The boundaries of science

This week I took part in a couple of experiments on the psychology of religion and meditation. I was only too happy to fill in questionnaires for my friends who are writing dissertations for their psychology degree, but the experience raised some questions for me: How can you study religion scientifically? Can you find out anything meaningful about spiritual people if you start from humanistic assumptions? What’s the relationship between science and religion in the social sciences? Is this where you throw in the towel and decide that science and faith really are at odds?

I attempt to address some of these questions with great trepidation as I’m not a psychologist, but I have a few thoughts, and great quote that I’ve been dying to use! Feedback welcome, especially from psychologists.

Science studies a subset of what life has to offer, and excludes a good deal: basically anything you cannot measure quantitatively. So we can’t expect psychology or any other branch of social science to take into account the existence of God. How then do psychologists and other social scientists study people – who (I believe) are essentially spiritual animals – in a meaningful way?

A good number of psychologists do (what I ‘humbly’ consider to be…) meaningful research on very interesting questions that can then be interpreted from either a faith based or humanistic viewpoint. An example is Justin Barrett‘s work on childhood beliefs. He has shown, along with other psychologists of religion, that we seem to be wired for belief. This is the beginning of a really interesting conversation. Either faith comes from our genes and doesn’t really exist, or God has given us a helping hand in the faith department by making belief in supernatural beings somewhat instinctive for us. Discuss…

Other psychologists get round the problem of science being unable (or unwilling) to postulate the existence of God in a different way. They start from the assumption that God doesn’t exist, and try to figure out why people would be deluded into believing in him (this is what I felt about one of the surveys that I took part in). I’m just not sure that such a huge bias will help anyone to study religion in a meaningful way.

My ideas on the relationship between science and faith are, at this stage, I think best summed up by pastor and developmental psychologist Daniel Harrell.

…theology can embrace scientific discovery without insisting that science buy theology’s presuppositions and without theology succumbing to science’s own predilictions. Faith allows for a perspective greater than human perception can muster, but this is never to deny the perspective that human perception can muster. We need not discount scientific discovery on religious grounds, even when we do take issue with scientific explanations as insufficient to paint the complete picture.

Nature’s Witness, Abingdon Press, 2008, p66

7 thoughts on “The boundaries of science

  1. Adam Louw July 8, 2011 / 5:56 pm

    On the of Existence of God may I share these which I think helps me quite a bit:

    A god who let us prove his existence would be an idol. — Deitrich Bonhoeffer

    Stanley Haurwas who writes, “Theology’s main preoccupation since the beginning of the modern era has been the quandary of whether or not God exists. So much theology continues to presuppose the deistic assumption that the first step in theology is to convince modern people that God exists. Christian theology should be preoccupied with the more biblical question, What kind of God exists? Even if contempoary theology could prove that God exists, such a god would probably not be the God we are called to worship — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Mary and Jesus. Idolatory is probably a much more interesting dilemma to biblical people than atheism.” Resident Aliens, pg 95.

    I am not a psychologist nor a scientist, but I am quite interested in some of the points (because I was wandering how psychologists integrate neuroscience into their practice because I read that scientists have discovered that the human brain is wired for addiction how do psychologists implement that other than a slight challenge to their turf) that you have brought up. I have been reading a book which endeavours to reconcile the sciences, ethics and theology and in my opinion does an excellent job at it too.

    The book titled,”On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics” by Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis, you may have heard of them if not the book. I don’t understand all of it, but what I have is brilliant!

    Ian G. Barbour comments, “A creative and impressive achievement in coherently integrating ideas not only from cosmology and theology, but also from ethics and the social sciences – including careful analysis of the methods of inquiry and the distinctive contributions of each discipline. A unique feature is the development of a concept of self-sacrificial love applicable both to God’s relation to the world and to human relationships.”


  2. Larissa Aldridge July 11, 2011 / 9:10 am

    Hi Ruth,

    Does this kind of view of the limitations of science lead to instrumentalism? I’ve been tending that way in my own thoughts about science and theology – science is humanity’s current best understanding of whatever phenomenon we’re dealing with, but is always open to change and revision, and hence is not necessarily “Truth”. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!



    • Ruth Bancewicz July 11, 2011 / 10:08 am

      Interesting. Can you point me to some good reading on instrumentalism?


  3. Richard Hosking July 12, 2011 / 2:48 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    From a neuroscience background, I find psychology very helpful in understanding the Bible, and would view faith as an integrated form of human perception (e.g. Psalm 34:8). Mark 4:12 emphasizes the important distinction between seeing and perceiving, and the man in Luke 18:35-43 clearly perceived who Jesus was, despite being blind. So perhaps it’s useful to consider the psychology of misperception, for while our perception of reality appears seamless and complete, lots of data demonstrate this isn’t necessarily so. Two examples:

    1. The famous ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment shows that when concentrating on the number of passes in a basketball match, 50% of viewers fail to notice someone dressed in a gorilla suit stroll onto the court, beat their chest, and stroll off again. (Learning point: we have a tendency NOT to see what we’re not looking for).

    2. Sue Barry – a professor of neurobiology – was born with misaligned eyes, and so although she lacked depth-perception, believed her knowledge of optics and the brain compensated for this. However, following eye-movement training in her late 40’s, Sue developed true stereo-vision and experienced the child-like joy of watching snowflakes fall in glorious 3D for the first time. She emphasizes that no amount of theoretical knowledge *about* perception can substitute for *actually* perceiving. (Learning point: the gap between ‘knowledge’ (scientism?) and ‘experience’ (faith?) is vast, but can be overcome through the brain’s ‘neuroplasticity’ or ability to learn). Interestingly, one definition of metanoia (repentance) is literally ‘changing one’s mind’ –

    Recent documentary including Sue Barry (from 40:45 min to 51:28, available in UK until 02.08.11)
    Great book about her experiences:


  4. Daniel Harrell July 17, 2011 / 2:39 am

    Most psychologists would study religious faith as a function of human cognition/behavior/neuro-physiology/
    perception/whatever. Whether God is objectively real aside from human cognition/etc is outside the realm of scientific (or social scientific) study. For the theologian, who starts with God rather than human cognition/faith/etc., the concept of an objective God is not insurmountable. The testimony of history, reason, logic, experience and etc. affirms faith professions. And yet the psychologist may still scratch her head. It’s the old tree falling in the forest conundrum: if there weren’t people who professed faith in a God, how could we ever really say God exists? To which the theologian would reply, “Of course God exists. Otherwise, how could I believe in Him?” And round and round we go.


    • Ruth Bancewicz July 18, 2011 / 11:50 am

      Interesting, thank you for commenting. Is the evidence that there have been people who believe in God – or at least practiced religion – for the last few tens of thousands of years – any good against the ‘if there weren’t people who professed faith in a God’ argument – it seems that humans just do…


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