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A Responses to “Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche”

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Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche

“Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality…or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination, and hope are as central to the human story as are bones, genes, and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behavior as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative cooperation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope, and cruelty.” So begins the abstract for Agustín Fuentes’ 2018 Gifford Lecture series at the University of Edinburgh on the topic “Why We Believe: evolution, making meaning, and the development of human natures.”

In this wide-ranging interview, Chris and Professor Fuentes discuss the themes of the lecture series, the intersections of research on human evolution, ethnoprimatology, and human nature, with the study of religion more generally, the Planet of the Apes films, and more. Along the way, important distinctions are made between specific “beliefs”, “belief systems” and the human “capacity to believe”, and we ask some important questions about the future.

All six lectures in the series were filmed, and are available by clicking here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Why Do We Believe? Evolution, Primates and the Human Niche

Podcast with Agustin Fuentes (23 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Fuentes – Why Do We Believe 1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): “Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality – or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination and hope are as central to the human story as our bones, genes and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behaviour as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative co-operation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope and cruelty.” So begins the abstract of the 2018 Gifford Lecture Series, at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic: “Why We Believe: Evolution, Meaning-Making and the Development of Human Natures”. And I’m joined today by the deliverer of those lectures, Professor Agustin Fuentes, who is the Edmund P Joyce, CSC, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how-and-why of being human, ranging from chasing monkeys in jungles and cities to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe. Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans, and our closest relatives, tick. And his recent books include: Evolution of Human Behaviour; Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature; and The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. So first off: Professor Fuentes, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Agustin Fuentes (AF): I’m very glad to be here.

CC: And you’ve been getting all of the weather in Edinburgh. It’s sunny at the moment, but when we recorded last week we were snowed in. So you’ve had all of that. In fact one of the lectures was cancelled and then rescheduled, so I missed it! So if you can fill me in on that one . . . .

AF: It’ll be on-line soon I think, with the video. So . . . .

CC: Exactly. And we’ll link in this podcast to that page when it goes out. So all the lectures – everyone who’s listening – you can hear and watch the full six lectures of the series. When I pitched this interview to you, I said, “The combination of your expertise in human evolution, ethno-primatology and human nature, and the interaction between that and the study of religion more generally, would make for an excellent and important interview.”

AF: (Laughs).

CC: So, now we’re going to have to live up to that!

AF: Ah. Well, humans love a challenge!

CC: Exactly. But, first of all, if you just tell me a little bit about who you are. I mean, I’ve done your academic, sort-of CV there. But, who you are; how did you get interested in these questions of belief; and, as an ethno-primatologist, what do you do all day?!

AF: So this is a great opportunity to plug Anthropology. In North America, unlike here in Europe, Anthropology is a rubric – a label that covers a much broader area of expertise. So, for example, my two undergraduate degrees are in Zoology and Anthropology. And while that may sound strange to many, it’s quite a logical trajectory for a kind of North American Anthropology that seeks to think through the behaviour, the culture and the history of humanity, and combine that with an understanding of the physiology of the body that embodies an ecology. And so connecting those two things together is sort-of the underlying . . . my joie de vivre, in an academic sense. And because I’m interested in the human, I’m also interested in other primates. Humans are primates, or part of the world in that way. And so, to really contextualise what is distinctive and fascinating about humanity, I need to understand where humans sit in relation to not just their closest cousins but to the broader landscapes. And so that training . . . this is what I bring to bear on understanding human distinctiveness, in context, and by comparison with others.

CC: And I’m imagining a situation like, I don’t know, James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, sitting around your resident ape!

AF: (Laughs). Yes. I think it’s really important to point out, first of all, that the original Planet of the Apes movies are fantastic because they have subtext, and they are situated in the political moment. These recent remakes are just not very good.

CC: But that’s by the by!

AF: But what does one do when doing primate studies? One watches the primates. One tries to get inside into their day to day interactions, their relationships, and the massive social complexity of their day to day lives. And that, actually, informs us a lot about what we, as humans, have as our base. If we understand what primates are, we don’t need to understand why humans are so social, why relationships are so central to our being. That’s because we’re primates. However, we are particularly distinctive. We are the strangest of all the primates. And therein lies the really interesting question about humanity: how do we differ from everything else? (5:00) So, watching primates is a very good training for, I think, scholarly endeavours. Because it usually means spending hours, after hours, after hours, piling on more hours of sitting watching other organisms. And most organisms, unlike humans, actually relax most of the time. So, a lot of the time they’re really not doing that much. So, it takes a lot of perseverance to do fieldwork.

CC: Yes. And I guess you get a lot of thinking time in there as well.

AF: Yes.

CC: So you said, there, about primates and humans being distinctive. Maybe that’s a nice way to weave in . . . ?

AF: Yes. So I think there’s something really important here, and this is critical. I’m an evolutionary scientist and I’m interested in the broad . . . the long durée of human history, and that’s millions and millions of years. When thinking about evolutionary processes, people tend to take one of two sides. Either the “continuity” emphasis, which is very hip right now. Everyone wants to place humans as connected to everything else, which we are, absolutely. That is a fact. However, interesting stories in evolution are not just about connectedness but also about discontinuities. Because evolution is about branching and changing. So we have common ancestors, but then we diverge. And each lineage changes unto itself in particular, distinctive and important ways. And so when I ask questions about the human, I’m very interested in knowing what our baseline line is – by looking at other primates – but much more interested in those distinctive changes that occur across our specific lineage and how that influences what we can know, and think, about the human. And so that’s the distinctive aspect. But you have to understand the continuities to be able to really talk about the distinctions.

CC: And, well, you call that in your lecture series, “the human niche – this element of the human niche. And then that’s connected to this broader question of why we believe. Perhaps that’s a good way for us to go? If you could tell us, what is this human niche, and how has it developed, and maybe some its key characteristics?

AF: So, what’s really incredible is to think in an evolutionary way, to also think in an ecological way, and also a deeply philosophical way. So Jakob von Uexküll, the philosopher and biologist, provided us with the conceptualisation the umwelt: the lifeworld of an organism. Each organism is distinctive in the way in which they are in the world. And so understanding us, humans, in our umwelt – in our contemporary context – is to think through our niche. Niches are these complex ecological, behavioural, historical ways in which we are in the world. So the human niche – the one I’m most interested in – has developed over the last two million years, over the evolution of our genus: the genus Homo. We are, today, Homo sapiens. So the evolutionary trajectory, over the last two million years of our particular lineage, involves changes in bodies, behaviour, genes, neurobiologies and ecologies. And observing the material remains in the physical, in the bones and the materials left behind over time, allows us to attempt to reconstruct the patterns and processes of the development of the human niche. Today, our niche is this unbelievably complicated reality that is challenging and enticing to study. But to really think about contemporary humanity, from my perspective, one should examine the ways in which the niche has changed over time – the bits and pieces. So, for example, the critical extension of the human childhood. The fact that we are born with less than 40% of our brain developed. That is absolutely unique for all mammals. So our brain growth is very, very extended and very plastic and thus the teaching, the social, the nurturing, the inculcating in becoming human is a central part of our niche – much more so than any other animal. So from the very first breath we take, the social, the interaction, the communal is central in the physical, and the experiential, and the perceptual.

CC: Exactly. And in maybe your third lecture you were talking about even things like storage – the development of storage, and how that has affected things. I would never have thought of that in terms of being a major evolutionary . . . .

AF: I think people underplay what evolutionary processes are. Everyone tends to think of: there’s a large thing trying to eat you, and if you’re not eaten and you successfully produce offspring, then you win. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. Evolutionary process is all of the dynamics that go into long-term change across bodies, behaviours, genomes and ecologies. And so understanding those dynamics is critical. And in humans it’s not just about the localised ecologies or behaviours, it’s also about the ways in which we’ve reshaped our world. Humans are the only species . . . well, not the only species, but a species that has a major hand in creating its own ecologies that then feed back and create us. (10:00) And so we bring up storage, or things of domestication: storage, the alteration of environments. Here we are sitting in a beautiful room, surrounded by history, and a bunch of wood and cement and metal and electrical light. All of those things are part and parcel of the construction of the human niche. And so by looking backward we can identify storage, particular patterns of stone tool use, early technologies, the move to bronze and metals. All of these things have had huge influences on how humans interface in the world, which then feeds back on how we perceive and experience the world.

CC: Wonderful. So that brings us, I think . . . we’re already getting on in time, so we need to get to this notion of belief, and then how this relates to everything. So belief, in Religious Studies – well, in everything – is a contested term. How are you understanding belief, first of all?

AF: So this is really important, because I want to be absolutely clear. I believe . . .

CC: Right.

AF: . . . that belief, in the way I’m structuring it and deploying it here, is the human capacity to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, to infuse the world with meanings, and to cast our aspirations far and wide. It’s a commitment, an investment, a devotion to possibilities. So belief is a human capacity that has emerged over our evolutionary histories to take our cognitive, social, communal, historical and logical processes; to include what we can call “detached representation” or off-line thinking – the imaginary; to combine those, such that the imaginary – even the transcendent – can become part of the physical, the perceptual, the material in our niche. Using belief that way, it is not only about religious engagement. It is a capacity of the human. And I use the argument that belief is not some emerging thing in the mind, floating above our heads. Belief is like the fingers on our hand. It is a part and parcel of the human system that has been modified over evolutionary history and that it is critical in our interface with the world and with each other.

CC: OK. I’ll want to push on that towards the end, but that will be a final question that our listeners would not forgive me for not asking. So with that in mind, then: how did we develop this? Where did this come from, and why?

AF: So early on . . . . We can talk about many other – let’s just use other primates, or cetaceans – very complex social mammals, have this incredible deep social reality. And part of their making it their world, their umwelt, their niche, is about social engagement and the social relationship. So that’s a baseline for humans. Humans take that one step further by invoking the capacity for a particular kind of imaginary. That is, we can see in items the possibilities of other items: we can take a stone and see inside that stone is a stone tool. We can see relationships and imagine how they could be, even though they’re not that way at the moment. So this perceptual capacity enables us to do what we call “cognitive and behavioural prospecting”: to imagine into the future the way the world could be, the way that we might want it to be, and attempt to make that a material reality. And that, over evolutionary history, we see in the material remains: ramping up more and more – not just making tools that are functional so that we can live, but creating items of meaning and using those items of meaning to feedback, to create and ramp up the complex cumulative cultural changes that have happened over our histories. So meaning-making is a central outcome of the capacity for belief.

CC: Yes. You were commenting on the structures that have clearly taken generations upon generations to be built, and don’t seem to serve any obvious function, and things like that . . . .

