Why study religion scientifically and what are we able to objectively examine?

[note: this is one of the earliest posts from brokenspells.blogspot.com]

The Scientific Study of Religion

On science message-boards and blogs, there are typically two camps: believers and non-believers. Many discussion forums omit religion sub-forums because of the controversy and division that ultimately erupts and most bloggers probably avoid it altogether, but I think that in any decent discussion community of science, there should be time and space devoted to the topic of “religion.” Whether those of us in the sciences like it or not, religion and science affect each other. In addition, I think that religion deserves to be examined and explained scientifically just as any other social phenomenon.

Among religionists, the objection to examination of their beliefs is often immediate and harsh. They readily claim that theirs is a “way of knowing” that is outside the ability of science to comment with informed authority. They readily claim that theirs is a “way of knowing” that is outside the ability of science to comment with informed authority.Not a single religion would ever object to any scientific evidence that supports their position, and many claims of such evidence have been made! The Shroud of Turin, last year’s Noah’s Ark “find,” and the recent Tomb of Jesus nonsense (preceded by the James ossuary hoax) are examples of this. However, not a single one of these religions would readily accept scientific evidence that dispels their myths and superstitions. Ken Hamm’s Creation Museum demonstrates this.

But science can objectively examine all the “earthly” manifestations of religion: the institutions, the rituals, the texts, the symbolism, psychological effects, the traditions, myths, etc. Indeed, we can examine the beliefs themselves and determine if evidence exists to support these beliefs. And it’s because religion is such an “important and pervasive phenomenon in human society” that it should be studied (Dennett 2006).

Another reason to study religion is to reach a consensus about what religion actually is. Guthrie notes that definitions imply theories and that there simply are no good theories about religion (1993). Anthropologists have their definitions; sociologists have theirs; believers of various religions have various independent versions; philosophers yet another; and so on. Even within these groups there is much disagreement about what constitutes a “religion” or “religious thought.”

Daniel Dennett’s definition is the most succinct and utilitarian: one or more social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.

There are, however, two main positions when it comes to religion: that of believers and that of non-believers. The positions of believers are primarily central to their own religious beliefs and typically discount other positions as inferior. As Guthrie puts it (1993:8), to them, “belief must precede understanding” in many cases and that “these theories primarily concern some single, ostensibly true, religion, not religion in general.

The various theories that explain religion are, in brief:

1. A given theistic belief of the hundreds, if not thousands, of individual theistic worldviews that are either extant or extinct, is correct.

Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions’ believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct.

This explanation only works for one religion, however, and fails to take into account what motivations other religions have for their existence. Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions’ believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct. Some do argue that all religions are correct and their focus is on the one “true” God and that it is their individual methods or practices that are diverse, yet this doesn’t explain the diversity –some of which is significant enough to be contradictory between religious cults.

2. Religion is the human response to anxiety, fear, desperation and dissatisfaction and provides comfort to humanity.

This explanation has been around for some time and is very plausible. It has been proposed by intellectuals like Freud, Hume, Spinoza, Marx, and Malinowski. Freud is quoted as having said religion “must exorcise the terrors of nature” and “reconcile men to the credulity of fate, particularly as it is shown in death.” Hume noted that “the primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear.” These opinions are supported by the work of Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands where he found that the Polynesian inhabitants had varying degrees of magic for varying degrees of risk in their daily activities. If the natives were going to fish in their local lagoon, no magic was required; but as they ventured further from shore to the deep sea, the amount of ritual and magic involved increased proportional to the risk involved. This theory also supposes that people in all cultures fear the finality of death and the unpredictable forces of nature and therefore find comfort in religious beliefs of an afterlife or rewards/punishments in the form of bountiful seasons or catastrophes like floods and volcanoes.

3. Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.

This is a theory of religion for which Emile Durkheim was a strong proponent (Durkheim 1965), but it was variously proposed by others such as Auguste Comte and even as early as Polybius of first century BCE Greece. Freud and Malinowski also commented on this theory as did anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheim, however, was the most influential proponent of this theory and his position was that religion couldn’t be actually about gods and deities (since they don’t actually exist) and must therefore be about something else entirely. Durkheim asserted that religion seeks to divide the universe into two realms: the sacred and the profane. The sacred, being that which is devoted to the illusionary gods, and the profane, being everything else, sets apart the two realms. In ancient Greek religion, this was often a physical barrier at a sanctuary called the temenos, often just a low wall that surrounded the temple grounds. The temenos wasn’t designed to restrict access but rather to demarcate the point at which the sacred began and the profane ended. According to Durkheim, the believers considered the “sacred” to be set apart from the “profane,” but what really occurred was that the society was setting itself apart and thus providing a cohesive unity or a solidarity between itself and all else, such as other religions. The problem with this theory is, of course, that there are many religions, extant as well as extinct, in which there is no separation between the sacred and profane. The Navajo along with most Native American cultures view everything as sacred, albeit in varied degrees.

This theory also makes “perpetuation of the society the purpose of religion (Guthrie 1993:17),” but there are religions that have destroyed their societies such as the Xhosa, whose beliefs caused the “cattle killing” in South Africa; and the inhabitants of Easter Island, who decimated their forests in their beliefs that included the giant monuments. Likewise, it can be argued that the Maya destroyed themselves because of ritual warfare and deforestation due to temple construction.

