Science has made extraordinary progress in explaining the phenomena of the natural world without invoking the intervention of supernatural entities. We can explain thunder and lightning without appeal to the anger of the gods. We can explain mental illness without appeal to demons or spirits. And we can explain the distribution of success and failure without reference to karma.
But can science explain religion itself? And if so, what would that mean for religion?
On the one hand, scientists of religion have amassed a huge quantity of empirical data on religion over the past twenty-five years. In particular, fields like the Cognitive Science of Religion have provided a rich array of insights into the origin, content, and ubiquity of religion.
On the other hand, there remain crucial holes in the debate. First, it is still not clear to what extent the empirical data successfully explains religion. Second, it is not clear what implications, if any, these explanations have for philosophy and theology. For example, do explanations of religion show that religious belief is true, false or unreasonable?
Answering such questions is difficult in part because it requires a multi-disciplinary approach to the issues raised. Neither scientists nor philosophers and theologians can answer the questions in isolation from the work produced by the other. The Explaining Religion Project is an investigation of the challenges and opportunities raised by that sort of interdisciplinary initiative.
The goal of the Explaining Religion Project is to lay the groundwork for a multi-year, interdisciplinary research project that would bring together scholars from across the globe to address two big questions:
The first is the EXPLANATION QUESTION. It is a conceptual question about the nature and success of scientific explanations of religion. Investigation of this question lies at the intersection of philosophy of science and empirical work on religion.
The second is the IMPLICATION QUESTION. It is a conceptual question in philosophy. Investigation of this question lies at the intersection of epistemology, metaphysics, or theology and empirical work on religion.
Each of these two main questions covers a significant range of important, conceptual issues in need of investigation. Click on the links below for examples of each sort.
1. In contemporary scientific theories of religion what is the nature of the explanans, i.e. what is doing the explaining? Intuitions, dispositions, cultural pressures, or something else? 2. In contemporary scientific theories of religion what is the nature of the explanandum, i.e. what is being explained? ‘Religion’ is a family-resemblance concept and not suitable for careful analysis. So are scientists explaining religious beliefs, religious institutions, religious practices, religious experiences, population-level trends, or something else? 3. If the explanation for religious phenomena appeals to intuitions, what is the nature of an intuition and what is the process that leads from intuition to full-blown belief? 4. What are the standards for reliability for a cognitive system and how can reliability be established for a module whose output is religiously relevant cognition? 5. What is the relationship between natural selection and true belief, especially religious beliefs? 6. What model of explanation is being employed when scientists claim to have explained religious phenomena? Unitive explanation, causal explanation, covering law explanation, or something else? 7. If most of the scientific evidence gathered to date provides only partial explanations for religious phenomena, then how can these partial explanations be modeled and combined to provide a fuller account of religious phenomena? Do such partial explanations preclude supernatural or other explanations? 8. How do the explanations of religious phenomena from various disciplines (e.g. genetic, cognitive, cultural, etc.) converge or fit together? 9. Do any of the existing scientific theories of religion meet the criteria for a successful explanation of religion? 10. What are the theoretical and evidential gaps facing contemporary scientific theories of religion?
11. Which, if any, scientific explanations of religious belief bolster religious belief? Which beliefs and how? For example, might the scientific explanations of religious belief offer the prospects for new arguments for the existence of a divine realm? 12. Which, if any, scientific explanations of religious belief defeat or debunk religious belief? Which beliefs and how? For example, might the scientific explanations of religious belief offer the prospects of new arguments for atheism or naturalism? And if scientific explanations are compatible with religion-friendly explanations does this eliminate their debunking power? 13. In general, what is the relevance of causal explanations from science to truth, justification, knowledge, or any other epistemically relevant concept? 14. Do any scientific explanations of religion show religious belief to be unreliable, not truth-tracking, insensitive, unsafe, or intuitive? If so, which beliefs and why? 15. What implications do scientific explanations of religion have for the common reliance on religious experiences? Does the science show such experiences to be delusory? 16. What implications do scientific explanations of religion have for the rationality of engaging in religious practice? Might religious practice be rational even though the religion’s core propositional commitments are false? If so, how? 17. Do any scientific explanations of religion have implications for how we view the nature of God or the nature of the divine? Ought systematic theology to be revised in light of our best explanations of how religion arises and spreads? 18. Do any scientific explanations of religion have implications for how we view the nature of humans? For example, does our best science confirm the idea that humans have a sensus divinitatus? 19. Do any scientific explanations of religion have implications for how we view the connection between the divine and human realms? If religious belief is purely the product of natural forces, should we understand God’s activity in a deistic way or might God routinely intervene in quantum or other ways? 20. How do scientific explanations of religion bear on native or indigenous religions or non-theistic/Eastern conceptions of the divine?
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