AF: I think that’s really important, because we say they don’t seem . . . . That’s the sort-of functional talk: this reductive notion of, “Everything must . . . if it doesn’t serve a function, it must be magic or ritual.” And what I’d like to do is sort-of push against that, very directly, by saying, “No, this is part of the human experience.” These things that we see are not for making food, or for housing humans or some clear obvious function. We don’t need to be reductive about the human experience. Because the human experience denies a total reduction; it’s always more than the sum of its parts. And so if we acknowledge that that capacity – these multigenerational building projects that mean something to those populations, that have impact not just on the perception but on their bodies, and their lives, and how they see and experience the world – that is important. It just is not reduced to the material elements or some specific function.

CC: Exactly. And we’ve got . . . “We” – in quotation marks – have an awful tendency, if we’re looking at other cultures or things in the past, to go, “Oh there’s a symbol. That must be their religion, it must be ritual.” (15:00) Whereas here, you know, outside there’ll be the Scottish Flag, the Saltire, the St Andrews Cross: no-one goes, “Oh, that’s a religious symbol!” But we have a tendency, when looking at the past . . . .

AF: And here it’s very, very important. And I make a very explicit argument differentiating belief – the capacity to be religious – and religion. I think, for me, it’s very important. There’s many, many scholarly intellectual arguments that could push against this in valid ways, but in an evolutionary sense you must make this distinction. So I invoke Clifford Geertz, when I talk about the capacity to be religious, defining religious as: “the use of one’s capacity for belief in the context of becoming, with particular perceptual, experiential and agential practices involving the transcendent, that act to establish powerful, persuasive and long lasting moods and motivations that may be, but are not necessarily tied to specific formal doctrines, practices, texts and institutions.” And in that way it is inherent, as a part of the process of our capacity for belief, that humans have a capacity to be religious. And I think anyone worth their salt, looking at our history, says humans have been and are religious. Religions, however, I have to separate off in my engagement with the long durée of human evolutionary history, because contemporary religion is defined as follows: “the formal coalition of religious beliefs and practices and materials, symbols and structural institutions that unite them into a single community via specific theological doctrine and ritual.” And that’s borrowing from Durkheim. The reason I do that is because our contemporary religions as institutions have histories, have texts, have theologies – but those do not have very deep roots, from my perspective.

CC: Exactly.

AF: That is, they don’t go back . . . we can’t find anything that really connects them clearly, materially, more than 6-8000 years ago. That means, what do I do with the other two million years? And so, for me, there is clear evidence of meaning-making and absolute commitment to an importance of the transcendent experience in the human, well before 6-8000 years ago. For me, I see this as the capacity to be religious; as an openness to possibilities that has, in our current times, formalised in particular institutional and theological practices.

CC: Exactly. And there’re, I can jump in and go: “Well, Whoah!” You asked the question, why we believe. You could also ask the question: why do we not believe? There are plenty around who would probably bristle at you saying “I’m a believer.” (Laughs).

AF: So I think that’s great. People should bristle because they’re ignorant. When I say belief – and here I don’t mean to be insulting – but I think it’s very important to point out that what I’m talking about is not the human association with particular institution, or history, or even a particular theology, or philosophy. What I’m talking about is the human capacity to be with, to experience awe, to have the transcendent perceptions influence the way in which we are in life. All humans have that capacity. How we choose to engage with it, how we choose to deploy it, and what histories and structures we enable to come forth from that I think that’s a very good question. The problem today is we’re in this mode, this contemporary moment, where the politics of aggression between different patterns and traditions of faith and practice have incredible salience. So the New Atheists, for example, would argue that all religion is delusion. To that I respond, “So, 83% – let’s say 6.2 billion human beings are idiots?” No. 6.2 billion human beings are doing what humans do, and participating in an incredible opportunity to deploy their capacity to be religious alongside particular institutions, theologies and faith traditions. Other humans who do not belong to those faith traditions are actually believing in different ways.

CC: Exactly.

AF: Everyone has this capacity. And so I think the argument, stemming from ignorance, that we should be envisioning the human as without access to the transcendent – or to that broader experience – is dangerous, because it cuts us off from what we know has been one of the keys to our success in the past.

CC: Exactly. And the danger, then, with this sort of talk, can be that we lose that we’re talking about a capacity. We’re not saying whether there is a transcendent. But sometimes people . . . I imagine lot of people, even listening to your lectures, will be sitting there going, “This proves that God is real!” And things like that.

AF: Well this is the wonderful thing that, again, stems from this really interesting jumping to conclusions and not thinking things through. (20:00) You cannot prove faith. That is the point of it. Faith is felt and is real. That’s the entire reason it works. It is real. And so whatever the faith practices that you engage in, if they’re not real for you, if you have to find some sort of mathematical equation, then I have to ask, what is it that you’re seeking? And it might be something else. So I think these are great debates to have. I think they’re very important. And I think we have to distinguish institutional religion from the capacity to be religious or from what most people do day in and day out. Because religious institutions – like political institutions and economical institutions – have histories, and histories that are often fraught with really complex and problematic realities. But that doesn’t mean they’re static and they don’t change. And we know today, making a difference in the world without participating with religions is going to be impossible.

CC: Absolutely. And yes, it belies this myth of the division between the religious and the secular, that there is . . . . You mention the New Atheists. So, they talk as if they’re completely 100% empirical and rational all of the time, and they have no – quote – “faith commitments” – unquote. And they don’t do anything based on tradition or intuition or emotion.

AF: And to be honest with you, that’s an extreme version and only a few are like that. The vast majority of people are not, and they recognise that if you make such a dogmatic assertion, you are in fact demonstrating faith. That’s exactly the point. You are demonstrating a belief system. And I think that’s something that just needs to be recognised. And let’s go back to what you said about that religious versus secular realities. Most of the world, even today, does not have that division. And until very recently that division did not exist. People are in the world and the experience of awe, the potential for transcendence are part of their daily lives. We now divide it politically: this notion that there’s faith traditions and then there’s the rest of your life. And that’s just a very strange way to be human – and quite atypical, even today.

CC: Exactly. So I mentioned earlier I was going to push you on the notion of belief. So you’ve got this very nuanced, non-theological definition that you use, but I imagine that many people coming to your work bring with them a sort-of folk understanding of the term belief, which is quite – quote – “protestant” – unquote.

AF: (Laughs).

CC: So why use that word? Is there a danger that the work that you’re doing is sort-of tainted by association with the word?

AF: Yes. I mean there is that danger, but I think it’s a risk that’s worth taking. Because I think belief is powerful. You could say, “Why don’t you just stick with imagination?” Well, imagination isn’t the whole picture, it’s a component of belief. “Well, why don’t you just stick with humans’ capacity to have detached mental representation?” Like, well that’s one tool, one process, within this larger system of belief. And I think it’s actually very important that we recognise that belief is a human capacity, as I’ve outlined here, that is deployed in many different instances. Now, I think it resonates particularly well with many theological and philosophical engagements, because philosophers and particularly theologians have been asking about belief; that’s their forte, they’re interested in that area. Whereas other people, say economists, pretend they’re not talking about belief.

CC: Exactly.

AF: And I think that’s the danger: the idea that economic systems or political systems reflect reality, not belief systems, is a threat to the potential for humans to navigate those.

CC: And you’ve just hit on . . . in my postdoctoral project I’ve used the word “unbelief” in the title. So I’m interested in all those people who want to distance themselves from, I’ll say, “religion”. But the word unbelief – it’s nicely slippery, in that it covers so much. Whereas I’d previously used “non-religion” – but then you’re into a binary, and it’s “versus” all the time.

AF: I love unbelief. I think that’s fantastic. And I’m going to place it with my – with acknowledgement to use this – and place it with another one of my favourite phrases which is “incurious”. (25:00) So I think using unbelief is critical, because that’s a political act, right, to say “I am not participating in belief; I am doing this; mine is realty, yours is not”? That’s a political statement. Anyone who tells you humans are rational and reasonable, when they get rid of the capacity for this perceptual experience of the more-than-the-material, is wrong. And they’re trying to sell you something. They know, as human beings, what they can experience and have experienced. And so when they argue that, “No this is the rational reality, versus your reality”, they’re trying to sell you their goods.

CC: Exactly. So we’re coming up on time. Your final lecture is tonight, so I haven’t heard that yet. So what’s your big conclusion going to be . . . your big admonition? Give us a taste!

AF: Well, I facetiously titled it, “Can Belief Matter?” And everyone knows the answer is, “Yes!” But what I really mean – and I will go into more detail – is: can we make belief truly matter in the 21st century, when we are on the precipice of so many catastrophic issues for not just humans, but the whole planet? How do we, then, engage the scientific, the religious, the political, the economic, in dialogue so that we can do what so many of us want – and that is to move forward on the planet in ways that are sustainable, as equitable as possible, compassionate and caring in spite of all the problems? We’re not going to get rid of inequality, and warfare, and horrors, but we can probably manage them more effectively than we are now. And I would like to suggest – and I think many philosophers and theologians have been saying this for quite some time – that it is through belief, through the patterns and processes of diverse belief systems and the individual ability to believe, to commit, to hope, to imagine, that we have a better chance. And if we ignore that, and we try to trust in just particular political or economic systems to push forward, or our creativity and our ingenuity – and it’s gotten us out of problems before it’ll work in the future – I cannot see that is turning out well.

CC: Fantastic. And one of the pervasive and problematic discourses that one hears in the UK context, and I’m sure in the States and elsewhere, is that it’s not polite to talk about . . . well it’s sex, religion and politics.

AF: If we don’t talk about sex, religion, politics and race, we are doomed!

CC: Exactly! And that is how ideologies get stuck.

AF: Absolutely! The power of ideologies are when they go truly unchallenged.

CC: Exactly! And hopefully this interview has helped spark some conversations and some ideas. As I’ve said, Listeners, you can check out the full series, and there’s a link in the podcast page, or just by searching for Adam Gifford Lectures 2018, or for Agustin Fuentes. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

AF: Oh, this has been a great discussion! Thank you so much for having me.

CC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Fuentes, Agustin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Why Do We Believe? Evolution, Primates and the Human Niche”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/why-do-we-believe-evolution-primates-and-the-human-niche/

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Not Just Any Body Will Do!

Dr. Claire White’s research addresses the religious topic of reincarnation that, although perhaps more adhered to by human cultures across time and space than the belief that we have only one earthly life followed by eternal reward or punishment, has received little serious scientific investigation—especially from the question through which Dr. White addresses it. That question is not whether reincarnation (or any other religious belief) is true, but rather “Why do some people have that belief?” It is this type of psychological question that is the hallmark of the cognitive science of religion (CSR).

