No one individual science can completely explain anything, especially religion. The interconnected nature of the universe is such that, in order to understand any single phenomenon, one must utilize all of the sciences. When the totality of the sciences (natural and social) has been utilized in an explanation of religion, the question remains: Is “religion” anything more than what the sciences inform us about it?
In this paper I will argue that nothing more is needed in the explanation and definition of religion than a “clustering” of the totality of what the sciences tell us about religion. I am not going to argue that these clusters of explanations and definitions are complete—in the way a metaphysical principle is complete—simply that they are the best one has to work with. In other words, I do not believe in a quick-and-easy definition of religion, but I do believe that the totality of the sciences gives one all they need for an adequate working definition of religion.
Before I begin discussing what this working definition amounts to, I must first address the issue of one-sidedness. There is a kind of “war amongst the sciences” in academia today, one that involves how best to explain any given phenomenon. Because of the interests and preferences of their respective professors and scientists, each science wants to be considered the “queen”—that is, the science with the best explanatory power—and have all of the other sciences recognize its merits.
There is also the issue of psychological projection. When an anthropologist is presented with data, she is trained to interpret that data in an anthropological manner. She sees confirmation of the explanatory power of anthropology all around her, to the detriment of the other sciences. Karl Popper once wrote about this, saying,
“I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, open your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirmed instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still 'un-analyzed' and crying aloud for treatment.”
The issue I am addressing is the one-sidedness amongst the sciences. My argument is that the sciences need not be in competition, they can be in collaboration. Each of them helps put a puzzle piece in place to provide a greater picture of any given phenomenon. This position can also take into account that sometimes the puzzle pieces are larger and smaller for their representative science, depending on the phenomenon in question. If the phenomenon before us were the Australopithecus certainly biology would have a greater piece of the puzzle than sociology.
Psychology, Anthropology, and Sociology
A few historical comments will help shed light on why the “sciences” continue to fight over who has which science has the strongest explanatory power regarding religion. With the codification of the sciences in nineteenth century England, along came the desire to find the sine qua non (or essence) of religion. At that time the hopeful optimism and positivism gave scholars the impression that religion could be “totally explained” by science. The question then became: which science can best explain the phenomenon of religion? Was it anthropology? Psychology? Sociology? There was no doubt that something called “religion” existed, but what was not known was how it originated, survived, and thrived.
Sigmund Freud thought psychology was the best way to interpret the phenomenon of religion. For Freud, religion “consists of certain dogmas, assertion about facts and conditions of external (or internal) reality, which tell one something that one has not oneself discovered and which claim that one should give them credence.”
Freud thought the idea of God maintained its strength because of human desires: religious answers are the “fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind; the secret of their strength is the strength of these wishes.”
The human psyche constructed God, and the various interpretations of the divine, in order to protect itself from the harsh realities of life. If this is true, one can see why Freud thought he was ahead of the explanatory curve. If the sine qua non of religion lies in “wish-fulfillment,” than we need not go any further.
The anthropologists of religion (Edward B. Tylor, James G. Frazer, and Clifford Geertz) considered human behavior, religious ritual and practice, and the creation of cultural norms as the locus for the sine qua non of religion. They had an advantage over Freud’s psychoanalytic theory: they could provide historical and contemporary empirical data to prove their point. The essence of religion was not trapped in somebody’s psyche or will, but was shown in the behavior and actions of religious persons. Tylor points at this when he describes “Rites and Ceremonies” as “customs so full of instruction as to the inmost powers of religion, whose outward expression and practical result they are.”
Geertz also points to the connection between belief and its corresponding behavior when he describes religion as a “system of symbols.” After his famous definition of religion, Geertz is quick to note that “cultural acts, the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms, are social events like any other; they are as public as marriage and as observable as agriculture.” Thus, the anthropologist has the advantage of being able to point to “things” (not ideas or desires) in the explanation of religion.
The sociological interpreters of religion (Emile Durkheim, Peter L. Berger) argue that religion is primarily a form of social cohesion. Durkheim sought to discover the “elementary forms of religious life,” that is, those essential characteristics that lie underneath all of the divergent externalities of religious groups. Durkheim thought that “At the basis of all systems of belief and all cults there must be a certain number of fundamental representations and ritual practices that, despite the diversity of forms they assume in the various religions, have the same objective meanings and fulfil the same functions.” What is important to note here is the fact that Durkheim thought there was some underlying substratum of “fundamental representations” that was expressed in each, and every, religion.
