Anthology: “Science, Religion, and the Human Experience”

Anthology: “Science, Religion, and the Human Experience”

by Stephen Friberg


Few topics are as important as science and religion, “the two most potent forces in human life (Effendi 203).”  Religion continues to dominate large parts of individual, family, and social life throughout the world, much as for untold centuries. Science and its spin-off worldviews, however, have become dominant in the commercial, medical, educational, technological, and intellectual spheres of the modern world and are rapidly encroaching on the traditional domains of religion, in many cases pushing religion aside.

Early science was nourished by, supported by, and often closely aligned with religion (for overviews, see Overbye, Grant, and Huff). Even examples thought to show religion to be opposed to science — for example, the story of Galileo and his condemnation by the Inquisition — actually show how strong the relationship was. Galileo was not fighting for science against religion, he was fighting for his and Copernicus’s science against an Aristotelian scientific perspective — the established science of the day — embedded in Roman Catholic church doctrine. It was the church that established the first European universities that paved the way for Galileo and the subsequent flowering of science. Even as late as the 19th century, scientists such as the evolutionist Charles Darwin were trained in theology. His thought was strongly influenced by the mix of science and religion in William Paley’s widely-read Natural Theology.

European science, for all practical purposes synonymous with modern science, had its origins in the Arabic texts translated into Latin in Spain and Sicily in the 12th and 13th centuries and the rise of scholasticism in the medieval universities. Invigorated by the broad movement of thought and the growing economic and cultural vitality of Renaissance Italy, it jumped north after the persecution of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Inquisition, finding increasing acceptance in France, England, and the Netherlands. In the 17th century, when Europe was rent by the long wars and pogroms of religious sectarianism, science laid increasing claim to be the path to truth and the means for healing sectarian differences. Science-derived engineering successes in architecture, war, commerce, and world trade did not mar its reputation. By the close of the 18th century, the authority of science had replaced the authority of religion in the eyes of leading European intellectuals. In the 19th century, revolutionaries vilified religion, condemning its close ties to entrenched political authority and characterizing it as the “opium of the people”. By the 20th century, the cultural, intellectual, and social world of ideas, philosophies, worldviews, books, plays, music, and lifestyle choices in the dominant westernized parts of the world were unthinkable without science. Religion appeared to be on its way out.

The trend over the last several decades has reversed. Religious belief in the third world, in the United States, in Islamic countries, and even in China, has experienced a strong resurgence. Evangelical Christianity has grown to be influential worldwide, even to the point of playing a crucial role in American presidential politics. Religious activism has pushed secular modernism aside throughout much of the Islamic world, no doubt fueled by the failure of secularism’s political, social, and economic aims. In the domain of ideas, a science and religion dialogue having its roots in the 1950s and 1960s gathered considerable momentum, convincing intellectuals, scientists, professors, commentators, journalists, and other leaders of thought that religion was not nonsense as had been argued pervasively in academic and intellectual circles. The idea that science and religion were necessarily opposed came to be seen as a legacy of 19th century Victorian culture. Best-selling books, articles in major news magazines, and television specials all broadcast the new view that science and religion were not intrinsically in conflict.

Now, the pendulum — at least in the hopeful eyes of an increasingly vocal group of militant atheists — is reversing again. Two sets of events — the ‘intelligent design’ controversy over evolution and the rise of radical Islamic-based violence — have inspired a counter-attack by atheists who claim that religion is inherently bad and who challenge the view that science and religion are compatible. The intelligent design movement, proposed as a “scientific” alternative to Darwinian evolution, is based on arguments that biological systems are so complex that they could only have been created by a divine creator. Supporters — including an American president — have urged that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution in public schools, despite its superficiality and the complete lack of evidence for its validity. Islamic-fueled violence, including the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and suicide-bombings in Israel, Europe, and the Islamic world, and the chaotic and debilitating wars created by the West in response, have created considerably fear of Islam in particular and religion in general. Widespread sexual-predation scandals involving celibate priests and cynically manipulative “faith-based” government policies in the United States have also increased the fear and distrust of religion.

