I see in the Economist that the European Union is going to spend two million euro on “the largest-ever scientific study” of the biological causes of religion.

I predict that “Explaining Religion” and all similar projects will make the problem of religion worse, not better. This is because such projects assume what they should be checking. And these assumptions are exactly the same as religious apologists have been pushing on us for ten thousand years.

Am I exaggerating? Here are some quotes from Where do religious thoughts come from?, an official pamphlet describing the project.

Where do religious thoughts come from?

It seems plausible to me that we have religious thoughts because people around us keep using religious words. I don’t see why we would need a more exotic hypothesis. They don’t have to arise from subtle, mysterious, magical, beautiful features of our neuroanatomy or whatever. We have religious thoughts because other people deliberately stuff them into our heads.

Even among professed non-believers, religiously-oriented intuitions and feelings shape our natural responses to people and events.

They do? I would hate that! But which of my intuitions and feelings are “religiously-oriented”? What does that even mean?

Religiosity can confer palpable benefits in terms of mental and physical health, as well as support pro-social behaviour.

Here are some of the broad, unexamined, inexcusable assumptions I’m talking about. None of these effects have been demonstrated. How could they, when the investigators have no idea what “religiosity” is? They think it’s a way of thinking or feeling. This is demonstrably incorrect. A religion is a social arrangement, like a club, a village, or an army. It has almost nothing to do with anyone’s “belief” in any “god”. Religious clubs and villages and armies talk about their “beliefs” and their “gods” a lot, but we have to be careful when we interpret such data. All they indicate is that someone is talking. Obviously, such speech-acts do not constitute evidence of any deity! Less obviously, they also do not demonstrate the existence of any belief. People’s descriptions of their own religion could be mistaken or misleading in an infinity of ways. But as soon as the topic of “religious belief” comes up, scientists, even very bright ones, drop their guard, and are taken in, again.

According to present knowledge, some central aspects of religious thinking and behaviour are recurrent and stable across humankind, while others vary significantly between traditions and cultures–sometimes even running counter to the normal current.

Let me get this straight. All religious people have certain thoughts and behaviours in common, except for the ones who have opposite thoughts and behaviors? This is not “present knowledge,” it is centuries-old hand-waving.

Leading experimental psychologists and biologists have suggested that man’s universal religious consciousness–

His what?

–results from innate characteristics in the evolved cognitive architecture of the brain. In contrast the differences stem from variable priming of the cognitive mechanisms through creative thinking, memory and acquired expertise.

More hand-waving.

Available evidence points to an early emergence of religious thinking and behaviour in childhood…

I wonder how that happens? There is some kind of clue in the word “childhood,” if I could just put my finger on it. Wait–I got it! Their parents teach it to them!

Can I have a share of those two million euro now?

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