Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

What does science have to say about religion? A welcome to Joseph Allen

NebulaeReligiosity goes back to the first cave paintings and stone figurines, and has been with us ever since. Evidence suggests that Homo sapiens exploded out of Africa about 50,000 years ago, accompanied by gods and demons. The perseverance of these deities is impressive. Despite the heaven-shaking ascent of secularism, many people continue to petition divine agents, engage in costly rituals, and carefully separate the sacred from the profane. This mystery can be approached from numerous directions. As the newest writer to join Science on Religion, each week I will take a testable hypothesis as my starting point. The goal is to bring perspectives on religion into sharper focus.

First and foremost, human beings perceive the world through the senses. These sensory impressions are then reorganized by imagination and rationality, and gradually accumulate through cultural transmission. To the astonishment of their fellows, some people describe other worlds beyond the sensory veil, and their testaments are woven into our collective wisdom. By these means, we come to understand ourselves.

The scientific method throws open these perceptual windows for a broader view. Science begins with some combination of ordinary observation and intuition. What distinguishes this mode of inquiry, however, is its strict empiricism, exacting parameters on data-gathering, and merciless testing of every hypothesis. Evolutionary psychologists ask: What adaptive benefits might religiosity bestow? If religion confers no advantages, why doesn’t it disappear? Why would naked apes sacrifice so much energy to invisible super-monkeys who offer nothing in return?

Neuroscientists ask: How does the brain respond to religious language and imagery? Do numinous experiences arise from neurological activity? If this is the case, what are the implications for theology—and for careers in theology?

Fundamentalists of all stripes accuse scientists of hostility toward faith. Many hardline atheists prove themselves to be equally shrill, demanding that all sacred cows be buried and forgotten—all, that is, but their own.

A more slippery obstruction comes from the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould. Responding to constant hectoring from biblical literalists, he famously declared that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria.” Therefore, these two ways of understanding should be separated into their own airtight spheres: one that ministers to ethics and values, another that accumulates knowledge of the world.

If only faith and inquiry could be so simple.

Constant earthquakes at the fault lines between religion and science suggest that, despite Gould's demarcation, the overlap is considerable. From stem cells and brain scans to cosmology and climate change, the tectonic friction continues despite all attempts to ignore it. After all, science, by its very nature, challenges received tradition. Since Galileo revolutionized optic technology, astronomers have discovered a vast, ancient, and expanding universe teeming with elegant galaxies and apocalyptic explosions. Our cosmos appears to be much larger, older, and more complex than a literal reading of Genesis would suggest. How do steadfast believers deal with such affronts to their traditional narratives? There are those who recoil in horror, but for many devout souls, the visions produced by high-tech instruments and the scientific method are themselves signs of the miraculous.

A more jarring challenge to received tradition is the theory of evolution. By the nineteenth century, many naturalists had reasoned that Creation was far more complicated than the ancient Israelites let on. Evolutionary ideas were in the air. Then in 1859, Darwin published his definitive and fiercely controversial theory. He argued that the Tree of Life had branched and expanded through reproductive surplus, inherited variation, and natural selection. Religious authorities raised their croziers to smite back, but their attempts at suppression failed. Today the neo-Darwinian synthesis gains momentum as advances in genetics, population biology, and evolutionary psychology tease out the “gene” in Genesis.

More recently, the millennial completion of the Human Genome Project blew the gates of Eden wide open. Evidence continues to mount that a person's disposition—whether introspective or social, passive or aggressive, “liberal” or “conservative”—is influenced by genetic variation. Comparative primatology suggests that the size of a species’ social network—and hence, the human potential for universalism—is highly correlated with the size and structure of the brain. Such studies shed new light on human nature, whether one uses them to construct a Grand Evolutionary Narrative or not.

Against this tumultuous background, scientists from a wide array of disciplines continue to investigate religiosity. Data pours in from all directions, provoking ever more challenging questions. If we do adopt the long view of evolution, religiosity's adaptive value remains highly contentious. On one side, theorists argue that religion's unique ability to motivate prosocial behavior toward ingroups and stir up hostility toward outgroups would confer an evolutionary advantage over less “pious” populations. Other scientists describe religion as a dangerous memetic parasite, reproducing itself at the expense of its corporeal host.

From a practical standpoint, numerous statistical studies show that, on average, the faithful experience better health than non-believers. On the other hand, there is evidence that prayer causes some individuals to experience higher instances of crippling anxiety.

As neuroscience maps behavior, cognition, and personal identity down to the last neuron, unsettling questions are raised about the nature of the self. fMRI scans performed on meditating monks show neurological correlations to the experience of empathy. Veterans afflicted by Parkinson’s disease are more likely to report diminished feelings of religiosity. As these studies accumulate, certain qualities of the soul appear to be shaped by the flesh.

Does that mean the ghost in the machine has been banished to the outer darkness? Science on Religion engages these issues, study by study, from as many angles as possible. This outreach effort was founded in 2006 by the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion. Its writers wander an arid abyss of technical language and statistical tedium, searching for fertile ground where a few drops of imagination and humor might bring the science to life.

It is an honor to join their exploration.

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