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UNG speaker probes intersection of cognitive science, religion
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Justin Barrett, Ph. D. - photo by Scott Rogers

Justin Barrett, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology, is a cognitive scientist who studies religion and how it intersects with science, especially across cultures. Though he’s surrounded mostly by people who don’t believe in God, he’s OK with that.

He believes religion and science can work together, the major point he hopes people take away when they hear him speak April 6-7 during the Mountain Top Lecture series at the University of North Georgia’s Hoag Student Center Auditorium in Dahlonega.

Mountain Top Lectures

What: Justin Barrett, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, speaks about cognitive science of religion

Who: Justin Barrett, Fuller Theological Seminary

When: 5:30 p.m. April 6-7

Where: Hoag Student Center Auditorium, 82 College Circle, Dahlonega

More info: www.mountaintoplectures.org

“Sciences are a really valuable tool for engaging religious topics,” said Barrett, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. “We, as believers, shouldn’t automatically see science as a threat to us, but should see it as a tool we can use. And for people who are not believers, they shouldn’t automatically assume that believers are going to get hostile to science.”

As an evangelical Christian who grew up in a Christian home and went to a Christian college, Barrett said he’s always been curious, which led him to his profession. He realized religion is important to people and he wanted to find out why, where people form their ideas about God and why there are similarities across cultures.

But such a study didn’t yet exist. He started doing it on his own as a graduate student at Cornell University when a professor sent a copy of one of his papers to a colleague. Suddenly, Barrett was connected with people who were thinking the way he was.

“I was networked with anthropologists and religious scholars who were sort of moving in a similar direction,” Barrett said. “So about five of us joined up in the mid-’90s and decided we should collaborate and try to develop a new field of study.”

Aspects from that field of study are what he’ll be sharing with guests who attend the Mountain Top Lecture series.

During Barrett’s first lecture, he plans to argue that people have a “natural proclivity toward religious thought.” He said since different types of religious practices and beliefs are seen across cultures, there must be a “natural” explanation.

“It’s a little bit like you might think dancing is natural for people,” Barrett said. “Because you see little kids, you turn music on and they start moving to the music. You don’t have to teach them, they just do it.”

His second lecture will answer a question he believes people will automatically ask from the first lecture: Does that mean science has explained away belief in God or belief in afterlife?

“I don’t want to ruin the story and give away the punchline exactly, but I can hint that I don’t think science does that,” Barrett said. “I don’t think it explains it away, but it’s worth talking about.”

He said his third lecture will be more based on theology and will help establish his general point.

“I think the doing of theology well can use science,” Barrett said. “Science can be a tool for doing theology.”

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