Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work

Intellectual Journeys: Insights from Timothy Fitzgerald’s Work by Craig Martin

Above, religion as a term appears in opposition to cult in a meme.

Tim Fitzgerald’s The Ideology of Religious Studies is, in my opinion, a modern classic in the field of the academic study of religion. In graduate school I read that book and his later, equally useful volume, Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. I’ve also found value in some of his other works, including Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (in particular, I highly recommend the chapter titled “Radical, Religious and Violent” in the latter book). Tim’s work has been highly influential on aspects of my own, and I’m deeply indebted to his work; consequently, it’s difficult to respond to his RSP interview, other than to say “hear, hear!” Instead of responding by offering a criticism of anything Tim said in this podcast, let me expand or highlight two of the lessons I think we can learn from his description of his own intellectual journey.


To start with where the interview ends, one of the most important insights I’ve learned from Tim’s work is that the various concepts opposed to “religious”—such as “non-religious,” “secular,” “science,” or, in some cases, “spiritual”—are central to the rhetorical function of the term “religious.” In general, what I find objectionable about how the concept of “religion” is deployed in particular social contexts is the (dubious) rhetorical work it does in relationship to whatever is imagined or legitimated as its (superior) opposite. Some discourses devalue religion in relationship to science, while some discourses devalue religion in relationship to spirituality. Because of the normative connotations hung on these rhetorical oppositions, the use of the term religion often entails propping up its opposite as superior by contrast. There’s nothing new about this—these uses are articulated upon the legacy of modern Euro-American discourses that once distinguished true religion from false religion, distinguished religion from enthusiasm or superstition, distinguished sincere, inward belief from outward, dead ritual, or distinguished advanced, individualist societies from backward, primitive savages who don’t realize they are slaves to the collective. All of that is to say, one thing I’ve learned from Tim is that in order to understand how the concept of religion functions in practice, we should look at what it is being distinguished from and ask whether some social practices or social formations are being privileged or condemned with the discursive contrast.


Above, some forms of Christianity use memes to define religion negatively and in opposition to a more “authentic” experience of faith.


The second lesson I think we should take away is that intellectual growth requires exposure to new ideas, often ideas from other fields or disciplines. Tim describes having traveled to parts of the globe where English is not the primary language, thereby learning how people who use a different language see or divide up the world differently. Similarly, Tim also describes reading widely outside the field of religious studies. Like Tim, I’ve attempted to read as widely as I can, particularly in those university disciplines that help us understand human societies: history, anthropology, sociology, social psychology, political science, legal studies, economics, feminist theory, queer theory, critical theory, critical race theory, and some forms of philosophy. Along the way, I’ve attempted to integrate the knowledge from these different fields or disciplines, making connections where theories or claims overlap, or noting where some approaches allow me to answer some of my questions in a more sophisticated way than other approaches. Why recreate the wheel in one field if the theoretical wheel has already been built in another?


A significant consequence of attempting to read so widely is that my views and my vocabulary have changed over time, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes dramatically. In addition, I’ve come to the conclusion that our views and vocabularies must change as circumstances change. Pick up a psychology textbook from fifty years ago, and you’ll see a considerably different vocabulary and set of theories than you would if you picked up one published in 2020. Things are moving so quickly in computer science that they don’t even publish books anymore—by the time a book is published, its content is out of date. Sadly, we don’t see the same growth in religious studies, where one of our best-selling and most-often-used textbooks—Huston Smith’s volume—has undergone relatively minor revisions since first published in 1958. Prentice Hall’s bestseller, The Sacred Quest, isn’t quite as old but nevertheless adopts a phenomenological approach that is just as outdated as Smith’s. There’s a reason that medical doctors no longer refer to the four humours, just as physicists no longer refer to an invisible “ether.” By contrast, we’re still utilizing a century-old theory of world religions that has been shown to have originally been built out of racist European colonialist assumptions (see, in particular, Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, or Tim Murphy’s Politics of Spirit: Phenomenology, Genealogy, Religion). We can and should do better.

Higher Education in the Digital Age In response to Simmons and Altman

Merinda Simmons and Michael J Altman’s discussion of their new Masters programme, Religion in Culture, at The University of Alabama left me feeling as if I had just listened to a 30 minute advert for their university rather than a purposeful discussion about the vital and expansive changes essential to advance higher education in the digital age. I had hoped for the latter, but instead, found the former. Perhaps this only reflects upon another difficulty with higher education in the West—turning departments into profitable business commodities. Nevertheless, Simmons and Altman do raise a vital consideration: that we, as academics and scholars, need to change the narrow and disciplinarian approach of graduate and post-graduate religious studies in our universities, and I couldn’t agree more.

What I may not necessarily agree with Simmons and Altman on, however, is their presentation of an academic challenge that appears to be in a vacuum neither discussing these issues as they relate to higher education in America, nor mentioning any other programmes that do so – implicitly implying that the University of Alabama is attempting a radical programme that no other university in the world is attempting, and that may not, in part, be true.

As I listened to Simmons and Altman discuss the importance of “Dorothea Ortmann and my response to her interview. Ortmann also discusses the important of a multidisciplinary approach combined with the use of the social sciences, including empirical data, to assist in the study of religious phenomena in her native Peru.

In my response to Ortmann, I briefly detail why a multidisciplinary approach and the use of social science data was fundamental to my own doctoral research. While I spoke in my response to Ortmann about the struggle to include such supporting data into my final thesis, I didn’t mention why I chose to pursue my doctoral research in Glasgow versus staying in the US.

The answer to that question is simple: I needed a multidisciplinary department that would support my pursuit of the questions raised in my Master’s thesis—questions that were literary, theological, thealogical, psychological, anthropological, cultural, and sociological. Theology and Religious Studies departments across the US have held close the traditional, monocular lens of disciplinary study, and those who wish to combine disciplines are most often encouraged to study subject matter more reductive and intransigent.

There is a level of multidisciplinary approach to academic enquiry that is far more prevalent in the United Kingdom. I chose the University of Glasgow as the centre for my doctoral research based not only on the great city and friendly people, but also on the University’s Centre for Literature, Theology, and the Arts. The Centre, founded by Professor David Jasper, afforded me the opportunity to pursue my queries where they led—through a range of disciplinary material including psychology, history, anthropology, sociological data, and governmental statistics. This multidisciplinary approach afforded me, as researcher, the opportunity to explore not only the original questions from the source material, but also to truly examine the sociological impact these modern faith traditions are having in the US and UK.

