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Embodied religious practices, child psychology and cognitive neuroscience

embodimentIn this interview, Brock Bahler, visiting assistant professor in Religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh, talks about his research on cognitive neuroscience, child psychology and embodied religious practices. Through the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and Levinas on the relationship between the mind and the body, Bahler discusses the notion of ritual as a locus of power in terms of structure and agency. His recent book, Childlike Peace in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty: Intersubjectivity as a Dialectical Spiral (Lexington Books, forthcoming) focuses on neuroscience to grasp the topic power relations at the confluence of religion and other social influences on one’s trajectories. As such, Bahler examines, with a “phenomenological twist”, what rituals do in terms of education, psychology, and subjectivity.

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Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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, video games, indulgences, and more.

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’

As I have responded to Tanya Luhrmann’s book elsewhere and am on record in terms of thinking it makes a major contribution to the cognitive science of religion (CSR) both in terms of its argument and its use of mixed (ethnographic and experimental) methods, I decided that rather than recycling comments that I have already made, it would make much more interesting to give you something of a meta-review of the scientifically-oriented reviews of her book. My initial thought was to focus on the review symposium in Religion, Brain & Behavior from last winter, but with help from Luhrmann, who graciously emailed me some additional reviews, I decided — at the last minute — to expand my scope.

But let me begin by summarizing what I take to be the scientific heart of her study, that is, her effort to offer a scientific answer to the question of how people — in this case, evangelical, charismatically-oriented Christians in Vineyard congregations in Chicago and the Bay Area — come not only to believe that it is possible to talk to God and God will answer but to experience this as actually happening. In her introduction, she explicitly positions her study in relation to some of the research in CSR that stresses the prevalence of belief in gods and other invisible beings, making the case that, while this belief may be widespread, people have to learn to actually hear God and this learning process is (1) difficult, (2) more difficult for some than others, and (3) when it occurs actually changes how people process information.

Each of these claims required different methods. The first, documenting the learning process, was primarily an ethnographic task, which she accomplished through two years of intensive involvement not just with the congregations but with small groups in which people learned to pray that were attached to the churches in both Chicago and the Bay Area. She discovered that some found it easier to learn to hear god than others through participant observation as well. There were the “prayer warriors” at one end of the spectrum and the poor guy, who was raised in the Vineyard church, who desperately wanted to hear god, but never did, at the other extreme. But Luhrmann didn’t just observe these differences. When they started to become apparent, she had them fill out several psychological scales, some of which they liked better than others. Their responses on a scale that reports their tendency to lose themselves in something — to become absorbed — correlated with their ability to learn to hear god. That was an interesting discovery that suggested that individual differences made a difference in how easily people learned to hear god, but it didn’t say if the learning process itself — the religious practices and spiritual disciplines changed how people processed their perceptions and sensations. To test this, she designed an ingenious field experiment in which she gave people iPods with tapes that they had to listen to for 30 minutes six days a week for four weeks (202-210). The experimental group got a modified version of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises in which they were asked to place themselves in a biblical scene and interact with the characters. The control group got a series of Luke Timothy Johnson’s lectures on the New Testament. They were given a series of cognitive tasks before and after the experiment to see if the imaginative exercises made a difference in how they processed information, e.g., resulted in their seeing mental images more vividly. She described these as “training effects” and there were connections between the training effects and individual differences on the absorption scale.

Luhrmann took these measurable changes in how they were processing information as suggesting that they were learning a new theory of mind. Here’s the key passage from the introduction:

In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to interpret the familiar experience of their own minds and bodies as not being own at all–but God’s. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. … To do this, they need to develop a new theory of mind. That phrase theory of mind — has been used to describe the way a child learns to understand that other people have different beliefs and goals and intensions (Luhrmann, 2012, xxi-xxii).

This insight led to an expanded project, which she launched shortly after the book went to press and is still under way, in which she is comparing charismatic Christians in India (Chennai) and Ghana (Accra) to see if she finds local variations in theory of mind, that — she is hypothesizing — would suggest that culture influences the inferences we make about other people’s minds.

From a CSR perspective, this is actually her most controversial claim. Controversial, because theory of mind, which refers to our capacity to attribute mental states to ourselves and others is a central topic in developmental psychology and ethology, the study of other animals, where researchers are asking how this capacity develops in humans and whether it is present in other animals. What makes her claim controversial is that most developmental psychologists think this is a universal human capacity. There are other lines of research that question this and argue that “the standard psychological model for theory of mind is distinctively Euro-American.” Luhrmann is thus using her Vineyard research to raise the possibility that there are different theories of mind — local theories of mind — and asking whether these cultural differences make a fundamental difference in the way people draw inferences about another person’s intentions, feelings, and so on (Luhrmann, 2014, 83).

In the reviews I have looked at so far, reviewers did not address this controversial point head-on, but instead addressed it indirectly. Thus, some in the RBB symposium found her approach “too cognitive” – too dependent on an “information processing approach” — and advocated approaching the problem in light of research on embodied cognition (Strawn & Brown 2014), they and another reviewers thought she ought to pay more attention to explaining differences in terms of attachment processes (Strawn & Brown 2014, Sandage 2014). Others highlighted the role of emotion and still others the need to attend to motivation (Alcorta 2014, 54).

Whether her approach is “too cognitive” depends on how cognitive is defined. There is a narrow and a broader sense in which the term is used. Here I quote John Tooby & Leda Cosmides (1992, 65) on the definitional issues: “Some researchers use it in a narrow sense, to refer to so-called ‘higher mental’ processes, such as reasoning, as distinct from other psychological processes, such as ’emotion’ or ‘motivation’; that is, to refer to a concept that corresponds more or less to the folk notion of reasoning while in a calm frame of mind. In contrast, we [Tooby & Cosmides] are using the word cognitive in a different and more standard [cognitive science] sense. … We use … cognitive and information processing to refer to a language or level of analysis that can be used to precisely describe any psychological process: reasoning, emotion, motivation, and motor control can all be described in cognitive terms, whether the processes that give rise to them are conscious or unconscious, simple or complex. In cognitive science, the term mind refers to an information-processing description of the functioning of an organism’s brain.” So a cognitive science approach, as they and many others understand it, is a language for describing how we process all the incoming information available to us from our bodies and the entire environment in which we are situated – social, cultural, natural — in functional terms, that is in terms of what we do with it.

In terms of this understanding, what many of the reviewers distinguish as “not cognitive”, i.e., bodily sensations, emotions, and motivations, all can and should be considered within a cognitive, information processing approach as either input to be processed or output of the processing. Attachment processes are one of the ways of processing information. So in my mind, most of these reviewers missed the key question, which I think has to do with learning. If Luhrmann wants her work to speak to a CS audience, which I think she does, we need to be able to think about how Vineyard folks were learning — more or less well — in cognitive terms.

Pascal Boyer’s review for the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory symposium basically does this, which to my mind makes it the most important — and illuminating — of the science-oriented reviews. Pascal Boyer is the author of Religion Explained and has been a leading figure in terms of CSR. His review firmly positions Luhrmann’s work within a cognitive, information processes perspective. Boyer picks up on Luhrmann’s central point: that people have to work hard to learn to hear God. He makes the obvious point that believing in god — however fervently — is not the same thing as feeling you are in the presence of and communicating with god. He points out that many anthropologists have glossed over this distinction, referring all the time to what the people they are studying believe and then offering this as an explanation for their behavior. Boyer generalized from Luhrmann’s research to suggest that most people hold their beliefs in a more tentative fashion, as a conjecture, that they have not necessarily, or perhaps only fleetingly, experienced first-hand as “real” in the sense that Luhrmann uses the term.

Boyer links this distinction between believing and experiencing to a basic cognitive science distinction between “intuitions,” which are normally processed rapidly and unconsciously, and “reflective beliefs” or “reflective processing” or “metacognition.” Most of what we find out about people’s beliefs are “reflective beliefs.” We process most bodily sensations, perceptions, and emotions intuitively without any reflection on the process at all. As he points out — and this is the key link — “religious representations are potentially much more compelling, attention-grabbing, and memorable when they are associated with intuitive content, preferably with perceptions” (Boyer 2013, 353). In other words, through slow learning processes we can learn to associate reflective beliefs with intuitively processed sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Doing so allows us to experience the reflective beliefs in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do. So the point here is that from an information processing perspective, the evangelical’s Luhrmann studied are learning to connect their conscious, reflective belief in god with intuitive, unconsciously processed emotions, perceptions, and sensations in a way that allows them to distinguish some of their inner thoughts as “theirs” and others as “god’s”.

So, let me tie this back into the theory of mind (ToM) issue. In her response to the RBB symposium, Luhrmann referred to a meeting of anthropologists and psychologists that she arranged at Stanford to see whether they had sufficient evidence to argue for “local theories of mind.” They came up with at least six such theories, one of them “the Euro-American modern supernaturalist theory of mind” (Luhrmann 2014, 82-83). In light of Boyer’s distinctions, what Luhrmann characterizes as local theories of mind are best understood as reflective or folk theories of mind. They are the beliefs that we and others have about how mind, body, and world are related. These beliefs may or may not have any relation to the evolved, intuitive, unconscious way that we intuit what is going on in the minds of others. In her RBB response, Luhrmann (2014, 83) acknowledges that there are a range of competing scientific views of ToM and cites two in her discussion – Scholl & Leslie (1999) and Astuti (2012) – that question her approach, stressing that theories about how something works may or may not tell us anything about how they actually work.

Thus, in Boyer’s terms, Luhrmann is asking whether reflective ToMs can influence intuitive ToM.   In asking that, we need to specify what we mean by influence. I think it is much more likely that reflective ToM can influence what inferences we draw about other people’s minds, but not so likely that it influences how we draw inferences about other people’s minds. By calling what people believe about the mind, body, world relationship “theory of mind,” Luhrmann risks over-associating these reflective beliefs with the intuitive process and overlooking the possibility that these beliefs about the relationship between mind, body, and world may come to seem real to people through association with other intuitive processes. So I think we need to consider the possibility that people can attach reflective/folk ToM to a range of sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Then the question we would need to ask would be how do people learn to experience THIS particular folk ToM, including our Euro-American secular one, as real?

 

References

Alcorta, Candace S. 2014. Modes of knowing: how kataphatic practice impacts our brains and behaviors. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 49-56.

Astuti, Rita. 2012. Some after dinner thoughts on theory of mind. Anthropology of this century 3 available in LSE Research Online at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/41536/

Boyer, Pascal. 2013. Why ‘belief’ is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann’s When God talks back. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 349-57.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God talks back. New York: Knopf.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2014. Response: Knowing God, attentional learning, and the local theory of mind. Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 78-90.

Sandage, Steven J. 2014. Attachment theory, relational spirituality, and varieties of evangelicals. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 59-65.

Scholl, Brian J. and Alan J. Leslie. 1999. Modularity, development, and ‘theory of mind.’ Mind & Language 14 (1), 131-153.

Strawn, Brad D. and Warren S. Brown. 2014. Living with evangelical paradoxes. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 65-72.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind, pp. 19-136. New York: Oxford University Press.

