Mentalizing, Prayer, and the Presence of God: The Effect of Theory of Mind


Chris Sietstra, Molly Townsend, Riley Harder, Corey Kundert, Hope De Ruyter, Rebekah Muilenburg, and Virginia Kjer
Mentor: Dr. Laird Edman
Department of Psychology

Mentalizing, the ability to represent other minds, may be pertinent to an individual's tendency to experience the presence of god while they pray. This hypothesis was tested in 4 cross-cultural studies and is partially supported by the data. People who believe in a relational deity conceptualize god(s) as intentional agents with mental states corresponding to human beliefs, desires, and concerns. Therefore, mentalizing may be one of the cognitive foundations of religious belief and behavior. Norenzayan, Gervais, and Trzesniewski (2012) have found evidence for this relationship and suggest that a developing ability to mentalize is a predictor of religious belief. This relationship, however, is controversial and other researchers have been unable to find a relationship among mentalizing and religiosity (e.g., Jack, Friedman, Boyatzis, & Taylor, 2016). It is possible, though, that the relationship of mentalizing and religious belief is more specific, and that common measures of religiosity may be unable to tease out the connection to theory of mind. It may be that mentalizing is related to specific religious experiences, such as individual differences in prayer experience, felt presence of god(s), and the experience of agentic evil, rather than to more generic religious beliefs. Working with this hypothesis, we've conducted four different research studies using over 1400 participants from: a small faith-based private college in the Midwest; a large West-Coast research university; and an online MTurk sample. These diverse participants completed measures of mentalizing, prayer experience, religious background, the felt presence of evil, and experience of the presence of god(s). The results suggest differential abilities in mentalizing are implicated in different approaches to prayer, different experiences of intimacy with god, and especially in different beliefs and experiences of agentic evil. These results have implications for theory in the Cognitive Science of Religion as well as for contemporary faith practice.