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The Scientific Study of Religion

by Stuart Jordan

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 15, Number 1.

Why are so many people in the modern world still religious? This was the featured topic of a multi-disciplinary conference on "The Science of Religion" held on December 5 and 6, 1998, at the prestigious New York Academy of Sciences. Cosponsored by the International Academy of Humanism and Free Inquiry, the conference featured 11 excellent speakers who spoke on the many reasons that religion remains a pervasive feature of human culture, despite the lack of reliable evidence for its remarkable claims.

The religious impulse undoubtedly reflects many complex, interacting biogenetic and cultural factors at work in Homo sapiens. Fortunately, the conference presented outstanding thinkers and researchers from many of the different academic fields who contribute to our understanding of religion. Perspectives included those of three philosophers, a biblical scholar, three anthropologists, a social psychologist, a political scientist, a scientifically trained science writer, and a newspaper columnist. Several of the speakers made it clear that many of these relevant factors are still not adequately understood. There is need for a great deal more research in many fields before the religious phenomenon can be well understood on scientific grounds.

Many of the contributors to the New York Academy of Sciences meeting will discuss the same topic at the Council for Secular Humanism annual conference in Chicago in May 1999. Of particular note are the philosopher Paul Kurtz, the anthropologist Lionel Tiger, and the biblical scholar Hector Avalos. Professor Avalos also brings the insight of an unbeliever who was a Pentecostalist faith-healer in his childhood. I look forward to the continuing exploration of this important and fascinating topic.

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