Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  3: Science and Religion

Section 3.  History of the Relationship

Over time humans have advanced all sorts of theories concerning religion and religious belief systems.  Rational people and philosophers and scientists in particular wanted to understand how it is that supposedly reasoning beings would come to hold beliefs in what was not apparent to the senses and inconsistent with the dictates of reason.  Religion or religious beliefs and the rituals and customs supported by those beliefs appeared to need some explanation for those who valued reason above faith.  Various theories have been advanced over the last two millennia to account for the origins and forms of religious beliefs. 

Among the approaches taken by the theorists were those in which an explanation was sought for the origin of all religions or for the driving forces of all religions or a common path of development for all religions.  Such approaches have been abandoned today by scientists and for good reason.  Religion is so vast and so varied a field of study that it has proven impossible to determine any single origin or developmental path for all that the term "religion" encompasses.  Although the futility of establishing a single source for religion is well accepted amongst contemporary researchers, scientists and theorists, there has been a considerable array of speculations concerning such over the last 2500 years.  Some of them will be used to illustrate the range of ideas concerning the nature of religion that have been advanced , primarily in the Western World.

I. Classical Antiquity: the Greeks

Plato- Among those who while believing in some ultimate power or deity were nevertheless  critical of the stories told about supernatural powers or beings was Plato.  Clearly Plato equated such mythos with false stories (pseudos). The tales about the gods and the description of the gods was not in accord with what reason could accept .  There were too many impossibilities and inconsistencies and some outright contradictions for philosophers and any rationalists to put any trust into them. 

Aristotle attempted a psychological explanation for their origin.  He speculated that dreams of spirits and of the dead provides the genesis for for a spectrum of belief in non-physical agents.  Such dream experiences coupled with an observation of the harmonies in the natural realm led to a belief in beings who would account for such a natural order in events. Reason would lead to a belief in a creator of first mover but not to the many fascinating and fantastic stories that were at the heart of Greek culture.

Theagenes account of the origin of the stories of Zeus and Apollo , Hermes and Aphrodite and their actions rooted them in allegory.  The observation of the various elements and events in the natural physical realm led to speculation on the relationships amongst such phenomena which found expression in the form of such stories as were the stuff of the Greek religious view of the world. Empedocles would explain the stories about and features of the gods in terms of natural elements.  Herodotus would trace their origins to beliefs of the Egyptians who held a similar set of beliefs and stories of supernatural beings and forces. The Sophists would support outright agnosticism, if not atheism, given the reports of similar belief systems and the implausibility and unverifiable nature of such tales.  Socrates held an idea of the divine that was so elevated and ideal that he could not accept the veracity or accuracy or plausibility of the popular stories and became associated with the Sophists as a non-believer, even accused of being impious and sentenced to death under the cover of such a charge being true and the crime worthy of death.

Critias would hold for human origins for such beliefs.  Humans invented the stories to achieve very practical results; e.g., gods to be feared to keep order among humans.  Epicurus thought of religion as the result of a disease or defect in the soul or mind of humans that out of fear of certain events in nature and fear of the hereafter comes a set of ideas that aim to dispel that fear.

Euhemeras(@300B.C.) in his Hiera Anagraphe would attempt to portray the origins of the stories of the gods in past events in which mortals performed exemplary acts only to have them exaggerated over time and elevated to the ranks of the divine or supernatural.

Thus, from the Greeks there were several basic theories of the origins and nature of religious beliefs which would be reincarnated through the ages:

  1. Allegory- expression of natural events in the form of stories of superhuman beings

  2. Psychological- attempts to allay deep emotional fears or to satisfy desires

  3. Historical- attempts to account for human events and human order

  4. Euhemerism - stories of human deeds expanded upon


II. Christian Apologists

For the Jews and, even more so, the Christians, religious belief systems that were polytheistic were both untrue and threatening.  To account for them and to dismiss them they adopted the rationalistic explanations of the Greeks and expanded upon them.  All other religions were the product of human imagination and the result of ignorance or outright wickedness or evil forces. The theory of Euhemerus proved particularly useful for dismissing the religions of the pagans or non believers in the one God of Abraham.  Polytheistic religions were often seen as degraded borrowings from the religion of the Hebrews.  All of this theorizing was without any evidence to support it but valuable for the defense of the one true faith.  Some of the Christian apologists attempted to develop a theory of the progressive deterioration of the one true faith in the one god into belief in many false deities.

III. The Middle Ages

Church leaders dismissed the non-Christian beliefs as the results of allegorical thought and expression inspired by natural phenomena or exaggerations as Euhemerus would see them.  Non-Christian religions were seen as the result of the fall of humans into sinfulness and into incorrect thinking.  This was likely the result of the work of the evil agent or demon, the devil.

