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Can science explain religion? For most of human history, it has been a bad career move to try to rationalize religious belief and behaviour. But quite apart from the risks involved in defying the religious majority - wave goodbye to your presidential aspirations, if not your life - there is the puzzling question of whether earthly science has any right or reason to enter the realm of omnipotent gods and eternal souls.

It's not just committed believers and defensive theologians who resist secular analysis. Even scientific researchers have shied away from investigating religion on its own terms. As Harvard evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould famously put it - using a term redolent of Vatican claims to authority - science and religion belong to "non-overlapping magisteria."

But lately the great divide has begun to shrink as a more determined band of researchers sets out to explain sacred mysteries by means of what Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse calls "the new cognitive science of religion."

For Dr. Whitehouse, who is co-ordinating a Europe-wide study on the origin and development of religion, the beliefs and behaviours that we choose to call religion are rooted in our evolutionary history. His aim is to find scientific explanations for universal traits of the religious repertoire: belief in the after life, in creator or creators, in supernatural beings; a high regard for the value of signs and portents; extensive use of rituals and exegesis; a system of punishments and rewards; an understanding of moral obligations; a sense of the sacred; an acknowledgment of spirits that can take possession of the body and the brain; an acceptance of divine revelation.

While others might use the insights of evolution to free the world from divine dogma, Dr. Whitehouse and his colleagues are more interested in explaining why religion fits the needs of homo sapiens so well - to the point where it can be considered an essential part of the human condition.

Evolution, in the case of religious development, can be seen to work in two stages. First, biological: Our minds may be set up in a certain adaptive way that gives rise to intuitions and behaviours that come to be called religious. For example, hypersensitivity to threats could have been an early evolutionary advantage, and the ability to perceive a predator in a dark forest could also predispose you to sense a supernatural presence, the prototype of a spirit or a god.

Then there is socio-cultural evolution. The basic mental structure that makes humans predisposed to what we consider the features of religion develops in what Dr. Whitehouse calls "weird and wonderful directions" according to a host of local variables - witchcraft rituals in the Sudan, monastic chanting in Quebec, possession by external spirits in Brazil.

Intuition of an afterlife

By taking an empirical approach to understanding religion, Dr. Whitehouse says, cognitive scientists have reason to postulate that "humans have a propensity because of our evolutionary history to believe that when you die, that's not entirely the end of you; or that we have an intuition about how things come to be the way they are, how the physical world is structured and organized; or that there are supernatural beings around who know what we do, particularly in areas that are morally salient in some way, and that they'll punish or reward us accordingly. And all these intuitions might be natural outcomes of being the kind of species we are, in the same way that a certain kind of song pattern is the natural outcome of being a blackbird."

It's easy enough to believe in the universal characteristic of the blackbird's song, whatever the local variations, but how can one assume that a belief in supernatural beings is a basic component of humans - especially given the 21st-century outbreak of militant atheism on the bestseller lists and the YouTube lecture circuit?

Harvey Whitehouse works at the same university as Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and vocal atheist, and their research groups have what you might call overlapping magisteria. But while the two men are both analyzing religion in evolutionary terms, they have reached different conclusions about human propensities toward belief.

"Dawkins proceeds from the assumption that you can beat any old religion into your kids if you put enough energy into it," Dr. Whitehouse says. "But we think kids have some pretty strong inclinations, and you can only get them to believe stuff that accords with their natural biases. ... Kids are much more inclined in general to believe stories of a creationist kind, irrespective of what their parents believe, and this is true even of atheists' kids."

In experiments where children are shown pictures of pointy rocks, he says, "kids will always prefer explanations like it's pointy because it doesn't want elephants sitting on it as opposed to it's pointy because it's been worn away by rains over thousands of years." That is considered a creationist response, and interestingly, Dr. Whitehouse notes, "old people, particularly as they become senile, are more susceptible to that kind of belief."

The religious brain is susceptible to a number of similar variants. Women, in particular, seem to have a bent toward being possessed by spirits in societies where that is a defining part of religious practice, often as a healing ritual. Western cultures largely resist this component - apart from some speaking in tongues, for example - or the role of a medium in quasi-religious séances and spirit-raising.

But for scientists of religion, the emphasis on spirit possession in Afro-Brazilian cults is a thing of fascination - it involves wrangling several mental presences together at the same time, in the same place, putting great demands on the part of the brain that infers the mental states of oneself and others. And it seems that women are more highly developed than men at making such inferences.

Bodies, minds and spirits

Spirit possession may seem a remote concept to practitioners in the Judeo-Christian tradition, whose cultural predisposition lies toward polite weekly rituals based on codified texts given the stamp of approval by ordained leaders. Yet, for Dr. Whitehouse and his colleagues, spirit possession is part of the common package of human religious traits that take different forms in different surroundings.

Our ready acceptance of a mind-body dualism proceeds from the same mental starting point, "byproducts of how we make sense of the world," according to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. Our thoughts appear to us to exist separate from our fleshy bits, which fits with a religious world view of souls disconnected from bodies, and the continued existence of loved ones after death. Even otherwise non-religious people, researchers have discovered, are prone to share the belief that something exists beyond the mere body, whether we refer to it as a soul, a spirit or just a vague psychic something.

This doesn't in itself bring God or gods into play. Yet apart from Buddhism in its most strictly defined state, it is rare to come across a religious belief system that does not stress the dominant role of a supernatural power - for most of us, a divine presence is the basic component of religion, hence the word atheist (from the Greek for "without God") for religion-deniers. This is the basic material of most theological study, but for cognitive scientists, the Supreme Being per se isn't much of a player - University of Toronto religion professor Donald Wiebe refers to their approach to belief as "methodologically atheist" and jokes that religion's more empirically focused researchers "don't talk about God, they talk about god-talk."

Instead, much of the cognitive research into the role of God in human life often comes down to what might be called the Big Brother Is Watching You effect - such as the work by University of British Columbia researchers Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff, which has showed how subjects who had been primed by researchers to think of words like God and spirit were more willing to share money with others.

On the face of it, that may not seem to be personally (and therefore evolutionarily) advantageous compared with the laboratory version of the godless secular position, where the reward money is yours and yours alone. But the success of religions in the long run, as Dr. Whitehouse points out, come from their ability to create and maintain coalitions. Call it altruism, call it fear, call it faith - but if your thoughts of God help to enhance your group's long-term survival, you will benefit in the end.

John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

Harvey Whitehouse's Wiegand Lecture, Explaining Religion, takes place at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the University of Toronto's George Ignatieff Theatre.

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