19 february 2008

Scientific study into religious belief launched

Praying child
Nature or nuture? Science will tell

Oxford researchers have received a £1.9 million grant for the development of the study of the cognitive science of religion – a scientific approach to why humans believe in God and other issues around the nature and origin of religious belief.

The award has been made by the John Templeton Foundation to the Oxford Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind. It will be used to draw together and promote the latest scientific ideas about the meaning of religion and its origin in the human mind.

The cognitive sciences include all aspects of the study of the mind and intelligence, ranging across fields as diverse as evolutionary biology, neuroscience, linguistics and computer sciences. They offer a complex set of tools for looking at the full range of human behaviour.

This study will not prove or disprove any aspect of religion, it will allow us to have a more intelligent and informed debate.

Professor Roger Trigg

Dr Justin Barrett, a psychologist who has been at the forefront of the development of the cognitive science of religion, will be playing a lead role in the new study. He said: ‘Cognitive science can help to explain the origin and nature of human religion. For example, developmental psychology has been instrumental in determining that belief in religion seems to be an integral part of human nature – it is found across all cultures and is something that we grasp from a young age.

‘The cognitive science of religion allows us to take a subtler approach to questions such as the alleged divisiveness of religion – looking at whether the conflicts associated with religion are a product of human nature itself.’

'The next step therefore is to look at some of the detailed questions  – which religious beliefs are most common, and most natural for the human mind to grasp. The exciting questions in this field are in the details – how does the mind vary in its response to different forms of religion, such as polytheism and monotheism for example, and what is the relationships between religion and evolutionary biology – is religion a part of the selection process that has helped us survive or merely a by-product of evolution?’

Professor Roger Trigg, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Theology Faculty and Co-Principal Investigator for the study, said: ‘Religion has played an important role in public life over the last few years and the debate about the origin of religion, and how it fits into the human mind has intensified. This study will not prove or disprove any aspect of religion, it will allow us to have a more intelligent and informed debate and to support this with a vastly expanded and improved supply of evidence – particularly the quantitative skills which tend to be less common amongst theologians.’

The grant will also provide training for scholars to build up scientific and quantitative skills and support a number of seminars and workshops. A large part of the award, £800,000, will be used to run a ‘small grant competition’ providing 41 grants to support work by a range of scholars carrying out diverse individual research projects that will be the building blocks of the further development of the field.