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  1. #1 The Scientific Study of Religion 
    Forum Cosmic Wizard SkinWalker's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    Brief Introduction
    I've used the first three posts of this thread to set the framework for the topic and the thread itself: the introduction; definitions and terms; and a bibliography. This is so the topic can grow and perhaps become an article of reference that can be updated, improved or added to, based upon the discussions and criticisms that follow from post #4 onward. Clearly this is both an attempt to spark a serious discussion as well as to experiment in a method of establishing a format for forum articles. There are those among us who are gifted at writing and communication and I want to encourage them (Silas, Ophiolite, et al) in creating similar articles in topics ranging from religion to geology to why-we-know-man-landed-on-the-Moon. The kinds of articles with discussions that follow that people will bookmark and use for discussions elsewhere on the Internet.
    The Scientific Study of Religion

    On science message-boards, the religious section –if one exists- is typically divided into two camps: believers and non-believers. Many discussion forums omit religion sub-forums because of the controversy and division that ultimately erupts, but I think that in any decent discussion community of science, there should be time and space devoted to the topic of "religion." Whether those of us in the sciences like it or not, religion and science affect each other. In addition, I think that religion deserves to be examined and explained scientifically, and my goal with this thread is to explore this notion.

    Why study religion scientifically and what are we able to objectively examine?

    Science can objectively examine all the "earthly" manifestations of religion: the institutions, the rituals, the texts, the symbolism, psychological effects, the traditions, myths, etc. Indeed, we can examine the beliefs themselves and determine if evidence exists to support these beliefs. But it's because religion is such an "important and pervasive phenomenon in human society" that it should be studied (Dennett 2006).

    Another reason to study religion is to reach a consensus about what religion actually is. The definition I provided in the Definitions post certainly doesn't do the term justice. Guthrie notes that definitions imply theories and that there simply are no good theories about religion (1993). Anthropologists have their definitions; sociologists have theirs; believers of various religions have various independent versions; philosophers yet another; and so on. Even within these groups there is much disagreement about what constitutes a "religion" or "religious thought."

    There are, however, two main positions when it comes to religion: that of believers and that of non-believers. The positions of believers are primarily central to their own religious beliefs and typically discount other positions as inferior. As Guthrie puts it (1993:8), to them, "belief must precede understanding" in many cases and that "these theories primarily concern some single, ostensibly true, religion, not religion in general.

    The various theories that explain religion are, in brief:
    1. A given theistic belief of the hundreds, if not thousands, of individual theistic worldviews that are either extant or extinct, is correct.

      This explanation only works for one religion, however, and fails to take into account what motivations other religions have for their existence. Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions' believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct. Some do argue that all religions are correct and their focus is on the one "true" God and that it is their individual methods or practices that are diverse, yet this doesn't explain the diversity –some of which is significant enough to be contradictory between religious cults.
    2. Religion is the human response to anxiety, fear, desperation and dissatisfaction and provides comfort to humanity.

      This explanation has been around for some time and is very plausible. It has been proposed by intellectuals like Freud, Hume, Spinoza, Marx, and Malinowski. Freud is quoted as having said religion "must exorcise the terrors of nature" and "reconcile men to the credulity of fate, particularly as it is shown in death." Hume noted that "the primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear." These opinions are supported by the work of Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands where he found that the Polynesian inhabitants had varying degrees of magic for varying degrees of risk in their daily activities. If the natives were going to fish in their local lagoon, no magic was required; but as they ventured further from shore to the deep sea, the amount of ritual and magic involved increased proportional to the risk involved. This theory also supposes that people in all cultures fear the finality of death and the unpredictable forces of nature and therefore find comfort in religious beliefs of an afterlife or rewards/punishments in the form of bountiful seasons or catastrophes like floods and volcanoes.
    3. Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.

      This is a theory of religion for which Emile Durkheim was a strong proponent (Durkheim 1965), but it was variously proposed by others such as Auguste Comte and even as early as Polybius of first century BCE Greece. Freud and Malinowski also commented on this theory as did anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheim, however, was the most influential proponent of this theory and his position was that religion couldn't be actually about gods and deities (since they don't actually exist) and must therefore be about something else entirely. Durkheim asserted that religion seeks to divide the universe into two realms: the sacred and the profane. The sacred, being that which is devoted to the illusionary gods, and the profane, being everything else, sets apart the two realms. In ancient Greek religion, this was often a physical barrier at a sanctuary called the temenos, often just a low wall that surrounded the temple grounds. The temenos wasn't designed to restrict access but rather to demarcate the point at which the sacred began and the profane ended. According to Durkheim, the believers considered the "sacred" to be set apart from the "profane," but what really occurred was that the society was setting itself apart and thus providing a cohesive unity or a solidarity between itself and all else, such as other religions. The problem with this theory is, of course, that there are many religions, extant as well as extinct, in which there is no separation between the sacred and profane. The Navajo along with most Native American cultures view everything as sacred, albeit in varied degrees.

      This theory also makes "perpetuation of the society the purpose of religion (Guthrie 1993:17)," but there are religions that have destroyed their societies such as the Xhosa, whose beliefs caused the "cattle killing" in South Africa; and the inhabitants of Easter Island, who decimated their forests in their beliefs that included the giant monuments. Likewise, it can be argued that the Maya destroyed themselves because of ritual warfare and deforestation due to temple construction.
    4. Religion is whatever a given set of believers think it is and provides explanations valid for a given culture.

