Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

What do we hope to learn?

If you are reading this you have found your way to ibcsr.org and presumably have some interest in one, or more likely, some combination of the topics near and dear to the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion. But why? What should we make of the proliferation of scientific studies of religion in the academy and the popular press? What do we really hope to learn by engaging in this research?

Neurological surgeon Douglas Anderson raises these and similar questions in a recent opinion piece, entitled “News from the Religion and Science Front” appearing in the January 8, 2009 edition of the e-newsletter Sightings published by the The Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Anderson would have us question the cost effectiveness, for example, of headline grabbing research that seems designed to test the hypothesis that God exists and has an intercessory relationship with the faithful in light of urgently needed research on potentially lifesaving medical treatments. “I’m not suggesting that studies of religion’s intersections with science shouldn’t be done or are not important, but attempting to put God on the witness stand, demanding an accounting, and then suggesting that something has been learned, is, in my opinion, wasteful of resources that might be employed elsewhere,” says Anderson. At the same time, he calls for an assessment of the religious value of conducting such research. Do studies that purport to show the social or human health utility of religion do justice to the dignity of religious traditions or do they reduce them to their measurable effects?

However one answers questions of this kind, issues of motivation and intent are deserving of perhaps more attention than they usually receive in the science and religion literature.

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