The long-held assumption, made historically by both scholars and laymen, has been that religious beliefs are created and instilled through cultural transmission and indoctrination. In the past few decades, however, the newly emergent field of CSR has taken that assumption to task with numerous empirical experiments. Contrary to this long-held assumption, research into a wide variety of religious beliefs by CSR has found that many of those beliefs are held by us because they tap into and appeal to our natural cognitive biases. These cognitive biases predispose us to believe in gods, an afterlife, a moral universe, and creationism. Even though each religion addresses these topics in (sometimes very!) different ways, the findings suggest that what binds this great variation together are these underlying intuitions.

Like any human endeavour, however, science sometimes includes missteps.

White’s research, in conjunction with my own and others’, calls into question a theoretical assumption held by many CSR scholars that the body plays a negligible role in beliefs about supernatural agents (see here, here and here). According to such scholars, supernatural agents are represented by believers as disembodied beings, devoid of any bodily properties. This applies to gods as well as the afterliving deceased. Once a human dies, these researchers tell us, the only part of this deceased individual we intuitively represent as continuing is her mind. We no longer represent her as embodied in any way, let alone in any way connected with her previous earthly body. In contradistinction to this view with regard to the latter, both White and myself argue that the body still plays a vital role in representations of the afterliving deceased, and that this bodily representation is sufficiently corporeal and similar enough to allow for recognition and identification as “the same again” as well as continued social interaction.

As White rightly states in her interview, if there were ever a case in which the afterliving deceased’s previous earthly body should play no role whatsoever in her representation, recognition and identity, then it should be in the context of reincarnation. It is believed that the new physical body of the reincarnated individual shares no causal history, in the scientific sense, with her previous body. It could vary in race, sex, and innumerable other ways. Yet White’s empirical findings demonstrate that when trying to determine whether a reincarnated individual is the same again, we intuitively look for and at distinctive physical clues. If it were indeed the case that humans intuitively represented the afterliving deceased as disembodied minds, then there would be no reason, let alone an intuitive bias, to gauge the reincarnated individual’s identity based on her bodily attributes. Yet we do.

The evidence produced by White vividly demonstrates this by the fact that one of the two most important features that one “implicitly” looks for and appeals to in order to recognize a reincarnated individual as the same again are distinctive physical characteristics. Since the individual’s new body shares no causal history—genetic or otherwise—with her previous body (again, in the scientific sense), there should be no implicit reason to expect there to be such specific physical clues of identity. Nevertheless, White’s evidence demonstrates that we still represent and appeal to physical clues in matters of recognizing a reincarnated individual as the same again.

White does not appeal to novel cognitive mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, as is vogue in CSR (and cognitive science as a whole). Instead White claims that this intuitive cognitive bias relies on the known mundane representational processes that we use every day to recognize those we encounter as the same again. We expect them to have a specific causal history which we implicitly track through both mental (i.e., autobiographical memories) and distinctive physical characteristics. Of course, the latter are far more easily tracked than the former (could you imagine how different our interactions would be if we had to establish every individual’s identity by first interrogating her about her memories?).

White is also to be commended for incorporating anthropological evidence in her research. This is something that should be done much more often in CSR. Too often, researchers produce results and theories in their laboratories that appear to share little in common with the religious practices they are attempting to illuminate empirically. They provide us with no bridge to get from their results and theory to religion writ large in human cultures. Even worse, sometimes their results and theories seem to fly in the face of religious beliefs and practices.

Again, take the claim that humans represent supernatural agents as disembodied. This is problematic in that supernatural agents (with very few exceptions) are starkly represented as embodied, not just in iconography but also in mythologies and religious texts, and in fact often with very specific and odd physical features. For instance, think about the pantheons of supernatural agents across such diverse cultures as in ancient Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, India and China. How could the supernatural agents in these cultures have been represented, let alone carried out their specific mythical exploits, if we believed (intuitively or otherwise) that they were disembodied? Reconciling the laboratory phenomenon of dualism with religious beliefs and practices begins to appear impossible.

To overcome the complaints of its critics, CSR needs to follow White’s lead. Not only must we diligently carry out cross-cultural experiments in the laboratory, but we also need to consult and remain faithful to the anthropological record of religion as it is believed and practiced. If the two appear incompatible, it is our experiments and theories that must be rethought. It is not as though we in CSR can authoritatively tell the religious faithful that they are worshipping all wrong!

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

‘Religious’ and ‘Spiritual’ Struggles: Now in ‘Nonreligious’ and ‘Nonspiritual’ flavors!

The fact that not only do religious believers sometimes question, struggle with, or even doubt their beliefs, but that resolving these issues can lead someone to a greater level of acceptance and understanding of their faith has been embodied in the form of quest-orientation for some time (Batson & Ventis, 1982). But recently, researchers studying the psychology of religion and spirituality have become more interested in how these spiritual stuggles might also lead towards distress as well (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014). But are these struggles only experienced by the ‘religious’ about ‘religious’ beliefs? Or could people, even nonbelievers, also experience analogous struggles which impact their lives, for both good and bad.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Julie Exline talks about her work in developing the Religious and Spiritual Struggles scale, where the original ideas came from and how they interacted with her previous work surrounding anger towards god (Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011). She then goes on to describe how some interesting findings within her previous work led her to be interested in whether or not nonbelievers experience similar ‘spiritual’ struggles, if they could be measured and compared to believers’ struggles, and how to measure them in a way valid for both believers and nonbelievers. She also gives a brief overview of some of her current work and interests in the area of nonbelief and secularity more broadly.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us (but only if you enjoyed it, please). And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, non-academic texts, arcane grimoires, miscellaneous intellectual paraphernalia, and more!

This is our last podcast until September 2015… but don’t forget that you can keep up with the RSP on Martin will be featuring podcasts from the archive on the homepage throughout the summer, and that there will be the occasional feature to keep you entertained. Thanks for listening!

References

  • Batson, C. D., & Ventis, W. L. (1982). The religious experience: A social-psychological perspective. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465
  • Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smyth, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 129–148. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0021716

Self-Report: We Can Do Better (And Are!)

The Religious Studies Project interview with Dr. Luke Galen conducted by Tommy Coleman was an excellent cross-section of some of the a long way to go in figuring out ways to both incorporate nonbelievers into our work as well as to signal when our findings only apply to a particular belief group, instead of all humans (ie. “Increased religiosity helps prevent recurring depression for religious believers” instead of “Religion prevents depression”). The idea that we need to explicitly include nonbelievers in our samples has begun to find solid ground, both in Dr. Galen’s work and others’ (e.g. Galen, 2012; Streib & Klein, 2013), but there have been some issues with developing this idea further. Dr. Galen alluded to one of the major issues in continuing to include nonbelievers, namely the increasing usage of the word “spirituality.” Does it include well-being and having a sense of meaning in life? Feelings of Awe and transcendence? Believing in Ghosts, angels, and demons? Yes, and this lack of clarity is a major problem for studies which try and link “spirituality” with mental health and well-being.

I strongly agree with Dr. Galen’s assertion that the amount of criterion contamination found in most discussions and measures of “spirituality” is problematic, and this point was well-highlighted in Tommy’s point about, “long walks on the beach.” A question that covers so much territory may not even be an accurate reflection of general well-being for people who prefer walking in the woods, let alone serve as a marker of the supernatural component implicit in “spirituality.” While I don’t think Dr. Galen presented a hard-experimentalist view completely dismissing self-report, the criterion contamination introduced by our fuzzy definition of “spirituality” and poorly-constructed self-report measures seem to be bundled up into a problem that exists for self-report measures in general. Just as in the study of moral reasoning, experimental designs which attempt to tap implicit beliefs risk ignoring the fact that humans also seem to be able to exert some conscious control over their beliefs and thus can’t be treated as simply heuristic machines (Cunningham et al., 2004; Turiel, 2008).

Instead, it seems best to attempt to fix the problem of poor self-report measures more directly. We can do this by making measures which don’t use double-barreled questions which nonbelievers can’t straightforwardly answer, explicitly addressing the issue of “supernatural spirituality,” and ensuring that aspects of the measure which tap more general well-being concepts are sufficiently differentiated from supernatural concepts. Additionally, to construct better measures we’ll need to include large enough samples of nonbelievers during all stages of scale development to ensure that the resulting measures are valid for both believers and nonbelievers.

I bring all of this up because there are already measures which have been (or are being) published which meet these criteria, so I can flagrantly advertise them. Cragun, Hammer, and Nielsen’s Nonreligious-Nonspirituality Scale (in press) addresses the problem of fuzzy-spirituality by clearly specifying that respondents should only respond in regards to their beliefs regarding the supernatural aspects of spirituality and not the more general well-being aspects. In addition, their scale was developed for use with believers as well and seems to validly measure the extent of their nonreligious and nonspiritual beliefs, allowing for comparisons between believers and nonbelievers which might not be feasible with “beach walking” measures of spirituality.

While Dr. Galen’s assertion that the well-being of nonbelievers has been underestimated due to incorrectly grouping them with believers who might be experiencing religious and/or spiritual struggles seems to be an accurate depiction of the literature at the moment, this also seems likely to be a problem of improperly interpreted self-report measures rather than with self-report in general. There is initial evidence pointing to a U-shaped curve of well-being related to the strength of a person’s (non)belief (Streib & Klein, 2013). Investigating this idea using the level of control afforded by in-lab experimental studies will be important, but it will also be important to leverage the generalizability of broad self-report studies. We just need a measure of “spiritual” struggles which actually works with the kinds of struggles which might point to lower levels of belief for both believers and nonbelievers.

At the risk of continuing to over-toot the horns of projects that I’m involved with, the Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014) seems like it will work in that regard. While two of the sub-scales explicitly contain supernatural items, the scale is modular and our early analyses indicated that atheists experience less spiritual struggles than agnostics, when excluding the explicitly supernatural scales (Uzdavines, Bradley, & Exline, 2014). We are currently working on confirming that the scale is measurement invariant with fine-grained belief identification groups (ie. Atheists, Agnostics, Theists, etc) before investigating the link between non-supernatural “spiritual” struggles and well-being, but our early analyses show that it is invariant when considering nonbelievers and believers as two broad groups.

Which is all to say; those of us within psychology of religion who study secularity are privileged to be working in a time where secular beliefs and nonbelievers are starting to be taken seriously within the field as a whole. Maintaining a high level of rigor in the methodology we employ, while important in and of itself, is even more crucial because of the history of criterion contamination within the field that Dr. Galen discussed in this interview and in his own work. “Spirituality” is an overly broad term and, when interpreted incorrectly, can lead to conclusions that more religion leads to more well-being without considering that more nonreligion might also lead to more well-being. It will take much more work to shift the field towards accepting religious nonbelief as a discreet and important category, separate from religious belief even if we still need to clarify our terminology.

