Ontological confusions predict religious belief

Cognition. 2015 Jan;134:63-76. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.09.008. Epub 2014 Oct 17.

Ontological confusions but not mentalizing abilities predict religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in supernatural purpose.


The current research tested the hypothesis that the abilities for understanding other people’s minds give rise to the cognitive biases that underlie supernatural beliefs. We used structural equation modeling (N=2789) to determine the roles of various mentalizing tendencies, namely self-reported affective and cognitive empathy (i.e., mind reading), actual cognitive and affective empathic abilities, hyper-empathizing, and two cognitive biases (core ontological confusions and promiscuous teleology) in giving rise to supernatural beliefs. Support for a path from mentalizing abilities through cognitive biases to supernatural beliefs was weak. The relationships of mentalizing abilities with supernatural beliefs were also weak, and these relationships were not substantially mediated by cognitive biases. Core ontological confusions emerged as the best predictor, while promiscuous teleology predicted only a small proportion of variance. The results were similar for religious beliefs, paranormal beliefs, and for belief in supernatural purpose.

Copyright © 2014 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


Empathy; Mentalizing; Ontological confusions; Paranormal; Promiscuous teleology; Supernatural


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