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Gods in Minds: The Science of Religious Cognition

Sir John Templeton was enthusiastic about using the tools of scientific inquiry to help us understand the nature of religious belief. At present, however, scientific descriptions of how people think about God and gods are fragmented across subdisciplines of the psychological, cognitive, and social sciences. Although there is obvious overlap in research interests, scholars in these areas have tended to remain isolated within their own disciplines. As a result, our understanding of how current findings fit together is impoverished, and there is little sense of an integrated and global conception of how God or gods are represented in mind. This funding competition is designed to promote integration of existing lines of research and to generate and test new hypotheses emerging from such integration.


Religious cognition is defined for the purposes of this competition as the cognitive processes and representational states involved in knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and experience relating to gods and other supernatural agents. As with other types of social cognition, cognitive representations of gods contain multiple types of content. For example, a person’s representation of God could include such information as (a) beliefs about God’s existence or non-existence, (b) beliefs about non-anthropomorphic attributes (e.g., omnipresence, invisibility, immortality), (c) attributions of psychological characteristics (e.g., compassion, fairness, distance, harshness), (d) attributions of feelings and emotions (e.g., God’s emotions toward me; my emotions toward God), (e) relational schemas (e.g., attachment to God), (f) attributional frameworks for understanding God’s causal involvement and motives in relation to different events (e.g., whether a prayer was answered, why a good or bad event occurred), (g) relational scripts (e.g., patterns of interpersonal interaction with supernatural agents), and (h) contrasts between doctrinal (propositional) and experiential (affect-laden) representations regarding all of the preceding. Ordinary social cognitive processes are also relevant to the way in which people think about supernatural agents. Just as one example, the salience of any given content probably varies according to mood, motivation, and context.


The present funding competition targets 10 specific strands of research on the representation of supernatural agents. These can be grouped into three general approaches: universal constraints and features of religious cognition (1, 2), individual differences in the content and processing of religious cognition (3 – 8), and broader conceptual and methodological issues (9, 10). A priority for this competition is to integrate theory and findings across these strands. Typical research questions within each of these strands are as follows:

  1. Developmental psychology: How do mental representations of gods typically develop and change over the life cycle? What cognitive features (e.g., theory of mind) constrain such representations?
  2. Cognitive science of religion: How do people represent the non-anthropomorphic attributes of supernatural agents? Why do people believe or not believe in agents with such properties?
  3. Sociology and cultural anthropology: How do culturally dominant ideas about gods influence supernatural agent representations at the individual level? How does language influence representations of gods?
  4. Personality and social psychology: How do individuals represent the character or personality of God? In what way are representations of gods cognitively similar or different to representations of people?
  5. Clinical psychology: What cognitive processes are involved when people use God as a positive or negative coping resource? Why do people get angry at God and how can it be resolved?
  6. Psychodynamic psychology/object relations: What influence do children’s understandings of their parents have upon their representations of God?
  7. Attachment: How and why can God function as an attachment figure? Under what circumstances does attachment to God correspond with or compensate for early attachment figures?
  8. Attribution: How and when do people account for events in terms of the actions of a supernatural agent? What attributional processes are involved in everyday experience of God? When is prayer perceived as having been answered?
  9. Multilevel models of cognition and emotion: How do distinctions between (a) propositional, “head-level”, explicit, or rational cognition and (b) implicational, “heart-level”, implicit, or experiential cognition apply to religious cognition? Which multilevel models of cognition and emotion are the most useful for the study of religious cognition?
  10. Measurement: How can the cognitive processes and representational states involved in religious cognition best be measured?

What is beyond the scope of this competition?

  • Cognitive neuroscience of religion is a future priority for funding from the Foundation, but is excluded from the present funding competition. The present focus is to advance understanding of representations of supernatural agency at an information-processing level of description.
  • Projects exploring the evolution of religion or other evolutionary psychology questions are excluded from the present funding competition. The Foundation has a long history of funding such projects, but the focus of the present competition is to advance understanding of the nature of religious cognition, rather than its evolutionary history.
  • Projects that primarily treat religious cognition as an independent variable (i.e., that are really focused on some other outcome variable, such as prosocial behavior) are excluded from the present funding competition. The Foundation has funded a number of such projects, but the focus of the present competition is to advance the basic science of religious cognition itself.

Research workshops

To stimulate dialogue among grantees, the funding competition will include two research workshops, scheduled for January 2015 and January 2017. The first will be used to allow grantees to present their proposed projects, to receive feedback, and to stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration. The second is designed for grantees to present their findings and to stimulate future collaborative efforts.

Budget range and term for individual projects

Applicants may request up to $250,000 for empirical or conceptual projects of up to 30 months in duration. The Foundation will award up to $3,000,000 in grants in this competition.

Application process

The Foundation has a two-step application process, the first stage of which is the submission of an Online Funding Inquiry (OFI). OFIs for this competition are due no later than October 1, 2013. (Instructions for completing an OFI can be found on the Foundation’s website.) Applicants will be notified by November 5, 2013, and invited Full Proposals will be due no later than March 3, 2014. Applicants will be notified of the outcome of Full Proposal reviews by June 20, 2014.


The Funding Competition is open to researchers worldwide. The Principal Investigator must hold a doctoral-level degree or equivalent at the time of application. Proposed projects are encouraged from—but not limited to—scholars in the disciplines of psychology, cognitive science, anthropology, religious studies, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science. Project members may already have a track record of research in religious cognition or may be those interested in applying their expertise in other areas to the study of religious cognition.

Special requirements

  • Projects should have a start date between August 1, 2014 and January 1, 2015.
  • Successful grantees must attend two research workshops, one in January 2015 and one in January 2017. Both workshops will be held in North America. The request amount should include funds (up to $6,000 for North American grantees; up to $12,000 for all others) to cover costs for attending these two workshops.

Selection criteria

OFIs will be evaluated on the following dimensions:

  • Integration and depth: Proposed projects must address questions that span 2 or more of the 10 identified strands of religious cognition research or must hold unusual potential for substantially deepening understanding within a single of the identified strands.
  • Conceptual grounding: Proposed empirical projects must test hypotheses that clearly emerge from current literatures and that address fundamental questions. Proposed conceptual projects must consolidate and develop existing theory and findings in such a way as to open new avenues for empirical work.
  • Scientific merit: Proposed empirical projects must have realistic and rigorously developed methods, strong research design, and appropriate plans for analysis.
  • Potential impact: Proposed projects must be likely to have an impact on the study of religious cognition and potentially also on societal understanding of religious cognition. The Online Funding Inquiry should include a strategic dissemination plan designed to achieve this.
  • Logistics: The proposed research must be practically feasible given the timeline and budget.
  • Resources: Proposed projects must represent a careful and responsible use of resources. The overall financial plan must be adequate and foresee the resources (including personnel, equipment, and financial resources) necessary for success.
  • Expertise of project team: Proposed projects must have a Principal Investigator (and team when applicable) qualified to undertake the proposed work with professionalism and excellence. Collaborative proposals, in which two investigators with areas of expertise in complementary research strands join forces to conduct research that they would be less able to conduct separately, are encouraged.
  • Matching funds: An additional criterion of merit (though not requisite for success) is some proportion of matching funds.