The militant atheist reaction to the dialogue between science and religion, intelligent design, and militant Islam has been an aggressive assault on religious belief. This assault was triggered by the unexpected success of a book attacking religion by Samuel Harris, a neuroscience graduate student. Bestsellers by the British science writer Richard Dawkins, the pop-culture celebrity Christopher Hitchens, and the French philosopher Michel Onfray soon followed. Dawkins, the best known of the writers, claims that science shows religion to be false. According to him, even “the teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism (p. 306).” Informed critical reaction has cited significant flaws in Dawkins’ book, including one-sidedness, emotionalism, superficial argumentation, and a lack of knowledge of both religion and history. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Dawkins’ book and the others have struck an emotional chord with the book-buying public.

Science, Religion, and the Human Experience

The rapprochement between science and religion of the last part of the 20th century, the current controversies over evolution, religious influence on politics, the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, and the rise of militant atheism are the context for Science, Religion, and the Human Experience, the book here reviewed (Proctor, James D. ed. Science, Religion, and the Human Experience,  Oxford: Oxford, 2005). For anyone wanting to learn about current developments in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion or to go beyond the superficial and confrontational aspects of the intelligent design and militant atheism literature, the book is an excellent choice. The content, organized by James D. Proctor, is a series of chapters developed from talks on science and religion delivered at the University of California at Santa Barbara between 2001 and 2003 and funded by the Templeton Foundation. I will discuss four chapters, not reporting on chapters by Bruno Latour, a founder of the sociology of science and its most important and provocative thinker, by Hilary Putnam, a central figure in modern philosophy, by Ronald L. Numbers, a leading American historian of science, by B. Alan Wallace, a prolific writer on Buddhism and its relationship to western thought, and by several others.

Proctor in his introduction describes discussions of science and religion as falling into two main categories. One is monistic where it is assumed that science and religion operate on the same ground. Either they conflict with each other — one is correct and the other wrong — or they converge in a unity. The other category is dualism where it assumed that science and religion are intrinsically different. Typically, science is taken as the factual realm and religion the realm of values and morality. An example is Einstein’s famous comment that “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Proctor argues that these approaches are too simplistic because they assume ‘facts and values are readily separable, and that science has nothing to do with the latter and religion nothing to do with the former’ or they ignore obvious differences. Neither science nor religion offer direct access to truth or God. Rather, both arise from human experience and attempts to transcend that experience. To understand either, we must take into account human experience.

Surprisingly, Proctor doesn’t take the logical next step. If science and religion are both the result of human experience, then both are the product of the human mind. Accordingly, they will share many features — both positive and negative — due to their mutual roots in thinking and learning. They are different because of their focus. Religion focuses on intangibles such as the purpose of life, morality and ethics, personal and social good, and God — topics prescribing action — whereas science focuses on logical and causal relationships in natural phenomena. Other differences exist as well. Religion is for and by the many and usually is acquired from society and family without specialized training, whereas science is the domain of a few and requires highly specialized knowledge and training. However, similar thinking processes — or sometimes lack of thinking processes — go on in both. Both are products of the human mind.

A Bahá’í Perspective

How does the Bahá’í perspective on science and religion fit into Proctor’s classification scheme? Born in the mid-19th century, the Bahá’í Faith is the first world religion to have explicit teachings about the relationship between the two. According to Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith, the purpose of religion is “to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world.”

The religion of God and His divine law are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men. The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquility of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth are among the principles and ordinances of God. Religion bestoweth upon man the most precious of all gifts, offereth the cup of prosperity, imparteth eternal life, and showereth imperishable benefits upon mankind. (Bahá’u’lláh, p. 129)

Science, according to these teachings, is:

… a bestowal of God; it is not material; it is divine. Science is an effulgence of the Sun of Reality, the power of investigating and discovering the verities of the universe, the means by which man finds a pathway to God. All the powers and attributes of man are human and hereditary in origin — outcomes of nature’s processes — except the intellect, which is supernatural. Through intellectual and intelligent inquiry science is the discoverer of all things. (`Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 49)

Science and religion – or more precisely, true science and true religion – cannot contradict each other because each is about the same reality. Reality is one, not two:

The third teaching or principle of Bahá’u’lláh is that religion and science are in complete agreement. Every religion which is not in accordance with established science is superstition. Religion must be reasonable. If it does not square with reason, it is superstition and without foundation. It is like a mirage, which deceives man by leading him to think it is a body of water. God has endowed man with reason that he may perceive what is true. If we insist that such and such a subject is not to be reasoned out and tested according to the established logical modes of the intellect, what is the use of the reason which God has given man? (`Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 63)

Science and religion are like the two wings of one bird:

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism. All religions of the present day have fallen into superstitious practices, out of harmony alike with the true principles of the teaching they represent and with the scientific discoveries of the time. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 142)

The Bahá’í teachings are monistic in Proctor’s sense in that they admit of only one reality. They are dualistic in that they generally — but not always — consider science and religion to be different activities. The Bahá’í teachings agree that both are grounded in human experience: they identify the human mind — the human soul — as common to both. But they go further than Proctor’s academic and descriptive sense. The Bahá’í writings are normative — they prescribe that science and religion be brought into unity with each other to achieve the health of each and to achieve the greater good for humanity:

Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one. When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles — and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God. (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 146)


Evolution is the major flashpoint in the conflict between science and religion. On one side are religious believers who deny the validity of evolution and believe that God created the world almost exactly as it is now (creationism) or believe that God directly intervened to create the more complicated parts (intelligent design). Humanity, they hold, was created by God and enjoys a special status. This view is held by a majority of Americans, according to recent polls. On the other side are scientists and secularists who believe in evolution and hold that all living beings evolved by natural selection from a single point. Humanity, they hold, is a species of animal. Frequent skirmishes take place between the two contending sides concerning issues like creation by purely material causes versus God as the creator of all things, the restriction of education to secular matters versus inclusion of religious themes, and the authority of science versus the authority of religion. There is an asymmetry to the conflict: the religious side does not reject science but vocal and influential voices on the supposedly scientific side reject religion in its entirety.

I find it hard to see, given the facts of the matter, logical reasons for the conflict. In every other arena of study where evolutionary processes are thought to take place — astronomy, cosmology, or culture, for example — they hardly raise a stir. The distinction between those arenas and a biological setting is that cells, plants, animals, and humans — as opposed to stars, universes, cultures or institutions — are doing the evolving. In biological evolution, variations in genes and natural selection leads to modification and divergence in the traits of cells, plants, and animals and the result is the emergence of a diversity of life forms, among which are humans. My training in physics leaves no doubt that this diversity of life-forms can happen only if it is made possible by the laws controlling the universe: the laws of nature. If it is inherent in the laws of nature, then it is precisely what was understood as divine creation by thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo, Galileo, Descartes, Newton and countless others. Evolution and divine creation, viewed logically, are simply different ways of talking about the same thing. (For a review and assessment of the Bahá’í perspective on evolution, see Mehanian and Friberg.)

As the conflict between evolution and divine creation is readily resolved — indeed it has been resolved for a very long time — it is highly unlikely that the argument over evolution is a conflict between science and religion. More likely, it is a conflict about something else augmented by ignorance, unhealthy doses of misrepresentation, and dogmatism.

The reception of Darwinism

John Hedley Brooke, a professor of history at Oxford, is a leader in the ongoing reassessment of the historical record of the conflict between science, evolution and religion. His work has made it clear that the reception of Darwinism was much more complicated than the simplistic view of Darwinian scientific advance and clerical resistance. The record is that the reception by the clergy to Darwin’s thought was mixed, some for it and some against it. For example, consider the famous story of the debate between the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s ‘bulldog’:

The pervasive legend that Wilberforce baited Darwin’s disciple, Thomas Henry Huxley, by asking whether he would prefer to think of himself as descended from an ape on his grandmother’s or grandfather’s side, only to be humiliated by a scathing reply in which Huxley replied that he would prefer to have an ape for an ancestor rather than a certain bishop, misses the seriousness with which Wilberforce reviewed Darwin’s Origin of Species and the fact that the story was largely a retrospective invention, one of the foundation myths of scientific professionalism.