But rigorous does not only mean experimental. Self-report can provide interesting avenues of investigation, but more care needs to be taken in building self-report measures which minimize criterion contamination and allow nonbelievers to indicate their level of nonbelief or well-being without having to dance around double-barreled questions. Fortunately, the rapidly expanding breadth of research communities dedicated to investigating secularity should allow the field of secular studies to continue pooling ideas and methodology to illuminate the nature of nonbelief and nonbelievers.

References

Cragun, R. T., Hammer, J. H., & Nielsen, M. (in press). The Nonreligious-Nonspiritual Scale (NRNSS): Measuring Everyone from Atheists to Zionists. Science, Religion, and Culture.

Cunningham, W. A., Johnson, M. K., Raye, C. L., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., & Banaji, M. R. (2004). Separable neural components in the processing of black and white faces. Psychological Science, 15(12), 806–813.

Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465

Galen, L. W. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876–906. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0028251

Streib, H., & Klein, C. (2013). Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, & J. W. Jones (Eds.), APA handbook of psychology, peligion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research (Vol. 1, pp. 713–728). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Turiel, E. (2008). The Development of Children’s Orientations toward Moral, Social, and Personal Orders: More than a Sequence in Development. Human Development, 51(1), 21–39. http://doi.org/10.1159/000113154

Uzdavines, A., Bradley, D. F., & Exline, J. J. (2014). Struggle and the nonreligious: Do weaker forms of nonbelief increase susceptibility to spiritual struggle? In Religious and spiritual struggles: New research frontiers. La Mirada, CA.

 

Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’

 

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind

Do you believe that unseen forces have the causal power to move physical objects and intervene in everyday human affairs? Of course you do. You are probably like most other humans alive today who effortlessly place great explanatory weight on these hidden forces. However, such unseen forces are not the local forest spirits, or gods in the sky, per se, but as Gervais (2013, p. 380) writes: “These entities are called minds”. Conversely, it just so happens that we attribute to the forest spirit, to the gods, and even to the Christian God (Barrett & Keil, 1996) for example, a mind that has the same conceptual limitations as our own (e.g. being limited in action by both time and space). A core tenet of cognitive science of religion (CSR) is that the folk-psychological ability to explain human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions – known as theory of mind (ToM) – is also a system that makes us receptive to belief in the supernatural (Banerjee & Bloom, 2013; Gervais, 2013). But why?

In his interview with Thomas Coleman, cultural and evolutionary psychologist Dr. Will Gervais talks about the role that ToM plays in explaining both belief, and nonbelief in supernatural agents. Gervais begins by discussing some of his prior research in the field, and draws salient the various phenomena that falls under the ability, he terms as “mind perception”. Further, he touches on how, and why ToM is an important construct in CSR for explaining god beliefs, and gives the listener insight into how unseen mental states can be measured.* In closing, Gervais answers important questions such as “Is ToM a religion specific system?” and even weighs in on the suggested autism-atheism connection prevalent in CSR.

A short video clip of Heider and Simmel’s classic 1944 experiment mentioned in the podcast can be found here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, rubber ducks, dandelion seeds, and more.

References

  • Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2013). Would Tarzan believe in God? Conditions for the emergence of religious belief. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 17(1), 7-8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.11.005
  • Barrett, J., & Keil, F. (1996). Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219-247. doi:10.1006/cogp.1996.0017
  • Gervais, W. (2013). Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains, and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 8(4), 380-394. doi:10.1177/1745691613489836

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Measuring Secularity

At the home of the first secular studies undergraduate program, amid dozens of secularity scholars from around globe, Tommy Coleman’s interview with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John Shook tackles big questions about the measurement of secularity and secularism, the positionality of secularity scholars, and the state of secular studies as a field. The 3rd annual conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) at Pitzer College, which I too attended, was indeed the perfect place for this conversation. Secularity scholars from all over, both geographically and epistemologically, came together to debate and discuss these very questions. In the interview, Zuckerman and Shook describe a burgeoning “field of secular studies,” and, for me, this conference was evidence of just that. Here, I will build on their points about measurement and positionality, arguing that the heterogeneity among those who claim no religion requires more attention than it has been given and that the emerging field of secular studies shows definite signs of rising to that challenge.

To start, Zuckerman and Shook emphasize that “secularity” is a much broader phenomenon than most scholarly research acknowledges and they have given themselves the task of putting together the Oxford Handbook of Secularism to begin addressing the gaps in secular studies that have historically focused solely on atheists and atheism. Many others at the NSRN conference made similar points, and presentations detailing the variety of labels, beliefs, and behaviors found among the secular dominated the panels. This is encouraging and, I would argue, a long time coming. The rise of the “nones” as a category in social science research, while a step in the right direction, is far from sufficient to address the increasing presence and diversity of the religiously disaffiliated.

Referring to a research project in which he attempted to measure the amount of atheists globally (Zuckerman 2007), Zuckerman admits that measuring secularity is no easy task. He questions the validity of global statistics on irreligion and both he and Shook discuss the importance of being sensitive to regionality and culture when measuring secularity outside of a Western, Christian context. I agree, but want to emphasize that we are still far from sufficiently measuring secularity and its effects within Western contexts. Most quantitative research claiming to say something about what the “nones” do and do not do, in contrast to the religious, typically collapses all of those who claim no religious belief or affiliation into one category. These studies often make claims about the benefits of religion based on comparisons with the “nones”, and the religiously affiliated have been found to be happier, healthier, and more engaged with their communities. However, while often rigorously testing for variance among the religious, these studies treat the irreligious as if they have a static identity, resulting in an elision of the range of beliefs and behaviors that have been found within this growing group.

Zuckerman calls on the three Bs – belief, belonging, and behavior – to define what it means to “be secular.” Social scientists often use these categories to measure religiosity, as these three ways of being religious have been found to have distinct, and often contradictory, influences on social attitudes and behaviors. The utility of parsing out these categories among the “nones” is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, Zuckerman details how an individual can be secular in one way and not in another. Someone can go to church while not believing in god(s), or, indeed, can believe in god(s) without affiliating with any religious institution. Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam (2010) found that Americans who claim no religious affiliation one year often join a religious institution the next, highlighting the fluidity and “liminality” of religious and secular belief, belonging, and behavior (see also Keysar 2014). However, Zuckerman asserts that one cannot be truly secular if they believe in god(s). While you can agree or disagree with his definition, the important point is that when these distinct ways of being secular are conflated, the result is often invalid categories and incomplete conclusions (see Joseph Blankholm’s insightful post on the same topic).

At the American Mosaic Project, a survey project I’m a part of at the University of Minnesota, one of our goals is to speak to this gap in the research. We have multiple measures of secular belonging and behavior, including four separate measures for irreligious belonging (atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, and nothing in particular). Analyses indicate important distinctions among all four categories, as well as between those who take on a “none” label, those who have atheistic beliefs, and those who do not attend church. Other studies have found these distinctions as well, for example, Baker and Smith (2009) find that American atheists, agnostics, and unchurched believers each have distinct political beliefs and varying stances on religion’s place in public life.

A second aspect of measuring secularity discussed in the interview deals with its relation to religion. For Zuckerman, secularity is and always has to be in relation to religion. He argues, “If there was no religion, secularity would not have to be invented, we wouldn’t have to have a word for it.” Shook disagrees, rebutting, “There is no magic in language. Words don’t bring things into existence.” For Shook, secularism is an objective, measurable phenomenon that can exist with or without the presence of religion. He argues, “Just because the term serves as a contrary doesn’t mean that its existence is dependent on the contrary.” Their discussion in many ways parallels a conversation among scholars of nonbelief identities and communities. Scholars like Smith (2011) and Guenther (2014) argue that atheism in America is a “rejection identity” formed out of a rejection of religious belief and belonging. In contrast, LeDrew (2013) and Cimino and Smith (2014) highlight the ways that atheists and other nonbelievers are forming groups based on beliefs that they share instead of beliefs they reject.

What these discussions ultimately show is that individual and collective expressions of secularity vary across time and space, evolving even within the same community. In short, context matters. The political, cultural, and religious contexts of a given society influence the way secular ideals and beliefs are interpreted and enacted. Secularity, Shook explains, is set up in opposition to religion in some societies, like in the United States, but not all, and this can vary both between societies and within them. The research highlighted in this response has shown that there is a growing diversity of secular identities and ideologies, and what I’m seeing in the emerging field of secular studies is an increased sensitivity to the contexts and subjectivities under which these identities are taking shape.

References

Baker, Joseph and Buster Smith. 2009. “None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48(4): 719-733

Cimino, Richard and Christopher Smith. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Oxford University Press

Guenther, Katja. 2014. “Bounded by Disbelief: How Atheists in the United States Differentiate Themselves from Religious Believers.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 29(1): 1-16

Keysar, Ariela. 2014. “Shifts Along the American Religious-Secular Spectrum.” Secularism and Nonreligion 3(1): 1-16

LeDrew, Stephen. 2013. “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity

and Activism.” Sociology of Religion 74(4): 431-45

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49(4): 596-618

Smith, Jesse. 2011. “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism.” Sociology of Religion. 72(2): 215-237

Zuckerman, Phil. 2007. “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns.” Pp. 47-62 in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by M. Martin. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press

 

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References

  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 2

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this second part we ask “the epistemic/ontological question”: in studying these experiences, how far should we be concerned with the ontology? Would to do so be an abandonment of the scientific materialism which underpins the discipline, and therefore a slide back into theology? Or can there be a bigger model of materialism – a “complicated materialism”, to use Ann Taves’ expression – in which these phenomena might be suitably explicable? Or, as Bowie puts it, can we use “empathetic engagement” to adopt the ontology for research purposes? You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons and David Hufford. Part 1 can be downloaded here.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc.

Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 1

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this first part, we ask, why has the study of “paranormal” experience been somewhat ignored by academia in general and Religious Studies in particular? Is the problem the term “paranormal”? What importance of these kinds of studies have for the field? Is there concern that such studies necessarily seek to justify the ontological claims of the paranormal? This latter issue is pursued in part two, to be broadcast this wednesday. Many of the scholars also offer advice for those interested in this area but are worried about “employability”. You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons, Stanley Krippner and David Hufford.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc. Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

From left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.

 

Podcasts

The Return of Homo Religiosus

A Responses to “Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche”

by Tenzan  Eaghll

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Why do we believe? Evolution, Primates, and the Human Niche

“Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality…or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination, and hope are as central to the human story as are bones, genes, and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behavior as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative cooperation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope, and cruelty.” So begins the abstract for Agustín Fuentes’ 2018 Gifford Lecture series at the University of Edinburgh on the topic “Why We Believe: evolution, making meaning, and the development of human natures.”

