Situating Religion within Justice

In this podcast Professor Joe Bulbulia of Auckland University speaks to Thomas White about situating the study of religion within a broader concept of ‘justice’. Bulbulia calls ‘religion and spirituality those features of nature [in the biocultural sense of the word] that combine to cultivate a sense of justice in people’.

Bulbulia argues that common across human societies are conceptions of obligation and responsibility: what is owed to others, and what is owed back in return. These sensibilities locate within a complex combination of institutions, traditions, texts, stories, habits, rituals, rules of etiquette, laws and conventions, abstract ideals, and beliefs in God(s) – though this list is not exhaustive! Moreover, beliefs regarding what is owed to the Gods, and what the Gods owe us, is often foundational to these biocultural features of ‘justice’.

Here ‘justice’ is not synonymous with the ‘good’ or what is ethical. Bulbulia points out societies that have supported slavery or genocide still mapped their behaviour to an understanding of what they ought and ought not do. Situating religion within a concept of justice is not, therefore, a response to a Marxian or Nietzschean suspicion of religion. Instead it explores how or where religious beliefs and practices sit behind the establishment and maintenance of social norms, whatever their moral virtue. Bulbulia argues this framing for the study of religion not only better explains why religious and secular people often make common cause against other religious and secular people, it emphasises the study of religion as integral to a principal aim of the human sciences: working out how and why people behave the way they do.


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

Situating Religion within Justice

Podcast with Joseph Bulbulia (7 May 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Bulbulia – Situating Religion within Justice 1.1

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And, once again, a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios, down here in New Zealand’s South Island. Today, I’m joined by Professor Bulbulia, who yesterday evening delivered his Albert Moore Memorial Lecture, part of a series of lectures running this year to celebrate 50 Years of Religious Studies at Otago University. Professor Joseph Bulbulia is the Maclaurin Goodfellow Chair of Religious Studies at Auckland University, and has been a prominent figure in the study of Religion in New Zealand for the last 17 years. Joe received his PhD from Princeton, is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of the contemporary evolutionary study of religion, and has – what seems to me, at least – a vertiginous list of journal publications under his belt. He is also a co-editor for the journal Religion, Brain and Behaviour. A lot of Joe’s research grapples with what we might call “big data”. It often involves assembling teams that are interdisciplinary in nature and typically involves members who are highly skilled in quantitative methods and computer modelling. Joe’s research has included work on the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, which is a 20-year longitudinal study tracking over 15,000 New Zealanders each year, as well as the Pulotu Project which works from a purpose-built data base of 116 Pacific cultures designed to investigate the evolutionary dynamics of religion. Joe is also a damn-good long distance runner! Joe – thank you for agreeing to this interview, and welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Joseph Bulbulia (JB): Thanks, Tom. And thanks for the generous introduction. Really generous – especially when it comes to the running!

TW: (Laughs). I’ve seen your times – they’re terrifying! Now, Joe, the title of your Moore Memorial Lecture last night was “Religious Studies in New Zealand: The last 20 years” (Or, I should say: “The last 20 years?” because it’s got a question mark on the end, hasn’t it?) which reflected on the trajectory and prospects of Religious Studies in New Zealand. But I was hoping we could begin with how you started the lecture, which was to cage your understanding of religion within a concept of justice. You said, and I quote: “I call religion and spirituality those features of nature,” and we’re talking about nature as a biology and culture criteria or definition, “that combine to cultivate a sense of justice in people.” Can you please explain to our listeners what this means?

JB: Well every enquiry begins with a starting point, obviously. And I start with this question of how it is that we come to think about the debts we have to others, the obligations and duties we have to the people around us – friends, family, community members, colleagues, country, world, environment – and as well as the conceptions of what is owed to us as an individual as a citizen, as a parent, as a son, a husband or wife, a colleague. And I want to understand how it is that we have these capacities. All of us – or nearly all of us – have some sense of what we ought to do, and what we are owed. And when we look to the history of humans at any scale we see that there are institutions, beliefs, practices, texts, stories, habits which combine in ways we still don’t really understand to cultivate these sensibilities. And this marks human beings from other species. It is a unique – at least at the level to which we express it – unique capacity in people. Also, when we look to history, we see that in the midst of these conceptions – or at the foundation of these conceptions – are beliefs about what we owe the gods, or a god, or the ancestors, or our traditions, and what we ought to do in the light of those obligations – and of course, also, what the gods owe us or give to us. And that’s part of every culture, or nearly every culture. And it sits side by side with a whole lot else to cultivate a sense of obligation and respect. And I put those together into a larger concept that I call justice. (5:00) In the past there was a more sophisticated language involving virtue, which would decompose justice into elements. We’ve lost most of those elements of that older language. But I think most people can understand that justice sensibility. And I think what happens, if we don’t start at that point, we can’t even make sense of our commitments to the various projects and people and institutions that occupy so much of our efforts in life. So I begin there. And I think there are various advantages to beginning there, which we I imagine will talk about in the course of this interview.

TW: Ok. So the idea, here, is that we need to embed our understanding of religion and religious practices within a foundation of this kind-of broader ethical environment that we all need to understand our cultural practices within.