Conference Report: International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference

The RSP would like to thank Christopher Kavanagh for writing the conference report.

For the past few days I attended the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion’s (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference. The theme this year was focused on addressing the state of the field, 25 years after the cognitive approach to religion (CSR) first appeared (at least in its modern incarnation). I contributed to these efforts by presenting a critical review of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) literature, and a short poster that detailed a recoding of a previous study on MCI items in Roman prodigies (Lisdorf, 2001) (for those who may be interested, the recoding reversed the original pattern reported). However, I’m not going to review my own talk (for obvious reasons), nor do I intend to offer a thorough account of the entire conference, instead I’d just like to point out some personal highlights and my impressions of the conference overall.

Justin Lane presenting

‘Justin Lane presenting’ photo by Nora Parren

Unfortunately, at any conference there are times when your energy sags, your attention wanders, or you are preoccupied (such as when you are furiously attempting to make last minute changes to your upcoming presentation). As a result, while I was bodily present for the opening talks and took in the broad strokes of the presentations I feel like I only really got about 70% of the material presented. These talks, however, were perhaps the most important for addressing the state of the field and updating the progress made on various research agendas. The tone overall was positive but, as ever, there were calls for better and more meaningful collaborations to be pursued with our arts and humanities counterparts and an acknowledgement that greater methodological and statistical rigor was required to advance the field. Senior figures, such as Armin Geertz, rather modestly emphasised that the greatest hope for the future of the field lay with the emerging generation of scholars who possess a greater fluency with the firmly established approaches of the humanities and the newer experimental and statistical methods prevalent in modern cognitive research. This was a theme also raised by Ted Slingerland who highlighted the need for culturally bilingual researchers, who would in turn also possess the regional speciality and linguistic competences more often associated with devoted anthropologists or classicists.

Their points were well made and certainly valid however I think established researchers, such as Joseph Bulbulia, who freely admit to coming to statistics later in their careers, also demonstrate that this is a shift that is also occurring in the upper echelons of the field. To what extent it is possible for CSR researchers to bridge the divide with humanities scholars, while simultaneously developing statistical and methodological approaches that are likely to prove alienating to such researchers, is an open question. Personally, while I don’t think CSR researchers should give up on consilience, I think it is also worth looking to cross-cultural psychologists for potentially illuminating collaborations, as the regional specialisation is still there but there is also a shared recognition of the value of quantitative methods. There is no cookie cutter format for successful collaborations but another recurring theme was the need to combine the findings of lab experiments with relevant field research, or at least cross-cultural replications. Dimitris Xygalatas and his collaborators provided successful models for how the two methodologies could be fruitfully combined but such success typically only comes only after many years of preparation and effort.

Photo by Silvie Kotherova

‘Dr. Deb Kelemen presenting’ Photo by Silvie Kotherova

Getting back to the conference itself, while I enjoyed pretty much all of the talks, three that particularly stood out to me were the presentations of Deborah Kelemen, Paul Reddish and Hein Thomas van Schie. Taking each in turn, Deborah Kelemen presented a very polished summary of the evidence to date for a variety of “early developing conceptual biases” many of which have been presented elsewhere as evidence that humans are “born believers”. I have issues with such a characterisation, see this previous blog post for details, but Deborah actually raised the very same point in her talk, noting that many teleological intuitions are not necessarily in-line with any religious doctrine (i.e. monkeys exist to make the jungle more interesting). She also gave ample time to emphasis the importance of methodological rigor: highlighting the necessity of conducting replications and gathering comparable cross-cultural data. As such, there were a lot of interesting results reported during the talk and, while I was familiar with some of the material, I wasn’t aware of just quite how far earlier findings had been followed up on and expanded. It was a welcome surprise and given that Keleman’s work on the teleological bias was some of the first research I came across that got me interested in the CSR, it was a pleasure to hear how things had progressed.

Paul Reddish’s talk covered some of his research on synchrony and also identified some important theoretical and definitional issues that need to be ironed out if the research is to make progress. The fact that ‘synchrony’ can be used to refer to soldiers marching in step, capoeirastas performing in a roda and a barbershop quartet singing a harmony is indicative of the complexity involved with the concept of ‘synchrony’ and Paul strongly urged for a clear typology to be employed in order that more useful comparisons could be made between studies in the future. This point echoed my own summary of the research literature on counterintuitiveness concepts, which has also suffered from the same problem of inconsistent operationalization and idiosyncratic definitions. Still it is heartening that the field is beginning to recognise and address these issues and doing so may result in the reasons for earlier discrepancies in results becoming better understood.

‘Dr. Paulo Sousa’ photo by Silvie Kotherova

Hein Thomas van Schie’s presentation discussed his research into afterlife beliefs, which sought to explore the pervasiveness of intuitive mind-body dualist assumptions about whether mental or biological processes continue after death. His talk complemented Keleman’s presentation very neatly as they both employed a variation of Jesse Bering’s “dead mouse” methodology, previously used to examine children’s intuitions concerning the afterlife. The basic methodology involves respondents reading a scenario in which someone has died (in Bering’s original version this was a mouse eaten by a crocodile) and then asking them various questions to assess whether people consider psychological states or biological needs to be still active. Van Schie’s study expanded the psychological aspects addressed and also added in the twist of varying the pre-death beliefs of the deceased (such as whether they were believers or atheists). This additionally enabled comparisons to be made with regards to whether people judged the afterlife of those with opposing or complementary viewpoints to their own differently. The findings were mixed but provided some evidence that ingroup bias may trump theological convictions as in one study atheists were found to attribute more mental activities to a dead atheist than a dead religious person.

There is much more that could be said about these talks and many other very interesting talks that I have not even mentioned. Predictably the issue of definitions of ‘religion’ came up frequently (it was the core subject of Maurice Bloch’s talk for instance), as did the importance of avoiding being academically pigeon-holed as a fringe. However, personally I think that the majority of researchers (and the field in general) have largely addressed these issues (for instance, by abandoning any claim for a single unitary explanation of ‘religion’). Religion is a tricky and perhaps largely artificial category but I don’t agree with those who say it is not useful. Government is an equally fuzzy concept and can be difficult to meaningfully apply to certain historical contexts and societies but, just like religion, as a conceptual or analytical category it remains useful. In short while there is inevitably room for further development and improvement, the conference itself served to illustrate that people within CSR are taking the need for replications (cross-cultural and otherwise), precise definitions and greater methodological rigor seriously. This is a good thing, and with the growing emphasis on collaboration with other disciplines I remain optimistic for CSRs future.

Christopher Kavanagh

Christopher Kavanagh

‘Religion is Natural and Science is Not’

Communicating with your favorite God or gods, forest spirit, or Jinn – easy. Postulating that the entire universe is held together by theorizing the process of quantum entanglement, informed from a personal commitment to philosophical a priories, which are based on measurements of the physical properties of said universe – harder. Introduction aside: ‘religion is natural and science is not’, at least according to philosopher and cognitive scientist of religion Dr. Robert N. McCauley.

In this view, ‘popular religion’ (i.e. attributing agency to inanimate objects, belief in spirits, belief in the supernatural – not to be confused with creating ‘theologies’ or ‘catechisms’) typically arises naturally from human cognitive faculties. ‘Naturally’, meaning at an early age in the course of normal human development, requiring little-to-no encouragement or support from the environment, and with likely origins stretching far back into our evolutionary history. However, science often proceeds rather counter-intuitively (Feyerabend, 1993) and requires practice (i.e. learning and repetition), as well as institutions to support its proliferation and credibility (e.g. universities and agencies such as the National Science Foundation). Your average 8 year old might hold a belief in what McCauley and Lawson term as a “culturally postulated superhuman agent” (2002) such as a god, Jinn or the Tooth Fairy, but they are unlikely to be donning a white lab coat and analyzing the output from a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the 'religion is natural, science is not' thesis.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the ‘religion is natural, science is not’ thesis.

In Robert McCauley’s interview with Thomas Coleman for the RSP on why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, McCauley begins by presenting a “new twist” in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion by exploring, and comparing, each concept from a cognitive standpoint taking into account the thought processes required to support both religion and science. He gives a brief outline of a dual process model of cognition (e.g. thinking fast vs. thinking slow) drawing an important distinction between two forms of ‘fast thinking’, labeled as “practiced naturalness” and “maturational naturalness”. The former arises only after some type of cultural instruction, arriving late in our evolutionary past and may require a special artifact (e.g. being taught to ride a bike requires a bike!), while the latter arises ‘easily’ in the course of human development, is evolutionarily old and the only special artifact required is the mind (e.g. by age 3 the majority of children in the world are walking).

In exploring precisely ‘what’s in a name’ McCauley clarifies how he uses the terms “religion” and “science” stating that maturationally natural processes are required for religion, whereas, practiced naturalness is required for science. In closing, he addresses an important question. If ‘religious cognition’ is natural, what does this mean for people who lack a belief in God? McCauley offers up one possible avenue of explanation, putting forth the idea that variations may occur in an individual’s Theory Of Mind, or, the degree to which one can perceive the mental states of other conspecifics, thus affecting that person’s ability to mentally represent a super natural agent by giving it ontological veridicality.

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, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against method. London: Verso.
  • Mccauley, R. N. & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing ritual to mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special

This week we are delighted to bring you a very special bonus podcast, and a first for the RSP!

The RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special took place during the Dr. Christopher F. Silver and Thomas J. Coleman III for arranging and moderating the panel.

You can also download this audio recording, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes and other podcatchers. 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 any of your books, birthday presents, or other paraphernalia.

Psychologists of Religion Coleman ,Streib, Hood, Brandt & Silver

Psychologists of Religion Coleman ,Streib, Hood, Brandt & Silver

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Why are Women more Social than Men?

 

This week’s interview with Marta Trzebiatowska is an amazing overview of the many arguments used to explain why women are more religious than men (her upcoming book). Trzebiatowska focuses on explanations relating to gender roles and socialization: women are responsible for many of the social components of human life—birth, death, charity, and so on. But this only pushes the question one stage. We must ask, “Why are women more involved in these social activities than men?” Trzebiatowska seems to side with the explanation that women are socialized into these roles. But, because I am a psychologist, I would like to propose some answers on a different level of analysis. Specifically, there may be underlying individual differences in cognitive and personality traits between men and women that promote different patterns of both social behavior and religiosity.

Cognitive Differences

In my previous piece for the Religious Studies Project, I noted that cognitive scientists of religion tend to operationalize religion as belief in supernatural agency (gods, ghosts, spirits, etc.). Many cognitive scientists of religion have argued that the tendency to see agency in the world underlies these kinds of religious beliefs. For example, Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering (2006) argue that religion requires second-order theory of mind – the ability to imagine that God knows what you are thinking. This ability to see intentions, beliefs, and attitudes in the world around us is supposed to be the basis of both religious belief (where it is applied to supernatural agents) and human social interaction (where it is applied to the natural social world). And, indeed, research by Uffe Schjoedt and his colleagues (2009) on prayer and Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) on thinking about the properties of God suggests that people think about supernatural agents in much the same way they think about humans. That is, they use the same brain regions in interacting with supernatural and human others, and they attribute the same kinds of psychological, physical, and biological properties to supernatural beings as they do to humans.