In this wide-ranging interview, Chris and Professor Fuentes discuss the themes of the lecture series, the intersections of research on human evolution, ethnoprimatology, and human nature, with the study of religion more generally, the Planet of the Apes films, and more. Along the way, important distinctions are made between specific “beliefs”, “belief systems” and the human “capacity to believe”, and we ask some important questions about the future.

All six lectures in the series were filmed, and are available by clicking here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Tang CD’s, old copies of “Dunston checks In,” and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Why Do We Believe? Evolution, Primates and the Human Niche

Podcast with Agustin Fuentes (23 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Fuentes – Why Do We Believe 1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): “Humans can see the world around them, imagine how it might be different, and translate those imaginings into reality – or at least try to. Humans believe. Meaning, imagination and hope are as central to the human story as our bones, genes and ecologies. Neither selfish aggression nor peaceful altruism dominates human behaviour as a whole. We are a species distinguished by our extraordinary capacity for creative co-operation, our ability to imagine possibilities and to make them material, and our powerful aptitudes for belief, hope and cruelty.” So begins the abstract of the 2018 Gifford Lecture Series, at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic: “Why We Believe: Evolution, Meaning-Making and the Development of Human Natures”. And I’m joined today by the deliverer of those lectures, Professor Agustin Fuentes, who is the Edmund P Joyce, CSC, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how-and-why of being human, ranging from chasing monkeys in jungles and cities to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe. Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans, and our closest relatives, tick. And his recent books include: Evolution of Human Behaviour; Race, Monogamy and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature; and The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. So first off: Professor Fuentes, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Agustin Fuentes (AF): I’m very glad to be here.

CC: And you’ve been getting all of the weather in Edinburgh. It’s sunny at the moment, but when we recorded last week we were snowed in. So you’ve had all of that. In fact one of the lectures was cancelled and then rescheduled, so I missed it! So if you can fill me in on that one . . . .

AF: It’ll be on-line soon I think, with the video. So . . . .

CC: Exactly. And we’ll link in this podcast to that page when it goes out. So all the lectures – everyone who’s listening – you can hear and watch the full six lectures of the series. When I pitched this interview to you, I said, “The combination of your expertise in human evolution, ethno-primatology and human nature, and the interaction between that and the study of religion more generally, would make for an excellent and important interview.”

AF: (Laughs).

CC: So, now we’re going to have to live up to that!

AF: Ah. Well, humans love a challenge!

CC: Exactly. But, first of all, if you just tell me a little bit about who you are. I mean, I’ve done your academic, sort-of CV there. But, who you are; how did you get interested in these questions of belief; and, as an ethno-primatologist, what do you do all day?!

AF: So this is a great opportunity to plug Anthropology. In North America, unlike here in Europe, Anthropology is a rubric – a label that covers a much broader area of expertise. So, for example, my two undergraduate degrees are in Zoology and Anthropology. And while that may sound strange to many, it’s quite a logical trajectory for a kind of North American Anthropology that seeks to think through the behaviour, the culture and the history of humanity, and combine that with an understanding of the physiology of the body that embodies an ecology. And so connecting those two things together is sort-of the underlying . . . my joie de vivre, in an academic sense. And because I’m interested in the human, I’m also interested in other primates. Humans are primates, or part of the world in that way. And so, to really contextualise what is distinctive and fascinating about humanity, I need to understand where humans sit in relation to not just their closest cousins but to the broader landscapes. And so that training . . . this is what I bring to bear on understanding human distinctiveness, in context, and by comparison with others.

CC: And I’m imagining a situation like, I don’t know, James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, sitting around your resident ape!

AF: (Laughs). Yes. I think it’s really important to point out, first of all, that the original Planet of the Apes movies are fantastic because they have subtext, and they are situated in the political moment. These recent remakes are just not very good.

CC: But that’s by the by!

AF: But what does one do when doing primate studies? One watches the primates. One tries to get inside into their day to day interactions, their relationships, and the massive social complexity of their day to day lives. And that, actually, informs us a lot about what we, as humans, have as our base. If we understand what primates are, we don’t need to understand why humans are so social, why relationships are so central to our being. That’s because we’re primates. However, we are particularly distinctive. We are the strangest of all the primates. And therein lies the really interesting question about humanity: how do we differ from everything else? (5:00) So, watching primates is a very good training for, I think, scholarly endeavours. Because it usually means spending hours, after hours, after hours, piling on more hours of sitting watching other organisms. And most organisms, unlike humans, actually relax most of the time. So, a lot of the time they’re really not doing that much. So, it takes a lot of perseverance to do fieldwork.

CC: Yes. And I guess you get a lot of thinking time in there as well.

AF: Yes.

CC: So you said, there, about primates and humans being distinctive. Maybe that’s a nice way to weave in . . . ?

AF: Yes. So I think there’s something really important here, and this is critical. I’m an evolutionary scientist and I’m interested in the broad . . . the long durée of human history, and that’s millions and millions of years. When thinking about evolutionary processes, people tend to take one of two sides. Either the “continuity” emphasis, which is very hip right now. Everyone wants to place humans as connected to everything else, which we are, absolutely. That is a fact. However, interesting stories in evolution are not just about connectedness but also about discontinuities. Because evolution is about branching and changing. So we have common ancestors, but then we diverge. And each lineage changes unto itself in particular, distinctive and important ways. And so when I ask questions about the human, I’m very interested in knowing what our baseline line is – by looking at other primates – but much more interested in those distinctive changes that occur across our specific lineage and how that influences what we can know, and think, about the human. And so that’s the distinctive aspect. But you have to understand the continuities to be able to really talk about the distinctions.

CC: And, well, you call that in your lecture series, “the human niche – this element of the human niche. And then that’s connected to this broader question of why we believe. Perhaps that’s a good way for us to go? If you could tell us, what is this human niche, and how has it developed, and maybe some its key characteristics?

AF: So, what’s really incredible is to think in an evolutionary way, to also think in an ecological way, and also a deeply philosophical way. So Jakob von Uexküll, the philosopher and biologist, provided us with the conceptualisation the umwelt: the lifeworld of an organism. Each organism is distinctive in the way in which they are in the world. And so understanding us, humans, in our umwelt – in our contemporary context – is to think through our niche. Niches are these complex ecological, behavioural, historical ways in which we are in the world. So the human niche – the one I’m most interested in – has developed over the last two million years, over the evolution of our genus: the genus Homo. We are, today, Homo sapiens. So the evolutionary trajectory, over the last two million years of our particular lineage, involves changes in bodies, behaviour, genes, neurobiologies and ecologies. And observing the material remains in the physical, in the bones and the materials left behind over time, allows us to attempt to reconstruct the patterns and processes of the development of the human niche. Today, our niche is this unbelievably complicated reality that is challenging and enticing to study. But to really think about contemporary humanity, from my perspective, one should examine the ways in which the niche has changed over time – the bits and pieces. So, for example, the critical extension of the human childhood. The fact that we are born with less than 40% of our brain developed. That is absolutely unique for all mammals. So our brain growth is very, very extended and very plastic and thus the teaching, the social, the nurturing, the inculcating in becoming human is a central part of our niche – much more so than any other animal. So from the very first breath we take, the social, the interaction, the communal is central in the physical, and the experiential, and the perceptual.

CC: Exactly. And in maybe your third lecture you were talking about even things like storage – the development of storage, and how that has affected things. I would never have thought of that in terms of being a major evolutionary . . . .

AF: I think people underplay what evolutionary processes are. Everyone tends to think of: there’s a large thing trying to eat you, and if you’re not eaten and you successfully produce offspring, then you win. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that. Evolutionary process is all of the dynamics that go into long-term change across bodies, behaviours, genomes and ecologies. And so understanding those dynamics is critical. And in humans it’s not just about the localised ecologies or behaviours, it’s also about the ways in which we’ve reshaped our world. Humans are the only species . . . well, not the only species, but a species that has a major hand in creating its own ecologies that then feed back and create us. (10:00) And so we bring up storage, or things of domestication: storage, the alteration of environments. Here we are sitting in a beautiful room, surrounded by history, and a bunch of wood and cement and metal and electrical light. All of those things are part and parcel of the construction of the human niche. And so by looking backward we can identify storage, particular patterns of stone tool use, early technologies, the move to bronze and metals. All of these things have had huge influences on how humans interface in the world, which then feeds back on how we perceive and experience the world.

CC: Wonderful. So that brings us, I think . . . we’re already getting on in time, so we need to get to this notion of belief, and then how this relates to everything. So belief, in Religious Studies – well, in everything – is a contested term. How are you understanding belief, first of all?

AF: So this is really important, because I want to be absolutely clear. I believe . . .

CC: Right.

AF: . . . that belief, in the way I’m structuring it and deploying it here, is the human capacity to imagine, to be creative, to hope and dream, to infuse the world with meanings, and to cast our aspirations far and wide. It’s a commitment, an investment, a devotion to possibilities. So belief is a human capacity that has emerged over our evolutionary histories to take our cognitive, social, communal, historical and logical processes; to include what we can call “detached representation” or off-line thinking – the imaginary; to combine those, such that the imaginary – even the transcendent – can become part of the physical, the perceptual, the material in our niche. Using belief that way, it is not only about religious engagement. It is a capacity of the human. And I use the argument that belief is not some emerging thing in the mind, floating above our heads. Belief is like the fingers on our hand. It is a part and parcel of the human system that has been modified over evolutionary history and that it is critical in our interface with the world and with each other.

CC: OK. I’ll want to push on that towards the end, but that will be a final question that our listeners would not forgive me for not asking. So with that in mind, then: how did we develop this? Where did this come from, and why?

AF: So early on . . . . We can talk about many other – let’s just use other primates, or cetaceans – very complex social mammals, have this incredible deep social reality. And part of their making it their world, their umwelt, their niche, is about social engagement and the social relationship. So that’s a baseline for humans. Humans take that one step further by invoking the capacity for a particular kind of imaginary. That is, we can see in items the possibilities of other items: we can take a stone and see inside that stone is a stone tool. We can see relationships and imagine how they could be, even though they’re not that way at the moment. So this perceptual capacity enables us to do what we call “cognitive and behavioural prospecting”: to imagine into the future the way the world could be, the way that we might want it to be, and attempt to make that a material reality. And that, over evolutionary history, we see in the material remains: ramping up more and more – not just making tools that are functional so that we can live, but creating items of meaning and using those items of meaning to feedback, to create and ramp up the complex cumulative cultural changes that have happened over our histories. So meaning-making is a central outcome of the capacity for belief.

