Relax: Neuroscience is not Going to Destroy Your Faith

I’ve been doing some reading on cognitive psychology of religion (in part because I’m involved in a Biologos grant project with some colleagues here at Bethel University on the intersection of psychology and theology regarding human origins beliefs). I came across an essay by Justin Barrett in which he interacts with a prevalent assumption that has two parts: (1) cognitive psychology of religion successfully describes the architecture of human religious belief and successfully explains the prevalence of religious belief, thus (2) cognitive psychology of religion shows religious belief to be a “mere” natural phenomenon which renders the truthfulness of those beliefs null and void and which shows the prevalence of religious belief to no longer “count as evidence for those beliefs.”

While a number of prominent psychologists of religion and other scientists do draw such conclusions, Barrett warns against drawing too hasty a conclusion:

First, explaining how beliefs come about–no matter how complete the explanation–says nothing about whether a belief is true or justified. If cognitive neuroscientists manage some day fully to explain the brain activity and evolutionary history of those brain functions responsible for people believing that seventeen times eleven equals 187, seventeen times eleven would still equal 187. Similarly, a complete scientific explanation for why humans nearly universally believe that other people have minds would not suddenly count against whether humans should believe that others have minds. (“Science, Religion, and Theology” in The Believing Primatep. 96)

This is a deeply important concession and reminder as the science and religion and science and theology dialogues move forward, particularly given all the incredible advancements in understanding the human brain that neuroscience has afforded us. To understand how is not to penetrate the depths of the “really real.” Science and theology work on different levels even if both are hopeful to attain understanding of the greater whole. But the intersection is a fascinating one and, as Barrett points out later, will certainly require some rethinking and consideration of the implications of all this by the believing faithful.


About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Associate Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life, supported by the Schilling Endowment, at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: 2014-10-14 10.26.51Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and a book about the virgin birth (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)