01/25/2013 11:40 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Has Science Explained Religion?

By contributing writer Catherine Hochman. Originally published in KidSpirit's Science and Spirit issue.

Maybe religion is the result of our neurons firing chemical signals at one another. Maybe it is a mistake caused by natural selection. Or maybe it is the by-product of society's effort to impose authority. On the other hand, maybe not. Has science explained religion after all?

The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, began in the mid-1600s in Europe. People began to question old institutions and traditions and base their knowledge of the world on reason. Prior to the Enlightenment, religion did not seem to need explanation. Rather, people generally looked to religion to understand the universe around them and their place in it. Beginning with the Enlightenment, however, people started to explain the universe from secular points of view. As the scientific worldview gained popularity, scientists started to look at the phenomenon of religion itself differently. The following modern Western thinkers have approached the existence of religion from a variety of scientific perspectives.

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) looked at religion from a sociological standpoint, i.e., through the interactions of social groups. Durkheim believed religion was essential for all societies because it provided authority, meaning for life, and most importantly, reinforced society's morals. He argued that religion was a crucial part of society because it supplied control, communication, and means for a community's gatherings.

Durkheim thought that religion was not a result of the divine or supernatural, but instead was a by-product of society. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which he published in 1912, closes with this: "The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before him is that religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities."

Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins (born 1941) is a biologist who, in his book The God Delusion (2006), tries to explain religion in terms of Darwin's theory of evolution. He concludes that religion was a mistake caused by natural selection.

Genetic drift, unlike natural selection, is a term used by biologists when a gene spreads through a population purely because it is lucky, rather than adaptive. On the other hand, neutral theory states that if a gene mutates or changes into another gene meant to perform the same function, natural selection cannot favor either one, and therefore they both will survive.

Dawkins first coined the term "memes." Memes are similar to genes, in that they both copy themselves, but memes replicate aspects of culture, not biology. He calls a memeplex a set of memes that survive better in a group.

An example of the cultural equivalent of genetic drift is with languages. In Europe, Latin changed to become Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French. Richard Dawkins believes that like languages, specific attributes of religion evolved through genetic drift.

Thus, while Dawkins believes in an evolutionary explanation for the existence of religion, he does not think that religion is the straightforward product of natural selection. Rather, he views religion as a kind of evolutionary mistake.

Matthew Alper
Matthew Alper explains religion as being neurological. In his book The God Part of the Brain (1996), he shows how genes influence our religious experiences. He also gives accounts of many scientific studies which suggest that activities such as meditation, yoga, or prayer evoke sensations, which, although perceived as evidence of the divine or sacred, are actually the ways in which our brain interprets neurochemical processes.

Based on a series of studies of twins, Alper shows the influence that genes have on religious behavior. For example, in one study at the Virginia Commonwealth University involving 30,000 sets of twins, researchers concluded, "Although the transmission of religiousness has been assumed to be purely cultural, genetic behavior studies have demonstrated that genetic factors play a role in the individual differences in some religious traits."

Alper suggests that there is a bell curve where the majority of people are spiritual/religious. On one of the tapering edges of the curve, there are people who are extremely religious, many of whom are martyrs, spiritual leaders, or prophets. The other extreme has people who are "spiritually/religiously deficient, those born with an unusually underdeveloped spiritual/religious function."

Alper views the explanation of religion's existence as being neurological. Therefore, he believes that there is a relationship between the human brain and religious/spiritual experiences.

Durkheim, Dawkins, and Alper all have different scientific explanations for the existence of religion. Although they all claim to be scientific, Alper is the only person who provides experimental studies confirming his belief that religious experiences are somehow related to the brain. However, while he has several studies to support his theory in The God Part of the Brain, he does not provide many details on how the studies were executed. In addition, these studies only seem to explain certain religious feelings or predispositions rather than the vast breadth of religion in general.

Despite Dawkin's enthusiasm for natural selection, he eventually concludes that it does not explain religion. After creating numerous terms to illustrate different exceptions to natural selection, he concludes religion was actually a mistake caused by it. Dawkins is forced to attribute the existence of religion to an exception of evolutionary theory -- causing one to wonder whether Dawkins isn't adapting his theory to fit the conclusion that he selected.

While Durkheim's explanations of religion claim to be scientific, because they are theories based on theoretical observation rather than experimental data, his theories can be questioned in much the same way religious beliefs can be.

Although Durkheim, Dawkins, and Alper's explanations are all incomplete, together, they only cover three perspectives of approaching religion in its entirety. Finally, I ask: Will, or can, science ever explain religion?

Alper, Matthew. The God Part of the Brain. New York: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2006.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Bantam Press, 2006.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press, (1912) 1967.
Preus, J. Samuel. Explaining Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

When Catherine wrote this she was 14 years old.