The Scientific Study of Religion

Scientific Study of Religion is a discipline that aims to offer an objective and rigorous investigation of religious thought and behaviour for its own sake. Such knowledge could be a useful tool to promote social progress and help manage religious influence on public life in large societies. However, a scientific program conceived as an attempt to understand and control religion could be perceived by believers with suspicion – and by theologians with even more doubt – as an effort to manipulate them.

Several programs and models compete with one another, each trying to offer satisfactory theories and explanations on the origins, development and current dynamics of religious minds and behaviours. While some programs are more ‘traditional’, others are characterized by novelty and innovation.

The cognitive-psychological approach is a dominant path in the scientific study of religion. This program tries to explain the origins of religious beliefs and practices in terms of mental traits or tendencies – usually derived from a particular population, historical period or a specific mental process. The most important feature of this ‘naturalistic’ theory is that it assumes that the traits originally responsible for religious beliefs and practices remained in place during ensuing evolution.

It also assumes that the traits underlying the formation of religious ideas and behaviours are useful and that they do not merely lead to belief in special imagined agents, but rather contribute to a genuine religious faith that can be mediated and supported by these psychological structures. It should be noted that these traits can be quite complex and can often be very specific.

Some of these traits are’minimalist’, meaning that they are a by-product of normal mental functions or processes but that do not have any practical application; others are ‘evolved’, meaning that they can acquire a novel function during the course of human evolution.

In the last decades, scholars in this direction started to realize that they were facing a great deal of difficulties to identify which brain areas and neural networks were involved in the processing of religious thoughts, feelings and actions. For instance, the famous ‘God spot’, identified by Newberg and D’Aquili in the study of people engaged in deep mediation, was not confirmed by further research. Moreover, other neural structures involved in religious cognitive activities were not detected by neuroimaging methods.

A second set of criticisms focuses on the reductive nature of this kind of model. In addition to the ‘Minimalist’ program, it is also possible to find the ‘Biological-Evolutionist’ one, which is probably still the most popular among the scholars working in this field.

This program is also characterized by a ‘biased’ style. It is aimed at explaining some of the most prominent features of religious thinking and behaviour, like the relation between gods and humans or the role of moral performance in the formation of religious faith. Nevertheless, it is important to note that this set of claims may have some validity in a certain context.