Nicholas C. DiDonato
Religion is just a by-product of human evolution. Religion is just a by-product of psychology. Religion is surely nothing more than a by-product of some other, less-suspect field of human behavior. Such attitudes define religion in terms of another discipline, often to the chagrin of religious believers. But is this approach correct? Gregory R. Peterson (South Dakota State University) has recently argued those who try to reduce religion to the cognitive science of religion commit an important logical fallacy.
Cognitive science of religion (CSR) delves into the psychology of religion (often relying on anthropology and evolutionary theory), seeking psychological explanations for religious beliefs and rituals. For example, some CSR theorists argue that belief in God, gods, and spirits came from the tendency to see intentionality in events. If prehistoric humans heard a rustling in a bush, it would be evolutionarily advantageous to think it was an animal, monster, or something dangerous, rather than a harmless wind. Why? Because sometimes it was dangerous! And in the wilderness, it’s much better to err on the side of caution if you want to survive and pass down your genes to the next generation. Over time, this bias toward intentionality had the side-effect of leading to belief in supernatural entities.
Responding to this prevalent hypothesis, Peterson pinpoints the problem of CSR-style reductionism:
“For the critic of religion, the relevance of CSR for critiquing religious belief and commitment seems obvious: CSR claims to provide an explanation for why people hold religious beliefs, and this explanation differs from the reasons that individuals give for why they participate in a particular religious tradition. CSR can be understood to be giving the real reason people subscribe to religious beliefs. On this account, CSR is explicitly reductive, providing an explanation of religious belief and commitment that is contrary and superior to those given by the practitioner.”
Does Peterson believe that science is completely irrelevant for the study of religion? Hardly. Peterson concludes that while the sciences cannot confirm or deny the existence of supernatural entities, they can help elucidate what it means to be human. Theologians and philosophers of religion need to have a well-grounded understanding of human existence, for what is religion without humans?
Gregory R. Peterson’s article “Are Evolutionary/Cognitive Theories of Religion Relevant for Philosophy of Religion?” appears in the current issue of Zygon.