R. Joseph Hoffmann – The Scientific Study of Religion

December 29, 2006

Joe Hoffmann, formally at Oxford, is director of Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER). He has appeared widely in the media and at venues across the United States speaking on Christian origins, the historical Jesus, the proper role of religion in society, and similar topics. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Dr. Hoffmann explores the implications of science for religion, and how to study religion in a scientific way, including from scientific perspectives such as cognitive neuroscience, textual criticism and philology, and through the application of the historical sciences. He also examines bias in the study of religion, from various quarters in the academy, and how the scientific approach to religious studies can help avoid such pitfalls.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 29, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe the point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., and now Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In addition to 14 other cities around the world, every week on this show, we look at some of the big questions from the stance of the scientific outlook or the naturalistic world view. We focused mostly on three research areas pseudoscience and the paranormal, alternative medicine and secularism and religion. Before we get to this week’s guests, Dr. Joseph Hoffman, about the scientific study of religion. I want to invite you to get involved with online discussions about the topics that we cover on point of inquiry. You can do so at W W W Dot, CFI, dash forums, dot org. And now a word from our sponsor before we get to Dr. Hoffman. 

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I’m happy to be joined on this week’s point of inquiry, the last of 2006 by Professor Joe Hoffman, formerly at Oxford. He’s director of Caesar, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. He’s appeared widely in the media and at venues across the United States speaking on Christian origins, the historical Jesus, the role of religion in society and the role he thinks religion should have in our society and similar topics. He joins me on point of inquiry today to talk about science and religion, specifically how to study religion in a scientific way. Joe, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks, T.J.. It’s lovely to be back with you again on this podcast, which goes from strength to strength. I know your listeners know this already, but this is probably the most successful podcast of its kind presently being broadcast in the United States. It’s a real pleasure to be with you again. 

Well, thanks for saying that. You said that just like we rehearsed beforehand. Just joking. Let’s get the ball rolling by talking a little about your background. You’re an expert on the historical Jesus. 

My field of study is really the historical and a social background of early Christianity. Christian Orridge, Christian origins. It used to be called and even before that, it used to be called primitive Christianity. Some like that. Turbit It sounds a bit biased these days. We don’t use the phrase anymore. But yes, I mean, a part of that is looking at founders, the founder that Christians called Jesus of Nazareth in particular. As you may know, I have some doubts of my own about the historicity of this guy called Jesus of Nazareth, which I probably won’t share with you or bore you with today. But insofar as anybody can be called an expert on a pretty slippery figure, yeah, I suppose I will embrace that designation. 

Joe, you just mentioned that that skepticism. You’re a secular person, a skeptic about most religious claims, even the central claim of Christianity, Jesus’s existence. How do you go about studying religion as a skeptic if you’re not studying it from a believer standpoint? How do you study it and do it real as opposed to this knee-Jerk dismissiveness from a skeptic standpoint? 

Well, that’s right. I mean, a lot of skeptics have been burned by religion. I think we’ve all had bad encounters with religion, even if it hasn’t been sort of a direct encounter or an abusive encounter with religion. 

But in many ways, people who are skeptics or have reason to be a skeptic, not always more philosophical or methodological standpoint. I happen to believe that all people who study religion ought to study it skeptically, because I think that’s the way we study any subject matter, even if they’re a believer. Well, I mean, we’ve had plenty of theologians in the 20th century who are working out of the spirit of the Enlightenment that runs through the whole 19th century as well. Who felt that one of the best things that theologian could be is skeptical that that doubt as a kind of prelude to any kind of meaningful faith? 

All right. I guess the line is duby teau air go credo doubt in order to believe that it’s a good foundation, even for a belief. 

