Friday, May 26, 2017

Science o' religion

For the fun of it (mostly) I've decided to check out the new EdX online MOOC "The Science of Religion." It's led by Edward Slingerland, whose translation of Confucius' Analects we used this semester, and a young cognitive psychologist named Azim Shariff, and features cameos by various people whose work I know, starting with Ann Taves. Taves' "building block" approach to religion, with which I end "Theorizing Religion," turns out to be foundational for the "science of religion," and is their way of dodging the question of the definition of religion.

I've finished half of the course now. (It's just videos, rather snazzily if sometimes snarkily edited and illustrated - no required readings, as in "World Religions Through Scripture," though each section has a bibliography and bonus videos.) Much of it is material I've encountered before, but it's nice to have it all presented together. Does it all fit together, come together? Perhaps not, or not yet. Lots of methodologies: Darwinian theory, big data analyses of ancient and contemporary social structures, a sort of folk philosophy about "intuitive" belief concerning existential questions (representative is the part of the text of a discussion above)...

And I remain a skeptic about psychology experiments, as when they claim to show that "priming" people with a reminder of mortality is more likely to make them report religious belief. Belief isn't a momentary thing, surely; no doubt it ebbs and flows in awareness and urgency in response to triggers great and small, but that's not what they claim to be showing. On the other hand, I was pleased to hear (in an explanation of "supernatural deterrence theory") that priming people with religion made them more fair and even generous with strangers - though I was also happy to learn that priming them with civil institutions of justice and order achieve the same! 

What to make of the finding that people who repeatedly choose the intuitive but false answer to word problems are more likely to say they've "had an experience that has convinced me that God exists"? Although the different researchers featured are talking about vastly different things and draw often divergent conclusions from them, the broader sense seems to be that religion comes naturally to human beings (more so than does science!), whether as a byproduct of evolved individual and group traits or as itself a selected trait. Of course not all individuals and societies are religious today - they discuss atheists, secularization, etc., too, along with Charles Taylor's idea that everyone needs "strong evaluations" of some kind - so opting out of religion seems a possibility, albeit with limits. 

These questions are close to those of Durkheim and Freud (mentioned early in the course): can social cohesion be ensured once religion is revealed to be an illusion? I'm curious to see where they end up... I'll keep you posted!

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