This has given rise to the hypothesis that the non-religious may (on average) see less agency, both human and supernatural, in the world. Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues (2012) tested this idea recently and found support for it. They discovered that mentalizing, the ability to see intentions in others, was a key predictor of belief in God. More importantly, differences in mentalizing were found to explain known differences in religiosity between two different groupings of people. Those with Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are much less religious than those without, but this difference shrinks when the ability to mentalize (a proposed deficit in ASDs, see Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) is controlled. Similarly, the gap in religiosity between men and women was reduced when differences in mentalizing between men and women were accounted for.

This work is in line with Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2003) somewhat controversial theory of autism as a kind of extreme maleness, characterized, in part, by a deficiency in the capacity to infer the mental states of others. Men vastly outnumber women among those with ASDs (e.g., Baron-Cohen et al., 2001), ASDs are associated with mentalizing deficiencies, and ASDs are associated with non-religion. Men, compared to women, demonstrate a smaller version of the gaps between those with ASDs and those without in mentalizing and religiosity. Although work on the relationship between sex, religion, theory of mind, and ASDs is at an early stage, what is known has caused Norenzayan and others (for a description of research from another lab, see here to conclude that there may be a relationship between mentalizing, social behavior, and religion that could explain why men are less religious than women.

Personality Differences

Men and women differ in more ways than just mentalizing, though. Researchers have found that, across many countries, men and women have different personality profiles. Although the size of these differences varies from place to place, their direction is fairly consistent. In a study in 55 different countries, David Schmitt (2008) and his colleagues found that women across the globe tend to score higher than men on four of the five major personality traits known as the Big Five: neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Results for the fifth personality dimension, openness to experience, were mixed. Two of the Big Five personality traits are known to be associated with religion: agreeableness and conscientious (Saroglou, 2002).

Sociality and Agreeableness

People who are high in agreeableness are pleasant, empathetic, friendly, etc. In other words, they are congenial social actors. Some evidence suggests that agreeableness may be a pre-requisite for religiosity. Longitudinal research suggests that those who are highly agreeable as adolescents go on to become more religious as adults (McCullough et al., 2005). Another group found this same relationship—but only among women (Wink et al., 2007). This relationship isn’t surprising when you consider that agreeableness is associated with many of the same social traits that are often credited to the religious. Agreeable people are more prosocial and altruistic; they get along better with others; and they prefer to cooperate. Would it be surprising to find agreeable people more attracted to social domains of human life and to religion? It seems plausible that agreeableness is a candidate to explain the higher rates of both among women.

An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control

The risk aversion account that Trzebiatowska briefly discusses goes something like this (courtesy of Stark, 2002): Men take more risks than women, as seen in their greater likelihood to commit crime, especially violent crime. The possibility of going to jail for committing a crime is akin to the possibility of going to Hell for not believing in (or practicing) a religion. Therefore, men are less likely than women to take Pascal’s Wager—the bet that one ought to believe because the potential cost not believing (eternity in Hell) is infinitely great, whereas the potential cost of believing (church attendance and the like) is comparably much smaller. Like Trzebiatowska, I find this account unconvincing. However, there may be more to the idea of risk-aversion and religiosity than merely Pascal’s wager.

Risk taking, men, and non-religion have something in common: an association with lower conscientiousness and self-control. Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (2009) have written an excellent review and synthesis of the research on personality, self-control, and religion. They conclude that religion attracts and promotes self-control and self-regulation—the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors to achieve a desired outcome. Religions involve things like worship attendance and ritual practice that may not necessarily be enjoyable or provide immediate benefits but have longer-term social and spiritual rewards. The ability to suffer hard work to achieve distant goals is a key characteristic of conscientiousness. It’s not surprising, then, that conscientious people engage in less risky sexual and health behaviors and that they are more religious. If women are more conscientious than men, this might promote their ability to perform the self-regulation needed to engage in religion.

These psychological explanations for the greater religiosity among women, mentalizing, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, do not contradict the sociological ones offered by Trzebiatowska. Rather, they are complementary explanations at different levels of analysis. As a psychologist, my emphasis and interest is in the properties of individuals (or the situations of individuals) that underlie behaviors. Given that women are more agreeable and conscientious than men and that they mentalize more than men, it is not surprising that women are more involved in the social and ritual aspects of human behavior and, therefore, with religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full c

References

  • Baron Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.
  • Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219–247.
  • Johnson, D. D. P., & Bering, J. M. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.
  • McCullough, M. E., Enders, C. K., Brion, S. L., & Jain, A. R. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Development in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Investigation of Religion and Rational Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(1), 78–89.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69–93. doi:10.1037/a0014213
  • Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. PLoS ONE, 1–8.
  • Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25.
  • Schjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A. W., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 199–207.
  • Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168–182.
  • Stark, R. (2002). Physiology and faith: Addressing the “universal” gender difference in religious commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 495–507.
  • Wink, P., Ciciolla, L., Dillon, M., & Tracy, A. (2007). Religiousness, Spiritual Seeking, and Personality: Findings from a Longitudinal Study. Journal of personality, 75(5), 1051–1070.

Editors’ Picks 2: The Phenomenology of Religion

The second of our Editors’ Picks “repodcasts”, and this time Jonathan has chosen our interview with James Cox on the Phenomenology of Religion. It was, incidentally, also our very first podcast, originally broadcast on the 14th of January, 2012. Jonathan also wrote the response to this interview, entitled “What is Phenomenology?“.

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted on the page where the podcast was originally posted, along with some further information. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing. Lurking behind such statements is the premise that purposes are given by an agentic mind. Thus, this kind of teleological reasoning indicates an underlying belief in some being that intends objects in the natural world to serve some purpose. Similarly, in studying why adults and children both struggle to reach a scientifically-accurate understanding of evolution, Margaret Evans (2000) has found that, regardless of religious and educational background, children tend to develop towards creationist explanations for the origins of organisms up until about 10 years of age, only after which does background seem to influence these beliefs. These and a host of other biases (e.g., Jesse Bering’s simulation constraint hypothesis; see Bering & Bjorklund, 2004) seem like good candidates for precursors to religious thought in adults. The exact form that religious thought takes, of course, depends on the culture in which a person lives.

Cognitive scientists of religion are not just interested in how religious ideas originate in development but also in how such ideas work within adults’ minds. Geertz points out his own research, which suggests that at least some forms of religious thought are neurologically similar to non-religious thought. Such findings are compatible with the dominant theory in the cognitive science of religion—that religious concepts are constrained by the cognitive architecture of the human mind. Pascal Boyer (2001) has advanced the theory that humans have an innate ontology, a set of basic categories onto which all of our concepts are mapped. This ontology includes categories like human, animal, plant, and natural object, and each is associated with a set of properties. We attribute psychological, biological, and physical properties to humans, for example, whereas natural objects possess physical properties but not biological or psychological ones. Supernatural concepts are those concepts that violate the normal, intuitive properties of these categories. Thus, the concept ghost is based on the human category, but deviates from it by not possessing biological properties (i.e., ghosts do not need to eat, sleep, or perform the normal biological functions of humans). Experimental research by cognitive scientists such as Geertz and Justin Barrett has started to confirm that there are many similarities in how people reason about humans and supernatural agents. In a particularly clever set of studies, Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) found that, under cognitive load, participants seemed not to account for the counterintuitive properties of God. Instead, they reasoned that the supernatural deity would have to obey the normal laws of physics, despite explicitly believing that God need not follow such laws. For example, when asked to retell a story about God’s saving a drowning boy, participants who believed that God does not follow the normal rules of space and time inserted the detail that God finished answering a prayer somewhere else in the world before he began saving the boy, despite this detail’s not being in the original story. Like Geertz’s research, this suggests that human thinking about God and other supernatural agents is very similar to thinking about other humans.

One of the most active ongoing debates within the field involve the origins of religious thought, not just in individuals, but in humans as a species, and especially whether religious thought was selected for in the course of evolution. Many researchers, including Dominic Johnson, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan, adhere to some form of the supernatural punishment hypothesis (see, for example, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011)—the idea that the threat of punishment from morally concerned supernatural agents helped humans increase cooperation and live in larger societies—though there are several version of this hypothesis and not everyone buys into it. This debate is exploding within the field and driving much new research into when and how religious thinking inspires cooperation.

Although cognitive scientists have begun proposing answers to questions about religious thinking, the field is quite young and there is still much to be studied. As the cognitive science of religion matures, there will no doubt be creative and exciting approaches to the current debates and to questions that are only beginning to arise in the field, such as how thinking about malevolent agents differs from thinking about benevolent ones. It is an exciting time for the study of religious cognition.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Erika Salomon is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. She occasionally blogs about religious cognition at A Theory of Mind.

References:

Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

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

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. London: William Heinneman.

Evans, E. M. (2000). The Emergence of Beliefs about the Origins of Species in School-Age Children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 221–254.

Kelemen, D. (1999). Function, goals and intention: children’s teleological reasoning about objects. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 461–468.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85–96. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.556990

Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion

The cognitive study of religion has quickly established itself as the paradigmatic methodology in the field today. It’s grounded in the concept that religiosity is natural because it is well adapted to the cognitive propensities developed during the evolution of our species. In this episode, Professor Armin Geertz tells Chris why it deserves its prominent profile, and how it is developing.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

What we’re learning from the cognitive study of religion.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference in Budapest in September 2011. Out of necessity it was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Armin W. Geertz on Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion (23 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by Christopher R. CotterTranscribed by Travis W. Cooper.

 

 

Chris Cotter (CC): Today we are joined by Professor Armin Geertz of Aarhus University. He’s the head of the Religion and Cognition and Culture Research unit (or RCC) in the section for the study of religion. There’s a new book series coming out of this unit with Equinox, called Religion, Cognition, and Culture and Armin is the editor of the series. And volume one is called Religious Narrative: Cognition and Culture and due for publication next month. We’re going to be talking about cognitive approaches to the study of religion. Welcome, Armin.

Armin Geertz (AG): Thank you, Chris. I’m very happy to be here.

CC: Good. A lot of our listeners really won’t have any idea about what “cognitive approaches to the study of religion” are; I suppose the first thing we should start with is, what does this “cognitive” word mean—what is cognitive science at all?

AG: Yes, yes. Actually, it’s not a very clear area because there are many approaches to the cognitive—in the cognitive sciences. But basically the idea is that we have a… we have universal capacities of the mind, with universal constraints. We’re not born as blank slates. We’re born with certain attitudes and certain ways of understanding and dealing with the world, even as small babies. Babies are geared to get into—to plug into—a social group and to become attached to important figures and it’s the study of those processes, mechanisms, and constraints in our brains and in our minds that are perhaps the core of the cognitive sciences. One can say that the cognitive sciences became important for the cognitive study of religion around 1990 with the publication of a book by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley, called Stewart Guthrie who already introduced the cognitive theory of religion a long time ago, in the eighties. And he’s had also a decided influence on the cognitive study of religion, the cognitive science of religion, as it’s called. One of the things that is a problem in the cognitive approach to the study of religion is that we’re not completely in agreement about what cognition is.  