As opposed to those who tended to think of religion as a private affair—an affair characterized by William James as the relationship between the individual and the whole—Durkheim thinks, “religion is something eminently social.” Along with Mircea Eliade, Durkheim considers the dichotomy of “sacred vs. profane” essential to “all known religious beliefs.” Durkheim considers this dichotomy a way that religion classifies its beliefs and social needs. The sacred expresses a certain idea of the world, of life, and of meaning that is diametrically opposed to the profane. Durkheim makes sure to put this dichotomy into his definition of religion: “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions—beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church.”
Peter L. Berger’s conception of religion is also highly social. Berger’s primary thesis—that “Society is a dialectic phenomenon in that it is a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts back upon its producer”—speaks profoundly to the social nature of religious beliefs and practices. Berger begins his famous work The Sacred Canopy by saying that “religion is a human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established.” Notice the use of the term sacred. The world-construction of religion is not simply the making of any world, but a sacred world. Since human beings cannot live without a “symbolic world,” religion provides a way of constructing just such a world and making the moral differentiation between the “sacred” and the “profane.”
Berger’s conception not only considers religion a way of constructing a sacred world, but as a way of making the whole universe morally important to the individual. “Put differently,” Berger says, “religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant.”
Religion is a frame of reference by which all things can be understood. There is the “unique capacity of religion to “locate” human phenomena within a cosmic frame of reference.” Another way of putting this idea is that religion is primarily about connection: the connection (or lack thereof) between the sacred and the profane, the individual and the totality, and the microcosm to the macrocosm. From strands of bacteria to celestial bodies, all phenomena become connected under the same frame of reference. Religion is not merely about the division between the sacred and the profane, but also between order and disorder. A totally connected universe has a way of containing, or handling, the existentially frightening idea of chaos.
It is obvious why each of these ways of understanding religion (e.g. psychological, anthropological, and sociological) has continued to exert influence in the academic study of religion: they each, in their own way, have strong explanatory power. Each of them has similarities with each other, but they also diverge on where to place the emphasis. How does one decide where the emphasis ought to be placed? Who is the final arbiter of this decision and who decides whether or not it is legitimate? Interestingly enough, each of these questions can be asked of the sciences themselves, not just which science we ought to emphasize in the explanation of religion.
Modern Scientific Understandings of Religion
Before I attempt to answer these difficult methodological questions, it is important to first capture what modern scientists says about religious belief and practice. Daniel C. Dennett, a leading scientist, new atheist, and author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, discusses what he thinks of religion in his famous work Breaking The Spell. Dennett thinks one of the major problems with religion is that it is considered by many people to be “above reproach,” “sacrosanct,” or “immune to scientific analysis and critique.” Dennett wishes to “break this spell” by advancing the idea of scientifically studying religion. Although Dennett does not think that religion has a “natural kind,” he nonetheless tentatively defines religions as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”
A few remarks on this definition are in order. Firstly, it is important to note that although Dennett is well aware of the diversity of religious beliefs and practices, he nonetheless restricts his definition of “religion” to a belief in the “supernatural.” Emile Durkheim, if you were to pit him against Dennett, would say something like: “We should be careful to identify religion with the supernatural because the idea of the “supernatural” is a relatively recent invention.”
Durkheim says, “Moreover, the idea of the supernatural, as we understand it, is of recent vintage.” Regardless of this issue, Dennett is wise to begin his definition with a tribute to the sociological understanding of religion, namely, religions as social systems. With this, Durkheim would most certainly agree.
Secondly, Dennett’s definition excludes those who simply think of God as a metaphor or expression of human experience. These people may be “spiritual” or think “poetically” but they are not “religious.” The interesting irony here is that many of these people self-identify as “religious” or being part of a “religion.” Certainly we cannot exclude those who self-identify. Similarly, many people think that Dennett is setting up a “straw man” by equating religion with belief in the supernatural: it is an easy picture to be refuted by scientific understanding. For people like Dennett, religious literalists and conservatives are much simpler to deal with than the metaphorical descriptions of God given by “spiritual” people.
What I consider to be Dennett’s strongest point is the call for religious persons to have their beliefs examined under a microscope. It is no longer sufficient to “live and let live” regarding peoples beliefs (atheists and theists alike). Dennett says, “we others have no right to intrude on their private practices so long as we can be quite sure that they are not injuring others.” This is reminiscent of John Stuart Mill who made a similar statement much earlier: “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Along with Dennett, Barbara J. King argues that scientific understanding should drive how people understand religion. King says, “Matters of faith are not amenable to scientific analysis, experimentation, or testing.” King, an anthropologist along the lines of Jane Goodall, thinks that the idea of “belongingness” is essential to the relationship of certain primates. King finds a sophisticated “cognitive empathy” in chimpanzees and attempts to trace an evolutionary path between them and homo sapiens.
