Monday, March 05, 2007

Why be queasy about the scientific study of religious belief?

The NYT has an interesting article about the scientific study of religion: Darwin’s God (via ald):
Today, the effort has gained momentum, as scientists search for an evolutionary explanation for why belief in God exists — not whether God exists, which is a matter for philosophers and theologians, but why the belief does.

This is different from the scientific assault on religion that has been garnering attention recently, in the form of best-selling books from scientific atheists who see religion as a scourge. In “The God Delusion,” published last year and still on best-seller lists, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins concludes that religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful,” Dawkins wrote. He is joined by two other best-selling authors — Sam Harris, who wrote “The End of Faith,” and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote “Breaking the Spell.” The three men differ in their personal styles and whether they are engaged in a battle against religiosity, but their names are often mentioned together. They have been portrayed as an unholy trinity of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.

Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.

One of the things I find interesting about these kinds of articles is the reactions that come from some religious skeptics. Some skeptics seem to think that scientists should not try to answer the question of where religious belief comes from. It is almost as if scientists have invaded some special preserve. However, as the article points out, studying religion from an evolutionary and cognitive standpoint does not infringe on philosophy or theology and attempts to answer the question about the existence of god.

I can understand why skeptics might not find the theories or evidence compelling, but to be a skeptic and deny the role of science in understanding religious belief seems inconsistent. Even if one is a secular humanist skeptic, one still might be a little curious about religious belief from a scientific point of view. After all, most people have religious beliefs, whether consciously or unconsciously.


At 6:40 AM, Blogger Mike B) said...

God exists because we create concepts. Other animals don't create concepts. First, it was animism then, as our material reality changed with the advent of agriculture, private property, classes and the State, we created hierarchies of gods, mostly to explain why things were. Now, we have science, which some people want to turn into a God.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Lynn said...


The book that has persuaded me the most about where religion comes from is Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. Boyer is one of the folks cited in the article as subscribing to the idea that religion is a by-product of evolved mental faculties. Religion comes naturally to people because of this. Of course, one has to demonstrate that scientifically. That kind of research is what I find exciting.

I don’t think people zealous of science are trying to make it a religion. Science is not that kind of thing.


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