Too much science, too little religion: addressing reductionism

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.”

However, Peterson argues, CSR cannot claim to hold the key to the truth of religious claims without falling into the genetic fallacy: the mistaken conviction that a belief’s origin determines the validity of that belief. A legitimate problem CSR poses, according to Peterson, is that it creates doubt in a religious person’s rationality: what if the only reason I believe is because of an evolutionary happenstance? CSR may indeed expose a serious problem for religious belief. Yet, Peterson notes, it is precisely at this point that the differences in religions matter. In order for a religious person to have a reason for believing other than because belief is an evolutionary side-effect, he or she must be allowed to articulate why one belief system is preferred over another. The unique and often highly complex characteristics of modern religions make them more complicated and less univalent than idealized, abstracted ideas about the evolutionary origins of religious behavior. In other words, by lumping all religious entities together, CSR reductionism allows for no other reason for religious belief other than evolutionary priming. But by allowing for religious differences, this reductionism can be addressed: believers can articulate why they believe in one type of entity rather than another, demonstrating that the phenomenon of religion is more complex than its mere origins.

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.

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