IV. Renaissance

Thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries added little to the theorizing that proceeded them.  The belief systems of the pagans was filled with allegories for the natural order experienced by humans.  Some thought that the myths of the non-Christians were one of the methods through which the one god would communicate certain mysteries.

V. Eighteenth Century

The age of rationalism brought with it a readiness to criticize the traditional church , its practices and its theories and beliefs.  Much religious belief was viewed as vestiges of childhood or non-rational ideas of humankind.  There was a need to separate the genuine truth in which all rational peoples could believe from the corrupt or infantile or non rational.  Voyages of discovery and commerce around the world had brought back t the West information of otter cultures, ancient and rich and with their own religious beliefs and traditions.  Similarities and differences were noted and new theories were advanced to account for the number and variety of such belief systems.  Bernhard Fontenelle advanced the theory that the truth revealed to the Hebrews was either not given by the one god to other peoples or it was allowed to degenerate into false ideas due to a lack of intellect on the part of the pagans.  He thought of such religious beliefs systems as attempts to explain the unknown in terms of the known or at least the better known.  This was a rationalistic mechanism to be found in all peoples.  Charles de Brosses advance the ideas that the original revelation and the one truth had been lost by the pagan peoples.  The non-Judeo-Christian ideas were the product of humankind's effort to overcome fear and ignorance. 

Nicholas Bergier advanced one of the first evolutionary theories.  He saw religion as beginning with the idea of the one god and then a degradation into polytheism and animism and finally arriving at the worship of exemplary humans as gods.

Philosophers began to weigh in with their own theories of the origin of religious beliefs.  David Hume held that all humans as rational beings would have arrived at a belief in a single powerful being through a contemplation of the size and order of the universe. However, originally psychological processes would have produced a polytheism.  Out of experiences which produce fear or hope would come ideas as to the origins of natural phenomena which in the anthropomorphic manner would produce deities as explanatory agents.

Voltaire would offer his critical accounts of religion in which he would often find the origins of false beliefs in the attempts of the priestly caste to maintain their authority and social prestige.  Giambattista Vico would postulate a common nature for all humans and then proceed to offer a theory for the origin and forms of religious beliefs.  in human imagination he finds the driving force for both the creation of mythological imagery and religion.  Humans carry an intuitive knowledge of god which fear and alternative histories lead to different expressions.

VI. Romanticism

Philosophical Theories

The wealth of information concerning other cultures continued to expand and provide material for further theorizing concerning the origins and nature of religions.  Johann Herder provided a particularly suggestive theory that the myths of the early pagans was a form of language with which they could think of their experiences of natural phenomena.  For him religion was the awareness of god's provision of the natural order.   Immanuel Kant located religion in emotion and held that it was the result of a practical reasoning.  Religion rested upon ethics or the need for such.   For Kant religion and faith were separated from the realm of reason.  Other thinkers attempted to resolve that divide.  Friedrich Schelling saw religion and myths as based on some reality and it was for reason to discover the order and reason within the apparently incoherent and inconsistent stories.  


Friedrich Creuzer offered a well developed theory of symbolism.  He saw the myths and religious belief systems as revealing that which otherwise would be nearly impossible to express.  At the same time a symbol, as a symbol, conceals some of that which it is formed or used to convey.  For Creuzer it was the gods who revealed themselves in symbols.  Christian Heyne thought of the myths which were available for study as not being in the original form.  That being the case, no strong conclusions could be drawn from them.  He regarded them as expositions on the nature of the cosmos.  

VII. Historical School

Gottfried Hermann saw myths as figurative expressions of ideas that have been formed or reformulated by members of the priestly caste.  Carl Muller disagreed and thought of myths as being the product of an entire people or culture  For Muller they contained a certain expression of a reality.  Historical analysis of the tradition in which myths are situated might enable the researcher to fathom their meaning .  Even though the myths were not in their original form, still, if the thinker can approach with patience and openness the meaning of the myth might be discernable.  Myth, as with art and music, are constituents of an autonomous realm in the human spirit.  For Muller myth might be a form of remembrance or a history or chronicle.  It was also a form of very primitive science as offering explanatory theories for natural phenomena.

VIII. Nineteenth Century

Most theories that emerged in the nineteenth century are marked by positivism, historicism or evolutionism.  August Comte would treat religion as a primitive form of experience.  humans are evolving through stages: from the theological through the metaphysical and then finally to arrive at the  positivistic.  Religion is to be replace with science and its materialistic worldview and empirical means for verification of hypotheses.

