Tom Flynn

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.)

In his 2006 Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel C. Dennett sought to enlighten the public about an insight CSR researchers were already building upon: that religion is a natural, human phenomenon like any other and should not be sequestered in some reverential space, isolated from scientific inquiry. Debuting around the same time as Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’s god Is Not Great, Breaking the Spell cemented Dennett’s position as one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.”

What is CSR? Robert N. McCauley, whose essay “Features of Religions as Cognitive By-Products” leads off this feature section, describes it thusly: “CSR uses the investigative methods, theoretical tools, and empirical findings of the cognitive sciences to redress long-standing imbalances within the academic study of religion.” Where previous researchers sought largely to interpret religious phenomena, workers in CSR hope to explain them using the methods of science. Explaining isn’t always explaining away, but if CSR sometimes explains away key aspects of religious practice, many researchers are prepared to let the chips fall where they may.

Today CSR is an energetic, young discipline, which is to say that its participants follow many paths and pursue wildly varied programs of research. A cynic might say that there are as many theories of religion as there are theorists doing CSR—but isn’t that typical of any young discipline and in fact a measure of its vigor?

Accordingly, the remaining contributors to this section examine religious phenomena from deeply various perspectives. In “The Story of a Creature with Peculiar Habits,” Danish researcher Armin Geertz suggests that the roots of religious behavior may be more multifarious than many workers in CSR have supposed. In “Reinvigorating the Comparative, Cooperative Ethnographic Sciences of Religion,” Benjamin Grant Purzycki and Joseph Watts of the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, respectively, survey the breadth—and question the reliability—of “cross-cultural research” indicating that “at least some supernatural beliefs and practices can cause people to behave in ways that serve evolutionary functions.” Sarah R. Schiavone and Will M. Gervais take a very different tack, using sociological methods to reveal how deep-seated—and broadly distributed—the tendency to ascribe moral turpitude to atheists is. (It’s so deep-seated that even atheists leap to the assumption that criminals, cannibals, and even those who indulge in necrobestiality are more likely to be atheists.)

The cognitive study of religion isn’t going away. Meanwhile it promises to reveal new and perhaps uncomfortable truths about where near-universal human religious impulses came from and what they may say about us. I still hold out hope that our worst religious impulses can be overcome and that the best path forward for humankind involves consigning as much of our religious heritage as possible to history’s proverbial dustbin. If the best way to do that is one day discovered—or if, on the contrary, science someday makes an airtight case why that is not the way toward the human future—today’s vibrant, young CSR shows us from what direction that knowledge may well come.



  • * Guthrie also contributed an article, “Intelligent Design as Illusion,” to the April/May 2006 issue of Free Inquiry.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

The best path forward for humankind involves consigning as much of our religious heritage as possible to history’s proverbial dustbin.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.