Free Inquiry has made a point of covering the rapid growth of what might be called “the new scientific study of religion." Some of this attention has focused on the mushrooming of research into unbelief in religion as a measurable phenomenon, suitable for study not only by sociologists but by psychologists and cognitive scientists; see our cover features, “Bridging the Gulf: At Last, Social Science Measures Secularity" (FI, February/March 2012) and “Does Religion Really Make Us Better People?" (FI, June/July 2013).
In fact, Free Inquiry has been spotlighting the scientific investigation of religion almost since the field as we now know it—what participants often call the “cognitive science of religion" (CSR)—took form. The field is sometimes traced to a trailblazing 1995 book, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Author Stewart Elliott Guthrie theorized that the human tendency to ascribe agency to supernatural beings might be a side effect of the well-established human tendency to over-ascribe intentionality to ambiguous environmental stimuli (that movement in the middle distance may just be branches swaying in the wind, but on average it’s more prudent to assume it might be a bear).* A remarkable expansion in research followed. As early as its Summer 1999 issue, FI offered a cover feature on “The Science of Religion." Then, 2001 saw publication of Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, another book often seen as seminal for the field. (I reviewed Religion Explained in FI’s Spring 2002 issue.)