The leadership of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) has an immodest vision for transforming current and future religion-science interactions, a transformation powered by the clarity of its ideas and the quality of its research. Our ultimate aim is to contribute to a revolution in the cultural understanding of religion through rigorous research-based knowledge of its nature and functions in individuals and groups.
We are not alone in having this vision, and indeed many hands and minds are required to accomplish the transformation of understanding and behavior that we envision. But we are one of the very few groups unapologetically committed to combining the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences in our research, training, and dissemination efforts. We believe we have a distinctive role to play, accordingly.
Analogous research-driven transformations have occurred in other domains in the past. For example, the shift from the economics of blind fortune to the era of managed economies was powered by research that gave birth to modern econometrics and thereby made feasible the modeling of economic interactions and emergent economic forces. Similarly, the shift in medicine from inefficient guessing at treatments guided by accrued wisdom to high efficiency of medical care was powered by research-based knowledge of the causal processes operating within the complex system of the human body in its physical environments. Again, the cultural understanding of criminology has been utterly changed by the marriage of research-based transformations in forensics and developmental psychology.
A number of cultural transformations similar in magnitude to one we are contributing to are occurring at the present time. As is perhaps always the case for massive changes still underway, their prospects are uncertain, and the role of research-based understanding varies. For example, we are moving from being the blind inhabitants of a planetary environment to a species aware of its ecological impact, thanks to a research-based transformation in understanding of the causal processes to which the Earth’s ecology is subject. In this case research-based understanding is playing a prominent role. Meanwhile, communication technologies are altering the very meaning of human individual and group identity, and in this case research-based understanding of the social effects and cultural impacts lags far behind technical innovation. This is both because economics is driving the technical creativity and because it is so difficult to gain a working understanding of the causality of emergent features of complex societies and how global and virtual communication systems impact them.
In the case of religion, research-based knowledge of its nature and functions is in its infancy. Research into the nature and functions of religion is multiply frustrated because of seemingly intractable methodological problems. Other cultural forces, including some parts of religion itself, are arrayed against the quest for such understanding because transparent research appears to some to threaten the very authority that religious groups often rely on to consolidate their effectiveness and to legitimate their practices and beliefs. But we all have a huge stake in gaining a clearer understanding of religious behaviors, beliefs, and experiences, even those whose authority would be threatened by the resulting cultural transformation.
One way of expressing what we all have at stake in gaining a better understanding of the nature and functions of religion is to reflect on the source of religion’s varied functional effects, both the negative and the positive ones. Unfortunately, people’s failure to understand the gap between beliefs that seem to be self-evidently true and beliefs that are rationally well supported is a problem of terrible proportions in human history. When the bulwark of commonsense fails, religion can quickly become the ally of irrationality and violence thanks to the power of religion to lend cosmic significance to convictions that are central to the identity of a group or an individual. The self-righteousness and irrationality of religiously rationalized coercive behaviors and even violence is difficult to see from within the social world that promotes it, yet painfully obvious from the outside. In other words, religious and spiritual experiences make a wide range of beliefs, including possibly beliefs that legitimate violence, internally incorrigible within the individuals and groups that hold them, despite the fact that they are externally corrigible to an extreme degree.
Nothing expresses the tragic effects of religiously rationalized violence more acutely or compactly than the twin phenomena of “ethnic cleansing” of whole populations who do not share the same religious convictions as the “cleansers” and forced conversions at the point of a sword. When these sorts of crimes are carried out by human beings who act out of absolute conviction, and with a visceral feeling of divine confirmation and command, the self-delusory power of religiously-inspired identity politics is made starkly and horribly clear. The cultural transformation to which we propose to contribute profoundly disrupts the unreflective linkage between religion and the legitimation of violence (or bigotry or in-group exclusivity or purity-driven discrimination) by manifesting the causal functions of religion in brains and lives and groups. When a person for whom religious beliefs are internally incorrigible comes to realize their external corrigibility and potentially disastrous effects on others, that individual is more inclined to pause and think before acting.
On the positive and uplifting side, we can see what we all have at stake in a research-based transformation in the understanding of religion by reminding ourselves of its transformative effects, and what it is about religion that has made it almost universally treasured despite its dangerous side-effects. Religious and spiritual experiences have a vital place within the grand adventure of human life. The spiritual quests of humanity have been among the most passionate and prized pursuits in every culture and era, and that will continue to be true for the foreseeable future, and even after a cultural transformation in the understanding of religion. The wisdom encoded in traditions is an essential resource for those quests, as are the institutions, rituals, symbols, and ideas that those traditions accumulate. Even if religious and spiritual experiences do not reliably yield cognitive information that can be translated into doctrinal propositions, they perform an invaluable function by engaging people with the ultimate mysteries to which they are drawn.
All parts of human life and all aspects of human embodiment play roles in a seeker’s quest to cultivate spiritual maturity and excellence. This quest necessarily involves imperfect institutions, such as religions. It involves flawed mentors and ambiguous efforts at character transformation. It involves mistaken metaphysics and odd ontology. And it involves experiences that engage us deeply without necessarily reliably informing us about great spiritual truths. But the entire messy and complex process nonetheless constitutes a profoundly valuable journey through an awesome environment of existential and social and spiritual possibilities. The cultural transformation we envision weakens religion’s links with internally incorrigible rationalizations for violence against stigmatized individuals or out-groups in much the same way that economics was demystified, thereby making the social functions of religion more manageable even as the untamable existential effects of religion and spirituality continue to infuse them with inestimable significance. In a sense we seek to make a research-based contribution to the completion of the project of the great axial-age philosophers and religious founders (such as the Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, the Greek tragedians and philosophers). They sought to end the subordination of religion to local ethnicities and polities without severing the link between peoples and traditions, while also attempting to universalize religion’s beneficent effects extending them freely to all who asked for them.
In such an ambitious and delicate balancing act, wisdom counsels patient accumulation of facts and research-based analyses of religion’s myriad bio-cultural manifestations when assessing religion’s behavioral effects. Noone, including the scientist and the theologian, sits in a privileged position above the fray, outside of the historical process, and in possession of a foolproof method by which to adjudicate disputes about effects of religious practices or doctrines. It is a mistake to attempt to water down the foundational precepts of a religious tradition in efforts at reform or purification of that tradition. Instead, a truly valuable cultural transformation in the understanding of religion will pay proper respect to the intricacy and diversity of religious traditions and will attempt to take account of that diversity when building new understandings of religious behaviors.
If we are to come to terms with both the value and danger of religion, it cannot be by rejecting it outright in the name of overcoming religiously rationalized violence, for this is both to demand the biologically and socially impossible, and also to refuse to drink life-giving water from the wells of our most treasured experiences. Nor can we come to terms with this terrible ambiguity by imposing on others one of the many internally incorrigible belief worlds inspired and supported by religious and spiritual experiences, while ignoring the particularity and external corrigibility of that universalized perspective. Rather, we must patiently build a sound understanding of the nature and functions of religious behaviors, beliefs, and experiences at every level of relevance, from their evolutionary origins and their neural expressions to their existential meanings and social effects. And then we must make this knowledge available to others. This requires education that helps political and religious leaders make wise policy decisions. And it also requires helping ordinary religious and non-religious people in appropriately supportive ways to gain a sound understanding of the value and potential danger of their own religious and spiritual experiences.