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Comparing Religion and Science Cognitively

A new approach to exploring their psychological foundations

The many and varied attempts to curtail the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools is probably the most conspicuous evidence that people in America continue to worry mightily about the relations of religion and science. Over the last decade, cases in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Kansas have attracted the twenty-first century equivalent of the kind of publicity that surrounded the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. In fact, such mighty worries have a long history that stretches back, arguably, to the Middle Ages, when the Arabs introduced thinkers in the West to works of the ancient Greek scientists. Especially since Darwin, producing comparisons of science and religion has become a cottage industry, carried out by people who are sympathetic to religion, by people who are sympathetic to science, and by people who are sympathetic to both. (No doubt there are plenty of people who are indifferent to both, but they are usually not the sorts who write books about that indifference.) Dozens of books comparing science and religion appear each year from the world's major publishers alone.

Given how much religion and science there is and how much excitement surrounds each, it is no surprise that people continue to produce and consume works that compare them. On that front, the works of the New Atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, have attracted the most attention over the previous five or six years. By, among other things, examining the inconsistencies between religions' proposals about the world and scientific accounts, the New Atheists put religion on the defensive. The logical tensions between religious and scientific claims are patent and plentiful and guarantee that that cottage industry thrives. Even if they are unaccustomed to reflecting on their own sacred truths, few people have much problem recalling some bizarre or hilarious claim from someone else's religion. Of course, what makes them seem bizarre or hilarious is that they transparently conflict with common sense, let alone with the findings of modern science.

One of those contrasts between religion and science with regard to such intellectual conflicts discloses a fascinating gap in the work of the cottage industrialists. Many religious insiders, the world over, emphasize how little changes in their religions' accounts of things. They speak, as Senator Santorum did recently campaigning in the South Carolina primary, of "eternal truths." These are truths that bear a divine seal of approval. Religious doctrines are routinely portrayed this way. This, after all, is what it means to be a doctrine.

Many people construe science the same way. They regard it as containing collections of settled, unchanging claims that are best memorized once and for all. Think, for example, about the periodic table. The only difference, on this view, between the truths of religion and the truths of science is that the former are typically delivered as fell-swoop revelations, whereas at least some of the truths of science accumulate slowly.

Although most scientific insiders and philosophers of science agree that many of science's successes are laboriously acquired over time, they tend to stress how often scientific accounts change. Contrary to what most high school students studying for science tests assume, science, on this alternative view, does not yield a body of fixed truths to be placed on pedestals in a pantheon. Instead, it is an unending inquiry that is always searching for new evidence and better models and theories. As a result, it undergoes periodic change, at least. Don't eat eggs; do eat eggs; the next Ice Age is not far off; manmade climate change is leading to global warming, etc. Of course, that science changes regularly is one of the reasons why assessing the relations between science and religion remains a growth industry.

These patterns are interesting for a further reason, though. With the rise of the cognitive sciences, we now possess tools for investigating both why human minds follow religious or scientific paths and what sorts of cognitive processing and products are associated with each. The cognitive science of science is nearly as old as cognitive science itself. The cognitive science of religion, by contrast, is a sub-field that has emerged only in the past two decades.

The crucial point is that the cognitive sciences offer a wholly new approach to comparing science and religion. Comparing their cognitive foundations will certainly overlap with traditional comparisons of their intellectual merits; however, to the extent that their cognitive comparison examines the implicit, unconscious operations of our minds, it traverses new territories that have, until quite recently, gone unexplored. My contention, in short, is that it promises startling new insights about science, about religion, and about their comparison.