4. Religion is whatever a given set of believers think it is and provides explanations valid for a given culture.

Boyer (Boyer 2003:10-12) summarizes this theory quite well by pointing out that people created religion to explain puzzling natural and mental phenomena as well as the origins of things like plants, animals, humans, the world, etc., and that religion explains evil and suffering. Guthrie (Guthrie 1993) also calls this theory the intellectualist and rationalist theory, and compares it with science (though, clearly Guthrie is not a proponent of this theory) as a means of explaining the world. He cites Bernard Fontenelle, a 17th century intellectual: [i]religion started when lighning, wind, and other natural phenomena made people imagine human like agents, “more powerful than themselves, capable of producing these grand effects.” People imagine these agents as like themselves because they think analogically. Fontenelle’s recognition that analogy and metaphor are universal makes possible a naturalistic and rationalistic account of religion.”

E.B. Tylor was one of the first to assert this theory with his study of Australian Aboriginals and his hypothesis that primitive religions begin with animism. Few who study religion today consider his work to have provided a valid or concise theory, but his discussions about animism bring up good points that relate to anthropomorphism, a concept that may well tie into each of the theories (except the irrational first in this list). Tylor proposed that early people contrived the notion of a soul or “spirit” after experiencing dreams or hallucinations about deceased loved ones and assuming that the reason these people could be “seen” after death was that there is something that survives the body when it stops living. This “life-force” can find its way into non-human things as well, such as crows, bears, rocks, etc. Tylor asserted that these “spirits” that inhabited various things by “animating” them, evolved into polytheistic religions then, finally, were reduced to a single god.

5. Religion has its origin in some biological or cognitive predisposition.

Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist from the University of California-San Diego discovered that an individual’s religiosity may be heavily influenced by the electrical activity of a specific region of the brain. Ramachandran evaluated 3 groups of people: 1) patients of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) who had religious “preoccupations;” 2) “very religious” people who were not TLE; and 3) non-religious people without TLE. He found that the first group had the highest response to religious words and icons, significantly more than the control group (Ramachandran et al 1997; Ramachandran 2003). There are other theories and suggestions that religiosity in humanity is an evolutionary advantage and is passed on through DNA. It could very well be that the willingness to “believe” is just the right addition to intelligence that allows us to develop technology. The technology of agriculture may have developed from the propensity for belief: procedures for food production and water management show up in the archaeological record as having “ritual” significance that varies in intensity and frequency from culture to culture. Undoubtedly, early humans applied magical thinking to the availability of food, rain, predators, etc.

There are certainly reasons to study religion scientifically. The theories of religion I outlined briefly above are by no means complete nor have I mentioned each theory.

6. The Theory of Human Relationships.

This is another theory of religiosity in humanity which originates from Robin Horton (1960).

Horton suggests that people will turn to relationships outside of “purely human society” when those relationships within society fail to meet needs. Horton asserts that large, complex and technologically advanced societies have the ability to predict and control their physical world but the members of such societies are often individualistic, alienated and lonely when contrasted with small, simple societies that are technologically less advanced. The smaller, less complex societies are typically better at creating intimacy and friendships within their populations. They are, however, bad at material control and prediction of the physical world with regard to things like weather, agriculture, disease, etc.

The small, simpler societies look to deities for technical assistance with the environment: they have rain gods, for instance, as well as rituals and deities associated with the forces they cannot control. The larger, more complex societies look to deities for personal relationships: “Jesus is my co-pilot;” or “do you have a personal relationship with God?” are both phrases common in American religious communities.

Horton’s theory seems to be similar to the “Wish Fulfillment” theory of #2, which suggests: “Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.” The objections to Horton’s theory are similar as well: that there is much in religion that is deleterious and frightening. The Xhosa Cattle Killing; the sacrifices of children or warriors by the Maya and Aztec; the Inquisition; the Salem Witch Trials; Suicide Bombers; etc. Still, his correlation of societal size and technological advancement to religious trends can’t be ignored, even though no clear line of causation has been established or suggested.

So, religion can be studied. We just did it. And this post doesn’t even scratch the surface of what can be objectively examined about religion. My primary interest is in ancient religion and cult practices, but I firmly believe that in order to understand past religious practices and beliefs, it is first necessary to understand those of the present. I also hope that by studying religious belief, others come to examine their own beliefs and the beliefs of those that seek to impose them on the rest of us.

Before we can hope to break the spells of superstition that inhibit and hinder progess in society -superstitions that are responsible for hatred and violence in society- we must learn about them. We must seek to find out why people succomb to the spells of belief and why these beliefs -these superstitions- are so powerful their believers are willing to kill and die for them without regard for the rest of humanity.


Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Dawkins, R. (2003). A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Dennet, D. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking Adult.

Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elemental Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1950). Witchcraft, Oracles and magic Among the Azande, 2nd ed. Oxford: Carendon Press.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Horton, Robin (1960). A definition of religion, and its uses. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 90, pp. 201-226.

Malinowski, B. (1979/1931). The role of magic and religion. In W. Lessa & E. Vogt (Ed.), Reader in comparative religion (4th ed., pp. 38-46). New York: Harper & Row.

Ramachandran, V., Hirstein, W., Narmel, K., Tecoma, E., & Iragui, V. (1997). The Neural Basis of Religious Experience. Annual Conference of He Society of Neuroscience, 23(Abstract #519.1).

Ramachandran, V. (Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego)). (2003). Audio Q&A: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. In Reith Lectures. Oxford University.

Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.

About Ylooshi

An anthropologist who is an atheist. My blog at breakingspells.net concerns itself with breaking the spells of superstition and religious belief through examining human superstitions and religions scientifically and rationally. Breaking Spells, the blog, also focuses on atheist and secular concerns such as the separation of church and state as well as the negative influences of Islamo-Judeo-Christian religious cults on society.
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