An Oxford University centre is from the middle of 2008 to award its first grants to international research bodies that will participate in a 1.9 million British pound (US$4 million) programme examining how people come to believe in God or gods.
The Cognition, Religion and Theology project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation established by the 95-year-old US-born billionaire who it is named after, is being carried out at the university’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind and the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion.
The results of their inter-disciplinary study examining religious belief from the standpoint of science will be published in 2010. It is hoped it will yield new evidence regarding how the structures of human minds inform and constrain religious expression, ideas about gods and spirits, the afterlife, spirit possession and prayer.
Justin Barrett, a Christian who is an experimental psychologist and who is leading the project together with Professor Roger Twigg, told Ecumenical News International it was expected to make awards totalling 800 000 pounds to up to 40 international researchers working in the field.
"We will be looking at the theological and philosophical implications of what is already known and whether this undermines theistic belief, and secondly for empirical evidence for claims that have already been made in cognitive science," said Barrett. "There is a danger that the evidence can be overstated and that the theories overtake the evidence."
While the structure of the human brain itself would be a subject for examination, he said he was personally sceptical of theories that suggested a genetic predisposition for some people to believe.
"There may be a genetic story about why we have the cognitive structure we have, but religious belief seems to be so well integrated into everyday behaviour as to be the natural default position for humans," noted Barrett. "It does not look like a tack on, or the privilege of the few."
Even if there were a complete scientific explanation for belief – which he did not believe himself – that would not in itself undermine belief.
The project includes workshops, a one-year training course in hypothesis testing and the setting up of Web-based resources for scholars working in the field.
Barrett envisages the results to be announced at a final conference in 2010, and said they could be useful in planning religious observances and in the religious education of children through a better understanding of how they acquire concepts of God.
Ecumenical News International
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