According to Brooke, Darwin’s theory of evolution unified nature ‘as never before’. Before the 19th century, the view that science and religion were a unity was supported by ‘unity of nature arguments.’ The universe was ‘one world, one reality, one truth’ that inspired reverence, awe, wonder, and respect for its creator. For Newton, this meant that he could appeal to divine omnipresence to support the legitimacy of his universal laws of motion. For William Paley one hundred years later, this meant he could explain the unity of God on the basis of the universality of the laws of gravitation. Consequently, as was the case for the influential 19th century American botanist Asa Gray, it was easy to see evolution as a method of creation. Evolution, Gray thought, showed that all biological species were part of one system, the “conception of One Mind”. Modern day genetics and DNA studies often provoke the same thought: “For centuries scientist have been picking holes in the unified world view of the great monotheistic religions. Yet, through the DNA code, one branch of their learning, genetics, has uncovered an astonishing unity in all created things. Its findings point to a common ground on which both sides of the debate could fruitfully meet (Daily Telegraph).”

What set evolution and religion at odds? There was, no doubt, a challenge to the literal interpretation of Genesis, but this does not explain the long running conflict. Brooke concludes that a significant part of the answer is that science writers appropriated the concept of the unity of nature and other arguments for unity and used them to ‘laud the sciences at the expense of religion’. An example is Dawkins’ “Is Science a Religion?”:

Uplift, however, is where science really comes into its own. All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it’s exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe — almost worship — this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide. And it does so beyond the wildest dreams of saints and mystics. The fact that the supernatural has no place in our explanations, in our understanding of so much about the universe and life, doesn’t diminish the awe. Quite the contrary. The merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise.

A common view is that evolution removed the need for God as a first cause, eliminating the need for belief in God and thereby strengthening the conflict. A more likely explanation is that evolution removed the need to believe in creation by miraculous means, thus undermining that considerable component of Christian dogma that views miracles as the justification for belief in Christ. Evolutionary arguments were advanced holding that moral principles could develop as products of evolution, thus seeming to eliminate the need for moral training derived from religion. Believers in evolution may become disheartened by its implications, losing their “belief in belief”. Darwin, for example, wrote a letter to his son saying that “horrid doubt always arises whether the conviction of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind? (Francis Darwin, I: 316).”

Evolution as a secular religion

Michael Ruse is a philosopher of science specializing in biology, a leading authority on the conflict between evolution and religion, and a staunch evolutionist. He has a different, but not necessarily opposing, point of view on the origins of the conflict between evolution and science. They conflict with each other because they were set against each other by evolutionists ‘for social and political reasons of the mid-19th century.’ This means, he argues in a recent full length book, that the conflict is resolvable. In Science, Religion, and the Human Experience, Ruse offers a short history of evolution. It is worth quoting in some detail:

Evolution … is very much a child of the Enlightenment. … In particular, evolution was an epiphenomenon of hopes and ideas of progress; the social and cultural belief that, through human effort and intelligence, it is possible to improve knowledge, to use more efficiently our machines and technology, and overall to drive out superstition and prejudice and to increase the happiness of the peoples of the world. … for its first hundred years, right up to the publication of the Origin in 1859. It was — and was seen as — a kind of extension of religious commitment and progressivist philosophy. It had the status of an unjustified and unjustifiable belief system. Judged as an empirical doctrine, it was a pseudoscience … a background commitment on which one could hang all sorts of social and religious beliefs. Charles Darwin set out to alter all of this.

Despite Darwin’s hopes and his considerable accomplishments, evolution in the 19th century did not become a professional university science. Rather, it was used as an ideology in public lecture halls to push for social and cultural change, as a secular religion. ‘Evolution as a science was deeply second-rate — evolutionists as scientists were deeply second-rate — and seen to be so. At the same time, from the moment the Origin appeared, evolution continued to function — to flourish — as a secular religion, as an inherently anti-Christian manifesto.’

Foremost among those using evolution to push for change was Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s confidant and close friend. Viewing the Anglican church as blocking progress in education and the learning of skills needed to ready England for the modern world, Huxley and many of his fellow Victorians ‘determined to oppose Christianity tooth and nail.’