I wasn’t locked in a tower of theology and religious studies, I was let loose on the entire geography of academic and scholarly pursuit to roam the map where my queries took me. In the end, and only through such a wonderfully supportive multidisciplinary research programme, I could see results in three dimensions rather than one—living, breathing models rather than flat photographs. Identifying the thealogical and theological implications of these new faith traditions in the flat first dimension led to answers akin to a 3D model of the cultural and sociological impact they continue to have on modern faith traditions, practitioners, and seekers. In my opinion, multidisciplinary departments are vital to academic research and growth.

The new programme, Religion in Culture, does take a welcome and necessary step in this modern, digital age, by including both public and digital humanities to their foundational training alongside Social Theory. Given that social media is not only taking over our daily lives, but also shaping and altering our lives for good and ill, the inclusion of digital humanities and the prominence of social media is a wonderful approach to address and expand religious studies in the digital age.

A variety of universities both in the US and the UK use social media as a tool for effective outreach. The Religious Studies Project in the UK and State of Formation in the US stand out as two exemplary religious studies projects, often, as with these two, in collaboration with other universities, (as opposed to individual departments or programmes) that utilise social media daily to reach and interact with their intended audience.

Moreover, the internet and social media have changed the way academics interact with each other and the outside world. Indeed, conferences are shared in situ with global audiences as participants and attendees share photos and quotes on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Most conference instructions come with suggested hashtags included, and no doubt both interest and future participation are increased through this social interaction through media. You can find a number of prominent scholars and activists on Twitter from second wave feminists such as Carol P Christ to modern thinkers and activists such as Gina Messina, Eboo Patel and Reza Aslan including Simmons and Altman (linked in the opening of this response). Ideas about religious studies, theologies, and modernity are exchanged, criticised, or retweeted daily. Blogs published and shared. Books reviewed and promoted. Therefore, teaching future academics and scholars how to successfully navigate social media in the digital world can only help to extend the reach and impact of our research, queries, and ideas. If only more universities would follow suit.


Rethinking the Cognitive Science of Religion in Light of Explanatory Pluralism

In his recent RSP interview, Dr. Robert McCauley provides a brilliant overview of some of the founding philosophical principles that have been a foundation for the study of religion. Dr. McCauley has been known as one of the key founders of the “Cognitive Science of Religion” (CSR) since he co-authored the book “Rethinking Religion” (Lawson & McCauley, 1990); ever since then he has guided the field with a keen understanding of the empirical, philosophical, and socio-cultural literature from which CSR draws.

In the interview, he touches on an aspect of the scientific study of religion that I would like to highlight: explanatory pluralism. I want to use this opportunity to offer a critical review of CSR in light of explanatory pluralism. It is my belief that the failure of CSR to adequately address its inherently interdisciplinary nature has been a detriment to the field and that by addressing these issues it will help the field to grow as well as to help non-CSR specialists understand more of the subtlety of this scientific approach to our subject. I, by no means, think I can settle the issues in the space here, but I would like to use Dr. McCauley’s interview as a springboard from which a discussion can be launched.

Explanatory pluralism

The primary aspect of the interview that I’d like to address is McCauley’s concept of “explanatory pluralism,” which holds that a phenomenon can be explained at different levels of inquiry. The explanatory pluralist maintains that there is no such thing as a final, full, or complete explanation and that each analytical level in science has tools and insights that can be brought to bear on any phenomenon of interest, including religion.

He notes that there are “families” of sciences, and these should probably not be taken as strong demarcations between fields. He also notes that this presumes a hierarchy whereby all events at one level are events of the level beneath it. For example, all events that are chemical events are physical events, but not all physical events are chemical events. McCauley did not explicitly state the “chemical sciences” as a family, but I have added it here since it is hard to imagine a biological event that isn’t chemical but we can imagine chemical events that aren’t biological (e.g. fire or Diet Coke and Mentos).

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science


Here, my critique is that this sort of explanatory pluralism is really only useful as a framework for constructing an interdisciplinary research project, aimed at understanding some phenomenon like religion, if there is theoretical continuity between the sciences being employed to explain a phenomenon.

Skipping levels in reductive sciences

First, it is hard to imagine a scenario where one should “skip” a level of his pyramid. Explaining socio-cultural phenomena exclusively at the level of biology misses the fact that any biological effects on culture or religion would be mediated by psychology. The endless debate of Nature vs. Nurture settled that one cannot reduce religion to our genes alone. However, our psychological capacities seem to have evolved, and these capacities do give rise to religion. So it is not to say that biology isn’t important (to the contrary); it is just that solely-biological explanations of religion are hollow when neglecting how it is that socio-cultural phenomena (like religion) are affected by psychology.

Theoretical continuity

Second, the theories being employed must have compatible axiomatic assumptions. If assumptions of one theory, which is used to explain some target phenomenon, violate the assumptions of another theory used to explain the same phenomenon at a different level there is an incongruity.

Think of it this way, if we are adding two numbers, X and Y, to get Z as an answer and there are equal assumptions about X and Y then the answers are clear; example: 6 + 6 = 12. However, if the theory from which we assess X and Y is not equal to the theory from which we assess z (i.e. the theory has asymmetrical assumptions), then the equation is not so simple and it is possible that 6 + 6 ≠ 12. To use a mathematical example, 6 plus 6 equals 12 (6 + 6 = 12) in our number system, which is based on the assumption of having a base of 10. However, in a senary number theory (base-6), the answer to our equation is 20 in base-10.[1] Without going deeper into number theory, suffice to say that this equation is not valid as we are adding variables from one theory in search of an answer in another theory. This creates an issue when we see a target phenomenon “Z” and hope to explain it in terms of lower level properties, when our theories don’t align.

