Scientific and Religious Explanations, Together and Apart

Publication Year


Book Chapter

Scientific and religious explanations often coexist in the sense that they are both endorsed by the same individuals, and they are sometimes conjoined such that a single explanation draws upon both scientific and religious components. In this chapter we consider the psychology of such explanations, drawing upon recent research in cognitive and social psychology. We argue that scientific and religious explanations often serve different psychological functions, with scientific explanations seen as better serving epistemic functions (such as supporting accurate models of the world), and religious explanations seen as better serving non-epistemic functions (such as offering emotional comfort or supporting moral behavior). This functional differentiation points to a potential benefit of conjunctive explanations: by fulfilling multiple psychological functions, they will sometimes satisfy a broader range of explanatory goals. Generalizing from the case of science and religion, we suggest that conjunctive explanations may be especially appealing when a given explanatory framework faces tradeoffs between different explanatory goals (such as generality versus precision), resulting in an advantage to explanations that draw upon multiple explanatory frameworks instantiating different tradeoffs.

Book Title
Conjunctive Explanations