JB: That’s right. Why is religion and spirituality interesting? And in my thinking, why is it just not optional as a topic to study? Why might it be among the very most important topics that we should be investigating? Why are so many people around the world becoming interested in supporting research into this? Well it’s because there is an emerging recognition that the element of belief and ritual which even to religious and ritual-practising people might seem strange – practices like piercing yourself; a ceremony venerating a god you don’t believe in might look very strange; or a set of institutions that look to be completely inefficient and non-productive – churches and temples and mosques – they look to be marginal; and outside of those traditional institutions sports and music and perhaps entertainment, or the barbie – these kind of informal practices; the dawn celebration in New Zealand, where we recognise and reflect on an appalling defeat in which a generation of young men were lost, doesn’t make any kind of sense unless we begin to see these practices as part of those elements which have combined to give us the kind of sensibilities that we have regarding our responsibilities and obligations to others. And once we begin to understand how those things come together . . . . They don’t always come together in ways that are moral or ethical. So I might have a conception of justice or obligation or right that is morally vicious, that supports slavery, or supports genocide. But if that’s so, I really want to begin to understand how it is that those beliefs, practices and vicious conceptions were propagated. Now, throughout the tradition of Western thought and Eastern thought there are philosophers, and theologians, and historians who are reflecting on these practices and beliefs, and presenting opinions and arguments about how we ought to reconfigure them, in our own day, to enable a virtuous society and community. And I think that it is important to begin the study of religion with that conception of justice. Because when we start with the concept of belief, which is certainly vital to understanding justice for so many people, it’s because we have responsibilities and obligations to the god or a god that we are called upon to act in the way we do. If we begin with belief, initially it might seem as if there’s some binary division of people: you believe or you don’t. Well that doesn’t make sense of these religious communities where there are debates about how we ought to respond in the light of our obligations to a god, or the gods, or the ancestors. And those debates are impossible to make sense of, with that kind of binary division. It makes it seem as if there’s a great difference, and gap, between people who are not themselves committed to any god or don’t believe in any god, or spirit, or ancestor, or tradition, and those who do. It makes it seem as if that gap is relevant to understanding people’s sense of justice. A wonderful – and very influential on me – series of lectures were given by my former supervisor Jeffrey Stout at Princeton University. (10:00) He gave the 2007 Gifford lectures, where he goes into great detail documenting how it is that secular and religious people have stood hand-in-hand against secular and religious people on major issues of social justice. And his focus, throughout that lecture, is mostly on slavery. You can’t even make sense of abolitionism without understanding how it is that conceptions of justice varied within secular and religious communities. I’m very interested in that.

TW: Yes. I mean when you presented this idea, the first thing I thought was: “Oh, Marx wouldn’t like this,” – obviously, seeing religion as the opium of the people and an ideology that keeps the poor people down.

JB: Yes.

TW: In terms of thinking about the way that religious and secular organisations sit on both sides of that fence, you’ve obviously got Liberation Theology, which obviously incorporates Marx and would very much present religion from that kind of ethical, social justice viewpoint.

JB: Absolutely. And in Jeff’s lectures, if I can make a plug for them – they aren’t published yet, but when they are I hope that people look out for them – he looks at those examples, going back to Lucretius on The Nature of Things. So there’s a long tradition of people who have argued that religion is inherently unethical; it’s inherently enslaving of the mind; it’s a coil around the mind that must be loosed. And there is a tradition of thought going through Nietzsche and Marx and Feuerbach that presents that view and, of course, may explain many features of religious culture of religious institutions. It might be enslaving of the mind. They can give rise to appalling forms of injustice around us. I don’t want to exempt . . . I don’t want to claim that religious people are just, and secular people are unjust – it’s quite the opposite. It’s really to focus on those histories and to understand, in my own work, scientifically, how it is that these – in local settings and global settings, there are various scales where the project remains the same – how is it that culture and biological nature…? How is it that nature gives rise to these different forms? And I begin with the concept of justice, also, because it makes sense of the commitments of scientists. Scientists aren’t outside of this. We have our set of ideas about what ought to be done: what people deserve in the light of their dignity, in the light of their possibilities. We have conceptions of the relevance of science in the curriculum. We believe that it is enriching of people’s lives; that they are owed that possibility. So without beginning there, we can’t even make sense of ourselves, I think. And I think most people can have a very clear understanding of . . . any time someone hasn’t returned an object they’ve borrowed, or has turned up late for an appointment, or hasn’t responded to an email, we might have a sense of not receiving something we were owed. Any time we feel guilty for forgetting to do something – forgetting to return an email, or to arrive on time – we have an understanding of a relationship that’s been breached. This emerges through a series of very natural experience: I owe you something because you’ve done something for me. And it’s not magical. Our parents. . . . For many people, parents have given us a set of conditions that we ought to respond to with a sense of acknowledgement. The people around us help us in ever so many ways. We should be grateful for that, because of the help. It’s nothing magical, it’s nothing . . . . And what are the differences within religious communities, and between religious communities? Well you have different conceptions of how the world is. I have an obligation to my ancestors and I imagine them as still present with me. Maybe they are still present? I don’t know. We don’t make those assumptions in the work I do. But nor do we merely discount them as superstition. We want to just see how it works, in the first instance.

TW: OK. Great. I think we’ve covered some of the ground that was going to relate to my next question, but we’ve talked about how, perhaps with Religious Studies, we need to move from a framing context of belief to a framing context of justice. But maybe we could also talk about a little bit of the evolutionary study of religion – of which you are a pioneer, or founder . . .?