CC: Okay.

AG: And it’s not only us. It’s also cognitive scientists that are in disagreement. Some consider the mind to be a kind of advanced computer based on formal, logical procedures, getting information, getting data, and analyzing the data and turning it into useful information for us to get on in the world. Others, however, have been pointing out—and especially recently, and especially because of an interest in the mind by neurologists, by brain scientists—that the brain is not simply a computer and is not simply a machine that deals with information. The mind is in a body and it’s in a brain, which means that the functions of the brain in the body have a decided influence on our cognition and our minds. It’s our very foundation, and much of the way we look at the world is based on the way our bodies move in the world. It’s also considered to be situated in a sense that we are in a group—we are in a social group—and certain situations and our way of understanding the world is based on our relationship to the group. It’s also… there are also others who consider cognition to be extended. In other words, the way our minds work is put out into the world—exuded into the world. And we surround ourselves in the world with cognitive structures that help us think and help us survive in the world. Archaeologists are also very interested in improving the—our—understanding of cognition, where they are claiming, quite rightly that objects, material objects, are extremely important for our cognition. Not only to help us in the world but to influence our very way of thinking. You’ll notice small children, babies, already grabbing at things and trying to understand and manipulate with objects. And just that fact in itself is helping to develop the neural networks in the baby’s brain, and making the baby a socially competent and cognitively competent creature.

            So there are many understandings of what cognition is. And one can say that… because the focus is on the mind, scholars have the tendency to downplay cultural systems, cultural ideas, [and] cultural assumptions and values, as being secondary to our cognitive abilities. And this is where there are many who are doing—and we are as well, in our research unit, Religion, Cognition and Culture—that we need to reintroduce culture as an important causal factor in human cognition. In other words, that culture is not secondary. You can’t take culture away and just study what is left over; it’s impossible. Mainly because we are cultural creatures. And we are cultural creatures who have become cultural creatures long before homo sapiens even showed up on the scene. So earlier hominids were also deeply cultural. So it’s very difficult for us to design experiments where you can kind of ignore the cultural factor. What people claim are cognitive constraints, in other words, frameworks for understanding the world around us and also setting limits for how we think about the world—they could just as well be cultural constraints that have been so deeply embedded in our minds and in our bodies, of course, that they seem just as intuitive as cognitive procedures. This is something we’re still arguing about, but it’s a friendly argument. We agree that there are bottom-up procedures and there are top-down procedures and we need to take both into serious consideration if we want to understand the human mind and our human cognitive abilities.

            So what you can conclude is that the cognitive science of religion is based on the cognitive sciences, and on experimental psychology, with a specific interest in religious thought.

CC: Okay. Very stimulating introduction there…

AG: Thank you.

CC: You mentioned we and you mentioned anthropologists and archaeologists and then scholars of religion and then presumably we have neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, in there there as well. How does one juggle these different disciplines? I mean, presumably, you have scholars working with you who are mainly from the study of religion and how do they learn all this cognitive science and do you have to work with other people, and if you do, how does that dynamic work?

AG: Right, yes. We have a coalition at my university that’s called Mind Lab. And Mind Lab consists of scientists from the natural sciences, primarily the neurosciences and health sciences, people working with pain at the pain research center at Aarhus [University]. We have scholars from the psychiatric hospital, psychologists, physicists, statisticians, people studying music, and a whole array of people in the humanities. And of course, my particular group is focusing on religion. However, we have an extremely stimulating cooperation with our colleagues in the other sciences. The bearing idea—the founding idea—of Mind Lab is that we try to apply the natural sciences on age-old human problems, age-old philosophical and religious problems. By doing this it requires that we work in teams because if you’re going to, for example, perform an experiment with a brain scanner, you definitely have to work with people who understand a brain scanner and who also can handle all of the enormous data that comes out of the scanning. You need a statistician for that. And you need to talk with experimentalists who can help you interpret the data that’s come out of this brain scan. So you’ll find that a lot of the articles that we’ve been publishing in the major journals in the neurosciences, and psychology, and other journals… we have a whole list of authors, sometimes five or six authors. And the first person might be a scholar of religion—usually is—and then the one’s that follow will be the specialists who are part of the team in helping perform this experiment. Now, the trick is to get people in the natural sciences and the health sciences to become interested in what we’re doing. And fortunately, religion has been brought back on the agenda on world affairs so that many scientists are puzzled and neuroscientists are puzzled and they’re wondering, “What is it that moves people to do what they do in the name of religion?” The problem for them is that they don’t know very much about religion. If they do, it’s their own particular religion if they happen to have one. So therefore, it’s an ideal situation that we have specialists who know about religion, who know about the history of religions and are experts in particular religions, working together with neuroscientists who want to help us think experimentally. So it requires a lot of patience and graciousness on behalf of both the humanists and the natural scientists. And fortunately we have that situation at my university and the government has funded our coalition and important results are coming out of it.

CC: Thanks, very much. Anything which gets academics talking to each other is going to be a good thing.

AG: Yes, indeed. Yes.

CC: So you’ve spoken a bit there about why neuroscientists, etc., are interested in helping the study of religion. So I’m wondering—this is quite a big question—but what are the benefits to the study of religion, of using this, we’ll say more scientific—maybe I shouldn’t “more scientific”—but this more traditionally science-based approach?

AG: Alright, yeah. Well there are at least two advantages. The first advantage is that through this cooperation with the natural sciences we may be able to test theories and hypotheses that we’ve developed in the human approaches—the humanistic approaches to the study of religion—empirically. Of course, you can go out and do fieldwork, you can ask people, you can observe people, you can use questionnaires and so forth and get statistical data and all that. But sometimes there are assumptions, especially assumptions about the psychological capacities of religious human beings, where you need to test—you need to experiment—to gain empirical access indirectly, you might say. Of course, experiments are not—it’s not a natural situation. But they can open the possibility that you could find support for, or maybe not support for a particular hypothesis. So it’s hypothesis driven. And in that sense, it’s important for us in the humanities to try to think, to rethink, or to attempt to approach our subject in ways that we had not thought of before. So there’s the empirical aspect. That’s the one aspect, the one advantage, the experimentally empirical approach. The other one is the whole methodology involved, that it’s a new—it’s a supplement to our toolbox of methods, where we have the more traditional methods, which are still highly relevant: studies of texts, studies of archaeological sites, using various approaches such as iconography or semiotics or structural analyses or philological analyses of the expressive side of religion. And on the other hand we have a whole array of methods for studying human behavior: the social sciences, and ethnography, anthropology. And now the new ones that have shown up: the neurosciences, psychology (has of course always been interested in religion, at least for the past 150 years). And then the third toolbox, you might say, is theoretical reflection: philosophy, theory of—philosophy of—science, and theories of religion and religious behavior. So it’s a supplement to our toolboxes. However, it’s a very technical supplement, where you need to understand statistics and you need to understand how to use this new hardware that’s been showing up. I mean, a brain scanner is a big thing and it’s very expensive and you have to go to the hospital and perform your experiments there. So it requires some kind of insight. And there we need, of course, the help of our specialist colleagues. But there are those two advantages. The empirical advantage: Can we test some of our most cherished ideas and philosophies about religion? And the other is: Can we think in another way in relationship to our topic?

CC: Okay. Talking about empirically testing religious ideas, experience, etc., I’m sure our listeners would be interested if you had an example of just how you construct a scientific test of something religious.

AG: Right. One of the things that—the basic procedure is that you have a theory. You have a theory about, maybe, let’s take an example from one of the experiments that we’ve been working on: the topic of prayer. Prayer is a very simple procedure. It is not necessarily connected to a specific situation; you can pray anytime, anywhere, and this is an advantage if you want to put people into a brain scanner because they have to lay very still; they can’t move their heads. The machine is noisy so you have earplugs. You cannot talk; you have to think. You can be shown pictures, for example, and the machine will be recording where the blood is flowing in your brain as you look at these images, but in order to get something meaningful out of it you have to have some kind of a contrast. Because basically, what these kind of approaches involve is that you have a control and then you have the experimental aspect and you subtract from the two. And what’s left over gives an indication of what brain areas are active.

            So our hypothesis was that prayer, as simple as it is, is also very complicated. It’s not only the words that are being spoken, it’s not only the message that’s being sent or received; it’s also behavior, and it involves both the brain and the body. Emotions can be very much connected to prayerful behavior. So our hypothesis was that prayer, simple as it is, is very complicated, and we hypothesized that types of prayer will stimulate different areas of the brain. And the reason we’re doing this—the theory that’s behind it—is that we seriously doubt this claim that’s being spread around, assumed by several neuroscientists and others, that there are specific areas of the brain that are dedicated to religious experience. We’re not convinced by their experimental results, we’re not convinced by their experimental designs, and we do think that there are religious agendas that are behind it all. At least there are religious organizations that are financing these particular experiments. So what we’re claiming is that the brain is a multipurpose organ, where there are no specific—well, let’s say besides the senses and the body—there are no dedicated areas of the brain. So for sight, there is a dedicated area; for hearing, there is a dedicated area, and so forth. But for religious behavior and thought, there is no dedicated area. This is our claim. So, taking this simple, human action of praying to a divinity or to an ancestor or to a spirit, we claim that this is, as a matter of fact, quite complicated, and draws on areas of the brain that are used in other ways.

            And we designed the experiment so that as the participants lay in the scanner, they were asked to “think” a prayer. And we have four things, well actually, five things that they were asked to do. They have to think The Lord’s Prayer. We’re talking about Protestants—young Protestants—from conservative Protestant groups who believe in prayer, believe in the power of prayer, and believe that they indeed have contact with God when they pray. We ask them to think the Lord’s Prayer in a thirty-second slot. Or “slice,” as we call it, which fits the physics of a brain scan. And then the next slot, which, of course, depend on—it wouldn’t be a particular sequence, but at least four. The next one might be, “We would like you to think a personal prayer”. And then we would ask, “We would like you to think a nursery rhyme.” And the fourth would be that “We would like you to think up wishes to Santa Claus.” And the idea behind those four types is that we have different styles, okay. The Lord’s Prayer is more automatic, and more abstract; the personal prayer is more personal and there are two different kinds of activities. And we were then comparing them with similar activities that are not religious. So the nursery rhyme should stimulate the same areas of the brain as the Lord’s Prayer. And wishes to Santa Claus should, in principle, stimulate the same areas as personal prayer. (It turns out that these religious individuals don’t believe in Santa Claus so it was a little bit difficult for them to take it all seriously.)