      Boyer (Boyer 2003:10-12) summarizes this theory quite well by pointing out that people created religion to explain puzzling natural and mental phenomena as well as the origins of things like plants, animals, humans, the world, etc., and that religion explains evil and suffering. Guthrie (Guthrie 1993) also calls this theory the intellectualist and rationalist theory, and compares it with science (though, clearly Guthrie is not a proponent of this theory) as a means of explaining the world. He cites Bernard Fontenelle, a 17th century intellectual: [i]religion started when lighning, wind, and other natural phenomena made people imagine human like agents, "more powerful than themselves, capable of producing these grand effects." People imagine these agents as like themselves because they think analogically. Fontenelle's recognition that analogy and metaphor are universal makes possible a naturalistic and rationalistic account of religion."

      E.B. Tylor was one of the first to assert this theory with his study of Australian Aboriginals and his hypothesis that primitive religions begin with animism. Few who study religion today consider his work to have provided a valid or concise theory, but his discussions about animism bring up good points that relate to anthropomorphism, a concept that may well tie into each of the theories (except the irrational first in this list). Tylor proposed that early people contrived the notion of a soul or "spirit" after experiencing dreams or hallucinations about deceased loved ones and assuming that the reason these people could be "seen" after death was that there is something that survives the body when it stops living. This "life-force" can find its way into non-human things as well, such as crows, bears, rocks, etc. Tylor asserted that these "spirits" that inhabited various things by "animating" them, evolved into polytheistic religions then, finally, were reduced to a single god.
    5. Religion has its origin in some biological or cognitive predisposition.

      Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist from the University of California-San Diego discovered that an individual's religiosity may be heavily influenced by the electrical activity of a specific region of the brain. Ramachandran evaluated 3 groups of people: 1) patients of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) who had religious "preoccupations;" 2) "very religious" people who were not TLE; and 3) non-religious people without TLE. He found that the first group had the highest response to religious words and icons, significantly more than the control group (Ramachandran et al 1997; Ramachandran 2003). There are other theories and suggestions that religiosity in humanity is an evolutionary advantage and is passed on through DNA. It could very well be that the willingness to "believe" is just the right addition to intelligence that allows us to develop technology. The technology of agriculture may have developed from the propensity for belief: procedures for food production and water management show up in the archaeological record as having "ritual" significance that varies in intensity and frequency from culture to culture. Undoubtedly, early humans applied magical thinking to the availability of food, rain, predators, etc.


    There are certainly reasons to study religion scientifically. The theories of religion I outlined briefly above are by no means complete nor have I mentioned each theory. If anyone is willing, I'd be willing to discuss these theories in more detail in this thread as well as look at other scientifically diagnostic methods of examining religion as a human condition.


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    Definitions and Terms

    Definitions for the following words and terms were obtained by typing "define:[word]" in Google. I've tried to stick with either Religious Tolerance.com or Princeton Universities WordNet because both seem to be largely well researched and often contained the most objective as well as the most concise definitions.

    Definition and Terms will be added and updated in this post as needed.

    1. Animism -a type of religious belief that all components of the universe, including humans, animals, plant life, rocks, etc. contain some form of life force, soul or spirit.
    2. Anthropomorphism – The representation of a non-human as a human. God in the earlier parts of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is described in human terms, as having a body. Sometimes anthropomorphism is extended to animals who are assumed to have human feelings.
    3. Atheism – According to many Atheists: having no belief about a deity; According to most non-Atheists, actively denying that a deity exists.
    4. Belief - any cognitive content held as true; impression, feeling, notion, opinion (a vague idea in which some confidence is placed)
    5. Christianity - a monotheistic system of beliefs and practices based on the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus as embodied in the New Testament and emphasizing the role of Jesus as savior
    6. Cult - adherents of an exclusive system of religious beliefs and practices; a system of religious beliefs and rituals
    7. God - the supernatural being conceived as the perfect and omnipotent and omniscient originator and ruler of the universe; the object of worship in monotheistic religions;
    8. g od - deity: any supernatural being worshipped as controlling some part of the world or some aspect of life or who is the personification of a force
    9. Mysticism – religion based on mystical communion with an ultimate reality; obscure or irrational thought
    10. Myth - a traditional story accepted as history; serves to explain the world view of a people
    11. Mythology - the body of stories associated with a culture or institution or person; the study of myths.
    12. Religion - a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny; an institution to express belief in a divine power
    13. Scientific Method - a method of investigation involving observation and theory to test scientific hypotheses
    14. Theism - the doctrine or belief in the existence of a God or gods
    15. Theory - a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; "theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses"; "true in fact and theory"


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    Bibliography

    Some of these sources are referenced directly, others were consulted. All are good places to find information relevant to the topic. I'll update this post as needed. Sources mentioned or cited elsewhere in the thread will go here as well.

    Bellah, R. (1964, June). Religious Evolution. American Sociological Review, 29(3), 358-374

    Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

    Dawkins, R. (2003). A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

    Dennet, D. (2006). Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking Adult.

    Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elemental Forms of Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.

    Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1950). Witchcraft, Oracles and magic Among the Azande, 2nd ed. Oxford: Carendon Press.

    Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Horton, Robin (1960). A definition of religion, and its uses. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 90, pp. 201-226.

    Malinowski, B. (1979/1931). The role of magic and religion. In W. Lessa & E. Vogt (Ed.), Reader in comparative religion (4th ed., pp. 38-46). New York: Harper & Row.

    Ramachandran, V., Hirstein, W., Narmel, K., Tecoma, E., & Iragui, V. (1997). The Neural Basis of Religious Experience. Annual Conference of He Society of Neuroscience, 23(Abstract #519.1).

    Ramachandran, V. (Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego)). (2003). Audio Q&A: Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. In Reith Lectures. Oxford University.