At the beginning of her book Evolving God, King also faces the issue of defining religion. To her, Buddhism shows “why religion cannot always be equated with faith in supernatural beings.” King is in is favor of utilizing a broad definition of religion, since she thinks that an overly restrictive definition is unhelpful at best. King’s caution and unease with putting forward a simple definition of religion shows how sensitive she is to the philosophical, scientific, linguistic, and cultural problems that emerge when one does so.
Legitimation and Emphasis
Dennett and King both bring up good points about what society, or the public sphere, considers legitimate and illegitimate. Modern science in the public sphere is largely considered legitimate because of its public nature, its ability to be proven wrong, and the strict empirical methods it utilizes. “Religion,” however people define it, does not have these same strengths. Many times religion and religious beliefs are relegated to the “private sphere,” sometimes in fear or ridicule and other times to avoid the corruption of said beliefs. Religious persons also make claims about the world that are non-falsifiable, and thus not able to withstand the argument that these claims may be moot, or meaningless. The “religious” methods of testing truth-claims are also different from modern science: they primarily occur in their respective religious organizations, they are usually not based in a method of testing and sensory observation, and there is a large lack of consensus amongst religious groups regarding the proper methodology for informing their beliefs.
This is not to de-legitimize religion per se, it is simply to note what the larger public perceive to be the differences between modern science and religion. What Dennett and King argue for is a way of laying religion bare to the scrutinies of scientific investigation. But what does this actually mean? Can we actually study religion from an objective stance?
Although I enjoy the idea of scientifically studying religion, I cannot help but notice a few potential roadblocks in the way. Firstly, what does it mean to study religion scientifically? Does this mean we relegate our understanding of religion to only empirical or “material” religion? Do we look at texts, artifacts, historical records, and ethnographic studies and leave out the more philosophical or theological argumentation? My question is primarily one of criteria; that is, what are the parameters for what counts as the “scientific” and the “unscientific” study of religion?
Secondly, there is a problem of interpretation. It may be good to look at “religious facts,” but how are we to interpret them? Scientifically studying religion does not necessarily entail the denial of the supernatural, God, and other spiritual beliefs, but it does seem to ask that our understanding of religion be based in empirical information before it is based in non-observable beliefs. There is a certain irony present in this idea. Although in principle peoples assumptions and presuppositions ought to be based on empirical data, many times they are not. The lenses we utilize to view data come before the actual viewing of data. These lenses often determine how we interpret scientific data, so how are people to avoid unwarranted assumptions? Better put, who decides which assumptions are valid and which are not?
Even if these questions are left unanswered it is important to, in my opinion, to utilize all of the sciences in any understanding of what constitutes “religion.” Besides the sciences, where else would one go to understand “religion?” If people let their own religious organizations determine what counts as religion, while not looking at what the sciences say, these same people may be allowing themselves to be led into following chimeras.
Simply put, if one was to allow religious organizations, textual interpretations, or personal experience to determine what “religion” is, that person would have no “weight” to their definition. This is because “religion” is something innumerable people identify as, and if we are to take facts and statistics seriously, we would be hard-pressed to claim that only certain people are “religious.” The problem here is that many religious persons have an idea of what “true” or “false” religion is, and they usually equate other people with this “false” religion.
In conclusion, I am of the opinion that there are good reasons to base your understanding of “religion” in the sciences, and that it is a good thing for people to scientifically study religion. There may be a few problems along the way, but I find nothing wrong with the trajectory espoused by Dennett and King. Ideally it would be nice to imagine people studying religion with an objective, non-visceral manner, but the reality is quite different. This kind of study should be encouraged, but not entirely expected. The best one could hope for in terms of objectivity, is to consider what every science says about religion, a thorough investigation into material religion, and an interpretation of these facts that is consistent, coherent, and most importantly, falsifiable.
 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (Connecticut: Martino, 2010), 43
 Ibid, 52
 Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Cultures vol. I (23
 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: N.Y.: Basic Books, 1973), 90-91
 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 6
 Ibid, 11
 Ibid, 36
 Ibid, 46
 Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1990), 3
 Ibid, 25
 Ibid, 28
 Ibid, 35
 Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2006), 9
 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 28
 Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2006), 13-14
 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1898), 23
 Barbara J. King, Evolving God (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2007), 9
 Ibid, 16