            But anyway, the results came out, anyway—very interesting results and statistically significant results—that when our participants were asked to think the Lord’s Prayer, it was their more abstract areas of the brain, up in the prefrontal areas of the brain, that were being active. And the same with nursery rhymes. When they were asked to think personal prayer, the areas that were stimulated in the brain were those areas that are well known in brain sciences as the social cognition areas, in other words, when you are communicating with other human beings. So the conclusion would be that the Lord’s Prayer is abstract, not quite as personal. It might be due to the rhythm because we find the same areas stimulated by nursery rhymes. We also found that it might have to do with expectations of reward because it turns out that the particular area that’s being stimulated is an area that’s known for reward expectation. It’s known for the production of a particular brain chemical that’s called dopamine. It’s also an area that has been experimentally shown to be stimulated when you trust someone. So we’re thinking and concluding that perhaps it’s an expectation of a reward from God or from whatever being that they’re praying to, that’s being stimulated, or it might be simply because of the rhythm. We can’t decide. We can only go so far. The other one—the other result about social cognition—is very interesting because it shows that people are more moved in personal matters by a personal deity, probably conceived of as like a human-like creature, rather than this abstract, all-knowing, omnipresent creature that theology is reflecting on. And it also indicates that what defines us as being humans, as being social creatures, is at play when we are praying to a deity or to a greater creature.

CC: I’m just going to ask another couple of questions.

AG: Yes.

CC: Time is getting on.

AG: Okay.

CC: But what you were just saying there, that basically, what I understand is that as far as the brain’s concerned, when we’re talking to a deity—whether or not that deity exists, we’ll not comment on that—it’s like we’re talking to another person.

AG: Exactly.

CC: So in that sense, how do you find your research—this particular bit of research or cognitive sciences in general—are taken by religious individuals. You need them—you need people who are religious to participate in your experiments. So how do they react to your research?

AG: Yes, a very good question. It’s a very complicated situation to perform experiments with religious people because we of course must—we have respect for their religious beliefs. We’re not trying to disprove the existence of God or to disprove the effects that they claim that a religious behavior has. On the contrary, we want to try to find out what human, bodily, brain, and psychological mechanisms are involved in these… in their religious behavior. The press, however, has a completely different take on it, and they think that we’re proving or disproving. As a matter of fact, when we first published the experiment that I’ve just described to you, we got reactions from atheists who said, “Now you’ve proven that it’s just humans that are just thinking the way they usually do.” And we got supportive mails from religious people who were saying, “Now you’ve proven that God has given us the ability to communicate with him and it’s so much like being human that it’s quite natural.” And the fact is, we haven’t proven anything. What we’ve done is we’ve supported a particular hypothesis. Which can always—the part of doing science is that you present your results among your peers and they, then, if they think this is interesting, they might either move on, using some of the results that we have presented, or they might want to try to replicate what we’ve done. And if it’s conceivable that a team who would want to replicate our experiments would say, “Well, we couldn’t replicate your experiments so it doesn’t support your hypothesis.” So we always have to be open to the fact that our results are open to debate, and criticism, and negotiation.

            The people who participate, who are so kind and willing to help us in the experiments, of course have their own agendas. They’re not interested in our hypotheses and so forth. Although in some way, I think, it’s important for everyone, whether they’re religious or not, to understand what science is doing and understand what it can contribute to human life. But besides that, our religious participants, of course, are interested in showing that religious behavior helps. It helps in personal situations; it helps in social situations, and so forth. And they, of course, are also interested in finding out, how does that work, actually, physiologically. How does it work? So we share our results with them. We are very careful not to over-interpret our data, rather under-interpret rather than over-interpret, and making sure to deal with the press in a reticent manner so that there isn’t rampant claims about religious areas of the brain or religious activity or anything like that.

            Our young people, our team, consists of young scholars: Ph.D. students, post-docs, young established scholars who have done excellent fieldwork. Who understand reciprocity; who understand you have to give in order to receive. And they attend the religious services of the people that they ask to participate in their experiments and attend in other activities, social activities, and so forth. This is the way human beings deal with each other; you try and make a connection and you give and take. And they’ve done this; they’ve done it quite well. So we have people coming back to help us with our other experiments. So that’s the positive aspect. Of course there are people who are afraid and who maybe are afraid that we’re out to disprove something. But we’re always clear on that fact; we’re not trying to disprove anything.

CC: I’m afraid that we are out of time, so we we’ll have to call it a day, there. But thank you very much, Armin Geertz.

AG: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Citation Info: Geertz, Armin W. and Christopher R. Cotter. 2012. “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 January 2012. Transcribed by Travis W. Cooper. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-armin-geertz-on-cognitive-approaches-to-the-study-of-religion/

The Phenomenology of Religion

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on What is Phenomenology?

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Cox’s latest and most complete work on the subject is An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010), published by Continuum. A review which questions his relating phenomenological and cognitive approaches by Paul Tremlett in Culture and Religion 11/4 (2010) is available here. Also recommended is his earlier A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (2006), also published by Continuum. His 2008 article from DISKUS, the BASR journal, “Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism” applies the phenomenological method to certain African practices in order to argue for Shamanism as a universal  categoryIf you are interested in what Professor Cox had to say about the development of Religious Studies more broadly, we heartily recommend From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007). It is simultaneously an account of colonial contact with indigenous religions, a history of how scholars have conceptualised religion, and an attempt to create a new definition of “religion”.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with James L. Cox  on The Phenomenology of Religion (14 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. RobertsonTranscribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The phenomenology of religion has been one of the most influential approaches to studying religion in recent decades. To discuss it, we are joined today by professor emeritus James Cox of the University of Edinburgh, who is the author of An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, a guide aimed at students and the general reader. So Professor Cox, what is the phenomenology of religion?

James Cox: Well, the phenomenology of religion caries a rather philosophical title because it’s rooted in philosophical phenomenology in effect, probably developed out of thinking of the late 19th century and early 20th century, where the study of religions was just beginning to develop in the comparative sense. So, in the late 19th century, for example, when missionaries had gone around to various parts of the world, bringing back tales and stories of other religions than Christianity, it became apparent that scholars and theologians particularly needed to develop some kind of theory about the relationship of Christianity to the other religions. So in the late 19th century, they developed essentially the comparative study of religions and comparison was done fundamentally from a Christian theological perspective; a liberal perspective in the sense that the scholar would begin to compare different aspects of say Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam with Christianity in order to show how Christianity is really the pinnacle of these religions. This developed into a kind of reaction, I should say, by certain scholars as they got into the 20th century, that the study of religion, although very much still rooted in Christian ideas and Christian thoughts, was regarded as something a bit more not just comparative in the sense to show Christianity is superior, but in fact to show how the different religions could be compared according to typologies. So, for example, the typology of sacrifice was a very common idea. Sacrifice seemed to be appearing in all religions of the world : in India, in Africa, in Asia and certainly in Christianity with the Eucharist being essential sacrificial meal. Sacrifice became a typology that was compared and then ideas like certain kinds of rituals, life cycle rituals, for example, seem to be universal in all these religious groups. So as comparative study of religion developed, it developed a sort of typological approach. That’s one aspect that led into what I should call the comparative study of religions from a less theological perspective than was originally developed in the late 19th century. Then, you have the philosophical development, which is really associated with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl was, well, the founder, you might say, of philosophical phenomenology. And his problem, that he saw in the intellectual sphere, at the time, was the problem of what he called the natural attitude. That is to say, with the development of science, and what’s called positivism, that is, the naïve idea that what we see is exactly what is. And therefore the study of the world is a sort of compartmentalization, a kind of breaking down of the component parts of the world, putting them into certain kinds of categories so that we can study them in a way that is based on observation, being the fundamental tool for what you might call the… justification or… the validation of knowledge. Husserl said the natural attitude displaces consciousness. That is the role of the consciousness, the intentional active role of the consciousness in apprehending reality. What he wanted to do was to set aside or bracket out, he used the term epoché, which is to bracket out [what are] naïve or unexamined assumptions (5:00) about the world. The fact that we’re sitting in this room, and I assume it is an objective room, you’re an objective person, there are objective photographs or pictures on the wall or window and so on, as if it is just given. But Husserl said no, the consciousness needs to say “okay, let’s put this into brackets” and began to think “What kinds of influences affect my consciousness?” So, of course, I have lived in this room for the past thirteen years, I’ve lived in it, it’s been my office for the last thirteen years. I have lots of memories associated with this. Also I’ve collected loads of books and boxes, which means that the view that I’m having of the room now is different from when I first came here. Or if I look out the window I see entirely different perspective from what you see looking at me, or I looking towards my filing cabinet, for example. Anyway, the whole point was that one should bracket out these assumptions about the world and begin to understand the relationship between the consciousness and the apprehension of the objective world. Anyway, that’s quite a lot of background in terms of how the comparative study of religions came in to play, and then the notion of the philosophical epoché. Now where does this put us then in terms of, say, the early to mid-20th century of the study of religions? Certain scholars, particularly Dutch scholars, for example Gerardus van der Leeuw was one, W. Brede Kristensen who was his teacher, and followed also C. J.  Bleeker who was at Amsterdam. These Dutch scholars began to say “Wait a minute! What are the assumptions that are informing the study of religions?” One, we have the theological assumptions, the superiority of Christianity, which I’ve already talked about. This needs to be bracketed out, we need to set this aside, use Husserl’s notion of the epoché. But we also have the scientific interpretation, and the scientific interpretation was largely that we can assign status or priority or value to religions according to an evolutionary scale. So you have lesser-developed religions, such as the primitive, the primal, the animistic religions. And then you have, developing up, more polytheistic religions, and from polytheistic religions, you then move towards the more monotheistic, ethical monotheistic and Christianity being the pinnacle. And some scientists thought, beyond Christianity, then, is science, the end of the evolutionary scale of humanity. So you move out of religion towards science. Well, the phenomenologists, particularly Kristensen and van der Leeuw, but also Bleeker, argued that what should happen in the study of religions is that these attitudes, these assumptions, should also be bracketed out, they should be put in abeyance, they should be suspended, or employ the epoché. So now you have theological priorities, theological gradations of religions being bracketed. You have scientific gradations or levels of religion being bracketed in order to do what? That the phenomena can speak for themselves, which is Husserl’s word. “Let the phenomena speak for themselves” and the phenomenologists of religion said “Let the phenomena of religion speak for themselves”. And this meant studying, describing, understanding and incorporating the perspectives of believers. So that at the end of the day, the phenomenologists of religion can say “We have entered into the religious phenomena, including believers. We have attempted to suspend our judgments about their truth or value, their relationship, their gradations, their… sort of priorities of ranking of religion and we have allowed the phenomena of religion to speak for themselves.” Then, you could begin to do the classifications; then, you could begin to say “Alright, now we can begin to identify these typologies, now we can say not gradating them or ranking them but say “How does myth, for example, a cosmogonic myth, operate in Hindu tradition, or Buddhist traditions, or African tradition, or Christian or Jewish or whatever tradition. And this was intended to lead ultimately to understanding religions.

DR: So the phenomenology of religion, if I’m understanding, is essentially a method by which… an inherently comparative method that prioritizes the experience of religion… perhaps you could outline for us how (10:00) you would go about applying this method practically?