    Shermer, M. (2000). How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.
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  5. #4 Re: The Scientific Study of Religion 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope mitchellmckain's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    The various theories that explain religion are, in brief:
    1. A given theistic belief of the hundreds, if not thousands, of individual theistic worldviews that are either extant or extinct, is correct.

      This explanation only works for one religion, however, and fails to take into account what motivations other religions have for their existence. Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions' believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct. Some do argue that all religions are correct and their focus is on the one "true" God and that it is their individual methods or practices that are diverse, yet this doesn't explain the diversity –some of which is significant enough to be contradictory between religious cults.
    Your approach is reasonable until you reach this point. Then what looks like an objective examination changes into a blatant attempt to make religion look ridiculous. Religion may be more prone to internal disagreements than science because of methods but in principle this characterization can and has been applied by ID people attempting to discredit evolution. So no matter how apt you this this arguement is, if you really want an objective approach you need to put the diffferent theories on equal footing as different answers to the same question!

    Therefore I suggest rephrasing this first "theory" in the following manner, which probably absorbs the other "theory" in your list about it being whatever they say they are (which by the way I think is a cop out rather than a real theory).

    1. Religion is the result of man's communications with the divine, whether that divine source is some external supernatural being or something internal like "enlightenment" or something else.

    likewise,

    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    3. Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.
    Should be put into the same form of an answer to the question of "What is relgion". So I suggest...

    3. Religion is a mechanism which human communities have developed, whether consciously, instinctively or "evolutionarily" (communities failing to develop such a mechanism simply do not survive) in order maintain solidarity and social cohesion.


    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    5. Religion has its origin in some biological or cognitive predisposition.
    Possible rephrase?

    5. Religion is human behavior that expresses of some biological or cognitive predispositon.

    Finally I should like to point out that none of these theories are really mutually exclusive. Some may be wrong and some may be more true than others, but there is no need to choose which one is right. Most questions about complex human behavior have complex answers and scientific studies can only accumulate evidence for the relative weight of some over others.
    See my physics of spaceflight simulator at http://www.relspace.astahost.com

    I now have a blog too: http://astahost.blogspot.com/
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  6. #5 Re: The Scientific Study of Religion 
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    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    A given theistic belief of the hundreds, if not thousands, of individual theistic worldviews that are either extant or extinct, is correct.

    This explanation only works for one religion, however, and fails to take into account what motivations other religions have for their existence. Of course, it could rightfully be argued that each of the religions' believers think theirs is the correct religion, but, logically, the answer must actually be only one or none is correct. Some do argue that all religions are correct and their focus is on the one "true" God and that it is their individual methods or practices that are diverse, yet this doesn't explain the diversity –some of which is significant enough to be contradictory between religious cults.[/list]
    Your approach is reasonable until you reach this point. Then what looks like an objective examination changes into a blatant attempt to make religion look ridiculous.
    I'm certainly not trying to make religion look ridiculus (not in this thread, anyway). I'm open to revision, but I didn't find the information to provide that "equal footing" in your suggestion:

    1. Religion is the result of man's communications with the divine, whether that divine source is some external supernatural being or something internal like "enlightenment" or something else.
    The reason I didn't find adequate definition, is that this assumes that all religions are equally valid. The average Lutheran will probably consider the average Methodist to be sufficiently pious, but are you suggesting that the average Baptist would consider the average follower of African Traditional Religion (ATR) to be? Would the typical Muslim accept any Jew or Hindi as anything except an infidel? Likewise, would any of these accept the Wiccan as valid. The ATR adherant, probably, but your definition above, while nearly sufficient, must include the exclusivity statement in order to be accurate. My version still seems more accurate, though I'm open to including that "religion is actually the result of man's communications with the divine/supernatural." If so, then this theory is automatically rendered invalid due to the many extant and extinct religions that vary so greatly. Divinity may account for one, but what accounts for the others?

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    3. Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion.
    Should be put into the same form of an answer to the question of "What is relgion". So I suggest...

    3. Religion is a mechanism which human communities have developed, whether consciously, instinctively or "evolutionarily" (communities failing to develop such a mechanism simply do not survive) in order maintain solidarity and social cohesion.
    Except there are examples (many) of how this "mechanism" has caused the downfall of communities. Moreover, there is ample evidence that there is no single "mechanism" that provides success for human society: many religions; many societies; much diversity in religious method & practice. Though I fully acknowledge the probable importance of religion as a societal "mechanism" for development and sustainment.


    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    5. Religion has its origin in some biological or cognitive predisposition.
    Possible rephrase?

    5. Religion is human behavior that expresses of some biological or cognitive predispositon.
    Except that religion isn't a "behavior" so much as it is a result. Religions *do* give rise to behaviors - like rituals, for instance.

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    Finally I should like to point out that none of these theories are really mutually exclusive. Some may be wrong and some may be more true than others, but there is no need to choose which one is right. Most questions about complex human behavior have complex answers and scientific studies can only accumulate evidence for the relative weight of some over others.
    I'm in full agreement. I think that there is probably more than one theory that applies to religiosity in humanity.

    But I'm at work and must get back at it... until later tonight
    Thanks for the input and the reply!
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  7. #6 Re: The Scientific Study of Religion 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope mitchellmckain's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    I'm certainly not trying to make religion look ridiculus (not in this thread, anyway). I'm open to revision, but I didn't find the information to provide that "equal footing" in your suggestion:
    Your responses puzzle me because you seem to expect me to argue the relative merits of these theories. But my point was simply to state them in a fair manner where they are all an attempt to answer the same question. "What is religion?"

