Can Science ‘Explain Away’ Religion?

Tom Grosh IV —  September 13, 2013 — 12 Comments

In Chapter 18 of Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience (InterVarsity Press, 2013), Malcolm Jeeves[1] discusses the question “Can Science ‘Explain Away’ Religion?” with his fictional psychology student “mentee”. Have you wrestled with this question? How have you addressed it? Do you concur with what Jeeves offers?

Can Science “Explain Away” Religion?

Malcolm,
Your emails have pointed out that the same evidence is often interpreted in very different ways. For example, some Christians point to the evidence that certain parts of the brain are active during prayer, and they try to use that as proof for the existence of God. Others understand the same evidence as showing that praying to God is “nothing but” the selective activity of specific brain areas. Can you help me understand how to properly relate scientific findings to Christian beliefs?

Ben,
The question you raise has cropped up repeatedly as we have discussed how to relate scientific accounts of human life to other accounts, including the religious. There is undoubtedly an ever-present temptation, to which some have succumbed, to believe that scientific descriptions can reduce human life, including religion, to nothing more than biological, physical or psychological processes.

An unthinking commitment to reductionism crops up even in the writings of our most illustrious scientists. For example, Francis Crick, whom I’ve mentioned before, wrote in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, “You are no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. . . . You are nothing but a pack of neurons.” I mentioned earlier in our correspondence that the logical conclusion to Crick’s approach would be that his own written words are “nothing but” ink strokes on the page carrying their message. But even he drew back from that at the end of the book when he wrote, “The words ‘nothing but’ in our hypothesis can be misleading if understood in too naive a way.” Crick’s fellow Nobel laureate Roger Sperry alerted to the dangers of reductionism when he wrote, “The meaning of the message will not be found in the chemistry of the ink.”

Only recently I came across another instance of this when a respected and high-profile neuroscientist in Britain, Professor Colin Blakemore, was talking about “God and the Scientist” when taking part in the Channel 4 series titled Christianity and History. Among other things, he expressed the hope that “science will one day explain everything including the human need for religious belief.” He probably had in mind the suggestion that has been made that we have developed brains with properties that inevitably produce a predisposition to belief in a God or in gods. This then means (so he implies) that our beliefs in God are “nothing but” the selective chattering of the neurons of our brain. The problem with this sort of argument, which Colin Blakemore failed to point out, is that it applies equally to his views about the possibility that one day science will explain everything including the human need for religious belief. In terms of his argument, his views are “nothing but” the chattering of the neurons in his brain. In effect, this kind of appeal to reductionism really gets you nowhere and never takes seriously the arguments being put forward about why people believe or do not believe. The point is that these have to be taken seriously on their own merits. The same applies to properly interpreting the results from studies of the genetics or social psychology of religion and religious behavior. These are simultaneously a study of irreligiosity since they frequently compare more and less religious people. Hence Colin Blakemore’s irreligiosity is put under the microscope, but that does not explain away any grounds for his irreligiosity that he puts forward. These must be considered on their own merits.

Malcolm,
I shared with some of my Christian friends what you said about explaining and explaining away. Some said that even long before the challenges from neuroscience, Freud had already explained religion away using psychology, claiming it was all wishful thinking. What do you say about that?

Ben,
Your friends were right. There have been many attempts to explain the origin of religion, whether by anthropologists or psychologists or, as we were saying, more recently from neuroscientists such as Colin Blakemore. Broadly speaking, when psychologists have taken an interest in religion they have concentrated on what we might call its roots and its fruits— questions about the origins of religion and questions about how religious people should behave.

Since your friends raised it, here is a bit of detail. In the twentieth century Sigmund Freud’s radical views became widely known, and the stage was set for a strong resurgence of what has been called the “warfare metaphor” when discussing how science and religion are related. According to Freud the practices of religions are “nothing but” the persistence of what, using his psychoanalytic terminology, is an “interim social neurosis.” He said that we must eventually grow out of this.

Freud wrote at length about this in The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. According to Freud, an “illusion” stands for any belief system based on human wishes. He was careful to point out that such a basis does not necessarily imply that the system is false; nevertheless, as far as Christianity was concerned, he clearly believed that it was. In that sense he was championing and perpetuating the warfare metaphor.

A major problem for the psychoanalytic treatment of religion as being the product of unconscious wishes, or for any effort to explain religion away, is that such an explanation can be applied equally well to the understanding of unbelief. This was penetratingly demonstrated by Rumke in his little book The Psychology of Unbelief. In it he looked carefully at the history of Freud’s own life—such as his poor relationships with his father and his intense dislike of his Roman Catholic nanny—and he put these together to show how, on the basis of Freud’s own theory, a picture emerges from which we would predict that a person with such a background would, on reaching maturity, produce a rationalized set of beliefs in which he would reject religion, particularly a religion in which God was seen as a father figure. And Freud did just that. Likewise today’s atheist skeptics reflect certain cultural influences—they manifest the thinking styles of western white males (which they are) (172 – 174).