JB: Well, that’s nice! On the role of Religious Studies, I think it has been a place where many disciplines have come together, and organised their methods and capacities, to explain features of how religions work, what they do for people (15:00). Ranging from ethnography – highly local, interview-based qualitative research – to what we’re beginning to see now: very broad-scale historical database projects that are looking at the level of societies. You can’t even begin to think about the people in them. And Religious Studies is interesting because it’s been interdisciplinary before that was fashionable, or before people understood why that was interesting. It’s a nice model for work that can be done: the capacity for work of teams that are united by a set of questions, and have a different set of skills and capacities within the team, to address a specific question. You need to know what your question is first, then you assemble the team and address it. And, for most of history of the discipline of Religious Studies, those teams have been composed of Humanities folk, and Sociologists and some Psychologists. And we’re beginning to see a shift into the natural sciences, the biological sciences, neuroscience, and very large environmental ecological databases combining with these sort of interests to address questions of how religious cultures have affected human history. But Religious Studies has been a place that’s taken many disciplines together and I see that happening in the future. Whether we call it Religious Studies or something else is less interesting to me. The reason to keep the word religion and to include the word spirituality is because it acknowledges the role of beliefs and rituals respecting Gods. And that seems to be a part of the human condition. It’s a part of New Zealand society. And I think it needs to be included in the conversation. So then, thinking about evolution, and the role of evolutionary biology within that interdisciplinary framework – the life sciences from the time of Darwin and after, with the great integration of population genetics and evolutionary dynamics, and later the work of broad scale ecological studies – we see a unifying framework in which to place the work of people who are doing very different things. From describing the flora of a particular island environment – descriptivists – with population geneticists who are trying to work out the small scale phenomena that give rise to mechanisms and processes that kind of give rise to the diversity of life across regions, to, increasingly, neuroscientists and chemists. We have biophysicists, now, who are involved in this mix, looking at this emergence of life from physics. All of that has . . . all the great achievements in the biological sciences have taken place because there is a kind of unifying framework in which to place the different work. And that framework is beginning to be adopted within the human sciences, and within the study of humans. And the great challenge ahead is to integrate the work of historians and cultural scholars, anthropologists, into a framework that sees their work as contributing to a gradual cumulative understanding of how people are. So we’ve seen a gradual cumulative understanding of how cells work, for example, through the efforts of many people working over many decades. And they will be working over many centuries and probably still not get very far, but get somewhere! That hasn’t happened in the study of humans. We have . . . some of the brightest people I know are in the Humanities; master many languages; understand a breadth of literature that takes decades, takes a lifetime to master; have these skills and contribute understanding – and then it’s lost. It just is sitting there in some book. It hasn’t figured in part of a larger organising framework of inference about how it is that people are (20:00). And so that’s the kind-of great challenge of getting these people in . . . . Linking them with the scientists who are able to do inference but don’t know anything about people, and to achieve some cumulative – or, I guess, framework for cumulative incremental improvement of understanding about people. That’s the challenge that’s ahead of us for the next several decades, and I’m very optimistic that those problems will be tackled. It’s just the rate at which the achievements occur. I’ve been impressed by how fast things have changed. So, you describe me as pioneer – I think in graduate school I was a fairly average student and considered a bit weird and flaky. I was lucky to get a job here. And when I got here I was lucky to have colleagues who were tolerant of me just pursuing questions after my own fashion, but a bit ahead of others. And so that put me at an advantage when it came to the kind of broader global interest in religion, in linking science with the study of religion. I just happened to be kind-of doing that because of the freedoms afforded to me in Graduate School and then when I got to New Zealand.

TW: Tying in with the use of scientific methods to study religion, and of course this other idea of religion being situated within a narrative of justice – or understanding the role of religion within narratives of justice – it very much reminded me of some of the studies that you mentioned in your lecture last night, exploring religion and altruism, and religion and empathy. Can you tell us a little bit about the work that you’ve done on those themes?

JB: Well, I guess I’ve used these words – altruism, sometimes the word pro-sociality is used, empathy is a word that comes up – when we’re thinking about how people are bound together. But it’s very important to remember that some of the tightest bonds that people experience are when they’re combatting others. So I don’t want to paint a picture of human history as one of a great emergence of impressive, empathetic response to other people. That melts down all the time. And we see history moving in cycles of achievement and then collapse. And with massive ambitiousness throughout, that is supported through religious cultures and institutions in various places. But why are humans interesting from a scientific point of view? Even abstracting from, maybe, an interest in justice, you might be interested in how it is that people work. What are the programming languages of culture? What are the programming languages that keep societies running? We just simply don’t know. So when we begin to take an evolutionary framework we can then identify, in the first instance, what the problems are. Why is it that people would cooperate when it’s so risky to do so? Why don’t we see cooperation very generally, across the animal kingdoms, except among highly related species of insect – you know, evolutionary time-depth of hundreds of millions of years. Well it’s because very specific problems need to be solved: problems about predicting what others are going to do; problems about figuring out the what the motivations of other people are; problems about co-ordinating those motivations at scale, so that people become predictable at scale, at the kind of scales we see where you don’t know others – you might not even see the partners that are responsible for the world around you, but you have to kind of trust in them. How does that all get co-ordinated? Then, how does that co-ordination remain robust when it gets perturbed . . . when there is a breakdown of social order? When there a collapse of society, how does it rebuild? Those are the kinds of questions that we can address, very narrowly and specifically, through evolutionary dynamics. First we can characterise the problem. And my early work was mainly theoretical. We characterised the problem – predictive confidence: how can I get predictive confidence from others?

TW: So what would the actual experiment look like? I mean, what would be the process for testing these kind of questions of thinking?

