Oxford centre to conduct scientific study of religious belief

By staff writers
February 21, 2008

Anthropologists, neurologists, philosophers, psychologists, theologians and other specialists are to conduct a £2 million three-year study into the nature and formation of religious belief.

The work will be funded by the John Templeton Foundation and carried out at the highly-regarded Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.

Among other issues, it will explore the question about whether receptivity towards a transcendent influence on life is an inherent part of humankind's constitution.

This is an issue which has been considered in different ways by evolutionary biologists and religion researchers, notably the Alister Hardy Centre and its work on 'religious experience'.

There is wide disagreement in the field. Popular writers such as Richard Dawkins have promoted a reductionist account of religious belief based on a positivist type of empircism. But this is seen as too limited and ideological by many specialists in the field, as are accounts driven by vague notions holism - the attempt to hold together or integrate descriptions and theories from different perspectives.

"We are interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural," said Justin Barrett, a psychologist and leading member of the research team. "We think there is more on the nature side than a lot of people suppose."

The study will also look into which religious beliefs seem most common and most 'natural' for the human mind to grasp.

The question of defining what is meant by God or the transcendant, the influence of cultural and social outlooks (including ones framed by spiritually-drive and atheistic world views) will also need to be taken into account.

"Inter-disciplinary study of this kind is often frought with difficulty@, a researcher told Ekklesia. "But for those interested in a broadly-baed rational approach to the sources of religious conviction, as distinct from ones overdetermined either by religious enthusiasm or antipathy, the work being proposed here is of great interest."

Roger Trigg, acting director of the Ian Ramsey Centre, said that existing anthropological and philosophical research suggests that belief in God in some shape or form may be a universal human impulse found in most cultures around the world.

Formal belief has been on the wane in Britain and other parts of mainland Europe. But this has been accompanied by a significant growth in informal and unaffiliated spirituality. 'Conviction atheism' or humanism has also been growing, but remains a minority belief system. Indifference to the practicalities or teachings of religion is widespread, but this, it seems, is often accompoanied by some 'background belief' which remains remarkably persistent.

"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'?" Dr Trigg asked.

One surprsing implication of the global situation, he suggested, is that "religion [may be] the default position, and atheism is perhaps more in need of explanation."

The Oxford study will not attempt to answer whether there is a reality independent of our existence and conception which may be named 'God', but it will examine evidence about whether belief in God confers an evolutionary advantage to humankind.

The John Templeton Foundation is a US-based philanthropic organisation that funds a wide range of research into questions that deal with the laws of nature and provenance of spirituality and religion, particularly as they connect to wider social and scientific concerns.

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