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Religious Studies as a Life Science

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Abstract Religious studies assumes that religions are naturally occurring phenomena, yet what has scholarship uncovered about this fascinating dimension of the human condition? The manifold reports that classical scholars of religion have gathered extend knowledge, but such knowledge differs from that of scientific scholarship. Classical religious studies scholarship is expansive, but it is not cumulative and progressive. Bucking the expansionist trend, however, there are a small but growing number of researchers who approach religion using the methods and models of the life sciences. We use the biologist’s distinction between “proximate” and “ultimate” explanations to review a sample of such research. While initial results in the biology of religion are promising, current limitations suggest the need for greater collaboration with classically trained scholars of religion. It might appear that scientists of religion and scholars of religion are strange bedfellows; however, progress in the scholarly study of religions rests on the extent to which members of each camp find a common intellectual fate.


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