Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Science and religion

Via the Flying Spaghetti Monster web site (because the big noodly one gets a brief mention on the second page of the article, I found this Scientific American piece:

Getting a Rational Grip on Religion
Is religion a fit subject for scientific scrutiny?

It's a review of the book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett. Interesting discussion on the evolution of religion, and the purpose it served.

"I appreciate that many readers will be profoundly distrustful of the tack I am taking here," he writes. "They will see me as just another liberal professor trying to cajole them out of some of their convictions, and they are dead right about that--that's what I am, and that's exactly what I am trying to do." This warning comes at the end of a long, two-chapter overture in which Dennett defends the idea that religion is a fit subject for scrutiny. The question is how many of the faithful will follow him that far.

For those who do not need to be persuaded, the main draw here is a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion. Drawing on thinkers such as Pascal Boyer (whose own book is called Religion Explained) and giving their work his own spin, Dennett speculates how a primitive belief in ghosts might have given rise to wind spirits and rain gods, wood nymphs and leprechauns. The world is a scary place. What else to blame for the unexpected than humanlike beings lurking behind the scenes?

The result would be a cacophony of superstitions--memes vying with memes--some more likely to proliferate than others. In a world where agriculture was drawing people to aggregate in larger and larger settlements, it would be beneficial to believe you had been commanded by a stern god to honor and protect your neighbors, those who share your beliefs instead of your DNA. Casting this god as a father figure also seems like a natural. Parents have a genetic stake in giving their children advice that improves their odds for survival. You'd have less reason to put your trust in a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Read the rest here.
Interesting. On the one hand, I certainly consider myself to be among "the faithful", but I do think that science can tell us some things about religion in a broad sense. But I don't think science can render faith meaningless, any more than religion can render science useless.