Explaining the Existential: Functional Roles of Scientific and Religious Explanation

AbstractQuestions about the origins of life and the universe seem to call out for explanation, with science and religion offering candidate answers. These answers clearly differ in content, but do they also differ in psychological function? In Study 1 (N=501) participants on Amazon Mechanical Turk rated scientific and religious answers to existential questions on dimensions related to epistemic functions (e.g., “This explanation is based on evidence”) as well as moral/social/emotional functions (e.g., “If everyone believed this, the world would be a more moral place”; “This explanation is comforting”). For non-religious participants, only scientific explanations were assigned high values along epistemic dimensions; For religious participants, only religious explanations were assigned high values along non-epistemic dimensions. In Study 2 (N=130), priming a non-epistemic need boosted religious participants’ evaluation of the quality of religious (vs. scientific) explanations. These findings shed light on the functions of scientific and religious cognition and raise new questions about explanatory co-existence and the origins of religious belief.

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