Complexity and reductionism in religion: Down the rabbit hole

This complication is spelled out quite clearly in mathematics, but may be more complex when looking at socio-cognitive systems like religious systems (or political systems, or economic systems). One of the reasons that this is complex is because the interactions at one level may not be directly reducible to the parts that it is built upon at a lower level; colloquially, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Here I would like to address a crucial issue in the study of religion, that of emergence. If something is “emergent” it is said to be greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence comes in two forms, strong and weak. Strong emergence is the stance that a phenomenon—observed at one level—cannot be reduced, even in principle, to the laws specified at a lower level. Weak emergence is the stance that a phenomenon is the result of interactions at a lower level, but the target phenomenon is not expected given the interactions at this lower level.

Many people hold that religion is an emergent phenomenon that cannot be reduced. These discussions are complex and a review of this literature is far beyond the scope of this response. However, let us just imagine how an interdisciplinary approach to religion, as an emergent phenomenon, could arise from lower level properties. Now, this assumes that religion is weakly emergent. First, because strong emergence is incompatible with scientific reductionism and is better fit for interpretive paradigms that seek to explain the social at the level of the social (ala Durkheim); I’ll address the idea that religion may be a causal force in just a moment. However, if we move beyond that—even if only for the sake of argument—religion must arise from some lower level properties.

So, to exemplify this, I’m going to use a very elementary analogy. Let’s return back to the “Pyramid of Science” above. If something at the cultural level is emergent in the strong sense, it means that there is no connection to the laws at the lower (i.e. psychological level). It is an unconnected cloud floating above the minds of people.

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

This approach is in many ways black and white. Culture is not directly connected to the rules that are followed by its constituent parts. Most individuals in the scientific study of religion (SSR) reject this claim because if one imagines a world without people we simply would not have culture. Therefore, there is posited to be some connection between “Culture” and the minds of individuals that hold, sustain, and generate that culture. This position is more in line with the weak emergent perspective. This holds that culture is not directly reducible to the lower-level laws of human psychology, but there is some connection. The current scientific explanation for culture and religion is that it is “generated” by the collective minds of all the individuals in a group. This allows for culture to have the shades of grey that result from all the colorful cognitive machinery with which humans are endowed.

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Now, one might ask: “Wait, this is too simple, why is it that different cultural groups behave differently?” Within complexity theory, emergent phenomenon can exert causal forces. Some even believe that no higher-level entity can change without exerting some force on its lower level parts (for a deeper discussion on emergentism see Kim, 1999); that is to say, within a complex systems perspective, culture can shape people, and people generate religion and culture.

What this has to do with religion: Taking the red pill[2]

Now, at this point in the rabbit hole, you may be wondering if I’ve gone off the rails. Well, yes, but only to exemplify an important point concerning how modern cognitive science has surpassed CSR and what religious studies could serve to learn from it.

Above, I outline a constant, complex, feedback systejimim whereby culture emerges from the complex interactions between humans’ mental facilities, and in turn, creates an environment within which these individuals live. This environmental input, indifferentiable from the plants, animals, and water, is an important aspect of the environment and therefore can appear to cause individuals to do things just as the presence of a snake would cause a person to jump. This feedback system is—in principle—not unlike the physical systems that cause guitars to screech when too close to an amp. One (culture) arises from the minds of interacting people, which are, in turn, affected by that culture. Furthermore, we can visualize them with our “culture cloud” like so:

Figure 4 Cultural "Causation" as an emergent feedback loop

Figure 4 Cultural “Causation” as an emergent feedback loop

Now, in order to understand this complex system, we have to hold the way in which we measure everything steady between the psychological level and the socio-cultural level. We wouldn’t want to use the metric system for one thing and the imperial system for another. Although it may seem like things are stable at first glance, such incongruity will not result in a viable approach to theory building. Furthermore, we need to change the way we approach measuring religion. Saying something is complex is no longer a viable excuse to say we cannot study it empirically. Complex statistics from recursion analysis (Lang, Krátký, Shaver, Jerotijević, & Xygalatas, 2015) to network analysis (Lane, 2015) allow us to discern non-linear patterns in the study of religion. Also, computer models are allowing us to study these relationships as well (see Bainbridge, 2006; Braxton, 2008; McCorkle & Lane, 2012; Shults et al., Submitted; Upal, 2005; Whitehouse, Kahn, Hochberg, & Bryson, 2012; Wildman & Sosis, 2011).


Many of those in the scientific study of religion argue that “culture” or “religion” is a causal force. This has led some in the scientific study of religion to ignore the great scholarship of religious scholars who acknowledge that religion is an academic abstraction invented by western intellectuals (Smith, 2004)—at times even leading those scientists of religion to implicitly treat religion as a sui generis phenomenon. However, by abandoning our linear thinking (and statistics!) we could start to investigate religion as emergent and not simply the additive “sum” of the constituent minds of people. Rather, we can look at it for what it is, the result of iterations of interactions among individuals in complex socio-biological environments (i.e. contexts) that is instantiated in an ever-recursive system between the cognitive and socio-cultural levels of analysis. As I hope it is plain to see, I wholly support Dr. McCauley’s commitment to explanatory pluralism. I only argue that we be more mindful of the theoretical continuity which is necessary to produce valid models[3] of religion.


Bainbridge, W. S. (2006). God from the Machine: Artificial Intelligence Models of religious Cognition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Braxton, D. M. (2008). Modeling the McCauley-Lawson Theory of Ritual Forms. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University.

Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies, 95(1-2), 3–36. Retrieved from Sense Emergence.1999.pdf

Lane, J. E. (2015). Semantic Network Mapping of Religious Material. Journal for Cognitive Processing.

Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., & Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 1–6.

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCorkle, W. W., & Lane, J. E. (2012). Ancestors in the simulation machine: measuring the transmission and oscillation of religiosity in computer modeling. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 215–218.

Shults, F. L., Lane, J. E., Lynch, C., Padilla, J., Mancha, R., Diallo, S., & Wildman, W. J. (n.d.). Modeling Terror Management Theory: A computer simulation of hte impact of mortality salience on religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior.

Smith, J. Z. (2004). Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Upal, M. A. (2005). Simulating the Emergence of New Religious Movements. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(1). Retrieved from

Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182–201.

Wildman, W. J., & Sosis, R. (2011). Stability of Groups with Costly Beliefs and Practices. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 14(3).


[1] Interested readers can go check out online conversion tools that will convert numbers with different bases, such as that found here:

[2] For those unfamiliar with the movie “The Matrix”, this is explained here:

[3] I mean this in the conceptual and computational sense, including scholars of religion engaged in philosophical, historical, and empirical endeavors.

