TASPOR: Towards a Scientific Perspective on Religion

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One of the most common complaints about religion is that it is “anti-scientific”, or conversely that science has removed the need for religion. To be sure, there is a grain of truth in this critique — especially given the anti-intellectual tendencies of American Fundamentalism, which is what the new wave of militant atheists appear to be reacting against.What amuses (and saddens) me is how few of these critics — despite their vocal praise and defense of science — seem to have a deep understanding of the scientific process, much less a willingness to apply these lauded techniques to create a systematic and comprehensive picture of religion.To that end, I offer the following summary as a starting point for a scientific analysis of religion. It is only a rough first draft; still, one of the goals to the scientific method is supplanting crude theories with more sophisticated ones, that ultimately do a better job of explaining existing data and predicting future results. Hopefully some of my correspondents will rise to the challenge.

I. Operational Definitions

Precise definitions are central to science (and really, any meaningful debate). One of the unique aspects of science, though, is its focus on “operational definitions” — that is, defining things in terms of how they behave, rather than what they are. This is essential in order to support an empirical (rather than, say, philosophical) analysis of the implications of those definitions.In that spirit, I offer up three these basic definitions:

  • Religion is a shared belief in a transcendent purpose for human existence
  • Secular ideology is a shared belief in an emergent purpose for human existence
  • Nihilism is the denial of any objective meaning or purpose for human existence
  • Scientism is the belief that only that which is provable by science is worthy of belief
  • Coherentism (as used here) means the claim that internal consistency of belief is more important to society than correspondence with external reality.

Again, I don’t claim these are perfect, merely useful as a starting point for investigation, to ensure we’re actually talking about the same things.

II. Testable Assertions

Based on those definitions, I am willing to make the following claims, which I believe are supported by the available evidence. Feel free to offer counter-evidence, or at least suggest analyses that could refute (or confirm) these statements. Conversely, feel free to offer contrary or refined assumptions that you feel better fit the available evidence.

  1. Religion — like money, sex, power, and group identity — is a potent force in human relations, capable of inspiring both great good and great evil.
  2. Religion is one of the few forces capable of creating a robust group identity transcending familial, ethnic, and nationalist ties.
  3. Many (though not all) religious beliefs and institutions embody a strong traditionalist bent, leading them to hold the past in high regard and oppose investigation, innovation, and progress that appears to devalue that past.
  4. Many (though not all) religious beliefs and institutions embody a strong authoritarian bent, leading them to enforce conformity to religious norms and persecute dissenters.
  5. In many societies, religious beliefs are inseparable from cultural norms, making it difficult if not impossible to identify the motive behind various actions.
  6. Societies which seek to suppress religious expression invariably end up substituting a secular ideology that is actually more pathological than the religion it displaces.
  7. All scientific and societal innovation requires individuals with strong metaphysical convictions about the nature of reality/humanity beyond that supported by existing empirical evidence.

None of this should be taken as some sort of “proof” of the validity or value of religion, merely a set of (what I consider) obvious facts to guide future discussion and constrain speculation.

III. Competing Hypotheses

In particular, if one accepts the above, I believe it is possible to distinguish between the following hypotheses:

  • I-A. Religion is always a benevolent force in society.
  • I-B. Religion is always a malevolent force in society.
  • I-C. Different forms of religious expression have had both negative and positive impact on society, depending on the circumstances.

Similarly:

  • II-A. Religious unity is essential for a viable society.
  • II-B. Religious beliefs are irrelevant (and dangerous) to modern society.
  • II-C. Societies appear to need some shared level of shared ideological consensus to function, which religious groups may help (or harm) in creating.

And even:

  • III-A. Science requires explicit acceptance of a theistic/deistic world view.
  • III-B. Science requires rejecting all forms of supernatural belief.
  • III-C. Modern science implicitly makes crucial assumptions about the intelligibility of the universe that originally arose from a theistic world view.

In case it isn’t obvious, I believe the data overwhelming supports “C” over either “B” or “A”. However, clearly those aren’t the only options imaginalbe. Feel free to add your own “D”, and explain how that better fits the available data. That is how science progresses, after all.

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