Cognitive Science and My Emerging Rabbinate

Cognitive Science and My Emerging Rabbinate

Why are humans religious? As an aspiring rabbi, this is a central question of my life. Why do I find comfort and joy in religion? Why do religious ideas have so much power? Curiosity about the origins and nature of religious belief is not unique to theologians and clergy. A group of scientists, who mostly identify as atheists, have this question at the root of their research. These scientists, who work in the new field of cognitive science of religion, conduct research to uncover the origins of faith by investigating the mind.

The answers that they have found attribute our religious beliefs to an accident of evolution. Because it is so important to understand the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of other people, humans have the ability to understand what might be going through someone else’s mind at any given time. It sounds simple and basic, but a simple example illuminates how vital it is for our survival. If I steal your food, you could be angry and could possibly harm me; knowledge of your potential reaction is what keeps me from raiding your fridge.

We use this skill hundreds of times each day, during every social interaction. Because of the frequency with which we use this skill, cognitive scientists say that we expand this skill, and apply it to situations where we should not. Not only do we understand the minds that exist, we also infer and therefore create minds that cannot be associated with physical bodies. We call those invisible minds God (or gods), and we use this concept to explain events in nature and in our lives. We are constantly surrounded by explanations of the world that we attribute to an intention or a goal of God. Many people claim that tsunamis, global epidemics, and tragic accidents happen because God wants to punish humans for immoral behavior; many people claim that peace, prosperity and health are results of God’s approval of our conduct.

This is an interesting explanation for why humans are religious, and it deeply affects the beliefs of many who conduct research into these questions. If the existence of God can be explained through a cognitive tendency, conceptualized by a useful but error-prone facet of human psychology, how can people continue to believe in God? Science, in the minds of many of its practitioners, has solved religion, and it has rendered religion irrelevant.

This might be concerning to many religious people; if we can explain religion through science, how can we maintain our religious beliefs and take them seriously? Many believe that they have a choice to make: either accept the inevitability of science’s victory over religion, or completely ignore science to maintain faith. Indeed, if there is one thing that cognitive scientists and people who hold unwavering religious beliefs agree upon, it is that cognitive science of religion poses a real threat to the legitimacy and the viability of religion.

But as someone who has studied cognitive science of religion and who is studying to become a rabbi, I believe that religious people do not have to choose between these two extremes. One can believe both in the explanatory power of science and the spiritual power of a God. What drove me to participate in this research was a desire to understand, from a scientific perspective, why I hold the beliefs that I do.

Science, especially the cognitive and neural sciences, has a great deal of authority over how we understand ourselves as humans. We turn to particular brain regions to help us understand why we would rather eat chocolate than broccoli. We use brain-imaging techniques to pinpoint where qualities like creativity and genius are housed. We investigate the neural firings that that lead to the stress reactions that affect the daily lives of millions. In the 21st century, we understand ourselves by understanding our brains; we often succeed at explaining much about the human experience by explaining what occurs within the human brain.

However, as I learned during my time in the lab, we must be careful to observe the limits of what brain science can explain. These limits, I believe, are what allow brain science to exist alongside religious belief. Think about the hundreds of scientific studies into the topic of human love. Some of these studies measure hormones levels in monogamous and polygamous rodents and compare their hormone levels to those of humans. Others try to see how human brains react in an MRI machine when they are shown photos of romantic partners as opposed to photos of friends. Still others try to identify neural explanations of adultery.

This research has given us a fascinating perspective on love, a fundamental part of what it means to be a human. However, no one would claim that these studies prove the nonexistence of love. No one would expect humans to stop loving one another just because we know more about love’s chemical and cognitive makeup. Love is real and love is powerful because it motivates human action and gives meaning to our lives. No scientific study could ever take that away, nor would anyone want to live in a world where the end result of science is to eradicate this fundamental human trait.

The same could be said about religion. Studying religion from scientific perspective can help us explain religion, but it will never replace the richness of religious belief. There are countless conceptions of relationships that people have with their God. Some people turn to a God for advice on their every action and decision. To others, God might serve as a conversation partner, a being to whom they can channel gratitude or sadness. God can be the force that allows people to see the goodness and the humanity in others. The multitude of ideas that exist about the nature of God, all of which add meaning to people’s lives, cannot be rendered irrelevant by brain images and statistics.

The most profound thing that I have discovered through my participation in this research is that cognitive science can foster faith, rather than quell it. Faith can grow with new information; it does not have to crumble in the wake of scientific discovery. Understanding the psychological origins of religion and the way religion manifests itself in the human mind has allowed me to understand more deeply why religion is so valuable and influential in my life. I have watched my faith become more sophisticated, more tolerant, more profound, and more flexible in the face of new human discoveries.

Before participating in this research, I explained my love of Judaism and my belief in God through explanations that cited feelings of holiness and purpose; I could not produce anything more. Now, I can finally begin to explain my faith using my spiritual vocabulary in addition to my new perspective from scientific data, which is the information that we as 21st century humans trust the most to explain everything else about our lives. These data do not replace the sense of holiness that I experience in the world, nor do they eliminate the need for mysterious meaning that can, for me, only be provided by the belief in a God. But these data add the force, strength, and validity that can only be provided by the results of a rigorous empirical investigation. Why am I religious? The answer to that question is both humanly scientific and divinely mysterious.


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