The rationality of religious and scientific thinking

In the previous section, we covered research demonstrating that cognitive biases towards creationist explanations for the world exist despite increasing age and advanced education. These findings and the research of CSR, more generally, have implications for the academic study of religion. They relate specifically to the idea that science is rational, and faith is irrational, referred to here as the science-as-rational and religion-as-irrational theses. These theses have roots in early nineteenth-century anthropologists, often referred to as intellec- tualists, such as Edward Tylor and James Frazer. Among other endeavors, they were preoccupied with uncovering the origins of religious and magic beliefs. An era of rationalism profoundly influenced these Victorian scholars, and they worked within what was then construed as an evolutionary framework, where religion was interpreted as the misapplication of scientific principles, and science was construed as the highest level of rational thinking.

According to these early intellectualist theories, as thinking becomes more sophisticated, cultures pass through a series of stages, from magic to religion and finally to science. Eventually, more knowledge will eradicate religion. They favor a displacement theory and would predict that increasing scientific knowledge supplants religious ideas. This prediction has not been borne out, and research in the cognitive-evolutionary sciences provides a much more complicated picture than is often depicted in popular accounts. Yet, versions of the argument have appeared throughout history by some of the world’s most famous thinkers (e.g. Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud). These ideas are also regurgitated in different forms in the writings of new atheist thinkers, most notably the “four horsemen”: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. It seems that religious thinking, which tends to favor creationist explanations, is not replaced by scientific reasoning and that religion is not going to be eliminated.

Other theorists espouse a different view of the relationship between science and religion. For instance, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould advocates for a view called “non-overlapping magisterial” (NOMA), that science and religion represent different areas of inquiry, so there is a difference between the aspects they have legitimate authority, or magisterium, over. He describes the NOMA principle as the following.

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.70

Of course, Gould is discussing the epistemological relationship between science and religion in the world. This view is related in many ways to the corresponding psychological models of these two phenomena, as showcased in this chapter by cognitive science researchers, such as Kelemen, Legare, and Shul- man, among others. These scholars suggest that scientific explanations do not replace religious ones but rather coexist with them. In other words, tendencies towards creationist reasoning about nature are not supplanted by increased knowledge and elaboration of ideas about science. This theory is known as a coexistence model.

Coexistence models are used to explain how people reason about natural and supernatural phenomena more generally.71'72 They account for how people can accommodate and reconcile multiple explanations for the same kind of event or outcomes. These could be scientific and lay theories, for example, or natural and supernatural theories. People do this by using different types of explanations to explain different levels of causality. We visit coexistence models between natural and supernatural explanations in more detail in the next section.

Participation 2: Increasing the understanding of evolutionary theory

  • 1 Imagine that you have been appointed as head of a new national task force to assign funds to increase the understanding of evolutionary theory. Draft a brief (5-minute) rebuttal to members on the task force, based on what you have read in this chapter.
  • (A) Commentator A claims that the only way to increase understanding of scientific theories about the world is to prove that religion is false. He proposes spending 100 percent of the funds on materials to discredit religious ideas such as intelligent design.
  • (B) Commentator В claims that the only way to increase understanding of scientific theories about the world is to increase understanding about evolution. She proposes spending 100 per cent of the funds on materials to teach children about evolution.
  • 2 Next, outline how you would spend the funds to increase the understanding of evolutionary theory. You can allocate funds to multiple strategies (e.g. public policy, education, advertising, recruiting groups, and so on).

Key points

  • • CSR scholars have demonstrated that cognitive biases that serve to facilitate belief in creationist understandings of the world are never entirely displaced by scientific knowledge.
  • • These findings do not support a displacement theory of how people represent scientific and religious explanations of the world, which predicts that increasing scientific knowledge supplants religious ideas.
  • • The findings support a coexistence model of how people represent scientific and religious explanations of the world because people accommodate and reconcile biological and supernatural accounts.

Summary of explaining the origins and development of the natural world

  • • Many adults in the US outwardly reject evolutionary theory as an explanation of the origins and development of the world and species, and many accept creationist ideas as an alternative explanation.
  • • There are many aspects of cognition and culture that explain these trends.
  • • CSR has outlined cognitive obstacles to understanding evolutionary theory and biases that favor creationist accounts. These include promiscuous teleology, anthropomorphism, and essentialism.
  • • These biases are never entirely displaced by scientific knowledge, and supernatural and scientific explanations often coexist in people’s minds.
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