh assumed this role for the ancient Israelites. But for Yahweh to function as a credible enforcer we must believe that a) he has the power to enforce the law—this was signaled by repeated reminders of what he did to the Egyptians—and b) that he is committed to enforcing the law. Working from our experience we know that sometimes a person in authority may not be diligent in enforcing the rules; some people talk tough but are not willing to follow through. This makes a person a less credible enforcer, and weakens the motivation to keep our commitments. How does Yahweh signal his commitment to enforce the law?

Emotional responses work very effectively as signals of commitment, and it has been argued that this may have driven the evolution of emotions.19 From a purely rational calculation, it is often not worthwhile to retaliate against a moral offense, and this invites transgression. But the powerful emotions that often accompany a moral complaint—i.e. anger and jealousy—signal that a person is not acting from rational calculation and is prepared to retaliate even if it costs more than ignoring the offense would. Let’s apply this to the present situation.

The ancient Israelites were surrounded by people who worshipped many gods, and likely engaged in polytheistic practices, themselves. This was the norm. People in the ancient world were very pragmatic about their religious worship. We can imagine it would have been very tempting to an ancient Israelite, in a time of need, to offer up sacrifice to one of the many gods they were no doubt familiar with, and who might be able to help out.  Now, this person might be quite aware of the prohibition against this, but reason that Yahweh would not get so upset over just this one dalliance with a foreign god; that he would not reign destruction down on him and thereby lose out on all the future worship that he, the repentant sinner, would provide Yahweh over the course of his continued, and hopefully long, life. If Yahweh were a purely rational agent this might make sense         

However, this ancient theo-philanderer would know that Yahweh is not a purely rational agent—he is a jealous god. Jealous agents lash out irrationally, and often violently and impulsively. And not only does Yahweh promise to punish me but he promises to visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations.” So even if I were willing to risk Yahweh’s wrath, it is not I alone who will suffer but my children as well. Note how effectively this taps into our evolved psychology. Yahweh will take his anger out on my genetic legacy, making for naught all that I have sacrificed for my children and raising the specter of reproductive failure. Evolution has made sure that we are very sensitive to such threats. Rather than being a flaw in the divine nature, Yahweh’s jealousy is crucial to marking him as a credible enforcer of the moral code, thereby strengthening the moral bonds of society by making punishment of moral defection more certain.

So, to sum up: the Biblical conception of Yahweh is a construct of the evolved cognitive tools that generate god-beliefs. Yahweh fulfills many of the expectations of a member of the ontological category Person, while violating several of those expectations. This generates important information about the deity relevant to the human condition. Most significant is that Yahweh is interested in the moral doings of his people. Such a concept is of profound importance to a people struggling to maintain social cohesion in the face of the hardships, and as such presents a much more influential model of God than that offered by theology, or philosophy.


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1 There is a vibrant debate within the field about just how to characterize the relationship between evolution and religion: Is religion a by-product, the accidental output of cognitive processes that evolved for other purposes? For adherents of the “by-product” view see, e.g., Guthrie, 1993, Boyer, 2001, Atran, 2002, Atran and Norenzayan, 2004. Or is religion an adaptation that played an active role in human evolution? For the “adaptation” side, see Wilson, 2002, Bulbulia, 2004, 2008; Johnson and Kruger, 2004, Alcorta and Sosis, 2005, Johnson, 2005, Bering and Johnson, 2005, Bering, 2006.  I do not see this as an either/or issue. It seems to me that religious beliefs, particularly god-beliefs, are the by-products of cognitive/emotional predispositions that evolved to serve other fitness needs. However, once such ideas are culturally available they can play a role in fostering pro-social behavior, which in turn can contribute to increased reproductive success. If this is so, then religion may be an adaptation built upon beliefs which themselves are by-products. (Several participants in this debate adopt a similar “mixed” take on the question—see, Bering and Johnson and Kruger, 2004, Bering and Shackelford, 2004, Alcorta and Sosis, 2005, Dow, 2006.) If god-beliefs can generate changes in behavior, and behavior impacts on inclusive fitness, then “psychological processes enabling humans to interpret certain natural events…as symbolic of supernatural intentions may have been subjected to selective pressures.” (Bering and Shackelford, 2004, p. 733).

2 See Richerson and Boyd, 2005

3 In terms of priority see, e.g., Hartung, 1995, Lahti, 2004, Barash, 2009. See also, Teehan, 2006, 2010.

4 See e.g.  Guthrie, 1993, Boyer 2001, Atran, 2002, Barrett, 2004; Atran and Norenzayan, 2004,

5 Guthrie, 1993, 2008

6 Keleman, 1999, 2004

7 Boyer, 2001

8 see, e.g. Atran, 2002; Bloom, 2004; Bulbulia, 2009.

9 Boyer, 2001. p. 62.

10 Atran, 2002, p. 93.

11 Boyer, 2001, p. 72.

12 Boyer, 1994, p. 391. For a more developed discussion of the interaction of culture and cognition see Boyer, 2001, Atran, 2002, Barrett, 2004, Lawson and McCauley, 1990, Sperber, 1996.

13 See, D. Jason Slone, 2004, for a more developed discussion of this conflict between theology and belief.

14 Guthrie, 1992

15 This is one of the best supported positions of CSR. See, Irons, 1996, 2001; Sosis, 2000, 2003, 2006; Wilson, 2002, 2005; Sosis and Alcorta, 2003; Sosis and Bressler, 2003; Roes and Raymond, 2003; Johnson and Kruger, 2004; Johnson, 2005; Bering and Johnson, 2005; Bering, McLeod, and Shackelford, 2005; Johnson and Bering, 2006; Ruffle and Sosis, 2006; Teehan, 2006; Sosis, Kress, and Boster, 2007; Sharif and Norenzayan, 2007; Norenzayan  and Shariff, 2008.

16 See David Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. NY: Basic Books, 1994.

17 See Fehr and Gachter, 2002; Haley and Kessler, 2005; Henrich and Boyd, 2001, Henrich et al, 2006; O’Gorman, et al, 2005.

18 See, e.g., Johnson and Kruger, 2004; Johnson, 2005; Bering and Johnson, 2005; Bering, McLeod, and Shackelford, 2005; Johnson and Bering, 2006; Sharif and Norenzayan, 2007; Norenzayan  and Shariff, 2008.

19 Frank, 1988; Nesse, 2001