It goes all the way back to Augustine, where he talks about faith seeking understanding. Now, that gets flipflopped in the Enlightenment so that you need a certain amount of rational discourse and skepticism before you can even begin to talk about faith. And then faith itself becomes a kind of option in 20th century theology among some of the great scholars like Rudolf Bultman, for example, or Ebeling. And we go on and on about that, the Niebuhr’s who are not biblical scholars, but theologians nonetheless. So I think skepticism and doubt have had extremely important roles to play in 20th century theology. Now, the question is, how is that going to be continued in the 21st century as we look at two very, very different but related phenomena? One of them is something that we generally talk about is fundamentalism, which is a kind of misnomer. But nonetheless, it’s useful for purposes of discussion to talk about fundamentalism as a kind of non-critical or non contextual approach to the Bible, as a self authenticating text. That is to say, what is written is written. It only takes common sense or a basic knowledge of people, history and events to interpret the Bible correctly. 

You don’t need any special skills, goes this line of reasoning. You don’t need any scientific training or philosophical training that. 

That’s right. You don’t need a lot of education. You don’t need a lot of background. And particularly you don’t need a lot of context. For example, a fundamentalist might look at something similar to us as the story of creation in the Book of Genesis and say, well, I mean, it either happened that way or it didn’t happen that way. It’s really that simple. It’s it’s an either or situation. The fundamentalists will decide to go with the tax, not because the text is crystal clear to him or her, but because of a prior doctrine or an assumption that underlies all interpretation of biblical text, which is the text is inspired. So you add that that’s called a super additive. This this is the. Belief that since the text itself is inspired and not just inspired, but authorized by the highest authority, one can imagine God himself. You don’t need to probe too deeply. It’s there for you to see. And the doctrine that fundamentalists used to call a particular revelation, that is to say that God has revealed himself, his will and purposes to particular people in the course of history. What some people just called revelation is a self authenticating process. So here is the book. This is Revelation. This is the kind of incarnation of what God wants you to know about himself and what he’s made and what he wants for you in your life, the rules you should follow. That’s really what fundamentalism is. 

So that’s one side of the coin. That’s one way of approaching the study of religion. It’s not even really the study of claims. It’s just kind of looking at face value. The Bible, the holy text. 

Absolutely. And that’s a good phrase. The holy text. The Sacred Book. What’s the other side of the coin? Right. Well, what fundamentalism doesn’t tell you and what fundamentalists tend to reject. Not all to the same degree, but in general, reject is a whole period in the history of biblical criticism beginning in the 19th century where we learned a heck of a lot more about where the texts come from. Take that story from Genesis. Again, we have known since the middle to late 19th century, beginning with archeological excavations all over the Middle East, particularly in what was then British controlled Palestine and Jordan, but also in contemporary Iraq, that there were lots of parallels to the story of creation, Babylonian creation epics, for example, stories of the flood that we have good reason to believe or much older than the story of Noah’s Ark in the Book of Genesis. Now, when you when you are seriously skeptical and doubtful about the origins of the Hebrew legends, the only question that really becomes relevant is which comes first, which texts depends on the other text. And if you conclude, as I conclude and most of my skeptical colleagues would conclude, that the Babylonian texts are older and the Hebrew texts are later and derivative and to to use an impolite word, plagiarists. OK, that is to say, they borrow freely, heavily and constantly from the older sources. Then it raises serious questions about the idea that the Book of Genesis could be an inspired text. The question then becomes what God inspired it. Was it the God of the Babylonians or the God of the Hebrews called halfway? Well, I answer that question in one way. And the way I answer it has to do with the importance of historical method in the way you look at texts. And I’m one of those people there, a lot like me who tend to think of history as a kind of historical science. 

That’s a phrase that German theology and German biblical criticism introduced into the discussion in the 19th century, particularly at a place called to begin the Great University City in Germany. 

And that tradition, while it’s sort of still out there, it’s still something that people in our universities and colleges and seminaries learn about has really fallen on hard times. The scientific study, we use the word scientific because the Germans used the word dissin SCHAFT as a word, which means both science and scholarship. So when we talk about and sometimes criticism. So when we talk about Vee’s and shock, we’re not talking about anything that is particularly destructive, because I happen to think that science is always constructive. And the more you can find out about where a text comes from or where an idea comes from, even if it’s the idea of God, the better off we are as people. So in that sense, we owe an awful lot to the German scholarship and its American offshoots in the 20th century, which taught us how to look at texts, how to look at ideas, how to look at historical figures, for example, even even complicated ideas like the idea of evil. 