Realizing also that simple critique would not be enough, Huxley and friends grasped gratefully at evolution as their own banner, their own ideology, their own secular religion. It would tell us where we came from; it would stress the unique status of humans — the highest end point of the evolutionary process; it would offer hope for the morrow, if only we strive to conquer the beast within and to make for a better world … . [They] even built their own cathedrals … called museums … [where] the citizens of tomorrow gazed and wondered at the marvels of evolution, imbibing the new religion for the new age.

In the early 20th century Mendelian genetics was re-discovered and Darwinian evolutionary scenarios were buttressed by sophisticated mathematical modeling techniques. Evolution thus was transformed, changing it from ‘a kind of pop science’ to one more respectable. Nonetheless:

… almost every one of the new would-be professional evolutionists was deeply committed to the nonscientific side of the subject, and most wrote book after book claiming that evolution may now be a science, but it was, and always will be, a lot more than a science. The extrascientific stain was still there … . It was no wonder that many, including — perhaps, especially including — the aggressive new molecular biologists of the mid-century, regarded Darwinism with suspicion and contempt.

After the 1950s, evolution became an honest-to-god science, but retained its ‘extrascientific’ fervor. Ruse’s assessment of modern evolution is as follows:

… one cannot truly say that modern professional evolutionism is yet the queen of the sciences — or even in the highest league. … in biology it is still the molecular world that gains the biggest grants, gets the first crop of the students, has the status and facilities and glamour and prizes. Intellectually, modern evolutionary biology can be very exciting, but … it still has little (or, rather, is perceived to have little) or no practical value. … The bright and ambitious look elsewhere. This is not all. There is still the fact that — for all of the efforts at professionalization — many evolutionists are in the business, in part if not primarily, for the extrascientific juices to be wrung from the theory. … There are those who openly devote much of their labors to the broader meanings of evolution, and there are many others who, for all that they pretend to full-time scientific studies, are certainly not beyond using their ideas and models to further social and political agendas that they favor.

Ruse’s authoritative account confirms what many of us have come to suspect: that the non-textbook accounts of evolution, and perhaps even the textbook accounts, contain more than a little proselytizing for what amounts to a secular religious fundamentalism. It seems likely that the widespread opposition to Darwinism and evolution draws much, if not most, of its strength from the recognition of the anti-religious aspects of Darwinian proselytizing. This does not excuse the opponents of evolution for failing to distinguish between the science of evolution and the “extrascientific” proselytizing often accompanying it, but as most scientists have also failed in this regards, the fault is hardly theirs alone. It does suggest that the scientific community should speak out strongly against those who claim evolutionary science as support for their anti-religious convictions.

The thrust of Brookes’ and Ruse’s chapters is that because evolution and religion were pried by political maneuvering into artificial opposition, they can be brought back into harmony via the “unity of science” perspectives that underlie both scientific and religious thought. This is consistent with the Bahá’í teachings about science and religion.

Weightier Issues Underneath

The conflicts over evolution are certainly the most visible of the struggles between science and religion. But, like an iceberg, there are weightier issues underneath. The evolution debates and the revival of militant atheism are only part of a larger ongoing conflict between a worldview that claims that only physical things are real and a worldview that claims there is a transcendent spiritual reality. The historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of a number of books on the history of religious concepts, describes these two world views and their implications thus:

Now, it may be that the universe is exclusively physical (including not only matter and energy in the classical senses but also dark matter and dark energy and any other component that science may one day identify). Such a universe, the product of randomness and causation, is without inherent meaning or purpose. Or it may be that the universe includes both the physical and the spiritual and ideational entities that exist, relate, or occur; these are not limited by space-time, and they are not exhaustible by physical explanations. Such a universe has intrinsic order and meaning.

Before the 16th and 17th centuries, the educated European understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it unified science and religion:

Since God made everything, everything has meaning and purpose, including time. We have access to two great Books of Revelation: one is the Bible and the other is the Book of Nature. The two, far from being incompatible, are both given to us for our understanding. To understand God, we do three basic things: we look within ourselves; we look to God as revealed in the Bible; we look at the Book of Nature as revealed in physical world around us. Augustine thought what we call “science” to be a holy activity.

