When the science of religion was first invented, the word ‘science’ was an oxymoron
An international conference on religion and science in Sydney this week was the first time the term was used in a single venue.
The event, which was sponsored by the International Society for Neuroscience (ISN) and the Royal Society of Australia, was held in the city’s Botanic Gardens, which is located on the western edge of Sydney.
“It’s really cool to see the way religion is taking off across the world,” said ISN President Stephen Jones.
“The term is a great way to bring people together to talk about religion and what it means.”
“It is such a buzzword that we’ve seen a resurgence in the last year or so, so we’ve got to take it seriously,” he added.
“We’re trying to get people to get involved, because it is a buzz word.”
The conference was hosted by the Royal Commission on Religion and Science, an independent panel of scientists who study the origins of religion.
It was organised by ISN and the RSPCA.
The panel includes Dr Michael Reitz, a professor of psychology at Deakin University, and the British psychologist Dr John M. Campbell, a former head of psychology for the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“Religion is a complex thing and we need to do a lot more to understand it,” said Dr Campbell.
“When you’re talking about religion, you have to do science, and you have got to know what it is that it is, and to what extent we can learn from it.”
“The more we understand the brain, the better we can understand religion, because religion is so embedded in the human experience,” said Reitz.
The conference drew an impressive line-up of speakers, including a group of US scientists who are the lead authors of a paper in the journal Science Advances, which described how neuroscience has shown that religion and spirituality is linked to better social and cognitive skills.
Dr Campbell said there was a need for more research into how the brain works to understand religion.
“There are some important questions about the brain,” he said.
“I think religion and consciousness are linked.
It’s one of those things that has been known for a long time.”
The scientists are keen to find out if religion has a role in cognitive and emotional well-being, or if it can help improve mental health and well-functioning of the brain.
The researchers are also studying how religion influences brain activity.
“Religious belief is associated with activation of brain networks that influence cognition and affect social cognition,” said Professor Campbell.
The scientists believe the neural networks involved in religion and the brain are related.
They have previously found that religious people have more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps regulate emotional response.
The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
“Brain networks associated with religion may be associated with a variety of social cognition functions, including affective response, social cognition, social affective, and emotional processing,” the authors said.
The team has also found that the brain network involved in religiosity is more active in people who are religious than those who do not attend religious services, suggesting there is a role for religion in helping to build a social network.