Keeping the Bar Steady: The Complexities of Interdisciplinary Approaches to Religion

Interdisciplinary approaches to religion have become nearly commonplace in the field today. Many would argue (and I would agree) that religious studies has always been inherently interdisciplinary. Although many departments today take a “zoo approach” to presenting religions, those who are primarily engaged in theoretical and methodological questions concerning religion and how to study it often keep at their disposal theories from anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, and biology.

The presence of biology in the above list is due largely to the academic and public engagement of David Sloan Wilson, who has for many years situated himself in an interesting place in this debate. Rather than being a scholar of religion extending his hand into the world of biologists to root around for useful ways to understand their phenomena, Wilson is a biologist who has extended his hand to scholars of religion. This does not only include his role as a biologist looking to use evolutionary theory as a framework for studying religion, as he did in his must-read book Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), but also as a collaborator and critic who has seriously engaged the work of scholars of religion; as reflected in the work of two of my mentors, William Paden (2010) and Luther H. Martin (2008). For his role as both critic and collaborator—even in my own work in association with the BSRP’s sister project the Singapore Religion and Spirituality Project—I owe Wilson a great debt for his engagement with the field of religious studies.

After having greatly enjoyed his podcast here and similar discussions in other venues (such as his recent interview with biologist Richard Lewontin (Wilson, 2015), I feel that a word of caution must be offered to anyone attempting to undertake an interdisciplinary research program—and even more to those who wish to study religion—whatever that is. Wilson notes that “religion is a fuzzy set” (a brilliant description in my opinion). This may be somewhat of an understatement since many scholars, such as J.Z. Smith (2004), have stated that religion is a western academic construct. This is echoed to an extent by two of the fathers of the cognitive approach, Lawson & McCauley (1990), who take religious beliefs and behaviors to be no different than non-religious beliefs and behaviors at a psychological level. Even within the evolutionary literature, those such as Pascal Boyer (2001) have noted that religion is—at best—a recent amalgamation of many different beliefs and behaviors that we deem religious. By and large, I agree with his view that evolution helps us to understand human actions—including religious ones. I also agree that religion is one of many meaning making systems that humans use. Keeping in mind my general agreement with Dr. Wilson, I would like to highlight one complication of using evolution to study religion as an explanatory framework.

This brings me to my title: Keeping the Bar Steady. The science of religion is like walking a tightrope; this endeavor should be interdisciplinary, drawing between historians, anthropologists, psychologists, biologists, and all the scholars of religion participating within those dialogues (there may be others as well that I have forgotten). As we walk this tightrope, we go from observing religion to explaining it, testing predictions (i.e. hypotheses) and theories back and forth in order to generate new knowledge about our subject with the ultimate goal of explanation. Beneath this tightrope-walking scholar is a vast canyon of speculation. Just as a tightrope-walker needs a bar to keep their balance and steady themselves to mediate between their points, the interdisciplinary scholar also needs to steady themselves. Now, the question naturally arises: What is the bar for those of us who wish to study religion scientifically?

Evolutionary theory is a (extremely productive) theoretical framework within which one could integrate the study of human groups (anthropology), human sociality (sociology), and how humans came to be that which we are today (history/archaeology). However, the study of religion, is ultimately the study of human beliefs and behaviors—specifically those referencing a belief in a supernatural agent. This roots the target phenomena of beliefs and behaviors—things of the mind—solidly within the realm of psychology. When evolutionary theorists attempt to provide a story or narrative of how religions came to be as they are today, their descriptions are insufficient without clear references to the mechanisms producing how beliefs and behaviors were either motivated or remembered and then shared. The empirical evidence and descriptions of these mechanisms fall primarily within the purview of cognitive psychology (for example, see Barrett, 2005). That religious beliefs vary within a population and large trends can be tracked overtime—this is generally the approach of “cultural evolution”—seems to be the case given the evidence. However, this observation is as true for the evolutionist as it is for the historian, and evolutionary theory need not be employed to describe these changes (Martin, 2008). This point was echoed recently by renowned biologist Richard Lewontin when he raised the following:


Why do you use cultural evolution instead of cultural history? Why evolution instead of history? Can you avoid—let me put it another way—can you generally avoid the false similarities, the made up structures that we are criticizing, if we continue to use the word evolution when what we really mean is historical change?

(From a recent interview with Wilson; Wilson, 2015)


Although I would agree with Lewontin that history provides a sufficient description of the changes over time, it is only psychology that provides the necessary explanations for how these changes were produced by the human minds within those historical contexts. Evolution may provide another interpretive framework for historical dynamics as environments change over time but they do not offer predictive hypotheses, only a postdictive framework.

Part 2:

However, let’s not throw evolutionary theory out with the bath-water. Evolutionary theory is useful in explaining how the cognitive mechanisms that produce religious beliefs and behaviors came to be (in my opinion Barrett, 2004 and Boyer, 2001 offer some of the best anecdotes). This falls under what evolutionary theorists call “ultimate explanations”—which address how a trait evolved—whereas the psychological mechanisms provide “proximate explanations”—which address phenomena in their immediate contexts—(recently addressed by Laland, Sterelny, Odling-Smee, Hoppitt, & Uller, 2011; see discussion in Tinbergen, 1963). On the one hand, some (Wilson, 2002) state that “religion” is an adaptation and evolves as the beliefs and groups are selected for (e.g. Boyd & Richerson, 2005; Richerson & Boyd, 2005; Richerson & Christiansen, 2013). On the other hand, evolutionary psychologists have taken a different approach. Their approach states that culture and religion are the result of cognitive responses to environmental stimuli and generally view “religion” as a by-product of the outputs of a fuzzy set of cognitive mechanism (e.g. Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Boyer & Liénard, 2006; Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Liénard & Lawson, 2008).