    I mean how do you like this list of ideas about why people believe in evolution:

    1. One of the scientist's ideas about evolution is actually correct. But since they all disagree that seems very unlikely.
    2. Evolution is a human response to anxiety, fear, desperation and dissatisfaction and provides comfort to humanity.
    3. Evolution creates and maintains discomfort amoung self-righteous religious groups and therefore is very useful to people who hate religion.
    4. Evolution is whatever we want it to be.
    5. Belief in evolution has its origin in some biological or cognitive predisposition.


    Don't argue these points. I don't believe them any more than you do. I am playing devil's advocate here to make a point, that unless you are very careful, making lists like this are nothing more than rhetoric biasing the discussion in favor of a particular point of view. It seemed like you were aiming at objectivity so I was trying to help. If you cannot accept this kind of advice, it suggests that your objectivity is only pretense.

    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    1. Religion is the result of man's communications with the divine, whether that divine source is some external supernatural being or something internal like "enlightenment" or something else.
    The reason I didn't find adequate definition, is that this assumes that all religions are equally valid. The average Lutheran will probably consider the average Methodist to be sufficiently pious, but are you suggesting that the average Baptist would consider the average follower of African Traditional Religion (ATR) to be? Would the typical Muslim accept any Jew or Hindi as anything except an infidel? Likewise, would any of these accept the Wiccan as valid. The ATR adherant, probably, but your definition above, while nearly sufficient, must include the exclusivity statement in order to be accurate. My version still seems more accurate, though I'm open to including that "religion is actually the result of man's communications with the divine/supernatural." If so, then this theory is automatically rendered invalid due to the many extant and extinct religions that vary so greatly. Divinity may account for one, but what accounts for the others?
    But if you are making a scientific study, so who cares what the Baptists or Lutherans think? It is not popularity contest or an eccumenical council! And besides even if one of these is "true", it is irrelevent to the question of religion, because that "truth" only explains that religion and no other.

    If you like, you can add another very viable sixth theory.

    6. Religion is a successful method of manipualting a large number of people.

    This is, in fact, one that most religions would favor a lot because they think that their own religion is the "truth" while all the others are the manipulations of deceivers and charlatans.


    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    3. Religion is a mechanism which human communities have developed, whether consciously, instinctively or "evolutionarily" (communities failing to develop such a mechanism simply do not survive) in order maintain solidarity and social cohesion.
    Except there are examples (many) of how this "mechanism" has caused the downfall of communities. Moreover, there is ample evidence that there is no single "mechanism" that provides success for human society: many religions; many societies; much diversity in religious method & practice. Though I fully acknowledge the probable importance of religion as a societal "mechanism" for development and sustainment.
    Now you are arguing the merits of the theory again. And whether the mechanism is successful or not has nothing to do with whether religion is such a mechanism or not.


    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    5. Religion is human behavior that expresses of some biological or cognitive predispositon.
    Except that religion isn't a "behavior" so much as it is a result. Religions *do* give rise to behaviors - like rituals, for instance.
    If you abuse suggestions then people will stop making them. If you don't like the word behavior then pick your own word to describe WHAT IT IS. It just seemed to me that behavior was the appropriate term for the biological/psychological context of the statement.

    There is a lot of confusion here between the questions "What is religion" and "What is the cause of religion". I reccommend starting with the first because causality in human activity is a mess of all kinds of difficulties.
    See my physics of spaceflight simulator at http://www.relspace.astahost.com

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  8. #7 Re: The Scientific Study of Religion 
    Forum Cosmic Wizard SkinWalker's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    Your responses puzzle me because you seem to expect me to argue the relative merits of these theories.
    I'm not expecting an argument from anyone with regard to these theories. These are existing theories on religion, which I have greatly paraphrased and restated here. There are other theories, but these are the most significant and are arrived at by leaders in their fields (Malinowski, Freud, Durkheim, Tylor, et al).

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    But my point was simply to state them in a fair manner where they are all an attempt to answer the same question. "What is religion?"
    That wasn't the question. Indeed, I began the first thread with that question being one of the reasons to study religion in the first place:
    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    reason to study religion is to reach a consensus about what religion actually is.
    I'm interested in universals of religion: what all religions share. I'm interested in why these universals transcend the specific religions themselves, both culturally and temporally. For instance, why does an ancient believer in Greek religion believe that sacrifice should be offered to the gods in almost the same manner as later Jewish religion or even further removed Mesoamerican religion?

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    ... making lists like this are nothing more than rhetoric biasing the discussion in favor of a particular point of view.
    I'm certainly not looking for a biased point of view. Indeed, this is why I felt necessary to discuss first the existing theories of religion. I "list" them because they exist. They are taught in nearly every anthropology of religion course you'll find; moreover they each have some bits of validity that ring true regardless of their faults. The faults, by the way, which I've attempted to point out where I was able to remember. I'm sure there are many faults that remain.

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    But if you are making a scientific study, so who cares what the Baptists or Lutherans think? It is not popularity contest or an eccumenical council! And besides even if one of these is "true", it is irrelevent to the question of religion, because that "truth" only explains that religion and no other.
    Then we are in agreement. I thought that was the very point I was attempting to make. I certainly don't care what the Baptists or Lutherans think exclusively, but the examples served to make the greater point, which you appear to agree with.

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    If you like, you can add another very viable sixth theory.

    6. Religion is a successful method of manipualting a large number of people.
    While this may be a valid character of religion, what the various theories of religion provide is an explanation for religion as it relates to humanity on the whole. Why religion is so pervasive in human culture. To posit that religion exists so that populations of humanity can be manipulated doesn't seem logically viable.

