Human Exceptionalism

Science Should Study Religious Belief

In the known universe, only human beings yearn for meaning.  Only we search for TRUTH.  Only we think noetically and have mystical experiences. Only we develop philosophies. Only we act on rationally constructed moral values. Only we experience faith. And only we deploy the scientific method to learn about the way things really are.

Now, some are suggesting that science should deeply study religion.  From the ABC story:

They aren’t trying to convert anyone.  They just think it’s high time for scientists to stop ignoring something that plays a critical role in the lives of billions of people around the world. “Religion is not something that scientists study very deeply,” anthropologist Scott Atran, lead author of a study published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, said in a telephone interview.  “There is sort of an agreement between science and religion to remain separate, and I think that has not been a good thing.”…

“Science can help us understand religion just as much as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe,” Atran said.  So why aren’t they more willing to dig into religion? Probably, said Atran, because most scientists are “non-religious, including myself.  If you look at the National Academy of Sciences well over 90 percent are non religious.” That may explain why some of the bestselling books by scientists aren’t about science as much as they are about religion, or the reasons why it’s no longer necessary to believe. Atran was particularly critical of a cadre of scientists called the “new atheists” who have aggressively sought to discredit all religions, contending in general that science has now answered the questions that only religions could answer in the days before evolution.

To paraphrase a former president, it all depends on what the meaning of “study” is.  If it means to hubristically deconstruct or rationalize away religion as a primitive–but now, no longer needed, evolutionary survival technique–as the scientist quoted said, there’s already plenty of that ideological advocacy going around.  If it means going in assuming that those who have religion are wrong or irrational, don’t waste the grant money.  If it assumes that religion cannot have an existential reality, it won’t be truly scientific.

But if it means to objectively look at the phenomenon of religious belief, to non judgmentally investigate faith experiences that are as real as rain to the persons who have them–even though by their very nature, they can’t be repeated or falsified–if it means respecting people of faith as engaged in normal and often beneficial human behavior, have at it.  The desire to learn is also part of human exceptionalism, and faith–which includes but is not synonymous with theism–is a core and very interesting part of what it means to be human.

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