Ultimately, both of these approaches provide accounts for changes observed over time; and a great deal of the literature shows that. However, those who state that culture evolves—without the need for addressing cognitive mechanisms–have some major issues to overcome. First, they cannot offer predictions concerning how novel religious traits might arise; usually religious variants are accounted for as adaptations to new environments if they aren’t considered mutations that are selected for via one of many evolutionary mechanisms. A cognitive psychologist would consider them output from a cognitive mechanism rather than a phenotypic mutation. Finally, they do not seem to admit that much of the domain of religion, including imitation, learning, and language are domain general psychological capacities[1] (Heyes & Pearce, 2015) and that many features of human religiosity can be explained by triggering the actual domain of mechanisms that evolved for other purposes (Barrett, 2004; Boyer, 2001; Buss, Haselton, Shackelford, Bleske, & Wakefield, 1998) such as belief in superhuman agents (Barrett, 2004; Guthrie, 1993) and ritual capacities (Boyer & Liénard, 2006; Liénard & Lawson, 2008). Ultimately, this is reflective of the fact that much of evolutionary theory is used in the study of religion to interpret—not explain—religious beliefs and behaviors.

This raises a question of its utility as a scientific—i.e. explanatory—paradigm for use by scholars of religion along the lines of Lewontin quoted above. While evolution does provide a biologically rooted framework that affords cognitive psychologists the theoretical rationale for extrapolating that all cultures utilize the same mental facilities (albeit quite differently depending on their environment), in order to explain religion in all its variants both past and present, cognitive psychology is both necessary and sufficient. The empirical findings of the evolutionary psychologists above would still be just as valid without framing the mechanisms as “evolved.” Evolution is the elegant packaging that serves to explain how these facets came to be; psychology explains how they happen now.

Part 3:

This brings me to my final point, an interdisciplinary study of religion must be truly interdisciplinary. This does not mean we can take data from religious studies and reinterpret it using the statistics of biology (for example, creating a phylogeny of traits based on belief similarity when there is ample historical evidence describing the lineage). This means taking seriously the archaeological and historical data of religions in their own right. Dr. Wilson provides a testable claim for us here. He makes the claim that Judaism did not have a Christian-like afterlife belief (an opinion also presented in Angier, Wilson, & Bass, 2006; also in Angier, 2002) until the third century B.C.E. (this is found at approx. 16 minutes).[2] His evidence comes from his reading of the Old Testament, particularly the use of the Hebrew term שְׁאוֹל – Sheol- or hell (A deeper discussion of this term and its meanings in bibilcal texts can be found in Gowan, 2003, pp. 188–190; Reicke, 2001). This is complicated by at least two findings: one from psychology and the other from biblical studies. First, it has been demonstrated that belief in the afterlife is rooted in the human psychological mechanisms that give rise to mind-body dualism. This cognitive capacity is naturally developed in humans at a very young age (Barrett, 2004; Bering & Bjorklund, 2004; Cohen, Burdett, Knight, & Barrett, 2011; also see Hodge, In Press, 2010, 2011). To show that a population as large as Israel—as recent as two millennia ago—overcame this proclivity or did not have this cognitive capacity would have vast repercussions for evolutionary psychology.

To test the claim(s) we can then use the tools of religious studies. This provides our second complication concerning the claim that there were no Jewish afterlife beliefs until the Maccabean Revolt (this claim was also addressed in Segal, 2004). Leaving aside historical issues[3], taking Sheol as a marker for afterlife beliefs, and using the tools of religious studies (Strong’s Concordance), we find that Sheol appears in Genesis (4 times), Numbers and 1 Kings (2 times each), Job (8 times), Proverbs and Isaiah (9 times each), Ezekiel (5 times), Psalms (15 times), and is found only once in the books of Habakkuk, Jonah, Amos, Hoseah, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, 1 & 2 Samuel and Deuteronomy; often in reference to an afterlife, punishment, and is often portrayed negatively (Reicke, 2001). It would seem that what is at hand is not an example where there was no belief in the afterlife until the Maccabean revolt resulting in the spread of afterlife beliefs (the strong interpretation of the claim). In fact, it was used more often in the pre-Maccabean period. Furthermore, the negative connotations and divine punishment associations don’t seem to be Christian inventions either (the weak interpretation). Lastly, the term for “resurrection” (קוּץ) is also found in reference to raising from the dead more times than just Daniel (Daniel 12:2). For example, of its 22 uses, some are clearly in reference to resurrection of the dead; for example Isiah 26:19, considered part of the text written by “proto-Isiah” and dating to around 400-500 BCE (Vriezin & van der Woude, 2004, p. 323). Rather, in line with the predictions of cognitive psychology, that Judaism did have afterlife beliefs rooted in mind-body dualism and that these beliefs were present prior to the Maccabean revolt. It is also likely that such beliefs would have been popular during the Babylonian Captivity, which was arguably a more impactful period for the group.

Again however, we can learn from Dr. Wilson’s evidence. While there were likely some theological camps within Judaism at the time, such as the Sadducees who did not endorse the theological position of an afterlife in the contemporary Judeo-Christian sense, this may be a simple discrepancy between the beliefs of laity and theologians (see Sloan, 2004).[4] Such an approach may benefit from the population thinking approach of biological evolution (Boyd & Richerson, 2005). It would seem that history, religious studies, and cognitive psychology offer a good basis for Jewish afterlife beliefs before the Maccabean period. However, what I believe sets cognitive science above cultural evolution in regards to explanatory power is that no theory of cultural evolution makes a prediction concerning the target phenomenon at hand (the onset of a belief in the afterlife). Rather, it provides an account for the phenomenon post-hoc; this is still a valuable and powerful framework in my opinion. Cognitive theories such as those provided by Sperber (Claidière, Scott-phillips, & Sperber, 2014; Sperber & Wilson, 1995), Festinger (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 2008), and—to an extent—Lawson & McCauley (1990; see Chapter 5 on implicit mechanisms concerning agent competency) provide hypotheses concerning what beliefs/behaviors would or would not be likely to spread within a population due to pre-existing cognitive mechanisms.[5]

In conclusion, religious scholars have always been interdisciplinary. But to do a “science of religion” we need to make sure that we are working within a single research paradigm-even if it is from many disciplines. I have argued here and elsewhere (IAHR 2010) that we have to utilize theoretical continuity and a research paradigm of cognitive science (i.e. information processing) to do this. While utilizing biology can be useful to interpret trends, it ultimately misses its target, religion is our beliefs and behaviors. Religion is—like culture—a “thing that’s in our cranium” (quote from Lewontin in Wilson, 2015).


