This release from the Associated Press found here is about a month old, but upon reading it this evening I had some reactions I thought I would share. The study will explore a number of issues–in fact, I plan to do some digging about exactly what this study will cover.
Roger Trigg, Director of the Ian Ramsey Center for Science and religion stated, “There are a lot of issues. What is it that is innate in human nature to believe in God, whether it is gods or something superhuman or supernatural?” This study likely will concern very old questions that have yielded a number of different conclusions. For example, the studies of Tylor, Frazer, Freud, Marx, Jung, Durkheim, Weber, Geertz, and Eliade are only a few of the classic theorists of religion who present differing accounts of religion and how it should be regarded. Thank you REL601 and Mike Zogry. If you are ever looking for some light reading and have an interest in classical theories of religion, pick up Frazer’s The Golden Bough. This edition is only 808 pages.
The Associated Press report is rather abbreviated (the story linked above). An account from the Religion News Service picked up on 03.17.08 by the Baptist Standard provides a little bit more information. According to the RNS, “The three year project titled ‘Empirical Expansion in Cognitive Science of Religion and Theology’ is designed to determine if belief in a deity is instinctive or learned. It will be funded by the Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation.”
Perhaps the most interesting comment from reading these short accounts was the desire to understand if “belief in a deity is instinctive or learned.” What do you think? I would think this would be incredibly difficult to discern empirically. Even if a child is not instinctively taught a religious system, traces of various religious faiths permeate the cultural soup that we swim in. A “civil religion” of some type seems inescapable. Would it be possible to isolate a human being in an environment where it could be seen when the “belief in a deity” instinct kicks in?
In tracing the history of religious ideas, it has been impossible to walk back through history and discover the emergence of religious belief. Different traditions have yielded their own texts and traditions, but to dig back to the earliest moments many of these ideas were solidified cannot be done. Foundational developments of differing systems of religious belief took place within the context of preliterate cultures. Along with reconstructing the earliest belief systems a picture of the culture in which it emerged would need to be developed, which would be difficult to accomplish with any accuracy.
Belief (or unbelief) and god-talk continues to fascinate us as human beings. It is my sense that this stuff will never go away. Nevertheless, I’ll be interested in what the Oxford team discovers.