Herbert Spencer also held for an evolution of thought and of religions.  This approach assumes that religion is a phase and an early and primitive phase and not a basic structure or mode of experience.

IX. History of Religions 

With the start of the nineteenth century there came an even greater amount of information concerning other cultures and religions.  There were more of the sacred texts of the religions of the east to examine.  The Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered and therefore access to ancient Egyptian beliefs was also available.  Excavations in India, Crete, Egypt, Persia and elsewhere kept producing more evidence of ancient beliefs and practices.  

Theories were produced that offered evolutionary schemas for religious beliefs in which the outcome of the process was Christianity.  Christian missionaries who gathered the data would ask questions with the bias of their theories imbedded in the answer and then in the analysis of the results of the questioning.

READ: Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Anthropology of Religion.  William H. Swatos Jr.

Max Muller offered the idea that religion existed in the polytheistic form and that the names of the deities was symptom of a sort of "disease of language". 

E.B. Tylor thought religion arises out of animism. Humans sleep and get sick and die.  They dream and they hallucinate.  In those dreams they encounter the dead.  This gives rise to a belief in spirits who survive the death of the body and then to belief in superior and powerful spirits, gods.

Herbert Spencer thought religion arose out of a form of ancestor worship.

READ: Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Anthropology of Religion.  William H. Swatos Jr.

X. Psychological Explanations

READ about the Psychology of Religion:: Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Anthropology of Religion.  William H. Swatos Jr.

Sigmund Freud would offer theories in which religion is presented as a form of neurosis and an essential distortion of reality.  he thought of it as based on illusions that would eventually be dispelled by scientific inquiry and a rationalistic view.  Religion would arise out of a need to have restrictions on basic physical drives .  While the hunter-gatherer males were away from the tribe and the women and children, there was a need to restrict access to the women from the older teenage males.  The idea of an all powerful father who was always watching and who would punish the offenders would work in lieu of the physical presence of a powerful male to watch over the tribe.  Religion sustains these restrictions with more elaborate sets of ideas that are all focused on the repression of natural desires and drives.  Religion provides support for the formation and functioning of the moral sphere or aspect of human nature.

READ about Freud's Theory:

Carl Jung held that religion is born out of the collective unconsciousness in which all humans participate and experience.  The images and archetypes are primal images that lie deep within human unconsciousness.  The participation in that collective assists the human in maintaining mental balance or health.

Adolf Bastian held that religion was an expression of the collective psychology of a people (culture).  For J. H. Leuba religion has a biological value and assists in the survival of the species that needs ideas of its value and place in the cosmos.

XI. Phenomenological Theories

Rudolf Otto offered an account of religious experiences in which it is rested upon an encounter with the "wholly other" (ganz andere) in a manner that generates a tremendous fear and fascination (tremendum et fascinans).  These experiences are unique (sui generis) and universal. They are therefore irreducible to any other and can not be accounted for in terms of any other factors or processes.

READ about Otto's work:

The American, William James, adopted a pragmatic view.  He regarded religion as arising out of experiences deep within the unconsciousness of humans and which functioned in discernible  ways which made them part of the real world.  He studied mystical experiences and conversion experiences.  He thought or religion as something worthy of being accepted and practiced for the consequences it would produce in the lives of believers.

READ about William James:


XII. Sociological Theories

READ about Sociology of Religion:

Emil Durkheim held the origin of religions was in the group, the society.  Religion finds its earliest and most basic form of representation in the symbol of the totem.  this symbol , often in the form of a deity, would represent the tribe or people as a whole.  Religions and religious belief systems function to offer members of a group a means by which they can identify with one another and be able to live organized lives with one another as members of the same group. A humans come to identify with the entire species and the group becomes humankind itself, religion would be transformed into a more rational and scientific approach toward answering questions and organizing common life.

READ about Durkheim:

Claude Levy-Bruhl thought of religion as a form of primitive science.  Humans would progress from the mystical and pre-logical form of experience and explanation to the scientific .

READ about Levy Bruhl:

Ernst Cassirer would view myths and religion as a form of creating coherence and a manner of expressing the human experience of the  world in symbols.

W. Schmidt and Theory of Culture Circles religion is seen as part and parcel to the culture in which it is set.  Religion relates to a specific social structure in which it is experienced.

READ: Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Anthropology of Religion.  William H. Swatos Jr.


