The Science of Religion

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One of the major efforts in the study of human behaviour, over the last couple of decades, is the attempt to understand it in evolutionary terms. So, scientists have studied many universal human behaviours – such as music, language, and art, to try to understand if there are evolutionary reasons why our minds would produce such things. Recently, more attention has been focussed on another universal human behaviour – religion. Religion in many forms is nearly ubiquitous around the world and as far back in history as we can determine. So, a small group of scientists has begun to ask important questions, such as, why do we have religion? What is it about our brains, our psychology and our evolutionary history that drives us to search for signs of the divine? In short, how and why are humans built to believe?


Dr. Justin Barrett, who, when we spoke to him in 2009, was senior researcher at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at the University of Oxford, is one of several researchers looking for the roots of religion in important cognitive processes we use as "shortcuts" to perceive and make sense of the world. He thinks that because of these cognitive tools, we're primed to look for signs of intention in the world, and to think that most events have some agent, possibly a supernatural one, making them happen. In this conception, religious thinking is a kind of natural byproduct of normal mental processes. Interestingly, Dr. Barrett, a Christian, thinks that these ideas are easily reconcilable with many different religious faiths.



Dr. David Sloan Wilson approaches the science of religion from another perspective. A self-described Atheist who studies religion, he's also a distinguished professor in the Departments of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York. He's investigating religion as a possible adaptation – in some sense, like biological adaptations, such as the opposable thumb or the eye. He suspects that religion is a way of binding social groups together, which then gives those groups selective advantages over other groups.

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Written By: Quirks & Quarks
continue to source article at cbc.ca

13 COMMENTS

  1. Does it take an army of professors to work out that religion is organised superstition?

    Can’t explain the natural world? Well why not make up an explanation, send to it to William Lane Craig for vetting, (optional) , and then assert said “explanation” as truth ! Voila !

  2. “religion is a way of binding social groups together”

    Well, so it is but tribalism does that far more effectively. 20th century dictators didn’t need religion to kill tens of millions.
    Religion originates in fear— of death, the unknown and the mysterious, anything and everything for which a society has no explanation.
    As for the causality argument that is blindingly obvious from observing aboriginal peoples.

  3. “why do we have religion? “

    Because there always have been and always will be people who think they should have authority over others, and if they don’t have a means to get that authority they will invent one.

    Its not about our place in the universe, that’s just smoke and mirrors. It is said that any person who wants political power is unsuitable to actually have it, and this is especially true in the case of religion.

  4. For me Sapolsky does a great job of explaining the roots of religion and why we believe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysLj7fYsEyE.
    Of course our own RD’s moth explanation combined with Douglas Adams’ puddle story are just as good -take your pick – any one of these, including the ones in the article above are far superior to the one claiming that ‘God ordained it so’.
    For dessert, please try some Patton Oswalt’s Sky Cake – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55h1FO8V_3w

  5. Whenever I hear evolutionary explanations of religion attempted, they must be genetic and/or memetic; and, as far as I know, they’re always only one. The genetic ones are the ones that cast religion in a better light in their assumptions (e.g. the theory only works with a specific benefit), but I have a challenge. Does anyone know of a genetic (or bit-of-both) explanation for religion which doesn’t involve group selection? Because – sorry – anything that does immediately goes in the bin.

    • In reply to #7 by Jos Gibbons:

      Whenever I hear evolutionary explanations of religion attempted, they must be genetic and/or memetic; and, as far as I know, they’re always only one. The genetic ones are the ones that cast religion in a better light in their assumptions (e.g. the theory only works with a specific benefit), but I have a challenge. Does anyone know of a genetic (or bit-of-both) explanation for religion which doesn’t involve group selection? Because – sorry – anything that does immediately goes in the bin.

      Why does a group selection theory immediately go to the bin? It sounds like you are saying group selection can just be dismissed without consideration of the arguments or data. That’s dogma not science.

      • Because science put it in the bin decades ago – been there, done that, don’t want to get on the carousel again – and anyone willing to examine the logic will see that it rests on assumptions that are spurious and more easily superseded by kin selection and reciprocal altruism.

        Red Dog, I appreciate that you don’t want us to fall into the traps of tribalism and dogmatism, but I think you’re being overly sensitive in detecting either. Need I remind you that most people here argue against the institution of religion, the intellectual strength of superstition and pseudoscience, and the immoral actions performed by believers of any of the above, not against people just because they are religious (unless they say or do something immoral or unreasonable), and that some people here, like Jos Gibbons, can dismiss issues for reasons other than blind dogma?

        In reply to #12 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #7 by Jos Gibbons:

        Whenever I hear evolutionary explanations of religion attempted, they must be genetic and/or memetic; and, as far as I know, they’re always only one. The genetic ones are the ones that cast religion in a better light in their assumptions (e.g. the theory only works with a specific benefit), but I have a challenge. Does anyone know of a genetic (or bit-of-both) explanation for religion which doesn’t involve group selection? Because – sorry – anything that does immediately goes in the bin.

        Why does a group selection theory immediately go to the bin? It sounds like you are saying group selection can just be dismissed without consideration of the arguments or data. That’s dogma not science.

  6. Why religion? Fear of death. And that dread is exploited by religious leaders.

    As I’ve stated here before, I was fortunate enough to not have all this kind of stuff foisted on me as a child.

    But I have come to sympathise with those who were and remain afflicted, and think that beating up on them is futile.

    And since you can’t reason with them either I’m somewhat at a loss to know quite what can be done, which puts me in the invidious position of sounding patronizing every time as a non believer I express myself on the matter of blind faith.

    Religion really is the worst self inflicted wound humaniity suffers.

  7. First off; it is my opinion and judgment that religion is overall harmful, at least in our current stage of social development. And I don’t imagine that it holds much, if any, value for us in the future. But it is here as an artifact of what we were, and I think it important to try to understand why it has persisted along with our rather remarkable survival, and what might be the consequences (for ill or good) of wholesale dismissal of religion.

    When I talk with my religious friends (almost everyone here in the US southeast), the examples of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and (incorrectly) Hitler are brought out as examples of ‘crimes of atheism’. It’s easy enough to counter such arguments, but it remains that when religion is discarded by a society or by an individual, an emotional void is created, and that void will fill with something. I think it incumbent upon we who hope to see religion fade to grapple with what its absence entails.

    Tribalism has been our successful (for ill or good) social structure for a long time. Our experiment in civilization is quite young and may now be on the brink of success — or perhaps not. It stands on stilts long ago constructed for dimly known purpose, and traverses ground with well-worn paths. We can only move ‘forward’ once we go off-trail, and that entails a cost/benefit analysis. Imagining benefit is easy — recognizing cost is rather harder.

    }}}}

    • In reply to #10 by Ted Foureagles:

      First off; it is my opinion and judgment that religion is overall harmful, at least in our current stage of social development.

      What I find supremely ironic is that many people on this site exhibit the very same tribalism toward religious people that they (quite rightly) mock when religious people exhibit it. I’ve been an atheist all my adult life but I’ve never felt hostile to religion in general. Most religious people don’t judge you if you are an atheist and its sad that so many “new atheists” can’t act the same way.

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