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How can modern science help explain religion?

Nicholas Aditya Dharmadi
Nicholas Aditya Dharmadi

Loves everything film, literature and sometimes philosophy

Jakarta  /  Wed, February 27, 2019  /  03:37 pm
How can modern science help explain religion?

A Gallup poll conducted in 2018 in the US found that 76 percent of people think religion is losing its influence in American life. (Shutterstock/File)

As a student, a social issue I have always been interested in was the changing attitudes toward religion among our developing youth. Not to say there is a lack of faith among students, but what I have noticed is how the divisive issue of religion has generated two broad perspectives: the traditional fundamentalist view of religion and the increasingly popular view that religion may be outdated given the advancements of science.

With the scientific revolution and the breakneck pace at which we achieve new discoveries, many of us may have a crisis of faith, an inability to reconcile the more ancient aspects of religion with the discoveries of modern science.

In the West, where many local students are planning to continue their education, the culture seems to veer more toward the view that religious belief is outdated. A 2016 British Social Attitudes survey found that in the United Kingdom, 71 percent of people aged 18 to 24 said they did not belong to any religion. Additionally, a Gallup poll conducted in 2018 in the United States found that 76 percent of people think religion is losing its influence in American life. The same poll found that 28 percent of people never go to places of worship (churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.) and 38 percent consider religion largely out of date. Finally, the number of US college students with no religious affiliation has tripled in the last 30 years, from 10 percent in 1986 to 31 percent in 2016.

This is not to say that becoming less religious is inherently bad, but I do consider it a concern for many students in Indonesia and neighboring countries who plan to study in the West, as the gap between religious and non-religious people continues to grow.

How can modern people reconcile the findings of science and the claims of religion?

It was a problem I had always thought about but never knew the answer to until I listened to Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto in Canada. A New York Times best-selling author, Peterson’s recorded lectures on the Bible have garnered millions of views on YouTube. His psychological take on the nature of religion is what I consider to be the perspective that can reconcile atheists and religious people.

His perspective challenges the traditional viewpoint of God. This is certainly not meant to offend, but rather to find a middle ground that is suitable for the modern era. However, before discussing the merits of his ideas, there are certain facts that must be established before we can proceed.

First, in order to maturely discuss an issue such as religion it is essential to make compromises on both sides of the argument. Primarily, we as a society should begin to accept the facts of evolutionary theory, as evolutionary psychology is essential to understanding the development of religion. Additionally, we should acknowledge that religious stories can possess immeasurable motive power and yet the fact that they were written by human hands should not be ignored.

With this in mind, how can this new perspective help us understand religion?

Peterson has often garnered criticism over this subject, as his lectures are not often transparent regarding his views on the legitimacy of religious stories or the definition of God. Despite that over time he has come to succinctly define God, such a statement needs further clarification.

Read also: Indonesian youths say religion key to happiness, bucking global trend

As a psychologist whose academic papers have garnered more than 10,000 citations, he comes from a background steeped in scientific literature, using evolutionary psychology and analysis of religious texts to make his claims. Therefore, in order to help us understand religion, Peterson traces its origins to ancient times, to our first evolutionary ancestors.

Religion is the collective effort of thousands of years of human trial and error to discover which values are shared amongst those at the tops of dominance hierarchies. Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans have identified the values that allow individuals to ascend the most dominance hierarchies. This is what makes the values transcendent, as they are not only valuable in each individual dominance hierarchy, but they are the commonalities among all successful people.

These moral values obviously do not promise immediate success but they would improve your chances in any discipline. No matter how bad you are at sports, working hard would be better than being lazy. No matter how shy you are, trying to be brave would at least show you what you are doing wrong.

From here, we can move a step farther to say that the traits originally used to attract mates are now beneficial for the community as a whole.

To illustrate Peterson’s point that these morals are fundamental because they are rooted in biology, we can look back at the challenges of child bearing. It is clear that a factor females select for in mates is commitment to help raise the child and support the family. Otherwise, the burdens of child care may overcome the mother, leading to the death of the child, which results in neither parents’ genes being passed on. Other fundamental values that form the basis of religion include honesty, compassion and the ability to make sacrifices.

Since these values can potentially be used to get good at anything, it is extremely important to teach them, so that civilization gets more advanced. Thus the motivation moves away from the purely biological desire to reproduce, even if that was its origin. The new motivation to spread religion becomes: “How do I spread and convince people of the values that ensure the survival of the civilization in the present and in the future?”

To communicate such huge ideas, ancient people wrote them down in the form of stories. These ancient authors were all too aware of human imperfection, so they wrote stories that allowed people to learn how to balance these traits on their own. This is why religion is so detailed when telling its stories. They demonstrate a different way to balance the skills necessary to succeed, so that people can get the main moral of the story and learn to apply it to their own lives.

However, as civilization develops and cities get bigger and populations increase, these religious values become more unclear. Not only is it harder to teach people to follow them, since there are more people, but as more tribes mingle to form a society, each tribe’s interpretation of the best religious values competes to see which is most accurate.

So how did ancient people resolve this problem?

These differences were worked out through centuries of battle, tribal conflict and religious wars. Before the beginning of recorded history, millions of tribal conflicts arose simply because multiple tribes of humans could not agree on how to make peace. From the earliest civilizations arising in Mesopotamia it is obvious when one society conquers another and thus establishes the superiority of their religion. In other cases, different communities slowly assimilate each other and learn to embrace each others’ religion. Eventually they merge into a single belief system. This process of cultural and religious evolution is what has shaped our religions as we know them today and it is a testament to their profound wisdom that they have survived for thousands of years.

This is where fundamentalists may argue that religious stories need to be interpreted as literal history to preserve their sanctity. They should take solace in the fact that civilization’s oldest, most meaningful and most memorable stories are not literal. Think about what’s more memorable: a good book or a scientific study. Both are extremely valuable, just each in their own way. The value of stories or literature, as an art form, is that they can act as a vehicle for a moral message because they describe something the audience understands and more importantly they demonstrate how the audience can embody these values.

Many critics of religion claim that scientists attempting serious analysis of religion may be reading too much into the stories and interpreting their own meaning. However, this is what makes religious stories memorable for generations. They present examples of people struggling with life in the same way the readers do and offer solutions to life’s problems so people might not have to suffer to reach the same moral conclusions as the characters in the stories. The fact that they did not happen does not make them any less valuable. In fact, they may be even more valuable than historic fact because they identify the common values of successful people throughout history, rather than only focusing on individuals.

This is what I and many others find profound about this perspective on religion. Peterson has managed to use science to not only explain, but justify, the origins of religion, paving the way for the reconciliation of the two and how we might balance them in modern society. The implications and impact of this analysis on other aspects of religion, such as the concept of God, would have to be discussed another time, but for now I hope this line of thinking becomes more widely accepted, as it may hold the key to resolving one of the most divisive conflicts in modern times. (kes)


Nicholas Aditya Dharmadi is a 17-year-old who loves everything about film, literature and sometimes philosophy. He is an aspiring writer, actively learning and teaching creative writing, hoping to develop his own talent and that of the students in his school.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.