The Scientific Study of Religion

Tom Bartlett explores the “new science of Religion” discussing the New Atheists and those, like David Sloan Wilson (Darwin’s Cathedral) who try to explain Religion’s origins scientifically and especially through Evolution.

Bartlett begins with the question whether religion has been a force for good or evil. The new atheists assert its malevolent influence in human culture, while Wilson and others attempt to prove the opposite.

One of the authors cited by Bartlett, Scott Atran, disproves the widely-held belief that religion has been responsible for most wars in human history:

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Atran is especially critical of those scientists like Dawkins and Dennett who try to argue religion away:

In an age where religious and sacred causes are resurgent, there is urgent need for scientific effort to understand them. Now that humankind has acquired through science the power to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, we cannot afford to let science ignore religion and the sacred, or let scientists simply try to reason them away. Policymakers should leverage scientific understanding of what makes religion so potent a force for both cooperation and conflict, to help increase the one and lessen the other.

1 thought on “The Scientific Study of Religion

  1. For an articulate statement of how evolution makes both good scientific sense and good theological sense see Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life by John F. Haught. Responds to Dawkins and Dennett showing God as the underlying, energizing dynamic of the drama of life, evolution. He is currently Sr. Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center in DC, Emeritus Professor of Theology, Georgetown Univ.

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