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    Now you are arguing the merits of the theory again. And whether the mechanism is successful or not has nothing to do with whether religion is such a mechanism or not.
    I simply saw no reason to restate the Durkheimian theory, which by all accounts stands on its own merit and suffers from its own failings. There is much to be said about social solidarity and coheision, but there are distinct examples where this doesn't seem to make a difference. It seemed a stretch, too, to state that "communities failing to develop such a mechanism simply do not survive." Such arbitrary statements might not provide a valid basis scientifically.

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    If you abuse suggestions then people will stop making them. If you don't like the word behavior then pick your own word to describe WHAT IT IS. It just seemed to me that behavior was the appropriate term for the biological/psychological context of the statement.
    My apologies if you thought I was "abusing" your suggestion. "Behavior" seemed the wrong choice and I don't see that a substitute word is needed. Religion might be a "condition," but I see where there might be those that would accept this perjoratively. It could be called a "state", though this implies some expectation of change either from or to it. The problem with "behavior" is that it implies some overt but individual action. Religion is more of a systemic condition or state (damn, I said it) that includes many behaviors and thoughts.

    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    There is a lot of confusion here between the questions "What is religion" and "What is the cause of religion". I reccommend starting with the first because causality in human activity is a mess of all kinds of difficulties.
    I understand you recommendation, but, as I pointedout in one of the first paragraphs, there are a variety of definitions that come from philosophy, theology, anthropology, sociology, and so on. Which definition would you choose and why? Rather than fall into the trap of defining religion, I chose to restate (briefly!) previously asserted theories that account for the existance of religion.

    Each of these theories has entire books devoted to them. Durkheim's work is mandatory reading in anthropology. Likewise, Boyer has sought to explain religious thought from the perspective of ontological templates developed cognitively in the human brain (I plan to discuss his book in more detail in a later post).

    Finally, I seek no debate. Not in the vein of evolution vs. creation and the like. Debate, perhaps, over the validity of a particular model of religious theory: the failings and inconsistencies with biological explanations; social explanations; etc., but not heated debate or argument. I realize that my normal position when discussing religion in this forum is typically highly skeptical/anti-theist, but in this thread I'm taking great pains to set those opinions aside in the desire to look at religion objectively.

    Clearly, though, I don't recognize religious beliefs as valid in the sense that there are actually deities or supernatural agents. This is where my objectivity will probably fail, though I don't discount this explanation entirely. But the counter-perspective, that at least one religion is valid in its belief in supernatural agents is less objective, in my opinion, since the believer will not generally concede that it is possible that there is no deity.
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  9. #8 Re: The Scientific Study of Religion 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope mitchellmckain's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    I'm not expecting an argument from anyone with regard to these theories. These are existing theories on religion, which I have greatly paraphrased and restated here. There are other theories, but these are the most significant and are arrived at by leaders in their fields (Malinowski, Freud, Durkheim, Tylor, et al).
    Ok, well that explains a lot. It is a very scholarly approach. But I find this chewing over the same old ideas to be a bit pointless, myself. I suppose the humanities academia expects this approach to prove that you have in fact carefully read what has already been written.

    Quote Originally Posted by SkinWalker
    Quote Originally Posted by mitchellmckain
    If you like, you can add another very viable sixth theory.

    6. Religion is a successful method of manipualting a large number of people.
    While this may be a valid character of religion, what the various theories of religion provide is an explanation for religion as it relates to humanity on the whole. Why religion is so pervasive in human culture. To posit that religion exists so that populations of humanity can be manipulated doesn't seem logically viable.
    Hmmm... interesting. Charles Sander's Pierce uses the same observation as a part of his "Negelected Arguement for the existence of God".
    See my physics of spaceflight simulator at http://www.relspace.astahost.com

    I now have a blog too: http://astahost.blogspot.com/
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    Skinwalker, I would like to see Nietzsche's perspective added.

    His view on ascetism, mastermoral and slavemoral (seen in many religions). I'll see if I can write something coherent later, as a possiblity.

    Mr U
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    First of all, I'm extremely flattered by your compliment in the first part of your first post, SkinWalker. I'm bound to say, though, that if you really think I'm a gifted communicator, then it's time I thought about writing a book rather than write a specific thesis and then give it away on the Internet! :P

    You're talking about the scientific study of religion, so I looked for something specific in your post, and I found it:
    Science can objectively examine all the "earthly" manifestations of religion: the institutions, the rituals, the texts, the symbolism, psychological effects, the traditions, myths, etc. Indeed, we can examine the beliefs themselves and determine if evidence exists to support these beliefs. But it's because religion is such an "important and pervasive phenomenon in human society" that it should be studied (Dennett 2006).
    Dennett's new book got a poor review in the Sunday Times or the Observer (UK Sunday newspapers), I can't remember which. Apparently one of the things that Dennett mockingly suggests might be subject to scientific study is transubstantiation. Specifically he wanted to "extract Jesus's DNA" from the "Blood of Christ", the sacramental wine. But by calling for such a thing, I'm afraid Dennett not only denigrates the Catholic faith, but he denigrates the pretty basic intelligence of every single Catholic. When we* eat "the body of Christ", well, it doesn't taste like raw flesh, and nobody has ever suggested that Catholic Priests should use some kind of sleight of hand to empty a sachet of pigs' blood into the chalice (though we never drank the wine in my church). The concept that the doctrine of Transubstantiation could remotely be subjected to scientific testing is not only laughable, it is a severe misunderstanding of the meaning of "faith" - any faith. Transubstantiation is effectively an untestable miracle. In a way, Catholics believe in Transubstantiation precisely because of they philosophical processes that arrived at the doctrine in the first place. The review criticised Dennett (a professional philosopher, please note) for slipping into a derogatory, mocking tone that seriously detracted from the points he was trying to make.