CC: Yes. You were commenting on the structures that have clearly taken generations upon generations to be built, and don’t seem to serve any obvious function, and things like that . . . .

AF: I think that’s really important, because we say they don’t seem . . . . That’s the sort-of functional talk: this reductive notion of, “Everything must . . . if it doesn’t serve a function, it must be magic or ritual.” And what I’d like to do is sort-of push against that, very directly, by saying, “No, this is part of the human experience.” These things that we see are not for making food, or for housing humans or some clear obvious function. We don’t need to be reductive about the human experience. Because the human experience denies a total reduction; it’s always more than the sum of its parts. And so if we acknowledge that that capacity – these multigenerational building projects that mean something to those populations, that have impact not just on the perception but on their bodies, and their lives, and how they see and experience the world – that is important. It just is not reduced to the material elements or some specific function.

CC: Exactly. And we’ve got . . . “We” – in quotation marks – have an awful tendency, if we’re looking at other cultures or things in the past, to go, “Oh there’s a symbol. That must be their religion, it must be ritual.” (15:00) Whereas here, you know, outside there’ll be the Scottish Flag, the Saltire, the St Andrews Cross: no-one goes, “Oh, that’s a religious symbol!” But we have a tendency, when looking at the past . . . .

AF: And here it’s very, very important. And I make a very explicit argument differentiating belief – the capacity to be religious – and religion. I think, for me, it’s very important. There’s many, many scholarly intellectual arguments that could push against this in valid ways, but in an evolutionary sense you must make this distinction. So I invoke Clifford Geertz, when I talk about the capacity to be religious, defining religious as: “the use of one’s capacity for belief in the context of becoming, with particular perceptual, experiential and agential practices involving the transcendent, that act to establish powerful, persuasive and long lasting moods and motivations that may be, but are not necessarily tied to specific formal doctrines, practices, texts and institutions.” And in that way it is inherent, as a part of the process of our capacity for belief, that humans have a capacity to be religious. And I think anyone worth their salt, looking at our history, says humans have been and are religious. Religions, however, I have to separate off in my engagement with the long durée of human evolutionary history, because contemporary religion is defined as follows: “the formal coalition of religious beliefs and practices and materials, symbols and structural institutions that unite them into a single community via specific theological doctrine and ritual.” And that’s borrowing from Durkheim. The reason I do that is because our contemporary religions as institutions have histories, have texts, have theologies – but those do not have very deep roots, from my perspective.

CC: Exactly.

AF: That is, they don’t go back . . . we can’t find anything that really connects them clearly, materially, more than 6-8000 years ago. That means, what do I do with the other two million years? And so, for me, there is clear evidence of meaning-making and absolute commitment to an importance of the transcendent experience in the human, well before 6-8000 years ago. For me, I see this as the capacity to be religious; as an openness to possibilities that has, in our current times, formalised in particular institutional and theological practices.

CC: Exactly. And there’re, I can jump in and go: “Well, Whoah!” You asked the question, why we believe. You could also ask the question: why do we not believe? There are plenty around who would probably bristle at you saying “I’m a believer.” (Laughs).

AF: So I think that’s great. People should bristle because they’re ignorant. When I say belief – and here I don’t mean to be insulting – but I think it’s very important to point out that what I’m talking about is not the human association with particular institution, or history, or even a particular theology, or philosophy. What I’m talking about is the human capacity to be with, to experience awe, to have the transcendent perceptions influence the way in which we are in life. All humans have that capacity. How we choose to engage with it, how we choose to deploy it, and what histories and structures we enable to come forth from that I think that’s a very good question. The problem today is we’re in this mode, this contemporary moment, where the politics of aggression between different patterns and traditions of faith and practice have incredible salience. So the New Atheists, for example, would argue that all religion is delusion. To that I respond, “So, 83% – let’s say 6.2 billion human beings are idiots?” No. 6.2 billion human beings are doing what humans do, and participating in an incredible opportunity to deploy their capacity to be religious alongside particular institutions, theologies and faith traditions. Other humans who do not belong to those faith traditions are actually believing in different ways.

CC: Exactly.

AF: Everyone has this capacity. And so I think the argument, stemming from ignorance, that we should be envisioning the human as without access to the transcendent – or to that broader experience – is dangerous, because it cuts us off from what we know has been one of the keys to our success in the past.

CC: Exactly. And the danger, then, with this sort of talk, can be that we lose that we’re talking about a capacity. We’re not saying whether there is a transcendent. But sometimes people . . . I imagine lot of people, even listening to your lectures, will be sitting there going, “This proves that God is real!” And things like that.

AF: Well this is the wonderful thing that, again, stems from this really interesting jumping to conclusions and not thinking things through. (20:00) You cannot prove faith. That is the point of it. Faith is felt and is real. That’s the entire reason it works. It is real. And so whatever the faith practices that you engage in, if they’re not real for you, if you have to find some sort of mathematical equation, then I have to ask, what is it that you’re seeking? And it might be something else. So I think these are great debates to have. I think they’re very important. And I think we have to distinguish institutional religion from the capacity to be religious or from what most people do day in and day out. Because religious institutions – like political institutions and economical institutions – have histories, and histories that are often fraught with really complex and problematic realities. But that doesn’t mean they’re static and they don’t change. And we know today, making a difference in the world without participating with religions is going to be impossible.

CC: Absolutely. And yes, it belies this myth of the division between the religious and the secular, that there is . . . . You mention the New Atheists. So, they talk as if they’re completely 100% empirical and rational all of the time, and they have no – quote – “faith commitments” – unquote. And they don’t do anything based on tradition or intuition or emotion.

AF: And to be honest with you, that’s an extreme version and only a few are like that. The vast majority of people are not, and they recognise that if you make such a dogmatic assertion, you are in fact demonstrating faith. That’s exactly the point. You are demonstrating a belief system. And I think that’s something that just needs to be recognised. And let’s go back to what you said about that religious versus secular realities. Most of the world, even today, does not have that division. And until very recently that division did not exist. People are in the world and the experience of awe, the potential for transcendence are part of their daily lives. We now divide it politically: this notion that there’s faith traditions and then there’s the rest of your life. And that’s just a very strange way to be human – and quite atypical, even today.

CC: Exactly. So I mentioned earlier I was going to push you on the notion of belief. So you’ve got this very nuanced, non-theological definition that you use, but I imagine that many people coming to your work bring with them a sort-of folk understanding of the term belief, which is quite – quote – “protestant” – unquote.

AF: (Laughs).

CC: So why use that word? Is there a danger that the work that you’re doing is sort-of tainted by association with the word?

AF: Yes. I mean there is that danger, but I think it’s a risk that’s worth taking. Because I think belief is powerful. You could say, “Why don’t you just stick with imagination?” Well, imagination isn’t the whole picture, it’s a component of belief. “Well, why don’t you just stick with humans’ capacity to have detached mental representation?” Like, well that’s one tool, one process, within this larger system of belief. And I think it’s actually very important that we recognise that belief is a human capacity, as I’ve outlined here, that is deployed in many different instances. Now, I think it resonates particularly well with many theological and philosophical engagements, because philosophers and particularly theologians have been asking about belief; that’s their forte, they’re interested in that area. Whereas other people, say economists, pretend they’re not talking about belief.

CC: Exactly.

AF: And I think that’s the danger: the idea that economic systems or political systems reflect reality, not belief systems, is a threat to the potential for humans to navigate those.

CC: And you’ve just hit on . . . in my postdoctoral project I’ve used the word “unbelief” in the title. So I’m interested in all those people who want to distance themselves from, I’ll say, “religion”. But the word unbelief – it’s nicely slippery, in that it covers so much. Whereas I’d previously used “non-religion” – but then you’re into a binary, and it’s “versus” all the time.

AF: I love unbelief. I think that’s fantastic. And I’m going to place it with my – with acknowledgement to use this – and place it with another one of my favourite phrases which is “incurious”. (25:00) So I think using unbelief is critical, because that’s a political act, right, to say “I am not participating in belief; I am doing this; mine is realty, yours is not”? That’s a political statement. Anyone who tells you humans are rational and reasonable, when they get rid of the capacity for this perceptual experience of the more-than-the-material, is wrong. And they’re trying to sell you something. They know, as human beings, what they can experience and have experienced. And so when they argue that, “No this is the rational reality, versus your reality”, they’re trying to sell you their goods.

CC: Exactly. So we’re coming up on time. Your final lecture is tonight, so I haven’t heard that yet. So what’s your big conclusion going to be . . . your big admonition? Give us a taste!

AF: Well, I facetiously titled it, “Can Belief Matter?” And everyone knows the answer is, “Yes!” But what I really mean – and I will go into more detail – is: can we make belief truly matter in the 21st century, when we are on the precipice of so many catastrophic issues for not just humans, but the whole planet? How do we, then, engage the scientific, the religious, the political, the economic, in dialogue so that we can do what so many of us want – and that is to move forward on the planet in ways that are sustainable, as equitable as possible, compassionate and caring in spite of all the problems? We’re not going to get rid of inequality, and warfare, and horrors, but we can probably manage them more effectively than we are now. And I would like to suggest – and I think many philosophers and theologians have been saying this for quite some time – that it is through belief, through the patterns and processes of diverse belief systems and the individual ability to believe, to commit, to hope, to imagine, that we have a better chance. And if we ignore that, and we try to trust in just particular political or economic systems to push forward, or our creativity and our ingenuity – and it’s gotten us out of problems before it’ll work in the future – I cannot see that is turning out well.

CC: Fantastic. And one of the pervasive and problematic discourses that one hears in the UK context, and I’m sure in the States and elsewhere, is that it’s not polite to talk about . . . well it’s sex, religion and politics.

AF: If we don’t talk about sex, religion, politics and race, we are doomed!

CC: Exactly! And that is how ideologies get stuck.

AF: Absolutely! The power of ideologies are when they go truly unchallenged.

CC: Exactly! And hopefully this interview has helped spark some conversations and some ideas. As I’ve said, Listeners, you can check out the full series, and there’s a link in the podcast page, or just by searching for Adam Gifford Lectures 2018, or for Agustin Fuentes. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

AF: Oh, this has been a great discussion! Thank you so much for having me.

CC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Fuentes, Agustin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Why Do We Believe? Evolution, Primates and the Human Niche”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/why-do-we-believe-evolution-primates-and-the-human-niche/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Not Just Any Body Will Do!

Dr. Claire White’s research addresses the religious topic of reincarnation that, although perhaps more adhered to by human cultures across time and space than the belief that we have only one earthly life followed by eternal reward or punishment, has received little serious scientific investigation—especially from the question through which Dr. White addresses it. That question is not whether reincarnation (or any other religious belief) is true, but rather “Why do some people have that belief?” It is this type of psychological question that is the hallmark of the cognitive science of religion (CSR).

