Should we treat religion as a science?

Is religion a natural phenomenon, like photosynthesis, evolution or belly-button fluff? The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett thinks it is. In his new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he argues that religion should be examined in the same way as any other aspect of human behaviour, with the use of biology, neurology and psychology.

In the past, religious thinkers were often the greatest advocates of studying their beliefs through the prism of reason and experience. “Natural theologians” such as the 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas thought rational inquiry would simply confirm what all respectable people thought: Christianity’s creator, God, exists and He is Good. And in the 18th century, William Paley argued that the idea of a universe without a creator is as dotty as that of a watch without a watchmaker.

The trouble is that these arguments aren’t very good, as advances in science have helped to demonstrate. So natural theology declined, and now those seeking to study religion scientifically are more inclined to bury it, not to praise it.

At the University of Montreal, Mario Beauregard has been attaching electrodes to the heads of Carmelite nuns in order to see what brain activity is associated with their experience of mystical union with God. All over the world, others studying the neurology of religious experience have identified disturbance to the temporal and parietal lobes, such as temporal-lobe epilepsy, as triggers for a sense of the divine.

Of course, for the religious this sounds rather close to calling religion a form of mental illness. Indeed, Dennett himself has compared it to a parasite, while Richard Dawkins has described it as a virus.

The religious argue that neurology can only show that God moves in slightly less mysterious ways than we thought, not that he doesn’t move at all. Science can show a correlation between religious belief or experience and natural phenomena, but that doesn’t prove that a sense of God’s presence is nothing more than a function of a suitably stimulated brain. Perhaps that is simply the mechanism by which the real God makes himself known.

Furthermore, if we think religious beliefs are to be explained as neurological disturbances, evolutionary mechanisms, or artefacts of nature, then the theories of Dennett and other naturalists are no exception. That’s why a natural approach to the study of religion cannot prove it to be false: you have to do more than explain something in order to explain it away.

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The Guardian, UK
Feb. 7, 2006
Julian Baggini

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday February 7, 2006.
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