    So I feel entirely, as a rationalist and skeptic, that a Dennettian programme of scientific study of the rituals of religion is misguided at best and utterly doomed at worst. Which is not to say that scientific methods cannot be used to debunk those who genuinely are pulling a fast one - specifically faith healers, psychic surgeons and the like.

    However, I will come back to this thread after a fuller perusal later on.

    *I was raised a Catholic (very badly, I might add) so this is a sacrement to which I have partaken.
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    I haven't read Dennett's book as yet, though I've flipped through it. I'm waiting on my library to get its copy, which -as of last Friday- is still on order. I'll certainly comment on the transubstantiation chapter then... I did, however, listen to an interview with Dennett on the Point of Inquiry Podcast, and I was a bit impressed.

    The Amazon link in the first line of this post has a review from Scientific American.
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    The focus of this thread is somewhat elusive.

    I am not sure the overall objectives or goals have been clearly outlined at any point. One objective could be to show that no religion has a valid existence. Another could be to prove that all religions are actually the same. Another could be to show that one specific religion is THE valid religion. It may be there is no particular objective, but rather merely a search for possible outcomes.

    It is also difficult to figure if the purpose is to study the bases of religions, the influences of religions or the potential validity of individual religion.

    The big question in this thread, to me, is: Can the natural quantify the supernatural and if so, to what degree and to what extent? If the natural approach denies the possibility of the supernatural influences, can there be a full and complete examination of religion or merely a study of the naturally observable consequences?

    Many religions claim to have some supernatural connection. If their claims are true, it seems it would be difficult to have a process within nature that could fully examine that which exists beyond nature.

    This is not to say that there are no aspects of a supernatural based religion which cannot be inspected and evaluated. The practices of such religions can be observed and evaluated as to whether they are or have been productive or counterproductive to various aspects of world matters.

    If a person claims to have had a supernatural experience, can one who admits to never having had that same experience have a basis from which to evaluate it?

    Life is made up of many experiences and it is very difficult for one person to understand what someone else may have experience that he himself has not experienced. And this goes far beyond possible supernatural religious experiences.

    But in relation to supernatural religious experiences, can a religion effectively be invalidated or excluded merely by denying the possibility of supernatural influences because supernatural influences defy being quantified or measured by means of natural investigation?

    skinwalker offers this:


    Clearly, though, I don't recognize religious beliefs as valid in the sense that there are actually deities or supernatural agents. This is where my objectivity will probably fail, though I don't discount this explanation entirely. But the counter-perspective, that at least one religion is valid in its belief in supernatural agents is less objective, in my opinion, since the believer will not generally concede that it is possible that there is no deity.
    I believe skinwalker is accurate in his claim that believers in a deity have difficulty with the possibility that there is no diety just as atheists have difficulty admitting the possibility that there is deity. Until each side is open to the possibility that his belief could be wrong, there can be no unbiased approach to this topic.

    Among all the possibilities in the universe, it is possible that no deity exists. It is also possible that many deities exist. It is also possible that only one deity exists. It is possible that beyond the natural world that we see and hear and measure exists a supernatural world which can in some way interact with the natural world.

    To ignore or discount any of these possibilities (which are certainly not the only possibilities) is to provide the basis for a meaningless dialog which can lead only to invalid results.

    There is a serious problem in trying to quantify religion which based on experiential belief rather than quantifiable intellectual observations.
    Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. -- Albert Einstein

    If God DID do all of this, is He not the greatest scientist of all? -- dt, 2005
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    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    The focus of this thread is somewhat elusive.

    I am not sure the overall objectives or goals have been clearly outlined at any point.
    Perhaps you skipped over the first post. In it, I mentioned the thread title, "the scientific study of religion" and then "why" religion should be studied scientifically. I've offered this as a discussion point and as a place to collect sources of information relating to this endeavor. Again, all in the first paragraph.

    So, either I wasn't clear (a distinct possibility); you missed the first paragraphs or just skimmed them; or you find disagreement with the notion that religion can or should be studied scientifically (another distinct possibility when the remainder of your post is read).

    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    One objective could be to show that no religion has a valid existence. Another could be to prove that all religions are actually the same. Another could be to show that one specific religion is THE valid religion. It may be there is no particular objective, but rather merely a search for possible outcomes.
    Then, perhaps I wasn't clear after all. I offer my apologies and this brief addendum:

    I agree with Dennett (2006) who notes that religion is such an "important and pervasive phenomenon in human society" that it should be studied. Not because one religion may be the correct one, or to show none or all are equally valid, but because religion is a condition or state that has found its way into all human cultures. We study other such 'institutions,' including war, gender, agriculture, technology, egalitarianism, politics, etc. We even study those characteristics about humanity that aren't as pervasive, such as pastorialism, schizophrenia, specific ethnicities, etc.

    These studies are done with the goals to collect quantitative and qualitative data in order to find universals, theories, origins, progressions, trends, etc.

    Religion is so pervasive in our societies that it may well be affected by these institutions and characteristics or vice versa, it would therefore be negligent of the scientific community to not study them.

    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    It is also difficult to figure if the purpose is to study the bases of religions, the influences of religions or the potential validity of individual religion.
    These and more are questions and parts of Religion that should be fair game in exploration scientifically.

