Source: By Navaneethpp - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47519168

Forbidden Fruit

One of the consequences of the Enlightenment was the recognition that the methods of science might be brought to bear fruitfully on the study of our behavior and mental lives, or, in short, that both psychological and social science are possible. Another consequence of that great intellectual upheaval was the recognition that such sciences would seem obviously to include religious cognition and conduct within their purviews. However uncontroversial those two positions remain to naturalistically oriented thinkers, most practitioners of religious studies over the subsequent two centuries – even many of those who explicitly disavow religion – have demurred about the first and steadfastly rejected the second.

Their criticisms of attempts to study religion scientifically reliably turn on assertions about its special status, which somehow – exactly how routinely goes unspecified – insulates it from scientific scrutiny. The following claim by Mircea Eliade, a prominent 20th century scholar in the History of Religions is representative: “A religious phenomenon will only be recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level ... if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp the essence of such a phenomenon by means of physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element ... the sacred.” Such appeals to notions like “the sacred,” “the holy,” and “the transcendent” and to humans’ experiences with the same as grounds for exempting religion from scientific examination seem, themselves, to be only slightly less overtly religious than explicit entreaties to the gods. 

Philosophical Pronouncements Wilt in the Face of Scientific Progress

Scientifically minded inquirers have consistently found such claims methodologically unconvincing, even while acknowledging that the psychological and social sciences do involve problems of accessibility, complexity, and method of a different order than those the physical sciences face. On the other hand, many scholars of religion, let alone religious people, insist, on the basis of either metaphysical or experiential convictions or both, that the sciences will be forever inadequate to capture at least some pivotal dimension of the religious. 

Insisting that science will never capture everything about religion seems a safe bet, but it hardly follows that science will be incapable of explaining anything about religion. Innumerable questions about religious matters are, after all, straightforwardly empirical. (For example, do the amounts of emotional arousal a religious ritual elicits in participants correlate with their subsequent levels of prosocial behaviors?) No form of inquiry about empirical matters bests empirical science, and, crucially, sometimes progress in a science renders philosophical debates about metaphysics and methods moot. Arguably, that is true with regard to cognitive and evolutionary theories of religion over the past two decades. These approaches have identified and replicated a number of striking psychological effects (for example, religious participants’ penchant for theological incorrectness) and produced dozens of surprising findings (for example, that immediately after participating in fire-walking rituals, fire-walkers’ reported little recall and low confidence in their memories for the event, but, nonetheless, exhibited largely accurate recollections, whereas two months later, they reported considerable recall and great confidence about what proved to be their far less accurate recollections). 

An Online Introduction to the Science of Religion

Over the past quarter century the cognitive and evolutionary science of religion has grown dramatically from a small group of pioneering theorists and experimentalists into a world-wide initiative of researchers generating one provocative study after another. Within the past month an exciting new opportunity has arisen for people anywhere, who have access to the Internet, to learn about this work from some of the top experts in the field. 

The University of British Columbia (UBC) has recently mounted a new free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), entitled “The Science of Religion.” Edward Slingerland (Asian Studies, UBC) and Azim Shariff (Psychology, University of California, Irvine), who have spearheaded this project, are both major contributors to the field. The MOOC has six modules with five fifteen minute lectures per module.  The MOOC also includes bonus videos, recommended readings, and more, with interviews of many of the major players in the field. There is no easier or more enjoyable way to learn about this exciting new approach in the study of religion. 


Eliade, M.  (1963).  Patterns of Comparative Religion.  Cleveland:  World Publishing Company.

Xygalatas, Dimitris, Schjoedt, Uffe, Bulbulia, Joseph, Konvalinka, Ivana, Jegindø, Else-Marie, Reddish, Paul, Geertz, Armin W., & Roepstorff, Andreas. (2013). Autobiographical Memory in a Fire-Walking Ritual. Journal of Cognition and Culture 13(1-2): 1-16.

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