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Angier, N., Wilson, D. S., & Bass, T. A. (2006, December 30). God VS. Science: A Debate Between Natalie Angier, and David Sloan Wilson, Moterated by Thomas A. Bass. Edge. Retrieved from

Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.). (1992). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Barrett, J. L. (2005). In the Empirical Mode: Evidence Needed for the Modes of Religiosity Theory. In H. Whitehouse & R. N. McCauley (Eds.), Mind and Religion: Psychological and Cognitive Foundations of Religiosity (pp. 109–126). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 217–233. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.40.2.217

Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2005). The Origin and Evolution of Cultures. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Boyer, P., & Liénard, P. (2006). Why ritualized behavior? Precaution Systems and action parsing in developmental, pathological and cultural rituals. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(6), 595–613; discussion 613–50. Retrieved from

Buss, D. M., Haselton, M. G., Shackelford, T. K., Bleske, A. L., & Wakefield, J. C. (1998). Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels. American Psychologist, 54(5), 533–548.

Claidière, N., Scott-phillips, T. C., & Sperber, D. (2014). How Darwinian is cultural evolution ? How Darwinian is cultural evolution ? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, (369:20130368). doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0368

Cohen, E., Burdett, E., Knight, N., & Barrett, J. (2011). Cross-Cultural Similarities and Differences in Person-Body Reasoning: Experimental Evidence From the United Kingdom and Brazilian Amazon. Cognitive Science, 35(June 2009), 1282–1304. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01172.x

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 163–228). New York: Oxford University Press.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (2008). When Prophecy Fails (2nd editio.). London: Pinter & Martin.

Gowan, D. E. (2003). The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heyes, C., & Pearce, J. M. (2015). Not-so-social learning strategies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282(1802), 1–7. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.1709

Hodge, K. M. (n.d.). The Death We Fear is Not Our Own: The Folk Psychology of Souls Revisited and Reframed. In H. De Cruz & R. Nichols (Eds.), The Cognitive Science of Religion and its Philosophical Implications.

Hodge, K. M. (2010). Cognitive Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs. Queen’s University Belfast.

Hodge, K. M. (2011). Why immortality alone will not get me to the afterlife. Philosophical Psychology, 24(936089229), 395–410. doi:10.1080/09515089.2011.559620

Laland, K. N., Sterelny, K., Odling-Smee, J., Hoppitt, W., & Uller, T. (2011). Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful? Science, 334(December), 1512–1516. doi:10.1126/science.1210879

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Liénard, P., & Lawson, E. T. (2008). Evoked culture, ritualization and religious rituals. Religion, 38(March), 157–171. doi:10.1016/j.religion.2008.01.004

Martin, L. H. (2008). Can Religion Really Evolve? (And What Is It Anyway?). In J. Bulbulia, R. Sosis, E. Harris, R. Genet, C. Genet, & K. Wyman (Eds.), The Evolution of Religions: Studies, Theories, and Critiques. Santa Margarita, CA: The Collins Foundation Press.

Paden, W. E. (2010). The History of Religions and Evolutionary Models: Some Reflections on Framing and Mediating Vocabulary. In P. Pachis & D. Wiebe (Eds.), Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences (pp. 293–304). Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Reicke, B. (2001). Hell. In B. M. Metzger & M. Coogan (Eds.), The Oxford Guide to Ideas and Issues of the Bible (pp. 196–198). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evoluion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richerson, P. J., & Christiansen, M. H. (Eds.). (2013). Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Langage, and Religion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Segal, A. F. (2004). Life after death: A history of the afterlife in the religions of the West. New York: Doubleday.

Setzer, C. (2004). Resurrection of the body in early Judaism and early Christianity. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Sloan, J. (2004). Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, J. Z. (2004). Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Vriezin, T. C., & van der Woude, A. S. (2004). Ancient Israelite and early Jewish literature. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, And The Nature Of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, D. S. (2015, April). The Spandrels Of San Marco Revisited : An Interview With Richard C. Lewontin. This View of Life. Retrieved from


[1] That is to say it isn’t a mechanism we have for a specific purpose but can be used for many things–including things we’ve never encountered before

[2] We could interpret the claim here and other places as a strong claim, Judaism didn’t have an afterlife belief, or as a weak claim, that Judaism didn’t have a Christian like afterlife belief involving negative punishment.

[3] These include, among other things, dating of the Maccabean period, the differences between messianic beliefs concerning eschator and parousia in relation to the beliefs at the time, the fact that the Hebrew version is a re-translation from the Greek Septuagint, and the role of ‘ōlām ha-bā as afterlife rather than sheol, and the fact that resurrection debates even among Christians went on well into the second century and that this belief differed between sects in Judaism both before and after the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.E. (Setzer, 2004).

[4] Also, to what extent it is clear that at the time Pharisees and Essene’s didn’t have an afterlife belief is debatable.

[5] Festinger specifically provides this account in relation to millennial beliefs.


Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our, or links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining


Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Dressing in Skins of Gods: New Approaches to Aztec Religion

Molly Bassett is an enthusiastic advocate for studying Mesoamerican religion, a welcome new direction in Religious Studies. She credits the critical mentorship of David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Although she does not mention this, his influence makes her an intellectual “granddaughter” of Mircea Eliade, who was Carrasco’s principal advisor at the University of Chicago and to whom Carrasco has paid special homage in Waiting for the Dawn: Mircea Eliade in Perspective (Carrasco and Law 2009). Mostly due to a dearth of qualified teachers, interpretation of Mesoamerican religions has been undertaken by individuals with little or no formal training in religious studies. As a result, many have made their way into this field via an autodidactic approach. On the upside, Bassett emphasizes how Mesoamerican studies push scholars to be interdisciplinary. Her work on the rich Florentine Codex, the Codex Mexicanus, and other 16th century sources builds on prior work by art historians such as Diana Magaloni (a student of Mary Miller at Yale) as well as linguists, ethnohistorians, paleographers, and archaeologists.