JC: Well, yes, okay, I can tell you how I did it when I was doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe. I’ll take one example of a ritual that I observed, which was a rain ritual in a chief’s region. I went to the ritual, I didn’t have a lot of background preparation, because when I went out to the area, I was with the chief’s son. He said “We’re going to go to attend various rituals which were in the area. But there is an important ritual taking place which was for rain ritual.  Now the gist of the ritual was this, that the ancestors, according to the Shona traditions of Zimbabwe, are responsible for providing rain for the community and the larger community in a sense, because it covered quite a wide area. In that year, which was 1992, there was a drought, a terrible drought. This ritual took place at the end of the rainy season, which was unusual. Now, in the ritual, they took some time, about ten or twelve hours, this ritual taking place. But the center of the ritual was the possession of a spirit medium by the chief’s ancestor spirit. During this event, the medium became possessed, she became the man, the doumda (11:23) spirit, she dressed in traditional attire, with a eagle feather hat and an animal skin skirt, a walking stick, she was a man, she was the ancestor, the man spirit of the chief. At one point in the ritual, I, who was an observer, of course I know I wasn’t unaffected or not affecting the ritual, she called the chief’s family down, underneath the tree and she began talking with them. And she called me down as well at one point, and she said something to me in Shona. I didn’t understand precisely what she said, but I clapped my hands in the traditional way, shook her hand, and, in a sense, I was involved in the ritual, not equally with the community that I was there… so what I had to do then, in my own view is that, I think, personally, that rain does not, could not be caused by ancestors. Rain could not be caused by God either. Rain is an atmospheric condition, and in that area, when the what they call the inter-tropical convergence on works that is the warm air from the north and the south meet then rains occur. When they don’t converge, rains don’t happen. What I had to say, if I was to really understand the ritual in the phenomenological method is to say “Okay, these scientific assumptions I have about how rain is produced need to be bracketed, suspended, put into abeyance, not given up, because I believe that rain occurs according to scientific explanations. But in order to understand what was going on, I needed to put that in brackets and enter into. And in my descriptions, when I wrote about this, I tried to be as descriptive, as impartial as possible, explaining what happened. And then, after describing it, I then tried to interpret it, to try to find certain kinds of connections and meanings to it. And in the end I interpreted it, not so much, you might say, religiously, if you might used that term, but I interpreted it politically and sociologically, to do with the status of the chief and his relationship to the Zanu-PF, Mugabwe’s government, and so on. But in other words, I gave an interpretation of it, but only after I had suspended my judgments, described and tried to understand what was going on.

DR: One of the most interesting aspects for me of the phenomenological method as you describe it in your book is the final stage of eidetic intuition. Perhaps you could describe…

JC: Yeah that’s the most controversial part of the whole method, I think, and this is largely where phenomenology has gone, I think, out of date, and isn’t really accepted so much in the sense that the eidetic intuition was intended to be that the scholar of comparative religions… I mean, I’ve given an example of one Zimbabwean ritual. So now I get this ritual, compare this ritual, I look at other Zimbabwean rituals, then I begin to say “Okay certain patterns develop in these rituals, we can see certain things occurring… beer poured as libations to ancestors, and so on; the centrality of ancestors, the idea that ancestors carry messages to higher ancestors, and so on. And you build up this sort of idea of what the sort of Shona religious experience is about. (15:00) Then, you say “Okay, now, how does this compare to rituals, which are rituals, in this case, a crisis ritual, that might occur in an other society?” A crisis ritual, for example, of illness, when somebody is ill, in a Christian sense, and a priest is called, prayers are made to try to effect a cure or a healing within this person. And you say “Okay, now we have two different types of crisis ritual.” Then you build up all the rituals, the myths, the categories, the typologies, the classifications and you begin to say “Well, we can talk about the meaning of cosmogonic myth, in various societies, or crisis rituals or calendrical rituals, or the role of religious practitioners and various, and you begin to say “Well, we can find some general meaning for myth, ritual, practitioner… morality, art, and so on, all these classifications. Then you ask the question “Is it possible, that out of all this comparative study, we can see into the fundamental meaning of religion itself? What is religion about? What do all these comparative studies of religion tell us about the human religious understanding? And here you have different theorists that have developed ideas about that, in the tradition. So, you have Mircea Eliade who’s a famous so-called historian of religions, but is indeed a phenomenologist of religion who develops the whole theory about the sacred making itself known or manifesting itself though what he calls hierophanies. These are mundane, worldly kinds of objects or ideas, it could be a stone, it could be a pool, it could be a person, it could be a book, like Muhammad receives the messages from Allah and produces the Quran, this is a hierophany, the Quran. In other words, Eliade says you can develop a whole theory of religion based on the idea of the dialectic of the sacred. And that’s what I’ve called his eidetic intuition, his essence, his meaning of religion in general, based on his comparative studies. And that’s what the eidetic intuition tries to do. The problem with it is that the further one gets away from contextualized studies, from social, cultural, specific kinds of activities, the generalisations become almost impossible to test. And this becomes a problem… and it becomes the kind of idea that there is an essential characteristic of religion which sits some place in the heavens and makes itself known and manifested in all sorts of ways.

DR: That leads perfectly into what was going to be my next question, then. Phenomenology of religion is an essentialist methodology with a lot of connections to people like Eliade and many other really quite unfashionable scholars and approaches and… so phenomenology of religion is a somewhat unfashionable approach. Do you think that that reputation is deserved and what do you think the present and future of phenomenology of religion within religious studies is?

JC: In the sense that Eliade follows, and other people even like Bleeker who said that the central idea of religion or the key-word of religion is the divine… you know, so… you have all these people… for van der Leeuw, it was power. So you find these sort of essential categories that apply everywhere and one gives it kind of a generalized interpretation of what religion is. I think that this has been largely dismissed today, and phenomenologists… there are still persistent phenomenologists… they don’t do it in that sense. They don’t try to find some universal category into which all religions can then be placed or fitted. That has to be given up. The other problem with phenomenology of religion is privileging the insider’s point of view, which has been heavily criticised, for example, Robert Segal from the University of Aberdeen has criticized it heavily saying that if you privilege the insider’s point of view, if you say that you are not going to be critical of it, but simply present it as fairly as possible, then you cut off the scientific ability to actually test or explain events in ways that might contradict the believer’s point of view. In other words, for Segal, if you refuse to criticize (20:00)  the believer’s perspective, you’re endorsing it. In that sense there’s no difference between that and being a theologian, you might as well be a theologian. Those are the two main criticisms: philosophical essentialism, which cannot be tested and is rooted in some sort of almost platonic ideal; and the other idea that by privileging the insider’s, W. Brede Kristensen is famous for saying “The believers were always right. They have to be right.” Or Cantwell Smith, who was another phenomenologist of religion, a Canadian scholar, argued that the faith is the core of religion, that faith is the… personal faith, which we can never penetrate, and in order to understand religion, one, the scholar, must acknowledge that this personal faith is the core element of religion. And this idea, then, that the believers have the final authority over the interpretation of religion is another problem with the phenomenology of religion. Now, I think that these can be resolved, that there are certain aspects of phenomenology of religion that are still helpful and still quite contemporary. For example, if you say “What is the epoché?”. The epoché can be understood as the scholar, in this case me, becoming aware of my most, well, obvious or… apparent kinds of presuppositions about any religion I’m trying to study. There are lots of assumptions that I make that may not be transparent to my consciousness, like my western… ideas about the way knowledge is constructed and so on. I mean, I could bring these to consciousness as well, in so far as I can. But the point is, it has to do very much with the contemporary idea of self-reflexivity. Where is my starting point? Where am I coming from? What are those presuppositions which inform my perspective? As I just gave the example, I don’t think rain comes from ancestors or from God, [but] comes from atmospheric conditions, that is a presupposition. That is a potentially distorting presupposition from a believer’s point of view. In that sense, by bringing these into consciousness, then knowing that you don’t sit back as some superior, some kind of objective observer who isn’t at all influenced or involved in the whole enterprise of knowledge, then, I think the epoché helps to fit into this. Suspending judgements does not mean that I wipe my mind blank, it doesn’t mean that I’m a blank slate. What it means is that I try to become aware of those presuppositions and potentially distorting assumptions that would influence [my] ability to enter into and to understand what I’m trying to study. So, I think in one sense, self-reflexivity is that. And, secondly, the idea that we’re not producing objective knowledge, that we’re not producing a study of a human community as if that community were capable of being fitted into a scientific laboratory. So, in that sense, I think phenomenology has certain things still to offer. And the other thing is that if you look at the new wave of cognitive scientists of religion. The cognitive scientists of religion, like Harvey Whitehouse, who’s at Oxford, has created categories, universal categories of religious behaviour and action, which he says is rooted in the way humans think. Of course, he recognizes cultural specificity, but nevertheless, his sort of distinction between doctrinal and experiential kinds of religious behaviours is very typological, very similar to phenomenological typologies and categories. And I’ve argued in my book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, that the cognitive science of religion has many parallel ways of approaching the study of religion as phenomenology, particularly by trying to understand the way humans think, the way humans behave and putting these into sorts of categories and classifications. One assumption of phenomenology of religion has always been that there’s nothing alien to one human to another. In other words, there’s nothing human that we cannot understand, because we’re all human beings. Even though we may express it in different ways, we may have cultural symbols, which are different. Nonetheless, we can understand something which is human. This is based on the old idea, that… again derived from Husserl, that we can employ an empathy. We’re capable of empathizing because we’re all human beings. (25:00) And the cognitive science of religion, perhaps in some different ways, but nonetheless is based on the idea that humans all basically think the same, counter-intuitively, when they come to the notion of certain kinds of expressions or certain kinds of experiences of the world.

DR: As always, I could listen to you talk all day, but I think that’s a perfect place to end the interview. So I’m going to say thank you very much Professor Cox.

JC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Cox, James L. and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Phenomenology of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 13 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-james-cox-on-the-phenomenology-of-religion/

Podcasts

Embodied religious practices, child psychology and cognitive neuroscience

embodimentIn this interview, Brock Bahler, visiting assistant professor in Religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh, talks about his research on cognitive neuroscience, child psychology and embodied religious practices. Through the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and Levinas on the relationship between the mind and the body, Bahler discusses the notion of ritual as a locus of power in terms of structure and agency. His recent book, Childlike Peace in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty: Intersubjectivity as a Dialectical Spiral (Lexington Books, forthcoming) focuses on neuroscience to grasp the topic power relations at the confluence of religion and other social influences on one’s trajectories. As such, Bahler examines, with a “phenomenological twist”, what rituals do in terms of education, psychology, and subjectivity.

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, Grateful Dead t-shirts, bars of soap, and more.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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, video games, indulgences, and more.

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’

As I have responded to Tanya Luhrmann’s book elsewhere and am on record in terms of thinking it makes a major contribution to the cognitive science of religion (CSR) both in terms of its argument and its use of mixed (ethnographic and experimental) methods, I decided that rather than recycling comments that I have already made, it would make much more interesting to give you something of a meta-review of the scientifically-oriented reviews of her book. My initial thought was to focus on the review symposium in Religion, Brain & Behavior from last winter, but with help from Luhrmann, who graciously emailed me some additional reviews, I decided — at the last minute — to expand my scope.