You know, what is evil? What is good? Where does the idea of God come from? 

Can we trace that idea develop over time? 

Exactly what are its tribal roots? Its tribal origins? Ideas like punishment or reward or virtue. All of those things are susceptible to this kind of criticism. And the best scholars in the field are pretty relentless in applying the basic canons of historical criticism to the texts and to the figures and to the ideas. 

So this historical method in the way that you look at the text, the historical figures, the ideas. This is what you’re calling the scientific study of religion. Richard Dawkins and others have suggested that religion doesn’t actually have a field of inquiry since it’s ultimately about something that they say does not exist. God. But I think that there is almost nothing as fascinating as the study of religion. It’s kind of a hobby for me. Religion is my hobby. Some people like, you know, golf or or climbing mountains. 

I like X-Men. Marvel Comics. And I like. Religion, I love learning what people believe about these ultimate questions, why people believe what they believe. It amazes me to learn about the release of Scientologists and Mormons, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians. 

But if it’s just studying about religion, how how is that scientific in any other way than just history? Just studying the historical kind of development of said religion. 

Yeah, actually, I agree with Richard Dawkins that I disagree with Richard Dawkins, because what he’s really saying is that theology, the word itself means God talk. So if you presuppose and I don’t presuppose that I suppose that there is no God, then you’re entitled to conclude that theology, as some of the philosophical linguists might argue, is a kind of meaningless field of study. That doesn’t mean that it is that it isn’t a subject matter. And the distinction I like to make is between religion as religion is commonly thought to be by hoi polloi, by the people out there, that people in the pews, the people in the church, is something you belong to, something they belong to and adhere to. Yeah, in that sense, I quite agree that religion may be meaningful for them because they misbelief or misunderstand something. That’s that’s what’s one way of looking at it. But for the scholar and most of my friends happen to be religion scholars or religious studies scholars, we do understand religion as a subject matter. But when I say that, I don’t make God the centerpiece of that, because you can talk about religion in terms of the history of ideas, in terms of the way in which religion has influenced politics and religion has influenced ethics, social policy. I mean, you only have to think of of some sort of big ticket items like like slavery and marriage and bioethics and stem cell research and on and on and on. It goes to see that almost no field of inquiry that we deal with today is absolutely free of religious influence or some might say religious interference. 

And you could study that influence, that interference in a scientific way with the scientific spirit, not just decrying or having a posture against that influence, but you could look at it and study its development from the perspective of science. Absolutely. 

I mean, we we go back and all of this to the early enlightenment period and particularly to a very important philosophical distinction that court makes and which we shouldn’t lose sight of between something which we call a phenomenon in something which we call a numinous. 

You’ve lost me. You’re losing other listeners, I bet. Yeah. 

So I’ll make that really clear. Of what? What what can cause a phenomenon. We use the term wrongly all the time these days means something that you can actually get your your hands and your mind around and study it because it has a space and time and mass on its side, something real surely in the real world and a human and is sort of something you think or emote about. But it may not exist. It may exist. God is a kind of Neumann and a numinous experience for it could be a religious experience is a religious experience for God. Now, we’ve come a long way since the end of the 18th century. And the people who study religion today, although they may say, well, numinous experiences, religious experiences, mystical experiences, that that kind of proof that some kinds of religionists want to use in favor of the validity of religion is something that people like myself reject. I don’t believe I cannot believe that people have religious experiences. But I also believe those experiences can be explained scientifically or psychologically. Right. Those of us who study religion today study it as a phenomenon. That is to say, we study it in terms of its concrete influence, the way it affects the way people behave, the way it impacts not just ethics, but social policies and political policies that stem from. 

So you you look at religion from political science or the social sciences or the historical sciences or through using the tools of archeology or cognitive neuroscience. In other words, you’re you’re not looking at it from the perspective of someone devout. That’s a given. You’ve said you’re a skeptic, but it doesn’t follow then that you dismiss it because it’s real in the world that you’re living in. 

