How did the universe come to exist? What happens after we die? Answers to existential questions tend to elicit both scientific and religious explanations, offering a unique opportunity to evaluate how these domains differ in their psychological roles. Across three studies (N = 1,215), one correlational, one experimental, and one capitalizing on a natural intervention (the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic), we find that scientific explanations tend to be attributed more epistemic virtues (such as evidential support and objectivity) and are more often generated to meet epistemic demands (Studies 1-2), whereas religious explanations tend to be attributed more non-epistemic virtues (such as offering emotional comfort and supporting moral behavior) and are more often generated to meet non-epistemic demands (Studies 1-3). Importantly, these effects are moderated by religiosity: religious believers attribute both epistemic and non-epistemic virtues to religious explanations, whereas those who are not religious attribute only epistemic virtues to scientific explanations. These findings inform theories of religious belief, the cognitive coexistence of supernatural and natural conceptions of life and death, and the relationship between epistemic and non-epistemic considerations.