But let me begin by summarizing what I take to be the scientific heart of her study, that is, her effort to offer a scientific answer to the question of how people — in this case, evangelical, charismatically-oriented Christians in Vineyard congregations in Chicago and the Bay Area — come not only to believe that it is possible to talk to God and God will answer but to experience this as actually happening. In her introduction, she explicitly positions her study in relation to some of the research in CSR that stresses the prevalence of belief in gods and other invisible beings, making the case that, while this belief may be widespread, people have to learn to actually hear God and this learning process is (1) difficult, (2) more difficult for some than others, and (3) when it occurs actually changes how people process information.

Each of these claims required different methods. The first, documenting the learning process, was primarily an ethnographic task, which she accomplished through two years of intensive involvement not just with the congregations but with small groups in which people learned to pray that were attached to the churches in both Chicago and the Bay Area. She discovered that some found it easier to learn to hear god than others through participant observation as well. There were the “prayer warriors” at one end of the spectrum and the poor guy, who was raised in the Vineyard church, who desperately wanted to hear god, but never did, at the other extreme. But Luhrmann didn’t just observe these differences. When they started to become apparent, she had them fill out several psychological scales, some of which they liked better than others. Their responses on a scale that reports their tendency to lose themselves in something — to become absorbed — correlated with their ability to learn to hear god. That was an interesting discovery that suggested that individual differences made a difference in how easily people learned to hear god, but it didn’t say if the learning process itself — the religious practices and spiritual disciplines changed how people processed their perceptions and sensations. To test this, she designed an ingenious field experiment in which she gave people iPods with tapes that they had to listen to for 30 minutes six days a week for four weeks (202-210). The experimental group got a modified version of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises in which they were asked to place themselves in a biblical scene and interact with the characters. The control group got a series of Luke Timothy Johnson’s lectures on the New Testament. They were given a series of cognitive tasks before and after the experiment to see if the imaginative exercises made a difference in how they processed information, e.g., resulted in their seeing mental images more vividly. She described these as “training effects” and there were connections between the training effects and individual differences on the absorption scale.

Luhrmann took these measurable changes in how they were processing information as suggesting that they were learning a new theory of mind. Here’s the key passage from the introduction:

In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to interpret the familiar experience of their own minds and bodies as not being own at all–but God’s. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. … To do this, they need to develop a new theory of mind. That phrase theory of mind — has been used to describe the way a child learns to understand that other people have different beliefs and goals and intensions (Luhrmann, 2012, xxi-xxii).

This insight led to an expanded project, which she launched shortly after the book went to press and is still under way, in which she is comparing charismatic Christians in India (Chennai) and Ghana (Accra) to see if she finds local variations in theory of mind, that — she is hypothesizing — would suggest that culture influences the inferences we make about other people’s minds.

From a CSR perspective, this is actually her most controversial claim. Controversial, because theory of mind, which refers to our capacity to attribute mental states to ourselves and others is a central topic in developmental psychology and ethology, the study of other animals, where researchers are asking how this capacity develops in humans and whether it is present in other animals. What makes her claim controversial is that most developmental psychologists think this is a universal human capacity. There are other lines of research that question this and argue that “the standard psychological model for theory of mind is distinctively Euro-American.” Luhrmann is thus using her Vineyard research to raise the possibility that there are different theories of mind — local theories of mind — and asking whether these cultural differences make a fundamental difference in the way people draw inferences about another person’s intentions, feelings, and so on (Luhrmann, 2014, 83).

In the reviews I have looked at so far, reviewers did not address this controversial point head-on, but instead addressed it indirectly. Thus, some in the RBB symposium found her approach “too cognitive” – too dependent on an “information processing approach” — and advocated approaching the problem in light of research on embodied cognition (Strawn & Brown 2014), they and another reviewers thought she ought to pay more attention to explaining differences in terms of attachment processes (Strawn & Brown 2014, Sandage 2014). Others highlighted the role of emotion and still others the need to attend to motivation (Alcorta 2014, 54).

Whether her approach is “too cognitive” depends on how cognitive is defined. There is a narrow and a broader sense in which the term is used. Here I quote John Tooby & Leda Cosmides (1992, 65) on the definitional issues: “Some researchers use it in a narrow sense, to refer to so-called ‘higher mental’ processes, such as reasoning, as distinct from other psychological processes, such as ’emotion’ or ‘motivation’; that is, to refer to a concept that corresponds more or less to the folk notion of reasoning while in a calm frame of mind. In contrast, we [Tooby & Cosmides] are using the word cognitive in a different and more standard [cognitive science] sense. … We use … cognitive and information processing to refer to a language or level of analysis that can be used to precisely describe any psychological process: reasoning, emotion, motivation, and motor control can all be described in cognitive terms, whether the processes that give rise to them are conscious or unconscious, simple or complex. In cognitive science, the term mind refers to an information-processing description of the functioning of an organism’s brain.” So a cognitive science approach, as they and many others understand it, is a language for describing how we process all the incoming information available to us from our bodies and the entire environment in which we are situated – social, cultural, natural — in functional terms, that is in terms of what we do with it.

In terms of this understanding, what many of the reviewers distinguish as “not cognitive”, i.e., bodily sensations, emotions, and motivations, all can and should be considered within a cognitive, information processing approach as either input to be processed or output of the processing. Attachment processes are one of the ways of processing information. So in my mind, most of these reviewers missed the key question, which I think has to do with learning. If Luhrmann wants her work to speak to a CS audience, which I think she does, we need to be able to think about how Vineyard folks were learning — more or less well — in cognitive terms.

Pascal Boyer’s review for the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory symposium basically does this, which to my mind makes it the most important — and illuminating — of the science-oriented reviews. Pascal Boyer is the author of Religion Explained and has been a leading figure in terms of CSR. His review firmly positions Luhrmann’s work within a cognitive, information processes perspective. Boyer picks up on Luhrmann’s central point: that people have to work hard to learn to hear God. He makes the obvious point that believing in god — however fervently — is not the same thing as feeling you are in the presence of and communicating with god. He points out that many anthropologists have glossed over this distinction, referring all the time to what the people they are studying believe and then offering this as an explanation for their behavior. Boyer generalized from Luhrmann’s research to suggest that most people hold their beliefs in a more tentative fashion, as a conjecture, that they have not necessarily, or perhaps only fleetingly, experienced first-hand as “real” in the sense that Luhrmann uses the term.

Boyer links this distinction between believing and experiencing to a basic cognitive science distinction between “intuitions,” which are normally processed rapidly and unconsciously, and “reflective beliefs” or “reflective processing” or “metacognition.” Most of what we find out about people’s beliefs are “reflective beliefs.” We process most bodily sensations, perceptions, and emotions intuitively without any reflection on the process at all. As he points out — and this is the key link — “religious representations are potentially much more compelling, attention-grabbing, and memorable when they are associated with intuitive content, preferably with perceptions” (Boyer 2013, 353). In other words, through slow learning processes we can learn to associate reflective beliefs with intuitively processed sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Doing so allows us to experience the reflective beliefs in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do. So the point here is that from an information processing perspective, the evangelical’s Luhrmann studied are learning to connect their conscious, reflective belief in god with intuitive, unconsciously processed emotions, perceptions, and sensations in a way that allows them to distinguish some of their inner thoughts as “theirs” and others as “god’s”.

So, let me tie this back into the theory of mind (ToM) issue. In her response to the RBB symposium, Luhrmann referred to a meeting of anthropologists and psychologists that she arranged at Stanford to see whether they had sufficient evidence to argue for “local theories of mind.” They came up with at least six such theories, one of them “the Euro-American modern supernaturalist theory of mind” (Luhrmann 2014, 82-83). In light of Boyer’s distinctions, what Luhrmann characterizes as local theories of mind are best understood as reflective or folk theories of mind. They are the beliefs that we and others have about how mind, body, and world are related. These beliefs may or may not have any relation to the evolved, intuitive, unconscious way that we intuit what is going on in the minds of others. In her RBB response, Luhrmann (2014, 83) acknowledges that there are a range of competing scientific views of ToM and cites two in her discussion – Scholl & Leslie (1999) and Astuti (2012) – that question her approach, stressing that theories about how something works may or may not tell us anything about how they actually work.

Thus, in Boyer’s terms, Luhrmann is asking whether reflective ToMs can influence intuitive ToM.   In asking that, we need to specify what we mean by influence. I think it is much more likely that reflective ToM can influence what inferences we draw about other people’s minds, but not so likely that it influences how we draw inferences about other people’s minds. By calling what people believe about the mind, body, world relationship “theory of mind,” Luhrmann risks over-associating these reflective beliefs with the intuitive process and overlooking the possibility that these beliefs about the relationship between mind, body, and world may come to seem real to people through association with other intuitive processes. So I think we need to consider the possibility that people can attach reflective/folk ToM to a range of sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Then the question we would need to ask would be how do people learn to experience THIS particular folk ToM, including our Euro-American secular one, as real?

 

References

Alcorta, Candace S. 2014. Modes of knowing: how kataphatic practice impacts our brains and behaviors. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 49-56.

Astuti, Rita. 2012. Some after dinner thoughts on theory of mind. Anthropology of this century 3 available in LSE Research Online at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/41536/

Boyer, Pascal. 2013. Why ‘belief’ is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann’s When God talks back. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 349-57.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God talks back. New York: Knopf.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2014. Response: Knowing God, attentional learning, and the local theory of mind. Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 78-90.

Sandage, Steven J. 2014. Attachment theory, relational spirituality, and varieties of evangelicals. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 59-65.

Scholl, Brian J. and Alan J. Leslie. 1999. Modularity, development, and ‘theory of mind.’ Mind & Language 14 (1), 131-153.

Strawn, Brad D. and Warren S. Brown. 2014. Living with evangelical paradoxes. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 65-72.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind, pp. 19-136. New York: Oxford University Press.

Conference Report: International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference

The RSP would like to thank Christopher Kavanagh for writing the conference report.

For the past few days I attended the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion’s (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference. The theme this year was focused on addressing the state of the field, 25 years after the cognitive approach to religion (CSR) first appeared (at least in its modern incarnation). I contributed to these efforts by presenting a critical review of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) literature, and a short poster that detailed a recoding of a previous study on MCI items in Roman prodigies (Lisdorf, 2001) (for those who may be interested, the recoding reversed the original pattern reported). However, I’m not going to review my own talk (for obvious reasons), nor do I intend to offer a thorough account of the entire conference, instead I’d just like to point out some personal highlights and my impressions of the conference overall.

Justin Lane presenting

‘Justin Lane presenting’ photo by Nora Parren

Unfortunately, at any conference there are times when your energy sags, your attention wanders, or you are preoccupied (such as when you are furiously attempting to make last minute changes to your upcoming presentation). As a result, while I was bodily present for the opening talks and took in the broad strokes of the presentations I feel like I only really got about 70% of the material presented. These talks, however, were perhaps the most important for addressing the state of the field and updating the progress made on various research agendas. The tone overall was positive but, as ever, there were calls for better and more meaningful collaborations to be pursued with our arts and humanities counterparts and an acknowledgement that greater methodological and statistical rigor was required to advance the field. Senior figures, such as Armin Geertz, rather modestly emphasised that the greatest hope for the future of the field lay with the emerging generation of scholars who possess a greater fluency with the firmly established approaches of the humanities and the newer experimental and statistical methods prevalent in modern cognitive research. This was a theme also raised by Ted Slingerland who highlighted the need for culturally bilingual researchers, who would in turn also possess the regional speciality and linguistic competences more often associated with devoted anthropologists or classicists.