Second Thoughts:

In the hypothetical conversation between Emeritus Professor of Psychology Malcolm Jeeves and a fictional first year psychology student Ben, this topic receives attention for several more pages. I’m looking forward to engaging your thoughts on the topic, including the several people who have contacted me in response to the first post in the series, i.e., Time to discuss faith, psychology and neuroscience? (9/6/2013) with interest in reviewing Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods. These reviews are in the process.

In the mean time, maybe you’d be interested in commenting on the above, picking up a copy of Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods, researching the topic some on your own, or even exploring with the Emerging Scholars Network the related topic of “Are religious people less intelligent?”[2]


  1. Bio from InterVarsity Press: Malcolm Jeeves (CBE, Hon. D.Sc., FRSE) is emeritus professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews, where he established the department of psychology in 1969. He was formerly president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and editor-in-chief of the journal,Neuropsychologia. He was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1992 for his services to science and to psychology in Britain. He is the author most recently of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature (with Warren S. Brown), published in 2009 by Templeton Press. ↩
  2. Recently posted material which provide helpful starting points for dialog: Tania Lombrozo’s Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect (13.7: Cosmos And Culture: NPR. 8/9/2013), Jordan Monge’s Why Intelligent People Are Less Likely to Be Religious (Christianity Today. 8/26/2013), and RJS’s Religious People are Less Intelligent?” (Jesus Creed. 9/5/2013). Note: Some of these pieces are posted on the Emerging Scholars Network Facebook Wall, others will be added today. As you have other suggestions, please let me know.  ↩

Update: 9/13/2013. 9:07 AM. Revision of Footnote 2.

Tom Grosh IV

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Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

12 responses to Can Science ‘Explain Away’ Religion?

  1. Tom,

    I have been thinking about this a lot, and it seems to me that fear is at the core of the arguments between science (in this case psychology) and faith. On the side of faith it is a fear that God is being shrunk and done away with, and on the other side, or rather those who are fighting against faith, it seems there may be a fear of what if there is more? Historically, findings in science have “taken away from” the role of God in our lives or human’s perspective on the universe. Galileo got in hot water for this, as have others. Evolution is a hot topic because it starts to give a narrative about where people came from. If your view of God is based on your understanding of the natural world, then it would make sense that it feels like God is being taken away to some degree. Psychology is even worse in this sense. It can seem that more and more the study of the world and people takes away ground from God. I don’t think this is actually true, but it is going to feel very true to a lot of people. What do you think?

    • Dear Daniel,

      So much to discuss. Here’s a first stab, maybe more later in another comment and/or post. . . .

      Fear no doubt plays a significant role in the “war” between the extremes of the science-faith spectrum and the discomfort experienced by the “masses” in between who have a greater understanding of the valuable overlapping Venn diagrams of science and faith.

      But there is also the flat out broken/sinful desire to exercise power instead of serving one-another with the good gifts given to us by the Creator, such as what one finds in those who “created” the conflict by a retelling of the history of science, i.e., Andrew Dickson White in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, and John William Draper in History of the Conflict between Religion and Science.

      As you know Ted Davis, Distinguished Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College (http://www.messiah.edu/departments/bioscience/davis.htm), has presented and written on this in a number of places. In Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, (Test of Faith, http://media.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/ToF/downloads/pdf/TedDavis_A_Short_History_of_Christianity_and_Science.pdf), Ted touches on a number of relevant topics including the complex power issues involved in the conflict between Galileo and ‘the church’/Pope.

      I appreciate Davis’ conclusion focused on “John Polkinghorne, a former mathematical physicist at Cambridge who is now an Anglican theologian. Polkinghorne sees science and Christianity as ‘cousinly’ enterprises that are both trying to establish ‘motivated belief’. His recent book, Theology in the Context of Science, stresses the crucial point that larger questions of meaning and purpose go well beyond science – in other words, science cannot make sense of itself: why is science possible at all? The universe ‘is not only rationally transparent’, he argues, but also ‘rationally beautiful, rewarding scientists with the experience of wonder at the marvelous order which is revealed through the labours of their research’. The laws of nature ‘have a character that seems to point the enquirer beyond what science itself is capable of telling, making a materialist acceptance of them as unexplained brute facts an intellectually unsatisfying stance to take’ (pp. 90-91). The fact that science is possible at all ‘is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore’ (p. 37). In short, ‘the activity of science is recognised to be an aspect of the imago dei’ (p. 13). This is a robust theism, and Polkinghorne gives it an explicitly Christian content. Recognizing that the Resurrection is ‘the pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn’ (p. 135), he searches for motivated belief in such an event, sifting carefully through the evidence to conclude (with N.T. Wright) that a genuine miracle is the best explanation for the stories of the empty tomb and the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus.

