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The science of religion

By John Warren - posted Thursday, 17 March 2005

In 1946 Maurice Cornforth wrote:

The rapid and brilliant development of modern natural science seems definitely to confirm and justify the materialist view of the world. The natural explanation of all things, which such ancient thinkers as Thales or Democritus or Epicurus could establish only speculatively and in very general outline, is being established scientifically and in ever growing detail and comprehensiveness by the advance of natural science during the past 300 years.

Continued investigations in almost six decades since those words were written have continued to confirm Cornforth's statement. Every phenomenon and every thing in this world of ours is the result of the enormously complex interaction of physical, understandable, entities.


That includes religion and all other aspects of human behaviour.

There have been attempts, including that by the late Stephen J. Gould, a founding Skeptic, to keep religion and science apart and he, in particular, regarded them as belonging to two separate non-overlapping magisteria to which he gave the acronym Noma. That approach was no more than an attempt to isolate and protect religious belief from the ever-expanding revelation of the workings of the real world which is gained by scientific investigation.

The science of neurophysiology has provided a much clearer understanding of the link between the world around us and the world of comprehension inside us than was available to Cornforth's great thinkers of the past.

Our connection to the outside world can now be seen as the result of the ebb and flow of chemicals and electricity in the body's nerve system and, in particular, in the multitudinous interconnections between the cells of the brain. The light, heat, sound waves and touch of our environs provide the stimuli to generate a picture of the external world in our mind and all our interactions with the external world are determined by our responses to that image. Fortunately for us the image is usually correct. If I see a chair and sit down in it and it keeps me off the floor then it is truly there. In that way I repeatedly confirm the correctness of my image as I go about interacting with the other objects of my world.

Unfortunately the formation of the image can also go wrong. The chemicals of drugs upset it; physical damage to the brain upsets it and sometimes something innate in the mechanism of the brain distorts it.

There are vast numbers of reports in the literature of psychology, sociology and neurology of what the mind "sees" or "hears" when the image does not correspond to external reality. All the apparitions and voices which are the stock-in-trade of the religious visionaries have been more or less duplicated in other people as a result of brain disturbances arising from natural causes. How can one assess whether the image is a true representation of the external world? Again, as with the chair, only by attempting to manipulate or use the external world as pictured by the image.


Images are held or being generated in the brain all the time. When we are asleep we have dreams ranging from the ephemeral to the "lucid" dreams of such intensity that it takes some time after waking to recognise that the experienced image was in fact a dream. Even awake some people apparently experience startling images in their minds. Some believe that they have actually met aliens; been operated on by them; have been taken into their spaceships.

The images some people have had of being contacted by aliens are accepted as no more than brain disturbances because there is never any acceptable physical evidence and the idea is quite inconsistent with all we have otherwise confirmed about the speed of light and the distance to the nearest star system. Indeed, if the image of alien contact in one person's brain were to be accepted widely as evidence of the real presence of aliens there would be widespread panic and the mobilisation of massive defence forces. That reaction doesn't happen, the report is ignored, it is imaginary.

Why then do other reports of startling visions gain acceptance? They have no more physical evidence of their reality than that of the aliens.

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First published in The Skeptic, Vol.24, No.4, Summer 2005

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About the Author

John Warren has retired from work in soil conservation, agriculture and horticulture.

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