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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Science Should Study Faith

Now this is religious study that I can get behind.

SuperNatural Selection - Boston Globe

A Tufts philosopher and famed Darwinist wants us to study religion like any other human behavior - as a 'natural phenomenon.' Scientists, meanwhile, may be on the way to explaining how, and why, we got religion.


A month ago, when federal Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design could not be taught in a Pennsylvania school district, scientists and secularists celebrated the decision as a victory not only for the separation of church and state, but of church and science. A few editorials quoted Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's argument that science, concerned as it is with facts, and religion, concerned with human purposes and values, were ''Non-Overlapping Magisteria," separate sources of authority that could exist in ''respectful noninterference." Judge Jones himself took pains to emphasize that the theory of evolution ''in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."

Daniel Dennett, however, is no great believer in respectful noninterference, and in his new book, ''Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), he argues vehemently against it. Religion, Dennett says, is human behavior, and there are branches of science to study human behavior. ''Whether or not [Gould] was right," Dennett told me in his office at Tufts University, where he is director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, ''and I don't think he was, I'm not making a claim that he would disagree with. I'm not saying that science should do what religion does. I'm saying science should study what religion does."

The argument that religion can be explained as a natural rather than a supernatural phenomenon is not new. The Scottish philosopher David Hume set himself a similar task over 250 years ago. Marx and Freud had their own explanations. Over the years, scholars have enlisted everything from rational choice theory to brain scans in their efforts to trace the origins of faith.

Dennett himself is not a researcher, nor is his book a sustained argument for any one theory. His primary role, as he sees it, is to be as much a standard-bearer as a thinker, introducing the world to the work of scholars who, in sometimes conflicting ways, are setting out to explain the workings of belief.

Dennett opens his book by comparing religion to a parasite. The lancet fluke is a microorganism that, as part of its unlikely life cycle, lodges in the brain of an ant, turning it into a sort of ant zombie that every night crawls to the top of a blade of grass and waits to get eaten by a grazing cow or sheep, in whose liver the lancet fluke can propagate. Dennett is being provocative, but he is also making a point: Certain religious behaviors-abstinence, for example, or martyrdom, or ritually sacrificing livestock in the middle of a famine-can look decidedly, almost inexplicably, irrational both to nonbelievers and behavioral scientists, so much so that it might be worth asking who or what is actually benefiting from them.

Full article here