      Here is the crucial link between someone like Polkinghorne and the founders of modern science: like his predecessors, Polkinghorne understands that nature is a ‘contingent order’–and that both words in that phrase are important. Our knowledge of nature and its laws is possible because of our status as creatures bearing the divine image, but it is also limited by our status as creatures–and by the freedom of God to act in both wonderful and mysterious ways. As Boyle put it in a posthumously published Appendix to The Christian Virtuoso (1744): ‘it is extremely difficult for us dim-sighted mortals, to discern the utmost extent of the divine power and knowledge’.

      The Christian encounter with science comes down to this: confidence in the reliability of the book of nature as an authentic divine revelation, tempered by genuine humility and augmented by reverence for the One who wrote the book.”

      “Conflicts” between science (or at times more properly particular scientists, even followers of scientism or New Atheism, with particular issues to advance and/or concerns to address) and Christianity (or at times more properly Christians with a particular issues to advance and/or concern to address) are all to often extended to “paint the picture” of science versus Christianity in popular culture, education (including some aspects of higher ed), science, and Christianity. Although fear and power are involved, ignorance is also present. That is why blessing the next generation of Emerging Scholars with the Christ-centered dialogical resources, reading, and mentoring offered by the Emerging Scholars Network is an important aspect of encouraging/equipping Emerging Scholars as they extend their gifts/training for the transformative/redeeming work of the Kingdom of God in the academy, church, and world. Great to have you “on the team” :)

      Note: The Test of Faith website, http://www.testoffaith.com/, is just one example of a helpful on-line resource. Briefing Sheet Session 1: The Christian Roots of Science is a one page sheet I recommend to those seeking to begin to lay the foundation for the practice of science, http://www.testoffaith.com/resources/resource.aspx?id=405. Lots more to explore and discuss on the site. To God be the glory!

      *Also posted by Q at http://www.qideas.org/blog/christianity-and-science-in-historical-perspective.aspx. An example of a scholar engaging the larger Christian subculture in a fruitful manner. To God be the glory!

      • I agree that “Test of Faith” is a good resource and that Ted Davis and John Polkinghorne have wise thoughts on this topic. As a Christian and a scientist, it saddens me, too, that scientists are not the only ones guilty of false reductionism. In their case it is often materialist reductionism (as discribed above, where everything is reduced to physical causes and meanings). But others use a sort of biblical reductionism as though the Bible is the only source of reliable truth and knowledge. The apparent popularity of these reductionist modes of thinking reflects an unhealthy narrowing of the intellect and an unjustified rejection of (some) truth.

      • Tom,

        Thanks for your response. I was actually able to take a class with Ted Davis in my senior year at Messiah, and I did read some of Polkinghorne though I have to admit that I am a bit rusty there. To clarify some of what I was saying about fear being the motivator; I was particularly thinking in terms of the average person and less so in terms of academia. That is an assumption I should have stated, because you are absolutely right that power/other desires can be strong.

  2. Nice to know (think? believe?) that one can discredit a view by such phrases as “unthinking reductionism,” “scientism,” or some other pejorative phrasing. But the reality is that science has always managed to overcome its perceived limits and bring ever more of our natural (physical, psychological, societal, …) world within its reach. The ideological skeptics who think religion is special are the ones guilty of nonthinking, as in the above article. Anyone, for example, who thinks that belief in the supernatural is as rational as non-belief is in need of a few courses or more in reasoning, scientific thinking, and the fallibility of native human thought processes.

    • James,

      I agree that it is important to avoid the use of loaded words as a substitute for a reasoned argument. However, to your specific examples, the phrase “unthinking commitment to reductionism” is not being used to discredit reductionism. Rather, it is a comment on specific individuals who uncritically assume a reductionism point of view without having considered why it should be the case that everything reduces to the behavior of subatomic particles (or whatever one considers to be at the bottom of reductionism). To the extent that there are such people. this seems like a fair criticism, but it is not the main thrust of the argument against reductionism itself.

      As for “scientism,” I agree that it can be used pejoratively. But it also meets a useful need of describing the view that the only truths about the world are the ones that can be addressed by science. WIthout making any value judgments, I think it is fair to say that such a view is genuinely held by some people, and so it warrants a name. I suppose there are alternatives, such as philosophical naturalism or materialism, but there seem to be objections to all of them. Is there a name for that view that you would prefer?