JB: Well, once we began . . . Darwin has a great sentence from his autobiography when he’s describing walking with naturalist Sedgwick – Darwin was a great . . . Darwin studied theology as an undergraduate, but he loved nature and hung out with biologists (25:00). And they were in Cwm Idwal, and they were walking along the banks of these hills and looking for fossils. And Darwin ignored the great evidence of geological change around him, the boulders that were strewn across the landscape, the terminal and lateral moraines. And he said, “Had the glacier been present, these features would be less obvious,” you know?! He used the metaphor of, “A house burned by fire did not tell its story as plainly as did this valley.” Had the glaciers been present, it would have been less obvious that they were there. And to make the point that we don’t know even what to look for when we begin describing the patterns of cultural and human variation – both historically and culturally, across cultures over history and within cultures, within individuals: so, patterns of variation. We don’t even really know what to look for in that variation until we begin to think about . . . Well, in my own work, I became interested in very specific patterns of variation within humans because of a theory about human cooperativeness, by which I mean predicting what others are going to do. So you can co-ordinate your activities to get work done that you could never do alone. That’s what we see in people around us. Again, some of that work is quite vicious. It could be war, or it could be murder, and others. How does that happen? Well very specific problems need to be solved. So, evolutionary dynamics for me at least, in the first instance, we’re focussing on . . . I’ve talked in large and perhaps general terms about: how is it that people come together? How do we cooperate? How do we have a sense of justice? Those are very vaguely formulated questions. In science, “how do we fix your teeth?” is a very vaguely formulated question. What it amounts to (and I don’t know anything about dental science and I probably shouldn’t . . .) but I think it amounts to a very specific set of ideas about how it is that tooth decay . . . . How do teeth work? What are the physical properties? What are the kind of sensitivities to disease, to damage, to breakdown? How do you repair those? What kinds of materials are available? All sorts of very, very . . . . Does this material work better than gold, or lead, or whatever it is that they used to put . . . ceramic materials? You get these kind of very, very narrow questions when you start doing science. In fact, science becomes laser-like in its focus. So we had these questions about cooperation. How is it that people can predict others? And that led to a series of questions about specific ritual behaviour. So, does moving together in synchrony – in coordinated body responses – which we see across many rituals, for example, military marching . . . ? We see patterns of highly coordinated activity, and we see descriptive responses of people feeling more at one with each other. We have whole ethnographies written and devoted to these topics. Emile Durkheim, the founder of modern anthropology and sociology, is arguing that people come together in rituals to become united. So we began to look at these features of body movement. And then, when you begin to test them in very first experimental conditions – moving together, or moving randomly, or moving in anti-coordinated patterns – you begin to see, through a series of interventions, do people become more cooperative? Do they tend to volunteer more with each other? Do they become more cooperative in their predictions of what others are going to do? And through a series of efforts, again led by my PhD students, we began to try to break those features down. And we could see a synchronous movement, in combination with goal structures, and in actual human ecologies in New Zealand – we were looking at religious groups. They tend . . . people who do that kind of thing tend to be more cooperative with each other. That gives us a sense of: “Wow! This stuff that looks to be completely incidental and marginal has a utility in solving some of these key questions that need to get solved for people to become cooperative!” Well, why is that important? Because what’s the first budget to get cut when a budget comes under pressure. It the budget for those things that look marginal. You know, you cut the mid-morning run, or the tea, or the kind of community-making efforts because they look to be fringe, you know: “We still have to meet our targets.” What’s the consequence of that? Can you begin to see the gradual erosion of social order when you begin to perturb these things that look to be completely incidental and marginal? (30:00) So that was some of the work we were doing at the level of individuals. In other work, I think you’ve mentioned both New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study and the Pulotu Dastabase. I’ll talk about the Values Study later, but Pulotu – a Royal Society of New Zealand supported project and also the Templeton Foundation – the Pulotu database was created led by Russell Gray and Joseph Watts and Oliver Sheehan who were all at Auckland at that time. And it was a purpose-built database of Pacific religious diversity, to try to develop a capacity for testing questions about how the cultural variation of the Pacific, which emerged very recently over 6000 years, came together to . . . . Are the patterns of variation across the Pacific consistent with specific models of what religion is doing for people? So that’s what we did.

TW: OK. Great. And you also mentioned the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study. So it seems that you’ve kind of got this double prong. You’ve got the kind of laboratory analysis of how synchronised movements can feed into greater levels of altruism, or cooperative cooperation, between groups. But you’re also doing big data work. You’ve talked about the Pulotu, but the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey: I’m very interested to hear about the problems of big data research, or kind-of . . . what new light is that shedding on the study of religion, when we use these big data sets?

JB: So, this was a project that was started by my collaborator, Chris Sibley, in 2009. And it’s a project that was not created to study religion and is not primarily about religion. It’s a general, broad, social-psychological and health survey of New Zealanders that is given to the same New Zealanders each year, over time. And Chris started it to better understand how it is that changes in attitudes and values, and stability in those patterns, affect employment, health, community growth, prejudice: those standard social-psychological issues. And I do some work in that study related to religion: how do beliefs, and how do practices, affect people over time? And we say “big data”, but each one of the individuals there is a human being that’s donating some time to kind-of tell us about themselves each year. And when I think about this subject, I just think about the amazing number of individual human beings that are willing to tell us about themselves. And through that capacity we are able to understand how, for example, how natural disasters affect people. And how do people become resilient after them? What are the factors that drive that? The most important limitation of large studies, or scientific studies at any scale, is that it gives us inference. It gives us some scope of improved understanding with error bars around it: this might be happening, it might not be happening. We’re trying to kind-of shrink the error bars and improve our ideas about these parameters, or these questions that we’ll never really get at. So science does something. I think that’s a really important think to know about it. Even in big data we get lots of information about people. We’re understanding history now like it’s never been understood before, by tracking it, by recording it at the level of individuals. It couldn’t happen before very recently. We’re giving them the questions and still we’re having a hard time figuring out how it is that . . . . So, for example, why is it that the country is becoming more nationalistic? Why is it, at the same time, becoming more committed to equality for women? These kinds of questions have some explanation. But we don’t get that from the data. We still have to use our minds to think of theories, we still need to talk to people. And it’s highly limited. For all the money, and effort, and time, we get some improved understanding – but not a lot! But it’s better than nothing. So I think cumulative understanding in science is worthwhile. It’s a frustrating and slow process. In longitudinal data the changes that take place in your life can change – and this is really decade-long stuff, you know? It takes a while: you have a kid, the kid grows up, you get married, you get divorced. Those sorts of things happen to people over a very long time. And you need a lot of people to really get an understanding of how that works. (35:00) So I feel like, although we’ve been going nine years now, that project, really . . . the big benefits of that project will be maybe a decade away.

TW: OK. So we’ve talked about the more kind-of laboratory psychology of religion and the way that religion can inculcate cooperation; we’ve talked about religion within the narrative of justice; and we’ve spoken briefly about the big data, kind-of large quantitative analysis that can feed a more society-wide understanding of religious trends in New Zealand. The Study of Religion in the next 20 years? How would you try and distil those experiences of research . . .?