The long-held assumption, made historically by both scholars and laymen, has been that religious beliefs are created and instilled through cultural transmission and indoctrination. In the past few decades, however, the newly emergent field of CSR has taken that assumption to task with numerous empirical experiments. Contrary to this long-held assumption, research into a wide variety of religious beliefs by CSR has found that many of those beliefs are held by us because they tap into and appeal to our natural cognitive biases. These cognitive biases predispose us to believe in gods, an afterlife, a moral universe, and creationism. Even though each religion addresses these topics in (sometimes very!) different ways, the findings suggest that what binds this great variation together are these underlying intuitions.

Like any human endeavour, however, science sometimes includes missteps.

White’s research, in conjunction with my own and others’, calls into question a theoretical assumption held by many CSR scholars that the body plays a negligible role in beliefs about supernatural agents (see here, here and here). According to such scholars, supernatural agents are represented by believers as disembodied beings, devoid of any bodily properties. This applies to gods as well as the afterliving deceased. Once a human dies, these researchers tell us, the only part of this deceased individual we intuitively represent as continuing is her mind. We no longer represent her as embodied in any way, let alone in any way connected with her previous earthly body. In contradistinction to this view with regard to the latter, both White and myself argue that the body still plays a vital role in representations of the afterliving deceased, and that this bodily representation is sufficiently corporeal and similar enough to allow for recognition and identification as “the same again” as well as continued social interaction.

As White rightly states in her interview, if there were ever a case in which the afterliving deceased’s previous earthly body should play no role whatsoever in her representation, recognition and identity, then it should be in the context of reincarnation. It is believed that the new physical body of the reincarnated individual shares no causal history, in the scientific sense, with her previous body. It could vary in race, sex, and innumerable other ways. Yet White’s empirical findings demonstrate that when trying to determine whether a reincarnated individual is the same again, we intuitively look for and at distinctive physical clues. If it were indeed the case that humans intuitively represented the afterliving deceased as disembodied minds, then there would be no reason, let alone an intuitive bias, to gauge the reincarnated individual’s identity based on her bodily attributes. Yet we do.

The evidence produced by White vividly demonstrates this by the fact that one of the two most important features that one “implicitly” looks for and appeals to in order to recognize a reincarnated individual as the same again are distinctive physical characteristics. Since the individual’s new body shares no causal history—genetic or otherwise—with her previous body (again, in the scientific sense), there should be no implicit reason to expect there to be such specific physical clues of identity. Nevertheless, White’s evidence demonstrates that we still represent and appeal to physical clues in matters of recognizing a reincarnated individual as the same again.

White does not appeal to novel cognitive mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, as is vogue in CSR (and cognitive science as a whole). Instead White claims that this intuitive cognitive bias relies on the known mundane representational processes that we use every day to recognize those we encounter as the same again. We expect them to have a specific causal history which we implicitly track through both mental (i.e., autobiographical memories) and distinctive physical characteristics. Of course, the latter are far more easily tracked than the former (could you imagine how different our interactions would be if we had to establish every individual’s identity by first interrogating her about her memories?).

White is also to be commended for incorporating anthropological evidence in her research. This is something that should be done much more often in CSR. Too often, researchers produce results and theories in their laboratories that appear to share little in common with the religious practices they are attempting to illuminate empirically. They provide us with no bridge to get from their results and theory to religion writ large in human cultures. Even worse, sometimes their results and theories seem to fly in the face of religious beliefs and practices.

Again, take the claim that humans represent supernatural agents as disembodied. This is problematic in that supernatural agents (with very few exceptions) are starkly represented as embodied, not just in iconography but also in mythologies and religious texts, and in fact often with very specific and odd physical features. For instance, think about the pantheons of supernatural agents across such diverse cultures as in ancient Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, India and China. How could the supernatural agents in these cultures have been represented, let alone carried out their specific mythical exploits, if we believed (intuitively or otherwise) that they were disembodied? Reconciling the laboratory phenomenon of dualism with religious beliefs and practices begins to appear impossible.

To overcome the complaints of its critics, CSR needs to follow White’s lead. Not only must we diligently carry out cross-cultural experiments in the laboratory, but we also need to consult and remain faithful to the anthropological record of religion as it is believed and practiced. If the two appear incompatible, it is our experiments and theories that must be rethought. It is not as though we in CSR can authoritatively tell the religious faithful that they are worshipping all wrong!

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

‘Religious’ and ‘Spiritual’ Struggles: Now in ‘Nonreligious’ and ‘Nonspiritual’ flavors!

The fact that not only do religious believers sometimes question, struggle with, or even doubt their beliefs, but that resolving these issues can lead someone to a greater level of acceptance and understanding of their faith has been embodied in the form of quest-orientation for some time (Batson & Ventis, 1982). But recently, researchers studying the psychology of religion and spirituality have become more interested in how these spiritual stuggles might also lead towards distress as well (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014). But are these struggles only experienced by the ‘religious’ about ‘religious’ beliefs? Or could people, even nonbelievers, also experience analogous struggles which impact their lives, for both good and bad.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Julie Exline talks about her work in developing the Religious and Spiritual Struggles scale, where the original ideas came from and how they interacted with her previous work surrounding anger towards god (Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011). She then goes on to describe how some interesting findings within her previous work led her to be interested in whether or not nonbelievers experience similar ‘spiritual’ struggles, if they could be measured and compared to believers’ struggles, and how to measure them in a way valid for both believers and nonbelievers. She also gives a brief overview of some of her current work and interests in the area of nonbelief and secularity more broadly.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us (but only if you enjoyed it, please). And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, non-academic texts, arcane grimoires, miscellaneous intellectual paraphernalia, and more!

This is our last podcast until September 2015… but don’t forget that you can keep up with the RSP on Martin will be featuring podcasts from the archive on the homepage throughout the summer, and that there will be the occasional feature to keep you entertained. Thanks for listening!

References

  • Batson, C. D., & Ventis, W. L. (1982). The religious experience: A social-psychological perspective. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465
  • Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smyth, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 129–148. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0021716

Self-Report: We Can Do Better (And Are!)

The Religious Studies Project interview with Dr. Luke Galen conducted by Tommy Coleman was an excellent cross-section of some of the a long way to go in figuring out ways to both incorporate nonbelievers into our work as well as to signal when our findings only apply to a particular belief group, instead of all humans (ie. “Increased religiosity helps prevent recurring depression for religious believers” instead of “Religion prevents depression”). The idea that we need to explicitly include nonbelievers in our samples has begun to find solid ground, both in Dr. Galen’s work and others’ (e.g. Galen, 2012; Streib & Klein, 2013), but there have been some issues with developing this idea further. Dr. Galen alluded to one of the major issues in continuing to include nonbelievers, namely the increasing usage of the word “spirituality.” Does it include well-being and having a sense of meaning in life? Feelings of Awe and transcendence? Believing in Ghosts, angels, and demons? Yes, and this lack of clarity is a major problem for studies which try and link “spirituality” with mental health and well-being.

I strongly agree with Dr. Galen’s assertion that the amount of criterion contamination found in most discussions and measures of “spirituality” is problematic, and this point was well-highlighted in Tommy’s point about, “long walks on the beach.” A question that covers so much territory may not even be an accurate reflection of general well-being for people who prefer walking in the woods, let alone serve as a marker of the supernatural component implicit in “spirituality.” While I don’t think Dr. Galen presented a hard-experimentalist view completely dismissing self-report, the criterion contamination introduced by our fuzzy definition of “spirituality” and poorly-constructed self-report measures seem to be bundled up into a problem that exists for self-report measures in general. Just as in the study of moral reasoning, experimental designs which attempt to tap implicit beliefs risk ignoring the fact that humans also seem to be able to exert some conscious control over their beliefs and thus can’t be treated as simply heuristic machines (Cunningham et al., 2004; Turiel, 2008).

Instead, it seems best to attempt to fix the problem of poor self-report measures more directly. We can do this by making measures which don’t use double-barreled questions which nonbelievers can’t straightforwardly answer, explicitly addressing the issue of “supernatural spirituality,” and ensuring that aspects of the measure which tap more general well-being concepts are sufficiently differentiated from supernatural concepts. Additionally, to construct better measures we’ll need to include large enough samples of nonbelievers during all stages of scale development to ensure that the resulting measures are valid for both believers and nonbelievers.

I bring all of this up because there are already measures which have been (or are being) published which meet these criteria, so I can flagrantly advertise them. Cragun, Hammer, and Nielsen’s Nonreligious-Nonspirituality Scale (in press) addresses the problem of fuzzy-spirituality by clearly specifying that respondents should only respond in regards to their beliefs regarding the supernatural aspects of spirituality and not the more general well-being aspects. In addition, their scale was developed for use with believers as well and seems to validly measure the extent of their nonreligious and nonspiritual beliefs, allowing for comparisons between believers and nonbelievers which might not be feasible with “beach walking” measures of spirituality.

While Dr. Galen’s assertion that the well-being of nonbelievers has been underestimated due to incorrectly grouping them with believers who might be experiencing religious and/or spiritual struggles seems to be an accurate depiction of the literature at the moment, this also seems likely to be a problem of improperly interpreted self-report measures rather than with self-report in general. There is initial evidence pointing to a U-shaped curve of well-being related to the strength of a person’s (non)belief (Streib & Klein, 2013). Investigating this idea using the level of control afforded by in-lab experimental studies will be important, but it will also be important to leverage the generalizability of broad self-report studies. We just need a measure of “spiritual” struggles which actually works with the kinds of struggles which might point to lower levels of belief for both believers and nonbelievers.

At the risk of continuing to over-toot the horns of projects that I’m involved with, the Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014) seems like it will work in that regard. While two of the sub-scales explicitly contain supernatural items, the scale is modular and our early analyses indicated that atheists experience less spiritual struggles than agnostics, when excluding the explicitly supernatural scales (Uzdavines, Bradley, & Exline, 2014). We are currently working on confirming that the scale is measurement invariant with fine-grained belief identification groups (ie. Atheists, Agnostics, Theists, etc) before investigating the link between non-supernatural “spiritual” struggles and well-being, but our early analyses show that it is invariant when considering nonbelievers and believers as two broad groups.

