Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

The End of Religion? Hardly

Proclamations of the death of religion are premature.

Proclamations of the death of religion are premature. There are good reasons for thinking that religion does not have one foot in the grave, as we look at a recent study on religion and a relatively recent trend in the academic study of philosophy.

The Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project

First, consider a three year Oxford University study called the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, This analysis of over 40 different studies around the world examining various cultures and faiths suggests that religious belief is natural and perhaps even instinctive for human beings. Part of the explanation for this is that we find purpose-based explanations attractive. One way to understand what a purpose-based explanation is to point to some examples:

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"Ferns grow in forests because they provide ground shade"
"Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil."
"Polar bears live on snow and ice so that they are camouflaged."

The italicized portions underscore the purpose-based beliefs present in these explanations. Such explanations make use of some end or goal to explain some aspect of reality (such as animal behavior), rather than relying merely on some mechanical or biological processes to do the explanatory work.

A recent study, which is consistent with several other studies, found that "people--from early childhood--have a tendency to accept purpose-based explanations for natural states of affairs AND that such purpose-based explanations are linked to thinking that someone (e.g., a god) accounts for the purpose. Even young children have the intuition that purpose is best accounted for by someone willing that purpose to be." So, perhaps it is a part of human nature to accept purpose-based explanations which also supports belief in a God or gods.

It is crucial to understand that this study does not tell us whether or not God exists. Rather, it tells us that, in the words of study co-director Roger Trigg, religion "isn't just a quirky interest of a few, it's basic human nature...This shows that it's much more universal, prevalent, and deep-rooted. It's got to be reckoned with. You can't just pretend it isn't there," he said. "The secularization thesis of the 1960s - I think that was hopeless," Trigg concluded.

The Resurrection of Theism in Philosophy

Developments in another academic field give us more reason to doubt the claim that atheism will replace religion. There has been a desecularization in academic philosophy departments since the 1960's, according to naturalist (that is, atheist) philosopher Quentin Smith. By the middle of the 20th century, atheism was the dominant view of mainstream analytic philosophy. But in the 1960's, theism in general, and Christian versions of it in particular, gained academic respectability with the publication of God and Other Minds and The Nature of Necessity, both by Alvin Plantinga. Subsequent to this, a large number of publications advancing theism have come onto the scene by such philosophers as William Alston, Robert and Marilyn Adams, Peter VanInwagen, Eleonore Stump, Nicholas Wolsterstorff, and Linda Zagzebski. Arguing for theism is no longer "an academically unrespectable scholarly pursuit."

As Smith points out, in the past decade one catalogue of Oxford University Press, which is arguably the top publisher of contemporary philosophy, included 96 books on the philosophy of religion. 94 of these argued for theism, while the remaining 2 discussed both sides of the issue. I would add that since this time, with the advent of the new atheists, the publication numbers may not be as one-sided. Still, this is a radical shift that would have been unthinkable 60 years ago.

Finally, Smith states that "God is not 'dead' in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments." Some have suggested that rather than being a stronghold, "philosophy departments are a beachhead" for similar change in other disciplines. Whether or not this is true, it is the case that the ideas of philosophers not only spread into other academic disciplines, but ultimately filter down to the person on the street as well. Given this, and given the resurgence of theistic philosophy as well as the findings of the Cognition, Religion, and Theology project, it looks like religion will continue to play an important role in human life for the foreseeable future. Or, to put it another way, atheism won't replace religion, at least not anytime soon.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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