The the devout person is immensely interesting to me because I want to know why the person is devout and what the person believes and why the devout person might behave differently or vote differently or take different ethical positions from a secular humanist, for example. So even devotion becomes part of this subject matter that you could study that again, scientific. 

That’s right. That’s right. So we’re talking about studying religion scientifically. But isn’t that broadening the definition of science just so widely? Just just to seem a little maybe more credible? Look, you don’t want to say here I’m an atheist and I’m I’m trying to destroy religion by poking holes in it, by being critical of it, by showing. Why I think it is this part or that part’s nonsense. You don’t want to say that. So instead you say I’m looking at it scientifically with this non bias perspective of science. You’re not just criticizing religion. In other words, you’re you’re studying it scientifically. 

Well, let’s let’s put it this way. If you would agree with me and you don’t need to know that there are good poems and bad poems. Are we really saying that a literary analyst. Let’s let’s use someone like Harold Bloom for want of a better example. 

He wrote a great book on religion. Exactly. Exactly. 

Some decent translations as well. As a matter of fact, let’s let’s make it even more graphic. Harold Bloom did not like T.S. Eliot because he thought that most readers of Eliot were not aware that Eliot was a rabid anti-Semite. And you’re not reading Eliot properly unless you know about Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which Blum knows a lot about. Now, the question then becomes when cumulatively Bloom looks at a poem and he says, this is a good poem. This is a bad poem. This is a dangerous poem because this poem has a kind of undiscovered text, which, if you look beneath the surface, actually encourages certain ideas, which I find socially intolerable. Is Bloom trying to destroy literature? No. I feel the same way when I look at the absurdities of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. I feel the same woman. I look at the horrible violence and the almost unimaginable violence of the book of judges. It isn’t that I’m out to destroy religion. People have to reach their own conclusions about the morality and the utility of tax. But they can only do that when they develop tools of criticism, not religion. I’m I’m out to destroy. But certainly if as with Bloom’s analysis of a poem, good, bad or dangerous, the conclusions that we reach along the way have a negative impact on religion. I think everybody is entitled to embrace the conclusion that religion may be dangerous, violent. 

So are bringing to bear this scientific approach studying religion? Sounds like you just admitted you have an ax to grind, but maybe you’re not grinding an ax. I don’t know. But that you have an agenda you want to bring to light. What you know about religion, that you’re you’re supposing most people don’t know about religion. But that last question, you’re doing it by using the word science. I want to talk about just that, that use of the word science, the way that you’re defining science. Is it a scientific examination of religion to say the historical text developed this way? Had these intellectual antecedents and this influence an intellectual history or that archeology says this, that? And the other thing about religion or cognitive neuroscience suggests that people believe for this or that or the other reason, or are you just with your ax to grind picking and choosing these elements of science in your battle against religion? 

Yeah. Well, is that a battle against religion? And my ax is really pretty dull stuff. No, but but there is there is something to be said about the use of the word science here. 

I mean, on the one hand, we take science as the best methodology that we moderns have for understanding the world we live in now. It is fairly common to think that the world we live in is only the natural world. But some of the other things that human beings do besides trying to understand the cosmos and the origins of creation are things which really have to do with human behavior and the books we make and the books we read and the ideas we have. It’s relatively recently that the word science has been limited only to an understanding of the natural world. And we all know that the origins of science are really a part of natural philosophy or the separation of philosophy and natural philosophy, which becomes science in the 19th century. I think we have a lot to gain. In other words, from broadening the definition of knowledge in the English language, particularly since German doesn’t really have the same problem to enlarge the scopes that we’re really talking about a way of understanding the totality of the world we human beings look at. And that doesn’t mean just the stars and the sky and the earth we walk on. It doesn’t just entail understanding biological processes where the way we can make our biological life better or sustain life longer. It also has to do with some very ancient ideas like you die. Monia, the idea of the good life and the life we live in, the ethical codes we we actually come up with. So when I talk about science in that sense, the questions I would want to raise as an historian are where does this ethical code come from? 

