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 3 studies (N = 1,647), we investigate whether (and by whom) scientific and religious explanations are perceived to have epistemic merits—such as evidential and logical support—versus nonepistemic merits—such as social, emotional, or moral benefits. We find that scientific explanations are attributed more epistemic merits than are religious explanations (Study 1), that an explanation’s perceived epistemic merits are more strongly predicted by endorsement of that explanation for science than for religion (Study 2), and that scientific explanations are more likely to be generated when participants are prompted for an explanation high in epistemic merits (Study 3). By contrast, we find that religious explanations are attributed more nonepistemic merits than are scientific explanations (Study 1), that an explanation’s perceived nonepistemic merits are more strongly predicted by endorsement of that explanation for religion than for science (Study 2), and that religious explanations are more likely to be generated when participants are prompted for an explanation high in nonepistemic merits (Study 3). These findings inform theories of the relationship between religion and science, and they provide insight into accounts of the coexistence of scientific and religious cognition.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental Neuroscience
- Existential questions
- Explanatory coexistence
- Science and religion