• Kelly James Clark Grand Valley State University



In Branden Thornhill-Miller and Peter Millican’s challenging and provocative essay, we hear a considerably longer, more scholarly and less melodic rendition of John Lennon’s catchy tune—without religion, or at least without first-order supernaturalisms (the kinds of religion we find in the world), there’d be significantly less intra-group violence. First-order supernaturalist beliefs, as defined by Thornhill-Miller and Peter Millican (hereafter M&M), are “beliefs that claim unique authority for some particular religious tradition in preference to all others” (3). According to M&M, first-order supernaturalist beliefs are exclusivist, dogmatic, empirically unsupported, and irrational. Moreover, again according to M&M, we have perfectly natural explanations of the causes that underlie such beliefs (they seem to conceive of such natural explanations as debunking explanations). They then make a case for second-order supernaturalism, “which maintains that the universe in general, and the religious sensitivities of humanity in particular, have been formed by supernatural powers working through natural processes” (3). Second-order supernaturalism is a kind of theism, more closely akin to deism than, say, Christianity or Buddhism. It is, as such, universal (according to contemporary psychology of religion), empirically supported (according to philosophy in the form of the Fine-Tuning Argument), and beneficial (and so justified pragmatically). With respect to its pragmatic value, second-order supernaturalism, according to M&M, gets the good(s) of religion (cooperation, trust, etc) without its bad(s) (conflict and violence). Second-order supernaturalism is thus rational (and possibly true) and inconducive to violence. In this paper, I will examine just one small but important part of M&M’s argument: the claim that (first-order) religion is a primary motivator of violence and that its elimination would eliminate or curtail a great deal of violence in the world. Imagine, they say, no religion, too.

Janusz Salamon offers a friendly extension or clarification of M&M’s second-order theism, one that I think, with emendations, has promise. He argues that the core of first-order religions, the belief that Ultimate Reality is the Ultimate Good (agatheism), is rational (agreeing that their particular claims are not) and, if widely conceded and endorsed by adherents of first-order religions, would reduce conflict in the world.

While I favor the virtue of intellectual humility endorsed in both papers, I will argue contra M&M that (a) belief in first-order religion is not a primary motivator of conflict and violence (and so eliminating first-order religion won’t reduce violence). Second, partly contra Salamon, who I think is half right (but not half wrong), I will argue that (b) the religious resources for compassion can and should come from within both the particular (often exclusivist) and the universal (agatheistic) aspects of religious beliefs. Finally, I will argue that (c) both are guilty, as I am, of the philosopher’s obsession with belief.



Atran, Scott, and Joseph Henrich. “The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions.” Biological Theory 5, no. 1 (2010): 18–30. doi:10.1162/BIOT_a_00018.

Doyen, Stéphane et al. “Behavioral Priming: It‘s All in the Mind, but Whose Mind?” PLOS ONE 7, no. 1 (2012): e29081. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029081.

Graham, Jesse, and Jonathan Haidt. “Beyond Beliefs: Religions bind individuals into moral communities.” Personality and social psychology review an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc 14, no. 1 (2010): 140–50. doi:10.1177/1088868309353415.

Harris, Christine R., Noriko Coburn, Doug Rohrer, and Harold Pashler. “Two failures to replicate high-performance-goal priming effects.” PLOS ONE 8, no. 8 (2013): e72467. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072467.

Henrich, Joseph. “The Evolution of Costly Displays, Cooperation and Religion.” Evolution and Human Behavior 30, no. 4 (2009): 244–60. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005.

Norenzayan, Ara. Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

Norenzayan, Ara, and Azim F. Shariff. “The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality.” Science (New York, N.Y.) 322, no. 5898 (2008): 58–62. doi:10.1126/science.1158757.

Pashler, Harold, and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers. “Editors‘ Introduction to the Special Section on Replicability in Psychological Science: A Crisis of Confidence?” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 6 (2012): 528–30. doi:10.1177/1745691612465253.

Shanks, David R. et al. “Priming Intelligent Behavior: An Elusive Phenomenon.” PLOS ONE 8, no. 4 (2013): e56515. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056515.

Wen, Nicole J., Patricia A. Herrmann, and Cristine H. Legare. “Ritual increases children’s affiliation with in-group members.” Evolution and Human Behavior 37, no. 1 (2016): 54–60. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.08.002.

Wilson, David S. Darwin‘s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003.

Wiltermuth, Scott S., and Chip Heath. “Synchrony and Cooperation.” Psychological science 20, no. 1 (2009): 1–5. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02253.x.




How to Cite

Clark, Kelly James. 2017. “Imaginings”. European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 9 (3):17-30.



Discussion and Replies