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

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

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

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

Wired for belief

I just listened to a lecture on ‘Apparitions, Alien Abductions and Hearing the Voice of God’ by Glynn Harrison, a Christian psychiatrist from Bristol University. His take on spiritual experience is similar to that of the psychologist  Justin Barrett, who works on childhood belief at Oxford, but he spends a bit longer explaining the application of the scientific knowledge from a Christian point of view.

The film Evan Almighty is about a man who hears God

Harrison explained that, based on research in cognitive psychology, we can see that our brains are wired to find meaning in our experiences. For example, we might see anthropomorphic images in random patterns. Everyone uses these non-rational intuitive thought patterns to make sense of the world, alongside more ‘scientific’ rational step by step processes. And these might result in ‘non-rational beliefs’. So as well as accepting that vegetables are good for us and that 2 plus 2 is 4, we would probably avoid buying a serial killer’s house,  or we might think it was perfectly reasonable to pay more for a dress worn by Marylin Monroe than an identical one from a charity shop.

But these intuitive thought processes can sometimes get us into trouble. People hear voices (it’s more common than you think) and ascribe significance to them. Some hold superstitious beliefs, like the huge number of people who think that astrology works. And some people are more likely than others to be ‘suggestible’.

Harrison is firmly convinced that all truth is God’s truth, and that any new scientific knowledge is to be welcomed and not feared. There are two ways to interpret the data; either our search for meaning is a survival mechanism, or ‘our faith is a reality for which the brain is prepared’.  He goes on to explain that he believes ‘intuitive processes can be a vehicle for God’s truth, and a great gift’. What is important is that the intuitive and the rational are used together responsibly. For example, the church has a long tradition of ‘testing’ prophecy using the Bible and other rational thought processes. If the two agree, a prophecy (for example), is more likely to be genuine.

What’s important here is that the findings of cognitive psychology fit with what one would expect if God did exist – that we are wired for belief. It is also a reminder for those in positions of leadership to act responsibly in teaching and guiding people in matters of faith.