The unity of science and religion worldview began to collapse with the Protestant reformation in the 16th century and the subsequent Roman Catholic counter-reformation. The collapse was characterized by the increasing use of literal interpretations of the Bible which began with the advent of the Reformation, a use which downplayed and eventually displaced the deeper allegorical and moral interpretations common earlier. Galileo, Descartes, and others accelerated the trend by their arguments for a separation of natural philosophy and theology. The result was a ‘shift from looking at natural phenomena as an overlay on the universe to seeing the phenomena as the universe itself.’ A polarization set in with two opposing sides each claiming ‘to have the true, overt [literal] access to “objective reality”.’ Neither side understood that the language they were employing was basically metaphorical. By the eighteenth century, not only philosophers but also substantial numbers of the general population of Europe believed that we live in an entirely physical universe. Such a belief logically leads to the view that the universe is without intelligent direction or purpose. Russell argues that this is the primary obstacle to restoring the harmony of religion and science.

The view that the universe is entirely physical is known as physicalism, or materialism, or reductionism. A succinct statement of this belief is found in the writings of Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, who opines that “everything can be reduced to simple universal laws of physics. Ideas and feelings are merely linkage among the neural networks (p. 261).” The belief is self-contradictory, because “materialism itself is an idea, just as immaterial as any other (Berry, p. 50).” Indeed, if physicalism is true, ‘no idea is better than any other idea because they all proceed from purposeless neural interactions’ with the consequences that ‘the idea of reductionism itself is no better than that of astrology.’

An Evolutionary Psychological Approach to Religion

Pascal Boyer is a cultural anthropologist who studies religion via the lens of evolutionary psychology, a branch of sociobiology that is highly controversial even among scientists. Evolutionary psychology holds to several basic principles (Cosmides and Tooby):

  1. The brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer. Its circuits are designed to generate behavior that is appropriate to your environmental circumstances.
  2. Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history.
  3. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; most of what goes on in your mind is hidden from you. As a result, your conscious experience can mislead you into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that you experience as easy to solve are very difficult to solve — they require very complicated neural circuitry.
  4. Different neural circuits are specialized for solving different adaptive problems.
  5. Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.

To these, Boyer adds another: ‘The human mind … consists of multiple systems geared to representing and predicting various parts of the environment, or guiding action in different domains according to different principles. None of these systems is about religion.’

For a religion to be successful, Boyer argues in his chapter, it must have been successfully acquired and then passed along over many generations. This will only take place, he argues, if it ‘activates many different mental systems in ways that favor retention’. These mental systems do things like create notions of the supernatural, project person-like features on the supernatural and the environment, and create moral and “misfortune-cause” intuitions. He describes in fascinating and convincing detail how these systems arose in the context of predator-prey interactions and social interactions. The effect of these system are ‘theories of mind’ that are built into all normal humans at preconscious levels.

Theories of mind, according to Boyer, are ‘mind reading’ systems ‘geared to interpreting other agent’s (or one’s own) behavior as well as figuring out what their goals, beliefs, intentions, memories, and inferences are.’ Obviously, such things are important if you want to catch prey that you are tracking, or if you want to avoid being eaten by a predator tracking you. A neurological system that produce such theories of mind ‘tracks the objects of other people’s attention, computes their states of mind, [and] predicts their behavior.’ Because of these theories of mind, Boyer argues, we impute ‘intentional agency’ into the world around us, thereby creating supernatural beings — God, gods, ghosts, witches, elves, talking trees, and the like — thus creating religion.

Morality, often said to derive from religion, actually precedes it, Boyer argues. He sees the mental systems responsible for social interaction creating the basics of morality in childhood. For example, if we fought against our siblings, we were punished by our parents, causing a feeling of being in the wrong. Or, if we are rewarded, we feel in the right. When we mature, we “abstract” from our experiences to more general rules of right and wrong. This combines with our sense of the existence of supernatural beings to create gods (or ancestors) who see our misdeeds and moral failings.