JB: Well, our crystal balls are a bit dirty! There’ve been wonderful opportunities to conduct natural science and scientific psychological research in this country – a lot of it happening at Otago. I see more of that in the years ahead. I see a tighter integration of this research with the work of historians here, and of humanities scholars – mostly younger, I suspect: the rising generation as they get curious and have questions that they see they can contribute to. I see more collaborative work that characterises the study in the sciences and less individual-type emphasis in the Study of Religion. And more teamwork, and increasingly across universities. So it won’t be just Otago that’s doing it, or Victoria, or Auckland. We’ll begin to see these institutions appear that sit between these universities. I think that would be very healthy for New Zealand. And hopefully, also, with some more applied work of the kind you’re doing. We need to get the message out, we need to clarify what that message is, and we need to inform people about questions they might find interesting, like: how is it that you get resilient after an earthquake? That’s maybe something that people would want to know. How do you overcome? What are the strategies and affordances of community for overcoming personal disasters and tragedies, losses, and so forth? Those are questions people have. How do you have a good life? That’s what we want to begin to understand, and then convey.

TW: And perhaps a very good question to finish on as well. Thank you very much for your time Professor Bulbulia.

JB: Thank you. It’s been lovely to be here.

TW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Bulbulia, Joseph and Thomas White. 2018. “Situating Religion within Justice”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 7 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/situating-religion-within-justice/

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‘Modelling Religion’ and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion

Following his Albert Moore Memorial Lecture at Otago University, celebrating 50 years of Religious Studies at Otago, Professor Wesley Wildman talks to Thomas White regarding the integration of the sciences and the humanities in his bio-cultural approach to the study of religion.

Wildman argues that the methods and knowledge of the empirical sciences, from evolutionary biology to neuroscience, are increasingly gaining authority in the study of religion. This is to be welcomed. Yet when scientists pursue the study of religion unassisted, they can often slip into simple category errors, or fail to recognise important contextual nuance. The expert collaboration of humanities scholars is essential for ensuring this new and growing area of scholarship remains conceptually rigorous and culturally informed. The two fields of academia must work together, but sometimes, institutional and ideological barriers can prevent such cooperation, not least regarding the use of ‘religion’ as a general category.


Tom White (left) and Wesley Wildman (right)

Wildman’s current project ‘Modelling Religion’ (which uses computer simulations to explore religious behaviour), offers a compelling case for Wildman’s mixed methods approach. Whilst also admitting the project’s limitations, Wildman explains how computer simulations of social and psychological processes can provide fresh input on long-standing, previously irresolvable theoretical debates in the study of religion. The interview finishes with Wildman speaking on the practical aspects of working on such mixed-method projects, including how younger scholars should prepare themselves should they wish to participate in similar research endeavours in future.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more 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, the movie Terminator 2, lollipops, and more.

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

Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion

Podcast with Wesley J. Wildman (9 October 2017).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Wildman-_Modelling_Religion_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Hello. I’m here in Dunedin, on the South Island of New Zealand at Otago University’s recording studios, with Professor Wesley Wildman of Boston University. Yesterday evening we had the pleasure of Professor Wildman’s delivering the Albert Moore Memorial Lecture. That’s a lecture series celebrating fifty years of Religious Studies here at Otago University. The lecture title was “Integrating the Science and the Humanities in the Study of Religion”. Professor Wildman has written and co-edited numerous books and seemingly innumerous academic articles and  is the founding co-editor of the journal, Religion, Brain and Behaviour. He is also the founding director for the Centre for Mind and Culture. Presently Professor Wildman is also the Principal Investigator for the Modelling Religion Project, a sub-project under the umbrella of this Centre’s broader Simulating Religion Project. Professor Wildman, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Wesley Wildman (WW): Thanks, Tom.

TW: So, I’ll start my first question, if you don’t mind. Professor Wildman, I understand that you work in the relatively new field of cognitive science of religion. Could you please give a brief summary of basic methods and principles that characterise this approach to the study of religion?

WW: Sure. First of all , I’m a philosopher of religion by native orientation and I specialise in the scientific study of religion, generally. And I would describe the area of my work as in the bio-cultural study of religion rather than the cognitive science of religion. Cognitive science of religion – as a name for an activity – has become broader over time, having less to do, specifically, with cognitive science and more and more to do with integrating information coming from both the biological sciences and the sciences of culture. Most of the things that we care about in religion involve both the sciences of cognition and the sciences of culture. So we care about minds and brains and how they work, and we also care about the way these things in collectives produce emergent phenomena of great interest to us at the cultural level. Keeping both sides, culture and cognition together is crucial for being able to get anywhere in understanding these complex things. That’s why the Centre for Mind and Culture has the name that it has, to indicate that it’s bio-cultural in orientation. And the religion work that we do through the centre, which is done through the Institute for the Bio-cultural Study of Religion focuses on that phrase bio-cultural. Now the methods that you use, then, are extremely diverse. Because the sciences of cognition and culture cover a tremendous amount of territory. I don’t know if it’s worthwhile listing methods, but the point is sometimes you’re doing qualitative research that’s in-depth studies of groups of people, other times you’re doing demography or social science-type statistics gathering, still other times you’re working on interpretive aspects of the social sciences and Religious Studies. And on the other end, you’re doing neuro-science studies – maybe eye-tracking or neuro-imagining – or you’re doing psychological surveys, or you’re doing medical tests to see how people respond to various conditions that might be related to religion, and so forth. The point is that all of these methods are available and you use whichever is the most useful for making sense of the problem that you’ve decided to tackle. And the fundamental principal is that you tackle those problems in a bio-cultural way.

TW: Terrific. Thank you. That was a tremendously comprehensive response. That’s great. And of course, this ties very neatly into the topic of last night’s lecture: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities in the Study of Religion. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners your argument for why the Study of Religion really demands more engagement from an empirically scientific approach?

