Two scientists who have met with would-be terrorists and cruel dictators in some of the world’s hottest trouble spots have issued an unusual challenge to their colleagues: Focus your labs and your brain scanners and your cognitive skills on religion.

They aren’t trying to convert anyone. They just think it’s high time for scientists to stop ignoring something that plays a critical role in the lives of billions of people around the world.

“Religion is not something that scientists study very deeply,” anthropologist Scott Atran, lead author of a study published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, said in a telephone interview. “There is sort of an agreement between science and religion to remain separate, and I think that has not been a good thing.”

Here’s the problem, as seen by Atran, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his coauthor, social psychologist Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research in New York City:

Religion can shape a society in which it flourishes, bringing about mutual trust and solidarity and sacred rituals that are so powerful that citizens are willing to kill or die for the good of the community.

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