Boyer brings a compelling richness to his arguments that is not conveyed easily in a few short paragraph, so I recommend the reader to the fuller exposition found in the book under review or in his book Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Related books by David Sloan Wilson and Scott Atran on evolutionary psychology will also be of interest. But I cannot say that Boyer is free from biases and presuppositions. For example, he claims that that there is no such thing as a religious instinct, an ‘evolved propensity to religious concepts.’ Yet the whole thrust of his argument is to highlight not just one, but many such instincts, including our innate tendency to develop beliefs in supernatural beings and an inborn instinct for moral behavior. If there are indeed such instincts, it means that there is an innate drive to spirituality. He also claims that ‘there is no instinct for transcendence in human beings, since the most frequent religious beings are ancestors who are assumed to be as real as the living, only more elusive.’ The opposite conclusion would be the more logical, as I saw when my Japanese father-in-law died. Participating in funeral rites and going with the family to the grave showed me how powerfully a belief in the continuing existence of parents and ancestors conveys a sense of transcendence and continuance of life beyond this earthly plane. The whole thrust of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as evidenced in Boyer’s chapter and elsewhere suggests that from the perspective of evolutionary biology, humans have an innate spiritual yearning and capacity.


The story that emerges in Science, Religion, and the Human Experience is the following: Science and religion were unified in Europe until the last several centuries. This unity was then in large part lost, probably because of the conflicts that accompanied the emergence of Protestantism and the resulting turn to literalism. Religion failed to adapt to the new sciences of the 16th and 17th centuries and a materialistic worldview developed as a counter-reaction to this failure. It is the materialistic worldview — the idea that all things can be reduced to their material or physical components — that is in conflict with religion, not science. The visionary aspects of materialism — the area where it first adopted the colorations and trappings of religion — emerged most prolifically in the enlightenment formulation of evolution, a catch-all, be-all motivating philosophy for various causes. Charles Darwin, often beatified as a secular saint, strengthened and transformed enlightenment evolutionary thought. On one hand, he provided a theory — natural selection — and a strong empirical argument for that theory that allowed evolution to evolve into a science. On the other hand, he greatly extended its philosophical claims, both explicitly as an alternative explanation to doctrines of divine design and other staples of religious thought and implicitly as an endorsement of the materialist worldview. These philosophical claims were put to wide use by the founders of modern professionalized science and remain embedded in it — largely unexamined — to this day. The thrust of this is that there are no real reasons for the modern separation of science and religion — it is mainly politics that divides them — and thus there are good reasons to believe that they can be reconciled.

The modern inheritors of evolution’s professional and philosophical claims — Pascal Boyer writing in the book under review is one of them — have developed increasingly sophisticated anthropological, genetic, developmental, ecological and paleontological methods of study that, among other things, show the claims of religion to be deeply rooted in human development, experience, and needs. The effects of the materialistic bias among evolutionists, though, is they usually conclude that this shows religion to be primitive, irrational and illogical. It is hard to believe that this view — an enlightenment dogma of ancient vintage — can be maintained in the light of systematic thinking. It is like saying that eating is irrational and illogical because it is based on a biological need for food.

It’s timeto start overcoming the old and hoary biases from centuries past that keep science and religion from working together. The need — expressed in terms where cosmos means our understanding of the universe — finds fitting expression in the words of Jeffrey Burton Russell in this impressive volume:

The primary task of this century — even beyond all concerns about environment, terrorism, starvation, war, and disease — is the creation of a new cosmos. Primary, because without [a new] cosmos there is no coherent goal for humanity, and consequently every step in what seems at the moment to be a “better” direction will fail, since the direction of the steps will be unknown. Without an idea of where we wish to go, we will end up — not probably but inevitably — reaching no goals other than those of our momentary, changeable wishes. The practical need for healing [the] cosmos is to forestall a century that may be even more lethal than the last. The more important, essential need for healing [the] cosmos is that a purpose for the human race is needed that transcends the diverse, incoherent, and pointless purposes of individuals, social groups, economic interests, and professional technicians; a purpose that aims toward, and is consistent with, the meaning of the universe and of its Great Poet and Maker.


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One thought on “Anthology: “Science, Religion, and the Human Experience”

  1. i am doing some research on the human body as the carrier of God’s attributes and names, i find that this book and a few others a trully helpful. Thank you Baha’u’llah. Thank you God for enabling friends to publish this information.

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