New research has shown—and by “research” I mean a fact long known to citizens is revealed to academics who attach a p-value to it and publish it—“that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies.” Suggests.
The Daily Mail heard those very words from Oxford University
Professor Roger Trigg, co-director of the £1.9 Cognition, Religion, and Theology project. The pounds, not dollars, were provided by the religion-friendly John Templeton Foundation.
The overarching goal of the project is to support scientific research that promises to yield new evidence regarding how the structures of human minds inform and constrain religious expression. The project will conduct research on the cognitive underpinnings of religious concepts and practices â€“ for example, ideas about gods and spirits, the afterlife, spirit possession, prayer, ritual, religious expertise, and connections between religious thought and morality and pro-social behavior.
What has been discovered? In “part of the study, conducted in 20 countries, researchers found that people who hold religious beliefs might be more likely to co-operate as part of societies.” Another part “suggested that children under the age of five found it easier to believe in ‘superhuman properties’ and were readily able to think religiously.”
Perhaps the most interesting finding came from “Separate experiments in China and Belfast” which “found that people from a variety of cultures believed that some part of their mind, soul or spirit lives on after death.” Experiments.
These pieces of evidence will be used to explore “the philosophical and theological implications of findings from the evolutionary and cognitive sciences as applied to religion.” What might that mean? Trigg says that this work will prove that religion is “basic human nature.”
Indeed, matching cognitive sciences with—drum-roll—“evolutionary psychology” has lead to the creation of the brand new academic field: “Cognitive Science of Religion.”
We can now look forward to myriad new peer-reviewed studies which show that we have no choice but to believe in God—or in gods and goddess—because berries on the plains of Africa were sparse and prettily colored and because our ancestors were so grateful for the rare sustenance that our minds evolved needing to express this gratefulness with colors and ceremony.
Or how about because the animals in our early history resisted vigorously being killed and eaten by us so that we had to learn how to cooperate or else, and that with this cooperation came the idea that religion should be done in groups.
The lovely thing about evolutionary psychology is that hypotheses can be generated endlessly. There isn’t any aspect of behavior, no matter how grand in scale or how miniscule, that can’t be imagined to have been “generated” by this or that condition thought to have been ripe in the environment of humanity’s youth.
These hypotheses are always easily “proved”, too. Groups of twenty to forty college sophomores are gathered and asked http://wmbriggs.com/blog/wp-admin/plugins.phpa battery of questions which, we are assured when answered a certain way assure us the researchers’ hypothesis is true.
And just think of all the studies that await us which show that this region of the brain lights up under an MRI—magnetic resonance imagery, electronic phrenological devices which show excited neurons in “regions” of the brain that are “associated with” some “emotion”—when people think about God, while another rejection glows warmly when they think about reason and the New York Times.
Christopher White, on a discussion site sponsored by the study, cautions us that he’s “not sure that recent neurological studies will dramatically change contemporary religious belief or practice.” Was he worried or desirous that they would?
Underlying this research is the fallacy that religion and theology are, as matters of thought, somehow different than other subjects. But thinking about religion is no different than how we think about the workings of internal combustion engines, or mathematics, or cognitive science.
That is, most don’t think and only understand the subjects from what lessons their bettors undertake to teach. Only a few carry on sustained thought, seeking through reason—-reason which is often misguided by desire, or otherwise mistaken, as it is in any field—to develop a philosophy from first principles.
Theologians try to find truth: that which is so no matter what. In particular, those foundational absolutes which are true regardless whether mankind evolved in the cold or the hot, whether our brains have this many or that many lobes, certainties which are, that is, just plain true.
How we get to these truths might have some interest—in particular, how we might avoid common mistakes in reasoning—but those paths, whatever they might be, are irrelevant to the truths themselves.