WW: One of the fascinating things about the study of religion is how fast the empirical sciences have been making their contributions. Usually, from outside of the traditional Humanities/ Religious Studies area, people are making contributions on religion coming from Anthropology departments, or Sociology, or Psychology, or Medicine. The largest area is Medicine, but the others are quite large as well. The growth of literature which uses scientific methods of the empirical kind has been phenomenal. And now, more than half of the literature produced in the study of religion every year comes from people who are using scientific methods. So, at the basic level, Religious Studies need to know about what is known about religion. And so much of that is coming from people who are using scientific methods. You can’t keep up with the field unless you know something about what’s happening on the scientific side of things. But there are other reasons as well. There’s a lot of particular problems or research trajectories within religious studies where if you don’t have the scientific input you’re really missing the point, in a certain sense. (5:00) For example, if you want to try and answer the question: “Where does religion come from?” Or, “Where does belief in ancestor ghosts come from?” Or whatever it is – any type of question having to do with origins – you cannot address that question responsibly unless you deal explicitly with evolutionary questions: evolution of cognition, evolution of social patterns, and so forth. Or, if you want to deal with questions like intense spiritual experiences, it’s impossible to deal with that question without paying some attention to the psychological sciences and what the neuro-sciences have to say about the way brains process information and produce subjectively intense experiences. So there are just a couple of examples. But the general argument there is that religion is extraordinarily complicated as an object of study. Lots of disciplines are involved. And if you limit yourself, somewhat arbitrarily, just to a certain subset of those disciplines, you’ll pay a price.

TW: Terrific. And I suppose this also ties into the other point you were making during your lecture where you were at pains to point out that an exclusively scientific approach is also, to some degree, equally weak and one that is lacking significant Humanities input is deeply problematic, too. Could you elaborate on that, perhaps, please?

WW: Certainly. There’s a fairly depressing experience that, as editors of Religion, Brain and Behaviour, we have quite often and that’s’ reading papers that don’t seem to benefit even a little bit from the history of the study of religion from the Humanities side. People operationalise religion in a way that makes zero sense against  the history of the debate of that question in Religious Studies. Or they have, what I would call “wooden” interpretations of something that’s extremely subtle such as, for example, the subjective experience of feeling guilty. That’s enormously complicated and you can get very wooden takes on that in scientific work at times. So you’ve got this problem that, when you just start deciding as a scientist that you’re going to study religion, and you’re not going to pay attention to the subtle readings, contextual sensitivity, historical awareness and so on that Humanities scholars bring to the study of religion, you end up reinventing the wheel: it’s not efficient and of course, you’re nowhere near as good in your interpretive skills as those people who’ve been generating the deepest understanding of religion for the past hundred years or so. So you just wind up reinventing the wheel badly. And it’s sad to see. What we stand for in Religion, Brain and Behaviour is trying to force people submitting journal articles to be excellent on both sides – or at least tolerably adequately aware of both sides of the Humanities and the Sciences.

TW: Terrific. So some very strong arguments here for greater collaboration between the two disciplines or the two areas of the academy. What would you say are the main challenges that are holding back collaboration between the Sciences and the Humanities in the study of religion, whether these be institutional or ideological?

WW: Yes, it’s not easy putting them together. I think the most important fact here about collaboration is that it is quite natural when it happens. People who actually wok on both sides . . . usually in teams, of course, because it’s difficult to be expert in both, right? So, you have Humanities people and Science people working together in teams. But those collaborations typically work brilliantly. So there doesn’t seem to be a conceptual issue once you actually get into it. But there are fairly significant impediments to getting started. The first thing is insecurity, I think, on the Humanities side: “I don’t know anything abut the Sciences. How can I do anything using the Sciences?” That comes partly, I think, from imagining that the Humanities person is supposed to be in complete individual control of everything that they do. But we’ve found that that’s not the way the best work happens. The best work happens in teams. So, what’s required is to learn how to work in teams. So: you represent an Area  Studies person – so you do South Asian Buddhism or something – you work with a cognitive psychologist. And the cognitive psychologist has to be open, just like you’re open to a collaboration, working together and you really get somewhere that way. So I would call that a practical problem, not an ideological problem. And it might be the largest impediment. (10:00) But there are ideological problems as well. There are people on the Humanities side – especially with the so-called “crisis of the Humanities” – that are deeply concerned about the way research universities are focussing all of their efforts, money and attention on the STEM subjects. And, of course, the Humanities get held in stasis or they shrink slowly over time, while that happens. And you can feel as though the prestige that you had in the university context has been turned over, against your will, to the happy scientists who hold the hegemony these days: the prestige in the university context. Therefore, you certainly don’t want to invite them into traditional Humanities territory as in the Humanities’ study of religion. That is an ideological argument. I think there’s a real concern, but the way to solve the problem isn’t to keep the Sciences out, because that interferes with the quality of the research. It’s to show that the Humanities are necessary for the Sciences to do excellent work. And that was the point I made in the previous question. That’s the way to defend the Humanities in the university. You can’t do excellent work in any field, including in the Sciences, unless the Humanities are active in helping people refine their interpretations, maintain their sensitivity to context – both cultural context and historical context. I do think there are ways of steering around that ideological worry about science taking over everything, by going on the attack and arguing that the Humanities are essential for excellent science. On the Science side there’s also an ideological thing that’s something more like neglect or arrogance: “We don’t even understand what those Humanities people are doing. We’re the ones who bring in all the money and do all the work, so we don’t need to pay any attention to them.” That’s just intellectual laziness. But the way to solve that is to confront scientists with their mistakes, with the superficiality of their analyses. And Humanities people are in a very good position to do that: to demonstrate their importance in the scientific endeavour. Once those two forms of ideological resistance are mitigated then there are fewer impediments to actually getting started on forming teams and doing research. And after that, it happens naturally.