      On the topic of reductionism, I think it is worth noting that there are objections to pure reductionism from materialist scientists. For example, Douglas Hofstadter objects to the “nothing buttery” of pure reductionism in “I Am a Strange Loop” and Stuart Kauffman makes his case against it in “Reinventing the Sacred.” Both affirm the ontological reality of phenomena that exist at higher levels of organization from the subatomic particle. That is not to say that they would necessarily agree with Malcolm Jeeves on every point, but simply to observe that objections to pure reductionism are not strictly religious.

      Finally, it is not clear to me that Malcolm Jeeves is making the claim that “religion is special.” As I read it, he is actually making the opposite claim — that religion isn’t special, and that any argument which says that religion is nothing but evolutionary psychology at work (for example) can be applied equally to any other point of view.

  3. In the New Testament, Peter has a vision where he is told to eat food.

    And Paul has a vision where a man from Macedonia appeared to him in a vision. He must have been real or else Paul would not have known where he came from.

    Can science explain how real people and real food can appear in visions?

  4. ‘The fact that science is possible at all ‘is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore’’

    Really?

    How does that follow?

    It doesn’t.

    If I design an orderly universe, is that because I have an orderly mind?
    If I design a yellow car, is that because I have a yellow min?.

    Polkinghorne knows perfectly well that at the sub atomic level things work at random.

    I guess this is because his god likes random things.

    Science only works because we have abandoned the worldview of Jesus that there are demons.

    Science cannot find a trace of any demons interfering with nature.

    No demons means Jesus was just plain wrong.

    Happily, scientists know that Jesus was wrong and no longer try to , for example, explain illness by Jesus’s methodology of ‘Look for the demons’.

    • Steven -

      I don’t think that the argument is that the world is orderly because its creator is orderly. Rather, I think the idea is that the Bible describes a creator who wants his creation to be studied and understood (see, for example, Psalm 111 verse 2 “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.”). This leads to an expectation that the world will be orderly, in order that it can be understood. Thus a Christian worldview is compatible with fostering scientific inquiry.

      This needn’t be the case for all worldviews. If one understands the world to be the product of a more capricious creator, one might not have an expectation of such an orderly world. If one has a materialist world view without a creator, it is not clear to me whether that implies, a priori, a universe amenable to scientific inquiry or not.

      On randomness: It is true that our current model for the behavior of subatomic particles is a probablistic one. Whether there is actually a random process generating that behavior seems to be an open question, but let’s assume that there is. It is still the case that there is plenty of order at higher levels of organization, and even the probabilistic behavior of subatomic particles follows certain deterministic patterns, making it amenable to study.

      On demons: It is an oversimplification to say that Jesus understood all illness as a product of demons. The Gospels record many healings of physical ailments without any reference to demons. When demons are invoked, it is almost always in situations where the affliction in question is described as demon possession.

      While it is true that some more recent scholars have noted similarities between mental illnesses and these accounts of demon possession, it is not necessarily the case that Jesus misunderstood mental illness as demon possession. It is quite possible that he understood those to be very separate categories requiring very different remedies.

      • ‘Rather, I think the idea is that the Bible describes a creator who wants his creation to be studied and understood (see, for example, Psalm 111 verse 2 “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.”). ‘

        That doesn’t mean the works are orderly. ‘Great’ is not a synonym of ‘orderly’. Last time I looked they were different words with different meanings.

        Perhaps you have forgotten Job where the god character taunts mankind with mankind’s inability to find out basic scientific facts.

        That was not the work of somebody who expected these facts to be found out.

        It was the work of somebody who regarded puny Earthlings as unable to do science, because it would be forever out of their reach.

        ‘It is an oversimplification to say that Jesus understood all illness as a product of demons.’

        True. The Jesus character in the Gospels often only saw mental illness as a product of demons.

        But science has abandoned belief in demons, as , as Polkinghorne will tell you, every time a scientist goes into a lab, he rules out the idea that demons will interfere with nature.

        When he leaves the lab and reads the Bible, then he starts to believe in demons again…..

      • Steven –

        I’m a details guy, and I am happy to continue discussing particular sections of the Bible, or specific aspects of modern science, or what have you.

        However, in the interest of making the best use of your time and mine, it would be helpful to me to have a better understanding of the overall point you are trying to make. Could I ask you to summarize the position you are articulating? Thanks.

  5. What’s remarkable to me about the ultimately self-destructive nature of reductionist claims is how much scientific community denies it. This line of reasoning makes so much sense, and yet they generally just scoff at it.

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