    The big question in this thread, to me, is: Can the natural quantify the supernatural and if so, to what degree and to what extent? If the natural approach denies the possibility of the supernatural influences, can there be a full and complete examination of religion or merely a study of the naturally observable consequences? [/quote]

    This assumes that the "supernatural" is a real concept. By its very self-definition, the supernatural is outside of nature, and is therefore not part of reality. Therefore, supernatural explanations can be discarded. However, supernatural beliefs must be considered, compared, and contrasted. There is no "supernatural approach" to obtaining knowledge, so we can only employ natural methods.

    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    Many religions claim to have some supernatural connection. If their claims are true, it seems it would be difficult to have a process within nature that could fully examine that which exists beyond nature.
    I've yet to see a religion without a supernatural claim. For the purposes of true scientific study, the supernatural is assumed to be non-existent. Therefore, all claims or beliefs in a given religion are described in the context of what the belief is and also what the reality is.

    An example:

    The Zande of West Africa believe that there exists something referred to as mangu. This is 1) a witchcraft substance - a material substance believed to reside in the bodies of certain persons. It is discovered by autopsy in the dead and is supposed to be diagnosed by oracles in the living and can be passed from father to son. 2) witchcraft itself - a supposed psychic emanation from a witchcraft substance wich is believed to cause injury to health and property. 3) witchcraft phlegan - among witchdoctors, mangu occasionally refers to a supposed substance in their bodies which they say is produced by medicines. In their opinion, it is entirely different from the witchcraft substance mentioned above.

    Azande belief holds that the souls of witches sail through the air at night inflicting pain on people and sufferers of misfortune blame witchcraft (Evans-Pritchard 1950).

    What Evans-Pritchard has shown us with regard to the Azande, is that we can examine the beliefs and actions of believers in a given religion and even derive conclusions. There exists a very tenuous relationship between people in which wealth must be carefully controlled. If one person becomes to wealthy or powerful, he runs the risk of being accused of witchcraft, and he knows it. Therefore, wealth is carefully distributed among the Azande in accordance with Zande custom and ritual, ensuring that the culture, as a whole, survives and carries on. The Zande belief regarding the souls of witches at night has a very similar ring to it: the boogy-man of the west. These are the kinds of stories we tell in order to abate the natural curiosity of our children in order to keep them from wondering off. In the jungles of West Africa, even the adults need be worried about being out at night alone. Stories like this may serve to reinforce that within the culture.

    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    This is not to say that there are no aspects of a supernatural based religion which cannot be inspected and evaluated. The practices of such religions can be observed and evaluated as to whether they are or have been productive or counterproductive to various aspects of world matters.
    But to not consistently apply the same methods to all religions would be dishonest and biased, not to mention intellectually fallacious. One cannot assume that there are some religions that aren't as valid as others.

    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    If a person claims to have had a supernatural experience, can one who admits to never having had that same experience have a basis from which to evaluate it?
    Yes. The supernatural can be evaluated on the basis that it doesn't exist in reality and trends among a collection of supernatural claims can be evaluated. The Azande claim that magic and sorcery exist. Their beliefs are consistent and specific. These can be documented and recorded then compared to the supernatural claims. The Zande witchdoctor, for instance, claims to be able to produce divination by injecting a chicken with a strichnine like poison then produce answers to questions based on the death or survival of the chicken. We can look at the trends associated with questions and answers as well as the death rates of the chickens themselves and produce data.

    We can even look at the serpent-handling cults of rural West Virginia and examine their behavior and beliefs and compare them with the supernatural claims of the Holy Ghost entering their bodies while handling the venomous snake. We can use what we know about physiology and derive some conclusions that the handler does indeed feel something when the adrenaline and seratonin are released due to the excitement and risk.

    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    I believe skinwalker is accurate in his claim that believers in a deity have difficulty with the possibility that there is no diety just as atheists have difficulty admitting the possibility that there is deity. Until each side is open to the possibility that his belief could be wrong, there can be no unbiased approach to this topic.
    I think you may have misunderstood me in all these months of posting here. I'm open to the possibility of a deity in the universe. I'm atheistic with regard to the human explanations for this alleged deity, but I freely admit that such a deity may exist. Scientific study of religion includes epigraphy, archaeology, and literary data as well as quantitative/qualitative data from direct observation. There are some clear anthropomorphic explanations within the topic of religion which I hope to discuss in a later post.

    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    To ignore or discount any of these possibilities (which are certainly not the only possibilities) is to provide the basis for a meaningless dialog which can lead only to invalid results.
    The god-hypothesis can't be tested, therefore we are left with no choice but to disregard it. But we shelf it in the back of our minds and keep it handy in the event that a viable test arrives that we can apply to the god-hypothesis. In the mean time, religion is still here; it involves humans who are real and testable; and, therefore, we study it as it so deserves.

    Quote Originally Posted by daytonturner
    There is a serious problem in trying to quantify religion which based on experiential belief rather than quantifiable intellectual observations.
    Not really. If it can be assumed that the "experiences" of the believer or religious participant are only percieved as genuinely supernatural, then we can procede as normal. After all, there are no supernatural ways of knowing.
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    The Theory of Human Relationships

    Another theory of religiosity in humanity originates from Robin Horton (1960).

    Horton suggests that people will turn to relationships outside of "purely human society" when those relationships within society fail to meet needs. Horton asserts that large, complex and technologically advanced societies have the ability to predict and control their physical world but the members of such societies are often individualistic, alienated and lonely when contrasted with small, simple societies that are technologically less advanced. The smaller, less complex societies are typically better at creating intimacy and friendships within their populations. They are, however, bad at material control and prediction of the physical world with regard to things like weather, agriculture, disease, etc.

    The small, simpler societies look to deities for technical assistance with the environment: they have rain gods, for instance, as well as rituals and deities associated with the forces they cannot control. The larger, more complex societies look to deities for personal relationships: "Jesus is my co-pilot;" or "do you have a personal relationship with God?" are both phrases common in American religious communities.

