The Economist (22/03/2008) reports that the 2-million-Euro European scientific collaboration known as “Explaining Religion” is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. Scholars from 14 universities will collaborate on the 3-year project. Why? “Religion cries out for a biological explanation,” declares The Economist.putting God to the test?

Denis Alexander spoke recently at the University of St Andrews on the topic of science and religion, and posed some challenging questions for the scientific study of religion:

So how do we go about the process of comparing rival metaphysical beliefs? In science you can do very specific experiments to get precisely the data you need in order to decide whether your theory is correct or not. But what happens when we’re looking for coherence in response to the bigger questions of life: why are we here? Does life have any meaning? Is there a God?[1]

The bigger questions seem to suggest there are limits to what science can study. I wonder how the scientists on the “Explaining Religion” project address these limits in their work? If they are trying to submit the creator God to inspection via their laboratories they may be disappointed.  The desire to study the physical operation of the human mind is well founded, but that is far different from studying the relationship of the human person with a living God. Hence, the modern interest in the “mind/body problem” brings science and theology into dialog in exciting new venues.

One interesting experiment reported in The Economist subjected Christians and non-Christians to PET brain scans while they each recited the 23rd Psalm. Interestingly, the results surprised the researchers. The experiment indicated the main difference in the mental function of the subjects was that the Christians’ brains demonstrated “increased activity in three areas of the frontal and parietal cortex”, while the control groups’ brains did not. These are the areas of the brain associated with rational thought.

I suggest there are several ways to “explain” this outcome. One explanation would be to say that since rational thought is a positive contribution to survival of the species, there must be some evolutionary advantage to religion, since it seems to promote rational thought, and presumably the development of the frontal and parietal cortex. On the other hand, it’s possible that such an explanation is a tautology based on the fideistic belief that since we have survived as a species, the patterns exhibited in our biology must have contributed as positive reinforcements to our survival. An alternative explanation, albeit one that is perhaps untestable in the lab, is that the thoughts of the 23rd Psalm are true.

[1] Denis Alexander is a molecular biochemist and Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.  On 27 February 2008 he gave a public lecture titled, “Has Science Made Religion Redundant?”


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