XIII. The Science of Religion

1870 Max Muller gave a lecture titled, "Science of Religion".   It was expanded into Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873).  He presented an historical overview of the study of religion in an effort to make the study more scientific.  in his presentation he thought it would be possible to explore religious phenomena in a truly scientific manner with a careful examination of hypotheses and a verification or falsification of them based upon evidence available.  he realized that Greeks attempted to offer theories and after them the Christians saw other religions as "wrong" and not worthy of serious study.  The evidence was that through the centuries evidence had accrued that other civilizations who were quite advanced and refined sustained themselves without the Judeo-Christian belief system and values.  Furthermore, there was painfully obvious evidence that Christians fought one another unto death in religious and civil wars.  The " truth"  of religion must lie beyond quarrels and the uniqueness of the West.

In the eighteenth century a belief developed that there could be a single , basic and original religion that all humans could arrive at through he use of reason and embrace together.  It would be arrived at by natural means and would make no reference to or have any reliance upon any supernatural revelation.  This would come to be known as Deism and it was thought to be the natural religion for all humankind. It would have a belief in a single deity and would recover the original form, the  ORIGINAL FAITH.  It was hoped that with it all humans could live by it in peace and harmony. 

Max Muller, as with the deists, believed that a scientific study of religion could be developed through which it would be possible to:

    1. explain ALL of Religion
    2. explain all through an investigation of RELIGION that is an historical study
    3. it was believed that it would be possible to discover the earliest religious ideas and practices and then trace their development to the present day forms

It was further thought that such a study would uncover or find scientific "laws" that would account for the development of differences and different forms over time.

READ about Max Muller:

E.B. Tylor shared Muller's hope for a science of religion but differed over the possible outcome of such a study.  He thought science would support an  agnostic religious skepticism. Science set against Religion.  He sought :

1. Theory of religion out of objective facts and with evidentiary support as the final test of truth.

2. Theory that was both comprehensive and general to account for all religions.

Such theories whether supported by evidence or not and whether they are eventually accepted or rejected can function within the community of inquirers to stimulate new inquiries, reformulate problems, and promote a new understanding of religious phenomena.

READ about E.B. Tylor:

With this scientific charter inquirers advanced several different ideas about the original forms of religion. Among them were:

 THEORY OF ORIGINS: basic categories

  1. Pre-historical
  2. Psychological
  3. Social
  4. Intellectual
  5. Historical

Eventually it was realized that there were severe problems for the development of any scientific theory of the origins of such phenomena:

A. The Evidence:

It is not possible to have scientific knowledge of earliest facts.  The original forms of religious life are unknowable, unreachable and beyond the physical evidence.

Most theories attempted to reduce all religion to one or more physical factors:(a) functional psychological, the obsessional neurosis (sub conscious), (b) social- group (totem) unites in own terms, (c) perpetuating economic injustice-class struggle.

There were only a few theorists who were not reductionist.  One who was anti-reductionist was Mircea Eliade for whom religion is an archaic mode of thought that functions to satisfy the need for order and significance and is in some ways superior to scientific or rational thought.

READ about Eliade:



There were theories that attempted to address RELIGION as a WHOLE.  This would prove impossible to support with the data: the range of religious phenomena is too varied.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard and Clifford Geertz would come to set the focus of science of religion on the particular, as religion is always embedded within a culture

READ about Evans-Pritchard:


Tylor, Frazer, and Eliade examine the widest range of religion, however there is 

1. Dependence on second order information

2. Facts taken out of natural context in cultures that generate them

Too many theorists attempted to offer general theories to cover all religious traditions but were based on evidence from only Western religions as with Freud and Marx.  For Freud he must show how all religions arise out of Oedipal complex or class struggle.  It can not be assumed at the outset.  Freudian theory of religion posits the male Father Deity.  There are however religions with female deities and religions without a deity.  Freudian theory could not possibly account for such variations.

Since the evidence won't allow for scientifically generalized claims the more appropriate approach is set against the whole idea of a general theory as applied to something so culturally bound that the scientists can not develop a single comprehensive theory.

In the examination of religious phenomena from a scientific point of view there is only an appeal to or use of "natural causes".  Individual theorists however had their own overall position on religion that they wanted there scientific findings to support.

Tylor & Frazer were anti-religious rationalists for whom religion was suitable to people in relative ignorance but unacceptable in an age of reason and science.

Freud rejected religion as a relic of an age of ignorance and psychological infancy.

Durkheim rejected religion as evil and unhealthy or social development

Marx rejected religion as evil-opiate of the people.

READ About the theory of Karl Marx:

Eliade was sympathetic to religion as was Evans-Pritchard while Geertz was an agnostic who nonetheless opposed reductionism because such efforts do not adequately explain religious phenomena.