Which is all to say; those of us within psychology of religion who study secularity are privileged to be working in a time where secular beliefs and nonbelievers are starting to be taken seriously within the field as a whole. Maintaining a high level of rigor in the methodology we employ, while important in and of itself, is even more crucial because of the history of criterion contamination within the field that Dr. Galen discussed in this interview and in his own work. “Spirituality” is an overly broad term and, when interpreted incorrectly, can lead to conclusions that more religion leads to more well-being without considering that more nonreligion might also lead to more well-being. It will take much more work to shift the field towards accepting religious nonbelief as a discreet and important category, separate from religious belief even if we still need to clarify our terminology.

But rigorous does not only mean experimental. Self-report can provide interesting avenues of investigation, but more care needs to be taken in building self-report measures which minimize criterion contamination and allow nonbelievers to indicate their level of nonbelief or well-being without having to dance around double-barreled questions. Fortunately, the rapidly expanding breadth of research communities dedicated to investigating secularity should allow the field of secular studies to continue pooling ideas and methodology to illuminate the nature of nonbelief and nonbelievers.

References

Cragun, R. T., Hammer, J. H., & Nielsen, M. (in press). The Nonreligious-Nonspiritual Scale (NRNSS): Measuring Everyone from Atheists to Zionists. Science, Religion, and Culture.

Cunningham, W. A., Johnson, M. K., Raye, C. L., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., & Banaji, M. R. (2004). Separable neural components in the processing of black and white faces. Psychological Science, 15(12), 806–813.

Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465

Galen, L. W. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876–906. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0028251

Streib, H., & Klein, C. (2013). Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, & J. W. Jones (Eds.), APA handbook of psychology, peligion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research (Vol. 1, pp. 713–728). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Turiel, E. (2008). The Development of Children’s Orientations toward Moral, Social, and Personal Orders: More than a Sequence in Development. Human Development, 51(1), 21–39. http://doi.org/10.1159/000113154

Uzdavines, A., Bradley, D. F., & Exline, J. J. (2014). Struggle and the nonreligious: Do weaker forms of nonbelief increase susceptibility to spiritual struggle? In Religious and spiritual struggles: New research frontiers. La Mirada, CA.

 

Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’

 

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind

Do you believe that unseen forces have the causal power to move physical objects and intervene in everyday human affairs? Of course you do. You are probably like most other humans alive today who effortlessly place great explanatory weight on these hidden forces. However, such unseen forces are not the local forest spirits, or gods in the sky, per se, but as Gervais (2013, p. 380) writes: “These entities are called minds”. Conversely, it just so happens that we attribute to the forest spirit, to the gods, and even to the Christian God (Barrett & Keil, 1996) for example, a mind that has the same conceptual limitations as our own (e.g. being limited in action by both time and space). A core tenet of cognitive science of religion (CSR) is that the folk-psychological ability to explain human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions – known as theory of mind (ToM) – is also a system that makes us receptive to belief in the supernatural (Banerjee & Bloom, 2013; Gervais, 2013). But why?

In his interview with Thomas Coleman, cultural and evolutionary psychologist Dr. Will Gervais talks about the role that ToM plays in explaining both belief, and nonbelief in supernatural agents. Gervais begins by discussing some of his prior research in the field, and draws salient the various phenomena that falls under the ability, he terms as “mind perception”. Further, he touches on how, and why ToM is an important construct in CSR for explaining god beliefs, and gives the listener insight into how unseen mental states can be measured.* In closing, Gervais answers important questions such as “Is ToM a religion specific system?” and even weighs in on the suggested autism-atheism connection prevalent in CSR.

A short video clip of Heider and Simmel’s classic 1944 experiment mentioned in the podcast can be found here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, rubber ducks, dandelion seeds, and more.

References

  • Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2013). Would Tarzan believe in God? Conditions for the emergence of religious belief. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 17(1), 7-8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.11.005
  • Barrett, J., & Keil, F. (1996). Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219-247. doi:10.1006/cogp.1996.0017
  • Gervais, W. (2013). Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains, and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 8(4), 380-394. doi:10.1177/1745691613489836

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Measuring Secularity

At the home of the first secular studies undergraduate program, amid dozens of secularity scholars from around globe, Tommy Coleman’s interview with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John Shook tackles big questions about the measurement of secularity and secularism, the positionality of secularity scholars, and the state of secular studies as a field. The 3rd annual conference of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) at Pitzer College, which I too attended, was indeed the perfect place for this conversation. Secularity scholars from all over, both geographically and epistemologically, came together to debate and discuss these very questions. In the interview, Zuckerman and Shook describe a burgeoning “field of secular studies,” and, for me, this conference was evidence of just that. Here, I will build on their points about measurement and positionality, arguing that the heterogeneity among those who claim no religion requires more attention than it has been given and that the emerging field of secular studies shows definite signs of rising to that challenge.

To start, Zuckerman and Shook emphasize that “secularity” is a much broader phenomenon than most scholarly research acknowledges and they have given themselves the task of putting together the Oxford Handbook of Secularism to begin addressing the gaps in secular studies that have historically focused solely on atheists and atheism. Many others at the NSRN conference made similar points, and presentations detailing the variety of labels, beliefs, and behaviors found among the secular dominated the panels. This is encouraging and, I would argue, a long time coming. The rise of the “nones” as a category in social science research, while a step in the right direction, is far from sufficient to address the increasing presence and diversity of the religiously disaffiliated.

Referring to a research project in which he attempted to measure the amount of atheists globally (Zuckerman 2007), Zuckerman admits that measuring secularity is no easy task. He questions the validity of global statistics on irreligion and both he and Shook discuss the importance of being sensitive to regionality and culture when measuring secularity outside of a Western, Christian context. I agree, but want to emphasize that we are still far from sufficiently measuring secularity and its effects within Western contexts. Most quantitative research claiming to say something about what the “nones” do and do not do, in contrast to the religious, typically collapses all of those who claim no religious belief or affiliation into one category. These studies often make claims about the benefits of religion based on comparisons with the “nones”, and the religiously affiliated have been found to be happier, healthier, and more engaged with their communities. However, while often rigorously testing for variance among the religious, these studies treat the irreligious as if they have a static identity, resulting in an elision of the range of beliefs and behaviors that have been found within this growing group.

Zuckerman calls on the three Bs – belief, belonging, and behavior – to define what it means to “be secular.” Social scientists often use these categories to measure religiosity, as these three ways of being religious have been found to have distinct, and often contradictory, influences on social attitudes and behaviors. The utility of parsing out these categories among the “nones” is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, Zuckerman details how an individual can be secular in one way and not in another. Someone can go to church while not believing in god(s), or, indeed, can believe in god(s) without affiliating with any religious institution. Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam (2010) found that Americans who claim no religious affiliation one year often join a religious institution the next, highlighting the fluidity and “liminality” of religious and secular belief, belonging, and behavior (see also Keysar 2014). However, Zuckerman asserts that one cannot be truly secular if they believe in god(s). While you can agree or disagree with his definition, the important point is that when these distinct ways of being secular are conflated, the result is often invalid categories and incomplete conclusions (see Joseph Blankholm’s insightful post on the same topic).

At the American Mosaic Project, a survey project I’m a part of at the University of Minnesota, one of our goals is to speak to this gap in the research. We have multiple measures of secular belonging and behavior, including four separate measures for irreligious belonging (atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, and nothing in particular). Analyses indicate important distinctions among all four categories, as well as between those who take on a “none” label, those who have atheistic beliefs, and those who do not attend church. Other studies have found these distinctions as well, for example, Baker and Smith (2009) find that American atheists, agnostics, and unchurched believers each have distinct political beliefs and varying stances on religion’s place in public life.

A second aspect of measuring secularity discussed in the interview deals with its relation to religion. For Zuckerman, secularity is and always has to be in relation to religion. He argues, “If there was no religion, secularity would not have to be invented, we wouldn’t have to have a word for it.” Shook disagrees, rebutting, “There is no magic in language. Words don’t bring things into existence.” For Shook, secularism is an objective, measurable phenomenon that can exist with or without the presence of religion. He argues, “Just because the term serves as a contrary doesn’t mean that its existence is dependent on the contrary.” Their discussion in many ways parallels a conversation among scholars of nonbelief identities and communities. Scholars like Smith (2011) and Guenther (2014) argue that atheism in America is a “rejection identity” formed out of a rejection of religious belief and belonging. In contrast, LeDrew (2013) and Cimino and Smith (2014) highlight the ways that atheists and other nonbelievers are forming groups based on beliefs that they share instead of beliefs they reject.

What these discussions ultimately show is that individual and collective expressions of secularity vary across time and space, evolving even within the same community. In short, context matters. The political, cultural, and religious contexts of a given society influence the way secular ideals and beliefs are interpreted and enacted. Secularity, Shook explains, is set up in opposition to religion in some societies, like in the United States, but not all, and this can vary both between societies and within them. The research highlighted in this response has shown that there is a growing diversity of secular identities and ideologies, and what I’m seeing in the emerging field of secular studies is an increased sensitivity to the contexts and subjectivities under which these identities are taking shape.

References

Baker, Joseph and Buster Smith. 2009. “None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48(4): 719-733

Cimino, Richard and Christopher Smith. 2014. Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Oxford University Press

Guenther, Katja. 2014. “Bounded by Disbelief: How Atheists in the United States Differentiate Themselves from Religious Believers.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 29(1): 1-16

Keysar, Ariela. 2014. “Shifts Along the American Religious-Secular Spectrum.” Secularism and Nonreligion 3(1): 1-16

LeDrew, Stephen. 2013. “Discovering Atheism: Heterogeneity in Trajectories to Atheist Identity

and Activism.” Sociology of Religion 74(4): 431-45

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49(4): 596-618

Smith, Jesse. 2011. “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism.” Sociology of Religion. 72(2): 215-237

Zuckerman, Phil. 2007. “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns.” Pp. 47-62 in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by M. Martin. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press

 

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References

  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 2

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this second part we ask “the epistemic/ontological question”: in studying these experiences, how far should we be concerned with the ontology? Would to do so be an abandonment of the scientific materialism which underpins the discipline, and therefore a slide back into theology? Or can there be a bigger model of materialism – a “complicated materialism”, to use Ann Taves’ expression – in which these phenomena might be suitably explicable? Or, as Bowie puts it, can we use “empathetic engagement” to adopt the ontology for research purposes? You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons and David Hufford. Part 1 can be downloaded here.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc.

Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 1

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this first part, we ask, why has the study of “paranormal” experience been somewhat ignored by academia in general and Religious Studies in particular? Is the problem the term “paranormal”? What importance of these kinds of studies have for the field? Is there concern that such studies necessarily seek to justify the ontological claims of the paranormal? This latter issue is pursued in part two, to be broadcast this wednesday. Many of the scholars also offer advice for those interested in this area but are worried about “employability”. You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons, Stanley Krippner and David Hufford.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc. Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

From left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.