Monday, April 21, 2008

Some Explaining To Do

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

The European Union, apparently no longer content to spend its members' money on pressing issues like the curvature of bananas, has commissioned a 2 million euro study “Explaining Religion".1 According to the project’s website, “In EXREL,a European team of leading experts is seeking a definitive scientific explanation as a basis for reconstructing the underlying historical processes of their development, as well as attempting to model future evolution.” 2 One might have imagined that such unabashed trust in Science would have had a hard time dodging the postmodernists to make it into the 21st century, but they don’t stop there. They follow the prior sentence with a vaguely Orwellian, “If successful, their efforts could provide an extremely valuable tool for future social policy planning.” All that’s missing is an exclamation mark and a Star Trek-like control collar.
Not surprisingly, there is no hint in the EXREL brochure that religion could be tapping into some objective reality. Nor is the distinction made that religious practices can have a biological component without being exclusively biological phenomena. No: explaining the physical processes is thought to well and truly Explain Religion. And this is where the real problem lies.
Many in our culture assume that an account of material process gives the definitive “explanation” of a given phenomenon. What is material is co-terminous with what is real. Thus, I may feel that I have “fallen in love”, but really I am only experiencing the effects of various hormones or pheromones or other as yet undiscovered –mones. I am far from denying that there is a physical component to love. But there is a tendency nowadays to assume that the physical component exhausts its meaning.
Getting back to the central question of religious experience, one would imagine that electrodes attached to someone freshly “slain in the Spirit” would detect diminished brain activity (though not quite so diminished, perhaps, as the brain activity of those who commissioned the EU study). But this simply tells us about the effect of a given religious experience, not the cause, and thus it does not serve to explain much of anything. Bringing in the Darwinian bandage of “survival value” might help in patching up an account of the survival of black pepper moths in industrial England, but it is stretched beyond the breaking point when it comes up against a multi-faceted phenomenon like religion.
The great irony here, of course, is that from one perspective the outlook of the EU study is profoundly unscientific. Good scientific method boils down to explaining all the data with your theory. Life as we actually experience it includes all sorts of things that cannot be ground down to mere biology: truth, beauty, justice, and love, to begin with. The practice of seeing everything in terms of material process is just an intellectually respectable way of throwing out all the data that does not fit the theory.
In short, before the EU Explains Religion, it needs to Explain Explanation. The 2 million euros might have been better spent giving the researchers some elementary grounding in philosophy.

1“Where Angels No Longer Fear to Tread”, The Economist, 3/22/08

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