Explaining, Not Explaining Away: Why the cognitive science of religion is good news for people of faith

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Pexels – Public Domain

Human beings tend to look after their families and friends, and at times we even show concern for complete strangers. Some of this care and compassion can be explained in terms of hormones. For example, Continue reading

Inside the Religious Mind: Psychology, Prayer and Compassion

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Conscious – May there be Light. By Hartwig HKD. Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

How can a psychologist study religion? Today’s podcast comes from the newest member of staff at the Faraday Institute, Joe Tennant, who is a psychologist. Here I ask him about his life and work, and what methods a psychologist can use to study belief in an invisible God (transcript below). Continue reading

How to Train Your Dragon

Jeff Siepman, freeimages.com
© Jeff Siepman, freeimages.com

The film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and its recent sequel are reminders of how exciting it is when powerful things are used for good ends. Hiccup and his friends discovered how great dragons are at taking you flying, being your loyal friend, and protecting you from enormous monsters. A couple of weeks ago, Mike Clifford was using engineering to develop low-tech solutions to difficult problems. And at a workshop held by BioLogos this summer, psychologist Justin Barrett explained how the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) is useful for engaging more deeply with Christian ways of thinking. (The link with the film was his original touch, not mine!)

CSR is a growing field of research into the way we think, particularly the processes of our minds that could be classed as religious. One of the recurring themes in this area is the naturalness of religion. Some scholars look at the evidence that faith communities Continue reading

Laughter

Photo by Uschi Hering, http://www.sxc.hu/
© Uschi Hering, http://www.sxc.hu/

What makes you laugh uncontrollably? Sick humour? Children saying funny things? Your own attempts to master a dance move? Some of the most memorable chuckles for me have been caused by typos in emails (either my own or other people’s) that resulted in somewhat inappropriate – but thankfully very obviously wrong – meanings.

This week, Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt, Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality at Ripon College Cuddesdon, spoke at the Faraday Institute on ‘A Merry Heart Doeth Good Like a Medicine: Humour, religion and wellbeing’.

A number of clinical studies have been carried out on humour and physical wellbeing, and like research on religion and health, the results of these studies vary widely. For religion, the overall Continue reading

Transcendence

© Ruth Bancewicz

I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of scientists value what one could call transcendent realities. I’m not talking about ‘religion’, which for some has negative connotations*. By ‘transcendent’ I mean experiences and ideals that are consonant with but go beyond scientific evidence: that feeling of pure joy when you find yourself discovering something for the first time; delight in the beauty of nature or scientific data; the standards we set for ourselves; or the importance we place on certain relationships.

I think nearly everything that’s fun in life has the potential to get a scientist talking like a mystic. For example, a cell biologist wins a new grant to study a tiny protein involved in signalling pathways, and she starts speaking about getting closer to the truth. A neurologist studying a particular sensory experience understands the neural mechanism but not how the individual perceives it, and he becomes interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Or a developmental biologist is expecting her first child, and suddenly embryology takes on a whole new meaning. Continue reading

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