Bassett rightly notes the preconceptions and prejudices that students typically bring to studies of the Aztecs, among them notions of human sacrifice (which, given divine reciprocity, might be better understood as “human gifting”), cannibalism (or anthropophagy, both actual and metaphorical), and other forms of ambiguous violence. These have been the subject of a brilliant essay, “Ethics and Ethnocentricity in Interpretation and Critique: Challenges to the Anthropology of Corporeality and Death,” by archaeologist Arthur Demarest (Vanderbilt) in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians (Chacon & Dye 2008). He outlines radically different conceptions of blood and bodies among Spanish and Aztecs, noting, for example, that Spanish horror at Aztec rituals was shaped by specific Christian beliefs about the sanctity of the blood and body of Christ, human mortality and corporality, ethnocentric perceptions that condition Western consciousness even today. For the Aztecs, flaying humans and wearing their skin inside-out (as was done with the Culhua princess) represented a profoundly different conception of personhood and corporality. Just as a hardcore vegetarian, vegan, or animal rights activist might recoil at a supermarket meat counter or a leather goods shop, Spanish reactions to Aztec practices were conditioned by distinctly non-universal values and beliefs. As Demarest writes, “Neither ethnocentric revulsion nor ethnocentric purification can substitute for elucidating, as best we can, the nature and meaning of the beliefs and practices of other societies.”

From another perspective, recent scholarship on Mesoamerican religions has been influenced by Mircea Eliade in a persistent fashion that has yet to be critically addressed. For example, discussions of Olmec and Maya religious art and iconography refer routinely to concepts of an axis mundi, a tripartite cosmology, “shamanism,” and archetypes of the World Tree and Cosmic Mountain that come directly from Eliade’s work. However, these often lack direct citations, much less critical analyses based on the history and context of Eliade’s ideas (an example of this would be the 1993 book Maya Cosmos, by Friedel, Schele, and Parker, but a pervasive use of these concepts persists to the present). These and related concepts are often taken for granted by art historians, but their tacit acceptance merits a closer analysis by scholars in Religious Studies, who may be prepared to evaluate the influence of Eliade on fields of study other than their own and to offer alternative models. One recent work relevant to Bassett’s research as well as interdisciplinary methodology is Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerican and Central America (Orr and Looper 2014), which considers cultures much earlier than the Aztecs, ones contemporary with early Judaism and Christianity, but lacks a Religious Studies approach.

Mesoamericanists and other specialists in pre-Hispanic cultures of Latin America often question Kirchhoff’s original 1943 model of “Mesoamerica” and its utility for understanding broader interaction in the southern U.S., Caribbean basin, southern Central America, and northern South America. Interestingly, in the same article, Kirchhoff also proposed the notion of a “Chibchan” area to the south, one that has now become even more relevant given recent announcements of the “discovery” of a “lost city” or “vanished civilization” in non-Mesoamerican eastern Honduras. Yes, Mesoamerican religion is a fascinating and stimulating area for more Religious Studies scholarship, but I’m sure Bassett would enthusiastically agree that this extends to approaches to religion throughout the Americas. She says, “Puritans pale by comparison to Aztecs,” but they also pale in comparison to Mayas, Chibchas, Taínos, Moches, Tiwanakus, Incas, and many, many others. It would be nice to think that her work is just the beginning of a Renaissance of sorts in the study of indigenous American religions and their deep and complex intersections with Christian, New Age, and other contemporary practices. For example, the rich variety of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in Latin America and the U.S. that assert neo-Aztec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican identities call for evaluation on their own terms.

Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”) wears the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. “Wearing people’s skins” is powerful imagery, tied to how we understand them by putting “skins” (such as “religion”) on them.

Bassett’s emphasis on questions and methodological toolkits is especially valuable. These should include theoretical toolkits specific to Religious Studies. Mesoamerican religion is fertile ground for a host of new approaches that go well beyond traditional (Eliadean) comparative studies. Public fascination with “ancient” civilizations of Mexico (including ones such as the Aztecs that are no more ancient than Leonardo da Vinci) derive from Romantic notions that can be traced to myths of Lost Tribes and lost continents, recurrent tropes in traditions from Mormons to New Age traditions that have sought to both “other” and to mistakenly identify Native peoples. A detailed knowledge of the history of Mesoamerican studies, both scholarly and vernacular, as well as contemporary scholarship by archaeologists, art historians, and ethnohistorians is essential for approaching these. Bassett refers to how Aztecs may have sought to dress Cortes in order to treat him as a “god”. We must consider the adornments with which we dress pre-Hispanic indigenous religion in special skins in order to make it comprehensible to us. Of course, this includes even the manufactured skin of “religion” itself.

The Collaborative Experience of Religion and Health Research

A Jew, Muslim, Christian, and non-believer were all in the same room for the same reason: Where were they? They were at Duke University attending Dr. Harold Koenig’s summer workshop on conducting research in religion and health this past summer. My response to Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Harold Koenig will draw on my personal experience attending Dr. Koenig’s research course. I would like to relate just a couple thoughts of my own that hopefully will encourage more scholars, scientists, and professionals from a variety of disciplines to engage in the collaborative endeavor of religion, spirituality, and health.

At the workshop there were a variety of disciplines, professions, and faiths represented. These attendees were all similarly interested in religion and health research and came from various parts of the contiguous United States, Alaska, Canada, Turkey, and Israel. They were made up of students, professors, directors, and professionals. They represented oncology, psychology, nursing, public health, social work, geriatrics, palliative care services, religious studies, sociology, psychiatry, pharmacotherapy, communication and interactive technology, and clergy. There were hospital and Veterans Affairs chaplains, senior pastors, a family physician, organizational consultant, occupational therapist, molecular biologist, and a variety of education and training supervisors.

I attended the workshop as a Ph.D. student from the University of Alaska’s Clinical-Community Psychology Program with a Rural, Indigenous Emphasis. Entering the world of clinical psychology is fraught with many– if not limitless– opportunities and challenges. In a doctoral program such as my own, we train under a model that prepares us to become competent in conducting scientific research and also competent practicing clinicians. When “rural” and “indigenous” emphases are added to the already existing challenges of clinical psychology, one is quickly confronted with further philosophical, historical, and theoretical considerations.   “Scholar” ends up being added to the requisites of “scientist” and “practitioner.” One area of interest of mine is contact between indigenous spirituality and Western religions. I have become increasingly interested in conceptions of conversion and contemporary syncretistic religious practices in indigenous communities. Theoretical research interests are, for me, very much tied to culturally sensitive service delivery. Thankfully, I have benefited from several helpful and accessible handbook resources pertaining to work done in the broad field of the psychology of religion and spirituality (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009; Miller, 2012; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Pargament, Exline, & Jones, 2013; Pargament, Mahoney, & Shafranske, 2013). Dr. Koenig’s week-long intensive workshop was for me a perfect introduction to conducting research a bit more broadly in religion and health. Aside from all I learned, I have come away from the workshop reflecting on two general topics.

