Boyle Lecture 2008

psychologising and neurologising about religion: facts, fallacies and the future

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lecturer: professor malcolm jeeves CBE frse

jeeves 01M

responder: the revd dr fraser watts

Fraser Watts was ordained in 1990 and is now Vicar-Chaplain of St Edward, King and Martyr, in Cambridge. In 1994 he became the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and the Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge and is now Reader in Theology and Science and Fellow and Director of Studies at Queens’ College.

He has been Director of the Psychology and Christianity Project in the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies since its foundation in 1996. He was the founding editor of the journal Cognition and Emotion, and has served as the President of the British Psychological Society.


What psychologists were doing for religion at the beginning of the 20th century, neuroscientists are doing at the beginning of the 21st century. Then, as now, reactions were varied. Some were alarmed and felt that the very foundations of religion were being undermined, some saw the possibility of new insights into religion, some had no doubt that religion could now be explained away as 'nothing but' a set of psychological crutches.

Similar reactions are evident today as the neural substrates of different aspects of religious practices and experience are investigated. In both instances, had we learned the lessons from the past, more balanced and constructive evaluations would have emerged.

I shall review some of the scientific evidence for new insights into religion from specialisations in psychology such as evolutionary psychology where rapid advances are being made, and I shall also review the increasing evidence for what may be called the neuroscience of religion. I shall offer both assessments and anticipations.