- - - - -William Hodgetts (2002)

 Durkheim considered by many to be the “father of sociology”, saw religion as a social fact.  Social facts are “[…] methods of acting, thinking and feeling external to the person which also have coercive properties by which they control the individual’.  Because he traveled to Australia to study Aboriginal religion, he came to the conclusion that religion was the social fact of a primitive culture, and had no place in a healthy, socially developed society.  Many of his conclusions were colored by his preconceived ideas concerning religion and society.  The scientific method was not able to go beyond what he observed, nor did it protect him from injecting his own biases into his findings.  In addition, his attempt to reduce all religious thought and practice to his findings in Australia among one type of people, who practice one type of religion, fails to take into account many other belief systems, which differed significantly from what he observed (Durkheim and Religion). 

- - - - -Vijaii Ramadin (2002)

Durkheim,  a knowledgeable sociologist, used the scientific method to study religion. During his study of religion he engineered a theory that stated that religion was a sociological tool used to give people a sense of belonging. Durkheim continued to cite that this sense of belonging it gave people was false and went on to disclaim religion by saying that it hindered social development and was “evil.” While utilizing the scientific approach enabled Durkheim with the understanding that religion gave people a sense of belonging, that was true, it also gave him a very one-sided view of religion. He set out to prove one hypothesis and proved it and that was it, he failed to try and look at any surrounding evidence that might disprove or even advance his theory. The scientific method didn’t encompass any religious phenomena; it was only concerned with the physical. In turn it led Durkheim to conclude that religion retarded social development.


-----  Tara Kiprik (2002)

Marx dislikes religions for three main reasons.  One, reason is that he believes religion makes people act like slaves and enables them to accept their status quo.  Two, it is a delusion and a worship of manifestations that avoid distinguishing underlying realities.  “Third, he sees religion as fundamentally hypocritical.  Although it might profess valuable principles, it ends up siding with the economic oppressors.  Jesus preached helping the poor, but the Christian Church merged with the oppressive Roman state, taking part in the literal enslavement of people for centuries.  In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church preached about heaven and spirit, but strove to acquire as much property and earthly power as possible” (

Marx believes that religion is also meant to create fantasies for the poor.  It allows them to think that it is okay that they are poor now, because they will find true happiness in the next life.  But he does agree that there are people in distress and sometimes religion comforts them.  He refers to this as the pain reliving effects of the drug opium; it does not fix the pain, it masks it and helps them forget their suffering.  Furthermore, the same oppressors that are administering this drug of a religion are the ones causing the pain. 

A problem with Marx’s theory is that he doesn’t spend much time looking at the various religions of the world; he examines the religion that he is most familiar with, which is Christianity.  A second problem is with his judgment that religion is completely determined by substance and economic realities.  “Not only is nothing else fundamental enough to influence religion, but influence can also not run in the other direction, from religion to material and economic realities” ( 



Although the comprehensive , general theories were flawed , nonetheless, they offered some new insights into how some religious phenomena arose or functioned.  Freud offered a partial insight.  Marx offered a partial insight. Durkheim offered a partial insight re: religion and social element. Eliade offered a partial insight concerning religion as a form of thought and defense of religion as archaic thought.

Can any general theory of religion continue to claim scientific attention? All comprehensive or universal theories of religion tend to be fatally flawed.  They are superficial, speculative, and beyond the ability of science to prove.  They are also vague, arbitrary, and  subjective. 

For an interesting view of the theories of Marx, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Tillich and de Chardin

see God and Science by Charles P. Henderson

The scientific approach to religion was of its nature confined to the empirical method of observation and confirmation of hypotheses.  The scientific method appeared to rule out, by its very nature , any acceptance of what would be beyond the natural, the supernatural.  Such aspects of religious phenomena that relate to origins in or experiences of a realm beyond or not of the physical universe would be either ruled out as not existent, unreal, fantasy, infantile imaginings or the like.  Open minded scientists would be distinguished from those who ruled out any possibility of a supernatural reality from the start in this way that they would reach the same conclusions at the end of their investigation rather than at the start.

Scientific method is further limited in the study of religion.  Religious phenomena are vast and deep.  To study such requires a great deal of attention and from various perspectives and without prejudice.  Over the last century there were scientists who attempted to capture the nature of religion from single perspective and they thought that they had succeeded.  The sociologist would examine the social aspects of religion and offer a social theory of its origin and functioning.  Likewise the psychologist and the historian and the ethnographer. Religion has proven to be to rich and complex to be explained or understood in terms of any single factor or perspective or approach.

By the end of the twentieth century scientists no longer attempted single explanations of religious phenomena and no longer attempted to offer general comprehensive theories.  Neither would they see their science and its methodology as a tool or weapon to destroy religion or at least to disprove religious claims about the origins of the universe or deities.

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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