Researching While Preserving Religion For Its Own Sake

At the workshop I found it interesting to observe how many attendees were members of, or affiliated with, clergy services. A recurrent concern brought up during the week was the lack of appreciation for clergy’s role in patient care and within the healthcare system. Accordingly there was a recurrent interest to find ways to prove– through various types of research– the utility (or worthiness if you will) of clergy and faith being addressed in health care. Shuman and Meador (2003) have warned of what I might describe as the colonization of religious devotion and practices by Western medicine. It carries with it cultural forces such as individualism, consumerism, and a utilitarian ethic. They caution that a type of faith-for-health exchange will likely–and in the case of Christianity has already– distort particular faith traditions. By practicing particular, and research-approved, religious practices, patients can expect increased health. The additional caution is a resulting distortion of religious conceptions of health and the value of life in the face of modern medical technology and industry. Though Shuman and Meador write from a Christian perspective, I believe their caution is worthy of reflection by a broader audience.

Recently my wife returned home from taking our son to the playground. She was distraught by an observation she had made. She described witnessing another woman accompanying her daughter at the playground. The daughter was whining that she wanted to go home, to which the presumably concerned and well-intentioned mother replied, “the whole point of being here is to get exercise.” She seemed to be sending the message that the playground was a tool for exercise rather than fun or play. Two weeks ago I was looking at a description of a toy my wife and I had purchased for our son as a Christmas gift. I started noticing curious descriptive trends among the other toys in the catalog. One stated, “Keep baby endlessly fascinated and visually stimulated. Encourages fine motor skills and teaches cause and effect.” “For ages 10-24 mos.” I remember exclaiming out loud, “That’s it! Our society is officially killing play!” Sure, research has discovered many good and healthy things that play helps develop in children, but it works that way because it is play! Not work! What once was enjoyed as ‘fun’ and ‘play’ are now explicitly being justified and used instrumentally rather than simply enjoyed. I think these observations may be an anecdotal parallel to the concern of preserving the set-aside or sacred elements of religion for their own sake. To what end might we allow religious health interventions to mimic this trend?  As I have had more time to think about this observation at the workshop, I am beginning to worry that clergy feeling the need to conduct their own research to prove their value in healthcare settings may be a sign that the faithful are starting to identify with (or at least play by the rules of) their scientific captors.

Importance of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

As I flew all the way back home from the workshop I felt charged and encouraged by the atmosphere of Duke and the company I had been in. However, I confess that, more often than not, I view the field of religion & health as utterly overwhelming and often unreasonably complex. Challenges and opportunities sometimes seem more like problems and insurmountable barriers. This is compounded by the often general sense of awkwardness and even mistrust between the humanities, the social, and the natural sciences.

But treating the human being is complex. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (2011) described medicine as necessarily combining both the natural sciences and the human sciences. Humans are both natural-biological beings and embodied agents that also require interpretive understanding. As such, medical practice (and the like) span various levels of analysis and explanation. These levels include the biological and the hermeneutical. By studying religion’s relationship with health, the research will even more broadly span what Ann Taves (2011) summarized as subject-oriented disciplines (e.g. biology & psychology) and disciplines defined by their object of study (e.g. religion, music). Because of this breadth and complexity there is no doubt in my mind of the need for further interdisciplinary collaboration when studying religion and health. I like the phrase used by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) more than ten years ago calling for a “multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm” approach. We will surely reap further rewards when scholars, scientists, and professionals approach religion and health from a variety of fields and a variety of faith and nonreligious traditions. Because religion and health research investigates both ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ of study we will surely need a variety of levels of explanation and must continue to enhance collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaboration may also want to keep in mind the position that “causality does not exhaust meaning” (Teske, 2007 p. 94). I am hopeful that, collectively, we can prevent the hijacking of religious devotion from becoming colonized by other value systems. I hope interdisciplinary collaboration will prove to be more of an opportunity than a barrier and can honor and preserve the things we set aside even as we study them.

I sensed that this collective and interdisciplinary spirit was present at the heart of Dr. Koenig’s workshop as was evidenced by the diversity represented by the attendees. The variety of us together in the same room interested in the same general topic of religion and health research was what I enjoyed most during my week at Duke. Dr. Koenig is not only highly practical and productive, but also appeared warm and friendly. He seems to be one of those people that has the incredible ability to review and summarize massive amounts of information and research (e.g. Koenig, King, & Carson, 2012), but also maintains the demeanor of a gracious and attentive mentor– a welcome relief in the rigors of academia. The workshop balanced class didactics with interpersonal exchange of learning and friendship. We sat together in class and also shared meals while discussing everything from theory and method to pop-culture trivia over chicken and waffles. If you are interested in religion and health research and are from any discipline– or no discipline at all– I would gladly recommend attending the summer workshop with Dr. Koenig.


Dreyfus, H. L. (2011). Medicine as combining natural and human science. Journal Of Medicine & Philosophy36(4), 335-341.

Emmons, R. A., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2003). The Psychology of religion. Annual Review Of Psychology, 54(1), 377.

Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The Psychology of religion: An Empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Gilford.

Koenig, H., King, D., & Carson, V. (2012). Handbook of religion and health (2nd ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, L. (2012). Oxford handbook of psychology and spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pargament, K. I., Exline, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Pargament, K. I., Mahoney, A., & Shafranske, E. P. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 2): An applied psychology of religion and spirituality. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Shuman, J. J., & Meador, K. M. (2003). Heal thyself: Spirituality, medicine, and the distortion of Christianity. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taves, A. (2011). 2010 Presidential address: “Religion” in the humanities and the humanities in the university. Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion, 79(2), 287-314.

Teske, J. (2010). Narrative and meaning in science and religion. Zygon: Journal Of Religion And Science45(1), 91-104.