Came across this article on religion from the Economist.

The good god guide

One theory of the origin of religion is that it underpins the extraordinary capacity for collaboration that led to the rise of Homo sapiens. A feature of many religions is the idea that evil is divinely punished and virtue is rewarded. Cheats or the greedy, in other words, get their just deserts. The selflessness which that belief encourages might help explain religion’s evolution. But is the idea of universal just deserts truly instinctive, as this interpretation suggests it should be?

The Economist takes on explaining religion, citing a multi-year, multinational project of the same name that attempted to understand this ubiquitous part of our cultural heritage. Like most of science’s attempts in this particular area, this one is quite clumsy, and there is simply not much to conclude. The experiments are interesting, but so preliminary and tentative that not much of anything can be deduced. It ends with this rather non-committal statement:

So, even though Explaining Religion did not actually achieve its rather ambitious eponymous goal, it has found some promising avenues of investigation, and led to that great desideratum of science, more research. Most importantly, though, it has opened to disinterested investigation an area of human behaviour that all too rarely sees it.

I guess that’s all well and good, but if anyone actually thinks that scientific investigation of religion is entirely “disinterested”, they have not been paying much attention.

I guess it’s good to have science looking into religion. Good knowledge can come of it no doubt, but jeez, sometimes the tools are so clunky that it feels like some form of investigative autism. Can religion even be thought of as one thing? And much of this feels designed to prove an already commonly held position, one referred to a the beginning, that religion is instinctual because of the survival benefits it bestowed through group bonding.

I love the idea that we should step back and have a very careful, rational, thoughtful exploration of exactly what religion is and what it means in the vast scope of human culture. Just not sure science is providing that yet. Over time, I’m sure we will do better.


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