TW: Terrific. And of course – thinking about the cultural nuances that need to be raised and brought to the attention of more scientifically practised academics – for me, this kind-of brings us toward the territory of religion as a cross-cultural category. A category that presumes to precisely and usefully identify beliefs, experiences and behaviours in various cultures, across the planet, with validity. And offer them as “of a kind”. And, of course, this has been critiqued by Fitzgerald, the Critical Religion Group formed at Sterling University and many others in the Asadian school. How does your approach seek to address, or respond to, both the concerns of analytic accuracy and ethicality underlying this critique – that the category of religion elides crucial cultural difference and reinforces colonial power structures?

WW: Well first, every category that human beings build is “built”. That sounds like it might be redundant, but it’s a very important point. Everything we do in the academic world, everything we do when we categorise anything, is built. Even species designations are built. The concept of a natural kind is a built concept or a socially constructed concept that actually is very difficult to realise in the crisp and clear way that it promises to be applied to the real world. So, we’re in a world where we build categories, we construct ideas and we apply them to things. Every single time we do that we’re going to be generalising. When we generalise, every sing time, there are going to be stress points where the generalisation does not fit the data. We need to be on the alert constantly, when we build categories, for the side effects of building them.We’re cognitively lazy creatures on the whole, so we tend to get deeply attached to the categories that we build, rather than to the phenomena that they’re intended to describe. That’s where we really start to have problems, because we’ve been attached to an abstraction that distorts the thing we’re trying to talk about. So, there has to be a constant conversation going on between the construction of a category on the one hand and the connection to details, contexts, periods, and so forth on the other hand. When that conversation’s going on you actually check the dangers of generalisation and, in a certain way, unleash generalisation and make it useful for the academic study of whatever it is that you’re looking at. (15:00) So that’s a general principal that I present in my theory of inquiry, which has to do with the legitimacy of generalisation and its dangers, and how to manage the dangers in order to make generalisation useful. So it’s against the background of that framework that I would say religion is a classic example of a category that’s socially constructed – sometimes to serve political purposes. But the generalisations that lead to distortions in the use of the word “religion” can also be checked, they can be criticised, they can be managed in a certain way. So that you can continue to make the generalisation, if there’s a reason to do so, and use the category of religion without ever falling prey to the delusional thinking associated with thinking that you didn’t build the category in the first place. Now the particular school you mentioned, I think, over-simplify the history of the concept of religion. Plato talked about religion and he was thinking comparatively when he did. Whenever there’s more than one who are doing something similar that we would be prepared to call religion now, there was stress to try to understand comparatively what was going on. You see this in Chinese debates between Confucians and Buddhists and Daoists in ancient China. And you see something similar in South Asian contexts. So people . . . whenever you’ve got any type of pluralistic setting with things that we might be prepared to call religion, you actually see the emergence of categorisations that allow people to say, “Well these things are ‘of a kind’.” It’s not just a colonialist invention. The latest version of it in the West has been a colonial invention – there’s no question about that. But that’s not the only way the word comes up, or the idea comes up in the history of human thought. Again, what’s happening there is people need to draw generalisations to understand complex things. And those generalisations will always distort, therefore they always need to be managed. The same principle applies today. We can keep using the word religion if we want, but we have to take responsibility for doing so. That’s where the ethical side of it comes in. It’s the taking responsibility for the generalisations that we use in academia and in the general discourse abut things in the world. Taking responsibility means checking what the distorting side effects might be of our use of language. And consequently making adjustments where necessary, and sometimes abandoning words altogether.

TW: Thank you. That’s  a formidable response. Now, let’s move on to your research that’s ongoing at the moment. As I mentioned earlier,you’re the principal investigator for the Modelling Religion Project which sits within the broader Simulating Religion Project, being run by the Centre for Mind and Culture. So, starting from the top, what does simulating religion entail? What does it offer? And what are it’s limits, if any?

WW: Well, it’s plainly limited! That’s a very good place to start, in fact. If you’re thinking about using computers to create models and run simulations in relation to religion, there’s a whole bunch of limits that need to be confessed, right up front. And the beautiful simplicity of a feeling of peace that someone has in a religious ritual – we can’t express that in a computer simulation, we just can’t. So there’s no point in trying to do that. So we’re already sharply aware of so much that we can’t do, when we try and use computer models to simulate religious social processes and psychological processes. If that was the only thing that mattered you’d never bother with computer engineering at all. You just wouldn’t go there. But it’s not the only thing that matters. There are a whole bunch of things for which computer modelling and simulation turn out to be extremely useful. So, you judge whether you use those techniques based on whether you can get anywhere with them. That’s practical. It’s a practical reason to use them. So we’re not trying to pursue any agenda here. We don’t have an ideological computers-will-take-over-the-world perspective – nothing like that! All we try to do is to use methods that are useful. Now, why would they be useful and in what contexts would they be useful? To begin with, it’s quite common to find academics fighting over things. They have got competing theories. And so often, the theories aren’t capable of being tested or even directly compared with one another. So you wind up having internal fights. Like, historians trying to decide about the spread of violence in the Radical Reformation. Did it come through congregational lineages? Or was it spread horizontally by firebrand travelling preachers, you know? Well, that fight’s been going on for hundreds of years. (20:00) Can you resolve a fight like that? Could you use computer analysis or other techniques to be able to resolve a fight like that? We found that you can. That you can build models of both horizontal transmission and vertical transmission of violence among Anabaptists and you can produce support for one of those hypotheses that’s stronger than support for the other. Now that doesn’t prove anything, but it shifts the burden of proof. And what we found, when we actually did this study, was that vertical transmission is stronger than horizontal transmission. So, if you’ve got an historian who wants to argue for horizontal transmission they have a larger burden now, because of the work that we did: a larger burden to show that they’re right, despite the fact that this group showed that vertical transmission is stronger. So that’s an example of bringing in a method when it’s useful, to help with an intractable enquiry. Other kinds of intractable enquiries are important as well. If you’re trying to think about the way people deal with religion in modernity: the way it arises; the way they have experiences; the way they have beliefs; the way secularisation impacts them; the way a thousand other factors – economics, healthcare – affects the way people operate religiously. If you want to understand that, there are an awful lot of theories out there that have been offered that do that. And some of them are conflicting with one another. For example, you got the Stark-style supply side economic-style theories of religion versus the demand side theories that are pursued by lots of other people. That conflict is a fight to death conflict. Is one of them going to be right and one of them going to be wrong? One of the brilliant things about computer modelling is that you can build models that incorporate both of these viewpoints together. Of course, not in the same respect, because there’s a genuine conflict between the two of them. But if you’ve got a supply and demand-type set up in your computer model it’s obvious that there could be demand factors and it’s obvious that there could be supply factors. There’s no problem putting them together. But you need a complex structure to express conceptually precisely what you mean by combining those two theories, so that you can see how they are actually – or could be actually – consistent with one another. After that, what you’ve got is a model that you could run against data. If you can produce better predictions of data using your combined model, then you’ve succeeded in transcending this fight to the death between supply side and demand side theories abut religion in modernity. So it’s when it’s useful that we go there. And when it’s not useful we don’t try.