    Horton's theory seems to be similar to the "Wish Fulfillment" theory of #2 in my first post that suggests, "Religion creates and maintains solidarity and social cohesion." The objections to Horton's theory are similar as well: that there is much in religion that is deleterious and frightening. The Xhosa Cattle Killing; the sacrifices of children or warriors by the Maya and Aztec; the Inquisition; the Salem Witch Trials; Suicide Bombers; etc.

    Still, his correlation of societal size and technological advancement to religious trends cannot be ignored, even though no clear line of causation has been established or suggested.

    Five Stages of Religious Evolution

    Another well-known theory of religious development was proposed by Robert Bellah (1964) in which he defined an axial point of religious evolution. Bellah describes 5 stages:
    1. Primitive Religion (Native American & aboriginal)
      This stage contrasts with others in that it isn't "world rejecting" and mythical characteristics are related to characteristics found in the experienced world. Thunder, for instance, would be the expression of a deity's anger. Whereas later stages utilize sacrifice, the Primitive Stage is characterized by identification, participation, and acting out. Rituals involve reactualization where events aren't simply portrayed but made to happen again. The Hopi or Zuni mask ceremonies are good examples of this. The person in the mask becomes the mythical being.
    2. Archaic Religion (ancient Greece; early Judaic)
      This involves gods, priests and sacrifices. The distinction between men and gods is defined and demarcated. The world is not rejected, but there is likely to be a concept of hierarchical cosmology where every being has its place in the hierarchy. Fluidity of the religion exists, where individuals exercise some creativity in their worship, but the presence of priests will limit it. Different cults come into being during this stage and certain priests are attached to cult centers such as the Oracle of Delphi in Greece. Greece provides a good example of an archaic religion since there is clear record of the temenos that physically existed between the sanctuary (the sacred) and everything outside the sanctuary (the profane/secular).

      Egyptian and early Judaic cults also show these characteristics with hierarchical gods and demarcation of the sacred versus the secular. Growing populations in each of these societies also gave rise to new cults as priestly-classes and ruling-classes variously merged and emerged.
    3. Historical Religion (i.e. Roman Catholicism)
      This marks the axial point. The world is rejected both morally and philosophically and writing is now present. A dualism emerges with a concept of a supernatural world as well as an earthly world. Salvation becomes a paramount purpose of religion and old myths are put aside as the participants are taught to believe in monotheism. The human moral condition is now perceived as much worse than by primitive and archaic stages (pre-axial). Consequently, humans can only participate in the "ultimate reality" by seeking salvation.

      In this stage, a four-class system emerges
      1. Political/Military Elite
      2. Cultural/Religious Elite
      3. Peasantry (farmers)
      4. Merchants and Artisans

      Struggles begin to exist between political rulers and the religious elite, such as the King versus the Pope in pre-Anglican Britain.
    4. Early Modern Religion (i.e. Protestantism)
      This is best exemplified by the Protestant Reformation. World rejection continues as does the dualism of heaven and earth. An unmediated relationship between humanity and God is now taught and religious doctrine is no longer kept as privilege to just the religious elite but made available to all. God is now accessible to the peasantry and merchant classes. Emphasis is placed on "faith" and total dedication of oneself in all areas of life. The distinction between "elect" and the "non-elect" is substituted for the distinction that existed between ascetics like monks and the "mass of believers" as with the Historical Stage. In the Calvinist cult, for instance, the elect equates to those chosen by God for salvation. The non-elect are all others; the non-chosen.
    5. Modern Religion
      Not world-rejecting and has diminished interest in creeds or "right" doctrines. There exists an increased emphasis on the individual and the idea of moral deprivation is not taught. Bellah finds difficulty pinning this new religious movement down and admits to as much, though he cites the growing tendencies (even in the 1950s and 60s) of people to find new forms of enlightenment and that ...
      "...for many churchgoers the obligation of doctrinal orthodoxy sits lightly indeed, and the idea that all creedal statements must receive a personal reinterpretation is widely accepted. The dualistic worldview certainly persists in the minds of many of the devout, but just as surely many others have developed elaborate and often pseudoscientific rationalizations to bring their faith in its experienced validity into some kind of cognitive harmony with the 20th century world."



    Of course, Bellah's Five Stages theory doesn't imply that the previous stages disappear, but it gives an interesting point of reference that we might apply to the anthropological perspective that Horton provides with regard to society and complexity.

    To date, I've presented the various theories of thought that others have had over the years and what some of the objections are. There are others that deserve to have their theories presented as well, such as Nietzsche's perspective as requested by HomoUniversalis - I just don't have access to Nietzche's work at this time, though I may have some notes somewhere that include it.

    In answer to a couple of critics in this thread, I'm not seeking a debate to the validity of Religion (big "R") or of an individual religion (little "r"). My goal is to provide a source of what can objectively be said about Religion or religions and what has been theorized about Religion in humanity and why it exists. Obviously there are strengths and weaknesses to these theories, some of which I've already discussed. It may be that none of the theories discussed are valid or it may be that some combination of two or more are the answer. What's important is what can be said about Religion and what has been said about it.

    The obvious thing about Religion is that some form of it exists in every human culture. Most differ drastically and they, therefore, cannot all be valid since many contradict each other in doctrine and belief. There must, then, be an objectively observable reason or propensity for Religion in humanity. This notion obviously threatens individual religions, but that doesn't eliminate the need to objectively study Religion in the same manner we study the effects of culture or population or gender or any other anthropological or sociological topic.
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