Psychology and the religion-science conflict: Part 1

Nicholas C. DiDonato

Man of Science with Religions

Talk of the “religion and science conflict” sets a trap: one quickly winds up pontificating about abstract objects as if they were real without any grounding in reality. “Religion” becomes a monolithic abstract entity, whose adherents all behave in the same way, and ditto for “science.” In hopes of looking at the religion-science conflict empirically, psychologists Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin) and Aku Visala (University of Oxford) take a psychological approach, concluding that scientific explanations do not replace religious ones. In Part 2 of this post, they critique the standard religion-science discussion.

Rather than starting with grand philosophical theories, the psychologists wanted to learn how normal people actually navigated the interaction between religion and science. Their research gathered personal accounts from adults and children to see how they handled this issue. In other words, they asked adults and children to explain how scientific and religious explanations coexisted in their minds.

The participants did this not in theory but face-to-face with three concrete cases of religion and science interaction (at least in America, though the researchers insist on these cases’ cross-cultural validity): (1) the origin of species, (2) the causes of illness, and (3) the nature of death. Each of these cases carries great emotional weight and brims with existential anxiety. For instance, questions about humanity’s origins force people to think of their relation to themselves and to the natural world, and questions about illness and death involve dealing with the problems of loss and mortality. In each case, the participant must rely on causes that lie outside of everyday experience, be they religious or scientific.

After compiling the data, three types of ways of negotiating the relationship between religion and science emerged from a psychological (as opposed to philosophical) vantage point. Importantly, all three ways involve appealing to both scientific and religious explanations because the participants overwhelmingly interpreted the above phenomena using both.

First, in “target-dependent thinking,” the participants used scientific and religious explanations to account for different aspects of the same phenomenon. For example, when the participants dealt with the nature of death as narrated from a biological perspective (for example, doctors try but fail to save a life), they readily said that the deceased’s physical functions had stopped. However, when these same participants heard death narrated from a spiritual perspective (for example, in a ceremony), adults and children alike frequently allowed for the mental functions of the deceased to continue.

Likewise, target-dependent thinking appeared in the case of the origins of life when the participants relied on evolution to explain the origins of animals, but relied on God in some way or another to explain the origin of humans. As for the case of illness, participants from South Africa, when told of the supernatural risk factors for AIDS, attributed it to supernatural factors (such as witchcraft) more than biological factors, and at same time would attribute it more to biological factors than supernatural ones when presented with the biological risk factors.

In the second way of relating religion and science, “synthetic thinking,” participants used religious and scientific explanations to account for the same aspects of a given phenomenon — that is, religion and science combined to form a single explanation. For better or for worse, this synthesis often came about because the participant combined religion and science loosely without detailing how exactly they interact. For instance, participants would attribute illness to scientific and religious causes, but, again, without clarity as to how this works.

Third and finally, “integrated thinking” explicitly reconciled religious and scientific explanations by using them for different levels of explanation. For example, regarding the origin of species, one could say that God sets up natural laws such that they would eventually produce humans, but at the physical level humans came about purely by these natural laws without divine intervention. Science answers the “how?” and religion the “why?” Or take the case of AIDS as seen from a South African’s perspective: AIDS spreads by unprotected sex, but witchcraft clouds one’s judgment or makes it more likely one will meet someone with AIDS.

In all three types of thinking, scientific explanations did not replace religious ones, but coexisted with them in various ways. While the authors are more than aware that certain popular authors have made a living pitting religion against science, the everyday person engages in a more nuanced strategy. The researchers’ psychological data shows that most people have scientific and religious explanations living side-by-side, and from this the researchers conclude that “supernatural reasoning seems to be a general feature of human cognition.”

Yet, this touches just the tip of the iceberg. Their data not only problematizes the view that religion and science are enemies, but challenges even philosophers’ views. Their challenge to the philosophers’ treatment of the interaction of religion and science will appear in part 2.

For those who can’t wait, see “Between Religion and Science: Integrating Psychological and Philosophical Accounts of Explanatory Coexistence” in the journal Human Development.

  • B. T. Newberg

    Do you know where the study was done? Were all the respondents American, or was there a cross-section of other nationalities?

  • JoAnne Simson

    Very interesting way to approach the subject. I hope you’ll provide a link to the results. And I’d love to see some of the questions they asked and get some clue to how the answers were interpreted in the three thought-pattern model.
    If the God one worships is large enough–and NOT supernatural (but rather, encompases all of Reality)–then there would be no conflict between science and religion. See:

  • jerry lynch

    Contradictory beliefs can and do exist in all of thanks to pigeon-holing processes called catecorizing and classifying. They are put in their separate slots and attended to as specific situations dictate, isolated from the conflicting beliefs. This has been known for a long time. A classic example of this is in a story I read about thirty years ago relating an incident at a concentration camp.
    Two youngs boys had been arrested for stealing bread and put in this camp that housed only men. The commander of the camp worried that the presence of these youngsters would present too great of a temptation, so to help maintain the morality of the camp he put the two boys to death by hanging.
    This catagorizing and classifying is narrowly focused, having emotional and memory components functioning more like re-enactments that have a certain conclusion.

  • Nabuquduriuzhur

    The fundamental problem of science is that it is frequently unscientific. What I mean by that is that the scientific method is ignored in many ideas— they are simply assumed to be true despite breaking physical laws or contradicting existing data.

    Geologic dating is an example I have frequently used in my books.

    For example: “…universities are acting very much like the National Socialists or the Soviets: “You WILL believe THIS or ELSE!”

    That doesn’t make for good science, does it?

    Science “by insistence.”

    It can be demonstrated that geologic dating (note that I didn’t say carbon dating, which has different assumptions and can be traced to approximately 9,500 years using non-fossilized plant and fungal materials still in existence) has several fatal flaws that render it completely inaccurate. Yet, one is not supposed to argue those chemical, nuclear, astrophysical, geologic and thermodynamic flaws inherent in the idea and just believe that geologic dating is accurate and true. One simply musssst accept those scientific impossibilities, and assume it somehow works despite them.

    As an example, take the illogical assumption that all “daughter product” isotopes in a mineral were incorporated into a rock after the rock formed— despite no mineral being able to magically “pick and choose” which isotopes it incorporates as each isotope of an element is chemically identical. That assumption introduces an error so great as to make the entire concept unworkable. However, one is supposed to just “assume” it works though, and not question it.

    But…but… geologic dates can’t be calculated if we don’t assume all of a daughter product isotope didn’t come from decay, the proponents will say.

    That is the problem exactly. “

  • jerry lynch

    @nabuq, what school anywhere at any time teaches anything on any subject that it does not believe to be accurate and true? What school anywhere at any time does not expect the material it presents to be learned as presented? To say universities are acting like Nation Socialists or Comminists for doing what any school at any time holds as standards is, I feel, unfair and speaks to a hidden agenda. It appears you want to leave the impression that this is a widespread conspiracy to purposely misinform our youth as a means to indoctrinate them into becoming godless Lefties or whatever. It has always been in schools at any time to “Believe this or else,” the “or else” being a failing grade. I am not saying that this is the best way education works, and I feel quite certain even within this usual system there has been room left by good teachers for honest questioning and serious doubt by students, but to condemn universities as acting like National Socialists or communists for following a perhaps flawed but common way of presenting material is, again, rather far out there.

    That aside, I am quite interested in you books on the subjects you mentioned. Sounds very interesting.

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