A farewell and reflection on the scientific study of religion

After five years of working for Science on Religion, my time here is at an end. Over these five years, I have reported on a wide variety of findings and arguments from the field of the scientific study of religion, the field that employs the sciences to study religion. Rather than report on yet another study, I would like to step back and reflect on the field of the scientific study of religion as a whole. In a nutshell, I offer a sort of “the good,” “the bad,” and “the ugly” of the scientific study of religion.

Starting with “the good,” the scientific study of religion excels at answering very specific problems. Need to know whether education is increasing the public acceptance of evolution? The scientific study of religion can tell you. Curious about whether West Coast Lutherans see the possibility of alien life as a threat to their faith? The scientific study of religion can tell you that, too. Ever wonder about what’s happening in the brain during meditation or prayer? Well, at this point you get the idea. The more narrow the question can be made, and the more aware the researchers are of who exactly is answering the question (such as West Coast Lutherans), the better the answer will be.

However, the flip side of this leads to “the bad” of the scientific study of religion: the field seems unable to contribute to the larger philosophical conversation about religion. Does the soul exist? This would seem to be easy pickings for the scientific study of religion – simply run some neurological studies, right? A purely neurological approach would indeed work if one assumes that the soul is some sort of incorporeal substance radically independent of the body. As it turns out, the Western traditions, immeasurably influenced by Greek philosophy (especially during the medieval era), assert not this view but instead that the soul is the form of the body. And yes, they mean Platonic Form. Suddenly, a question that seemed so simple now requires knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonism, and the medieval discourse surrounding nominalism (that is, are Forms real?). It equally becomes obvious that it is not at all obvious how neuroscience can contribute to any of these conversations (especially since the medievals would argue that the brain, nerves, neurons, etc. are unities, and that any unity presupposes Form, and therefore neuroscientists’ findings only come into play after the issue of nominalism has already been settled).

And yet, what I just said will surely rub people the wrong way. Clearly, by my own admission, the scientific study of religion can answer the question of whether the soul exists when the soul is taken to be an incorporeal substance independent of the body. Why dismiss this question so hastily? Actually, I didn’t intend at all to dismiss this question, but simply to point out its scope. Yes, it’s certainly true that millions, if not billions, of religious believers conceive of the soul in precisely this way, and therefore the question and its answer shouldn’t be dismissed. My point, rather, is that in answering this question one has made zero contribution to a philosophical understanding of religion, and at most has contributed to the understanding of folk religion. In other words, the “scientific study of religion” is really the “scientific study of folk religion.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with studying folk religion, but conclusions drawn from folk religion do not necessarily, if ever, apply to its more philosophical counterparts. One only need look to discussions of the soul or God to see in the scientific study of religion literature a monopoly of the folk understandings of these concepts, often with little awareness that these concepts have much more complex meanings.

Speaking of which, this leads to “the ugly:” scholars in the scientific study of religion often use the word “religion” as if its meaning were clear and settled. However, in the field of religious studies, how to define religion remains a contentious issue. In fact, whether the word “religion” is a coherent construct at all – that is, whether the word “religion” so abstracts and distorts what it purports to describe that it ceases to be a coherent concept – is a live debate. Even ignoring that debate, when those in the field of the scientific study of religion do provide a definition of religion, it often amounts to little more than “belief in supernatural agents.” Once again, the scientific study of religion reduces to the scientific study of folk religion. While it’s certainly true that in folk religion there’s strong belief in supernatural agents, those who understand their tradition at a philosophical level will find this definition of religion problematic.

Let’s take an example most Westerners are familiar with: Christianity. For folk versions of Christianity, God indeed can be seen as a supernatural agent. But when one digs deeper, God is understood not as some sort of superhuman in the sky, but, as in Thomas Aquinas, the pure act of “to be.” What does this mean? In short, that for Thomas, and Catholics as a whole, God is the very act of being, where “being” is understood as pure existence. Or, for one more example, the Christian philosopher Pseudo-Dionysius takes God to be even beyond being. Either way, this simplistic definition of religion as “belief in supernatural agents” utterly fails. First, regarding the “supernatural” bit, since God is the act of being or the source of being, there is no clean natural-supernatural distinction; rather, the “natural” and “supernatural” are on the same continuum, the former being a manifestation of the latter. Second, regarding “agents,” for Thomas, God is the primary agent (which follows by definition since God is the act of being) while beings are secondary agents, meaning that one cannot nonchalantly use the word “agent” to define “religion,” because how Catholics understand agency is anything but simple. This definition of religion as belief in supernatural agents only continues to fail when one goes beyond Christianity to Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, and so forth. Third, regarding “belief,” it is far from obvious that, whatever “religion” is, it can be simplified to “belief,” or even that religion is primarily concerned with belief. Again, in the field of religious studies, there is much debate over the importance of “belief” in and for “religion.”

If the above all-too-brief exposition of two key medieval philosophers was too esoteric, the point is simply that not defining what one means by “religion” or defining it so poorly that it at best encompasses only folk religions familiar mainly to 21st-century Westerners (one should remember that fundamentalism, perhaps the most famous version of religion, emerged only in the late 19th century) is rather ugly. Defining all the world’s religious traditions in terms of Western folk religion (usually fundamentalism) makes little sense. Put bluntly, people should know what they’re studying.

Yet, the scientific study of religion could be more. The situation is not hopeless. Researchers who study philosophy, theology, and religion have the potential to break through this limitation imposed only by the lack of such knowledge. Only then would they have a chance at extending the scientific study of religion to something more than folk religion. But would they actually succeed? I don’t know the answer, but I’m always excited by the possibility that the ugly can be made beautiful.

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