Is the antiquity of this ethical code still applicable in a complicated world, the kind of world which. We human beings occupy today. Now, science is not going to solve that problem anymore than a science which completely answered the question about the origins. The cosmos would answer the questions. What now? Once we understand where the world comes from, there is this kind of German shrug of the shoulders, not all. And what do you do now that we understand this question? And those are always going to be the ultimate human questions. 

But you’re saying this broadening of science, in a sense, it’s not really broadening because we have people who call themselves social scientists, but they’re not in lab coats with beakers. We also ask you have historians who talk about the historical sciences. All of that’s a way to talk about the scientific spirit, where you test things, where you look at the evidence, where you don’t go on faith. So is that the division that you’re making, kind of the one way of looking at the world, the scientific outlook and another way, which is the way that like it or not, you’re setting yourself up against by by using the scientific art? 

What what certain sciences like archeology would have in common with the biological sciences. Is that wonderful option which Popper and others describe as falsifiability, the idea that you can actually say what isn’t so and thereby achieve a relative degree of certainty about what is so archeology works that way. To a certain extent, textual criticism works that way. 

So in that way, it got really old texts and papyrus. It’s more of a science textual criticism. 

But the conclusions you reach on the basis of those rare examples where a kind of true scientific material science, physical science helps you to reach historical conclusions, that science in the narrow sense. But the larger questions will always be relatively certain and at the same time relatively unknown to us. For example, I think Dawkins would agree with this. It is. It is it is no more possible to disprove. That is to falsify the idea of God than it is to falsify. 

What is it? The Flying Spaghetti Monster. Right. Right. That doesn’t particularly bother me. What we do know, on the other hand, is that there’s a long history of talking about God in a material way, in the same way that other cultures have talked about their gods material ways which are falsifiable because the texture falsifiable because these gods have never emerged, because many of these gods exist only in the dustbins of history. And the God of the Hebrews is one of those gods. Longevity is his. But I don’t think existence belongs to him. So there’s a real question about what constitutes falsifiability when you’re talking about this broader definition of scientific understanding. 

So that’s why you go back to the text as opposed to just the theology talking in vague terms about certain claims about the Godhead. You go back to the text because there are specific claims that are falsifiable. And so that’s what you’re dealing with. And when you go to the book that. That’s right. That’s right. While I’m thinking about it, I’d like to let our listeners know that you can subscribe to Caesar’s new journal. This is the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religions new journal, The Caesar Review. It’s all about the scientific examination, religion. You can do it through our website. Point of inquiry dot org. Joe, when did you launch this new journal? 

We launched it in October. And we have a second issue coming out at the very end of January, the beginning of February, depending on how busy I get with it today. It’s a pretty exciting internal in the sense that we think it’s the first time that a journal which professes to deal with religion and particularly the book Religions in the way I’ve been talking about, has actually offered this kind of unapologetic and unapologetic approach to books and ideas and figures. The second issue is a bit different in the sense that we’re looking at bioethics and the role which religion plays in the making of ethical decisions. 

And we have a really great cast of authors, contributors and editors who really have the biggest names in in various fields that treat religion, affiliated with Caesar, affiliated with Caesar. 

We we took in, I think, altogether twenty eight new fellows of Caesar this year. At some point, I suppose we’re going to have to confess that we’ve reached saturation point. But it does suggest that there are many scholars out there who like what we do and are becoming interested in Caesar because it offers an alternative to the not very attractive options that are out there today in the academic community for the way in which religion is looked at. 

What are some of those options? I guess one is indoctrination into religion. The the others, this mamby pamby kind of never met a religion I didn’t like kind of study, if you like. 

You said this to you. I mean, you’ve got inclusive his patterns which are associated with the conservative divinity schools, seminaries and colleges. We know about those. But you’ve also got I hate to complain, but in a spirit of liberalism, which you can trace back to certain school that exists at University of Chicago and then at Syracuse, you. In the 1970s and 1980s, which fundamentally thinks that religion is a good thing, you just said it. I never met a religion I didn’t like. And then something which grows out of that in the 1990s, particularly the post-modern approach to religion as a kind of meta narrative in which anything can be true and nothing in particular can be false. Those approaches are interesting, but they don’t tell me very much. That is to say, they don’t really satisfy my craving to understand whether an idea like eternal punishment is something that modern human beings should cling to, or whether the idea of sin, which is a very, very murky idea, is sort of lost in the shadows of antiquity, is something that we should still take seriously in the 21st century. 