TW: Great. It sounds like that there’s a lot of rich and important work to be done in that field. Where do you see the modelling approach in the study of religion transforming in the future? What do you think its ambitions ought to be?

WW: Well, for one thing, they should be modest. Because it’s a hard road. The collaboration involved in making this work is quite extreme, in a certain sense, because you need specialists associated with any particular model that you build: you need generalists who know about Religious Studies in general from a Humanities perspective, for example; you need computer engineers who are actually going to build models. So it’s hard to organise groups of people like that and it takes a lot of energy and actually, frankly, a lot of money to be able to pull it off. So the first thing is to be cautious about claiming that too much will change in the future. But there’s something about computer modelling that’s generative. It’s been called “the key to generative social science” because it generates new ways of thinking. It generates new hypotheses for testing and so forth. It produces results that are surprising, sometimes, that you weren’t ready for. Very often, coding low-level behaviours and interactions between simulated agents – like people – or sometimes groups of agents, but whatever. You’re coding at the lower level, how they relate to each other, how they think in their own minds, how they process information, how they communicate. And you validate that against experimental work in Psychology of Religion and Sociology of Religion and so forth. Then, when you run a simulation, these interactions combine in a complex system to produce emergent properties. Those emergent properties aren’t coded in at the bottom. They come out of the system. (25:00) And it’s the emergent properties, of course, that you really care about. Because the other things you’ve got high level data on – population data. So you can test the model to see whether the architecture you built at the low level is any good, by looking at what emergent features it produces.

TW: Can you give an example of something that you’ve worked on that represents that?

WW: Sure. Think about mutually escalating religious violence. Two groups that have religious impulses and they’re trying to . . . they use those impulses to motivate and to rationalise the violent behaviours that they engage in. Sometimes this produces mutual escalation: one groups hits, the other group hits back harder, and so forth, until you get to a certain threshold and then everyone takes a breather and calms down again, for a while. Well, we’ve been able to produce mutually escalating religious violence in a computer model. But not by programming it in. Rather, by defining relationships among people as they interact with one another – as in, insiders in their own group and outsider in a threatening, outside group. These programmed-in behaviours at the low level don’t predict anything at the high level. And yet, what we do get is mutually escalating violence with cool-down periods. That emergent feature of mutually escalating violence with cool-down periods can be compared to actual historical episodes. And we’ve used the Irish Troubles and the  Gujarat riots and various other things to try and make sense of what’s going on there. So that’s one of the pieces that’s in publication at the moment. What’s really going on there is that you’ve got a complex system in the real world that connects minds – lots of minds – and culture, say, emergent features such as violence. Those connections are very complex, too complex to understand analytically, so you use another complex system to model it. That is, you build a complex system in a computer to get a handle on the complex system in the real world. And that’s what produces generative social science: new hypotheses that you couldn’t get a hold of any other way. You can solve problems and tackle research problems using computers even in Religious Studies, that you can do in no other way.

TW: Great. Thank you very much, Professor Wildman. I’ll just finish with one final question. For younger scholars and students inspired by the application of computer technology – those digital natives that are coming up through their careers and the greater use of scientific approaches in the study of religion – what advice would you give to them, in terms of the skills and knowledge that they should really seek to be developing in preparation for a career in this field?

WW: When we look for collaborators, it’s easy for us to find people in computer engineering who have some interest in religion. They don’t know anything about the study of religion but they’re fascinated by religion even if they’re not personally religious. So, finding people who are excited to take on this kind of research turns out to be very easy. The danger there is that if someone is like that, and they run off and try to do that research by themselves, they’ll be operating in the dark. They won’t be aware of what Religious Studies really means from a Humanities point of view. So they really need to find collaborators. And on the other side, when people  . . . maybe they learned programming in high school and they’re coming through doing a PhD or a Master’s, or something, in Religious Studies, and they’re thinking “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to do modelling and simulation!”  . . . . It’s actually extremely technical, and just because they know a programming language, it might not be quite enough. They also need to make teams. In general, my advice is find teams: don’t suppose that you can be expert at everything but, rather, collaborate with people who can provide form of expertise that you don’t already possess. And you can contribute your own forms of expertise and learn a lot in the process. Now there are other things you can do, like look for high-level graduate training where you get trained on both sides. That does exist – it’s not very common but there are a few places that do that. But I think, fundamentally, anyone can get started on this so long as they’re thoughtful about finding team mates to work with. These days the scientific study of religion is a team sport.

TW: Inspiring stuff! Well thank you very much, Professor Wildman, for joining me this morning, and  I really enjoyed your lecture yesterday evening, and thank you very much for your time.

WW: My pleasure.

Citation info: Wildman, Wesley, J. 2017. “Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 9 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 27 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/modelling-religion-and-the-humanities-in-the-bio-cultural-study-of-religion/

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