Can We Study Religion Scientifically?

Can We Study Religion Scientifically?

There is new and exciting research about the scientific study of religion. Instead of asking theological or philosophical questions, these scholars are looking at religion from sociological, psychological and behavioral perspectives. Authors like Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion or Robert Wright in The Evolution of God are using science to give much more nuance to what religion truly is — and what it could be.

As part of Sinai and Synapses‘ series “More Light, Less Heat,” two very dynamic and insightful doctoral students at Boston University explain why there is so much value in a scientific study of religion, and how both science and religion can help understand what it means to be human.

Connor Wood, a blogger at Patheos‘ “Science on Religion,” wonders, “What does religion do? What is the job that it gets done?”

Tim Maness, who grew up as both as a “science nerd” and devoutly religious, found that being on both sides of the religious and scientific worlds helped him understand complexities of each.


Connor Wood

Hi, my name is Connor Wood, and I’m a doctoral student in religion and science and Boston University. I also work for the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion here in Boston, and I blog at Patheos.

My interest in religion and science comes from having grown up in a pretty counter-cultural environment, and in my mid-twenties, starting to wonder, “Hey — is there anything to all these traditions that we threw away that might actually be good?”

It turns out the answer is “yes.”

A lot of culture, a lot of human society is rooted in religion in a way that we can’t always see. And a lot of what religion does is to help influence people to sort of behave in ways that are good for keeping culture functioning.

Here’s an example. In Mauritius, which is a little island nation off the coast of Africa, some really cool research that was published recently showed that people — Hindus, in this country — who did really, really difficult rituals that involved walking to the top of a high mountain, piercing their skin with hooks, like really grisly stuff, were way more generous in terms of donating money to their temples than people who went through less difficult rituals. They were also more able to identify [and] feel more bonded with Mauritius as a whole society, which is multicultural and multi-religious than just with Hinduism.

So there is something about this really difficult ritual that helps people to be giving and sacrificing towards their own community, and also to see beyond the boundaries of their community and see, “Hey, these other people I share this country with, who aren’t Hindus, are also people.”

So there are a lot of tools that religions have that include giving difficult rituals, symbols, liturgies, and mythologies that serve sociological and psychological purposes that aren’t always apparent to us, because we are embedded in culture. It’s like a fish trying to see water. You tell a fish, “Hey, you live in water,” it’s going to be like, “What’s water?” It’s all it’s ever known.

The issue between science and religion, I think, doesn’t just come from problems in Genesis or because Galileo got in trouble with the Pope or things like that. It comes because these tools that religion uses to help make society work are things that operate at the level of what cognitive scientists call “Type 1 processing” — subconscious, intuitive, gut-level, primed, behavioral motivators.

Enlightenment rationalism, which is the cognitive style which drives science, is rooted in “Type 2 processing,” which is explicit, analytical, conscious, does not rely on social cues, symbols [or] things like that. So when we are talking about the “religion and science conflict,” we’re not just talking about the question about how the universe began. We’re actually talking about two really different ways of organizing our lives within cultures.

And if we don’t understand that, I don’t think we’ll ever understand the religion / science conflict.

Tim Maness

Hi, my name is Tim Maness. I am a doctoral student at the Boston University Department of Religious Studies. I specialize in science and religion.

When I was growing up, I was a science nerd. I’m sure you all had kids like that in your class. I read lots and lots of books of popular science, so much so that it made me want to be a scientist when I grew up. And in fact, I did go on to get a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago.

And I also came from a devoutly religious background. And both of those things were really important to my identity. And in some scientific contexts, I came across  sort of dismissive attitudes towards religion, and from some of my deeply religious family and friends, I came across worries about science, [and] an unwillingness to accept key scientific foundation truths, like evolution by natural selection or big bang cosmology.

And so from a pretty early age, I got used to talking to religious people about what it meant to be a scientifically nerdy person, and to scientifically-minded people about what it meant to be religious.

Now, one of the things I heard from religious friends who were critical of the way science is done was that science isn’t reliable, because scientists are always changing their minds. They don’t find one theory and stick to it. What they misunderstand, I think, is that because of advances in technology, among other things, scientists are always being confronted with new ways to get information about the world, and new ways to analyze the information they have. So any way of talking about nature that didn’t reflect those constant changes in technique would seem inadequate to scientists.

As another example on the other side, a few days ago, I saw the answers that Bill Nye and Ken Ham gave at their recent debate to the question, “What would change your mind about God?” Nye said that all he would ever need would be a single piece of solid physical evidence, and Ham, on the other hand, said that he would never abandon his belief in God. And the implication was that Ham was being closed-minded in his response there.

And I think the two of them were answering two different questions. Nye was treating the question of God like a purely factual one, like “Is it raining outside?” For Ham, on the other hand, though certainly the facts are important, the question ran deeper than that.

First, it was an existential question, a question that was at the heart of what he thought was important and valuable. So you’d compare it to a question like, “What would make you stop believing that legitimacy in government is derived from the consent of the governed?” You can see that the question of “evidence” there is a little complicated.

And at the same time, it’s a question of personal faithfulness. Now, we often talk about “faith” just as “believe without evidence.” But I think we can understand Ham’s point of view better if we think of being faithful in a relationship. It’s a matter of deciding to commit yourself to something, not just of waiting for solid proof.

I think both religion and science speak to people’s desire to find order in universe. Some religious people can feel threatened by science because they worry that if God’s responsibility for the order of the physical universe is cast into doubt, then their idea of the moral order of the universe will also lose its foundations.

By the same token, some scientifically-minded people can feel threatened by religion, because religion assumes that there are some things in the universe that human beings just can’t understand or predict, which is tough to reconcile with some scientific ideas of what an “ordered universe” means.

And just like when I was growing up, I find myself on both sides of this issue. I see and I value the wonderful beauty and power of scientific explanations, the fact that we can explain everything about electromagnetism in a set of equations that fit on a T-Shirt — that’s wonderful. And I also feel the importance of knowing that there are real ethical truths out there that don’t rely on human opinions, but have a deeper guarantee in the nature of the universe.

And that sticking to some beliefs that make sense of my life is more important than what I see or understand at the moment, because after all, that’s what commitment’s about.



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