And Caesar is an alternative to both of those views in the academy today. 

It takes its job very seriously. It is, as you were saying at the beginning, it is programmatically skeptical. It encourages doubt. And it encourages people to take their commonsense and their reason where it takes them. And looking at the things that we look at before we finish up. 

I want to talk about some of the harder sciences, if I can categorize science in that way and how are bringing them to bear on religion. So evolutionary theory, central to the scientific outlook, does evolutionary theory in itself. Help us understand religion in any way? I think Daniel Dean and others have suggested too much. I’d like your take. 

Yeah. I mean, Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell is a useful contribution. I mean, I have some reservations about the book and I’ve stated them in a recent issue of free inquiry. But I think it’s important to understand that the evolution of the species is also an evolution of certain ideas which the species clung to at the very beginning. For example, I mean, we know enough about tribal societies to know what glew tribal societies together where conventions were. You can call them means if you want to. You can call it. Talk about transmitted ideas. You can talk about it as a kind of tribal consciousness. What we know about evolutionary biology is that successful ideas were designed to retain and sustain people over the long haul. Unsuccessful ideas didn’t. Religion is probably one of those ideas which worked very, very well for a very, very long period, went through a series of permutations, which I actually think came to an end during the Middle Ages when tribal societies but apart and nice nation states took their place. 

So religion, by implication, stopped serving its most useful functions. 

You’re saying in the Middle Ages it collapsed under its own weight? I mean, with and in fact, you can you can test that. Historically, the collapse of the medieval church is the collapse of the purchase that a certain kind of religion had in the human imagination, which you get after. 

That is the some people call it that the separation of religion, the Protestant Reformation, broke the church apart. You can study that as a historical phenomenon, but I see it as an evolutionary phenomenon. It had to happen. 

Interesting. Last question about the harder sciences before we finish up. Cognitive neuroscience suggests some things about our religion, how it got here. Why were religious Caesars planning on treating that and future issues and conferences in the years ahead? 

We are looking at that. We have people like Steven Pinker and and others who are very, very interested in the way in which we are either hardwired or un hard wired to believe certain things or certain patterns which may be called religious. If you look at them in a in a kind of cumulative way, we’re just getting in the door with that. But I predict that within the next two or three years, we’ll have a major Caesar conference. And in fact, you have a conference coming up relatively soon in January, in January 2007, 25th at the twenty eighth in cooperation with the Department of Religious Studies at University of California, Davis. And the subject for that is history and skepticism, the very things we’ve been talking about today. Great as a threatened species in the spirit of free inquiry and the university. And we have a sterling cast of people coming to the University of California for that event. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that point of inquiry will be at that conference. If you’d like to attend that conference, you can get more information about it through our website. Point of inquiry, dawg. Last question, Joe. If our listeners want to learn more about the scientific study of religion, not just, you know, learning what that sector, that church or that faith tradition believes, but they want to learn more about this process of studying religion scientifically. What can they do aside from attending this upcoming conference subscribing to Caesar Review? 

Well, I’m going to plug two books that have had mixed reception. One of them, of course, is the Dennet book that you mentioned, breaking the cycle. Breaking this spell. The other is the Richard Dawkins book, which I would be very surprised if all of your readers have not by now read. But just just for reference, it is the God Delusion or anything that Richard Dawkins is, as has read in the past. All very good stuff. And a third book, which is an unlikely third candidate, a book by Stuart Guthrie, a social anthropologist who has a broad knowledge of theology as well, called A Face in the Sky, I think was published in 92, but it’s available readily on Amazon. 

Oh, great. Joe, thanks for joining me on Point of Inquiry again. Look forward to having you back. Thanks. D.J.. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.