Their points were well made and certainly valid however I think established researchers, such as Joseph Bulbulia, who freely admit to coming to statistics later in their careers, also demonstrate that this is a shift that is also occurring in the upper echelons of the field. To what extent it is possible for CSR researchers to bridge the divide with humanities scholars, while simultaneously developing statistical and methodological approaches that are likely to prove alienating to such researchers, is an open question. Personally, while I don’t think CSR researchers should give up on consilience, I think it is also worth looking to cross-cultural psychologists for potentially illuminating collaborations, as the regional specialisation is still there but there is also a shared recognition of the value of quantitative methods. There is no cookie cutter format for successful collaborations but another recurring theme was the need to combine the findings of lab experiments with relevant field research, or at least cross-cultural replications. Dimitris Xygalatas and his collaborators provided successful models for how the two methodologies could be fruitfully combined but such success typically only comes only after many years of preparation and effort.

Photo by Silvie Kotherova

‘Dr. Deb Kelemen presenting’ Photo by Silvie Kotherova

Getting back to the conference itself, while I enjoyed pretty much all of the talks, three that particularly stood out to me were the presentations of Deborah Kelemen, Paul Reddish and Hein Thomas van Schie. Taking each in turn, Deborah Kelemen presented a very polished summary of the evidence to date for a variety of “early developing conceptual biases” many of which have been presented elsewhere as evidence that humans are “born believers”. I have issues with such a characterisation, see this previous blog post for details, but Deborah actually raised the very same point in her talk, noting that many teleological intuitions are not necessarily in-line with any religious doctrine (i.e. monkeys exist to make the jungle more interesting). She also gave ample time to emphasis the importance of methodological rigor: highlighting the necessity of conducting replications and gathering comparable cross-cultural data. As such, there were a lot of interesting results reported during the talk and, while I was familiar with some of the material, I wasn’t aware of just quite how far earlier findings had been followed up on and expanded. It was a welcome surprise and given that Keleman’s work on the teleological bias was some of the first research I came across that got me interested in the CSR, it was a pleasure to hear how things had progressed.

Paul Reddish’s talk covered some of his research on synchrony and also identified some important theoretical and definitional issues that need to be ironed out if the research is to make progress. The fact that ‘synchrony’ can be used to refer to soldiers marching in step, capoeirastas performing in a roda and a barbershop quartet singing a harmony is indicative of the complexity involved with the concept of ‘synchrony’ and Paul strongly urged for a clear typology to be employed in order that more useful comparisons could be made between studies in the future. This point echoed my own summary of the research literature on counterintuitiveness concepts, which has also suffered from the same problem of inconsistent operationalization and idiosyncratic definitions. Still it is heartening that the field is beginning to recognise and address these issues and doing so may result in the reasons for earlier discrepancies in results becoming better understood.

‘Dr. Paulo Sousa’ photo by Silvie Kotherova

Hein Thomas van Schie’s presentation discussed his research into afterlife beliefs, which sought to explore the pervasiveness of intuitive mind-body dualist assumptions about whether mental or biological processes continue after death. His talk complemented Keleman’s presentation very neatly as they both employed a variation of Jesse Bering’s “dead mouse” methodology, previously used to examine children’s intuitions concerning the afterlife. The basic methodology involves respondents reading a scenario in which someone has died (in Bering’s original version this was a mouse eaten by a crocodile) and then asking them various questions to assess whether people consider psychological states or biological needs to be still active. Van Schie’s study expanded the psychological aspects addressed and also added in the twist of varying the pre-death beliefs of the deceased (such as whether they were believers or atheists). This additionally enabled comparisons to be made with regards to whether people judged the afterlife of those with opposing or complementary viewpoints to their own differently. The findings were mixed but provided some evidence that ingroup bias may trump theological convictions as in one study atheists were found to attribute more mental activities to a dead atheist than a dead religious person.

There is much more that could be said about these talks and many other very interesting talks that I have not even mentioned. Predictably the issue of definitions of ‘religion’ came up frequently (it was the core subject of Maurice Bloch’s talk for instance), as did the importance of avoiding being academically pigeon-holed as a fringe. However, personally I think that the majority of researchers (and the field in general) have largely addressed these issues (for instance, by abandoning any claim for a single unitary explanation of ‘religion’). Religion is a tricky and perhaps largely artificial category but I don’t agree with those who say it is not useful. Government is an equally fuzzy concept and can be difficult to meaningfully apply to certain historical contexts and societies but, just like religion, as a conceptual or analytical category it remains useful. In short while there is inevitably room for further development and improvement, the conference itself served to illustrate that people within CSR are taking the need for replications (cross-cultural and otherwise), precise definitions and greater methodological rigor seriously. This is a good thing, and with the growing emphasis on collaboration with other disciplines I remain optimistic for CSRs future.

Christopher Kavanagh

Christopher Kavanagh

‘Religion is Natural and Science is Not’

Communicating with your favorite God or gods, forest spirit, or Jinn – easy. Postulating that the entire universe is held together by theorizing the process of quantum entanglement, informed from a personal commitment to philosophical a priories, which are based on measurements of the physical properties of said universe – harder. Introduction aside: ‘religion is natural and science is not’, at least according to philosopher and cognitive scientist of religion Dr. Robert N. McCauley.

In this view, ‘popular religion’ (i.e. attributing agency to inanimate objects, belief in spirits, belief in the supernatural – not to be confused with creating ‘theologies’ or ‘catechisms’) typically arises naturally from human cognitive faculties. ‘Naturally’, meaning at an early age in the course of normal human development, requiring little-to-no encouragement or support from the environment, and with likely origins stretching far back into our evolutionary history. However, science often proceeds rather counter-intuitively (Feyerabend, 1993) and requires practice (i.e. learning and repetition), as well as institutions to support its proliferation and credibility (e.g. universities and agencies such as the National Science Foundation). Your average 8 year old might hold a belief in what McCauley and Lawson term as a “culturally postulated superhuman agent” (2002) such as a god, Jinn or the Tooth Fairy, but they are unlikely to be donning a white lab coat and analyzing the output from a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the 'religion is natural, science is not' thesis.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the ‘religion is natural, science is not’ thesis.

In Robert McCauley’s interview with Thomas Coleman for the RSP on why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, McCauley begins by presenting a “new twist” in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion by exploring, and comparing, each concept from a cognitive standpoint taking into account the thought processes required to support both religion and science. He gives a brief outline of a dual process model of cognition (e.g. thinking fast vs. thinking slow) drawing an important distinction between two forms of ‘fast thinking’, labeled as “practiced naturalness” and “maturational naturalness”. The former arises only after some type of cultural instruction, arriving late in our evolutionary past and may require a special artifact (e.g. being taught to ride a bike requires a bike!), while the latter arises ‘easily’ in the course of human development, is evolutionarily old and the only special artifact required is the mind (e.g. by age 3 the majority of children in the world are walking).

In exploring precisely ‘what’s in a name’ McCauley clarifies how he uses the terms “religion” and “science” stating that maturationally natural processes are required for religion, whereas, practiced naturalness is required for science. In closing, he addresses an important question. If ‘religious cognition’ is natural, what does this mean for people who lack a belief in God? McCauley offers up one possible avenue of explanation, putting forth the idea that variations may occur in an individual’s Theory Of Mind, or, the degree to which one can perceive the mental states of other conspecifics, thus affecting that person’s ability to mentally represent a super natural agent by giving it ontological veridicality.

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, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against method. London: Verso.
  • Mccauley, R. N. & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing ritual to mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special

This week we are delighted to bring you a very special bonus podcast, and a first for the RSP!

The RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special took place during the Dr. Christopher F. Silver and Thomas J. Coleman III for arranging and moderating the panel.

You can also download this audio recording, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes and other podcatchers. 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 any of your books, birthday presents, or other paraphernalia.

Psychologists of Religion Coleman ,Streib, Hood, Brandt & Silver

Psychologists of Religion Coleman ,Streib, Hood, Brandt & Silver

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Why are Women more Social than Men?

 

This week’s interview with Marta Trzebiatowska is an amazing overview of the many arguments used to explain why women are more religious than men (her upcoming book). Trzebiatowska focuses on explanations relating to gender roles and socialization: women are responsible for many of the social components of human life—birth, death, charity, and so on. But this only pushes the question one stage. We must ask, “Why are women more involved in these social activities than men?” Trzebiatowska seems to side with the explanation that women are socialized into these roles. But, because I am a psychologist, I would like to propose some answers on a different level of analysis. Specifically, there may be underlying individual differences in cognitive and personality traits between men and women that promote different patterns of both social behavior and religiosity.

Cognitive Differences

In my previous piece for the Religious Studies Project, I noted that cognitive scientists of religion tend to operationalize religion as belief in supernatural agency (gods, ghosts, spirits, etc.). Many cognitive scientists of religion have argued that the tendency to see agency in the world underlies these kinds of religious beliefs. For example, Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering (2006) argue that religion requires second-order theory of mind – the ability to imagine that God knows what you are thinking. This ability to see intentions, beliefs, and attitudes in the world around us is supposed to be the basis of both religious belief (where it is applied to supernatural agents) and human social interaction (where it is applied to the natural social world). And, indeed, research by Uffe Schjoedt and his colleagues (2009) on prayer and Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) on thinking about the properties of God suggests that people think about supernatural agents in much the same way they think about humans. That is, they use the same brain regions in interacting with supernatural and human others, and they attribute the same kinds of psychological, physical, and biological properties to supernatural beings as they do to humans.

This has given rise to the hypothesis that the non-religious may (on average) see less agency, both human and supernatural, in the world. Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues (2012) tested this idea recently and found support for it. They discovered that mentalizing, the ability to see intentions in others, was a key predictor of belief in God. More importantly, differences in mentalizing were found to explain known differences in religiosity between two different groupings of people. Those with Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are much less religious than those without, but this difference shrinks when the ability to mentalize (a proposed deficit in ASDs, see Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) is controlled. Similarly, the gap in religiosity between men and women was reduced when differences in mentalizing between men and women were accounted for.

This work is in line with Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2003) somewhat controversial theory of autism as a kind of extreme maleness, characterized, in part, by a deficiency in the capacity to infer the mental states of others. Men vastly outnumber women among those with ASDs (e.g., Baron-Cohen et al., 2001), ASDs are associated with mentalizing deficiencies, and ASDs are associated with non-religion. Men, compared to women, demonstrate a smaller version of the gaps between those with ASDs and those without in mentalizing and religiosity. Although work on the relationship between sex, religion, theory of mind, and ASDs is at an early stage, what is known has caused Norenzayan and others (for a description of research from another lab, see here to conclude that there may be a relationship between mentalizing, social behavior, and religion that could explain why men are less religious than women.

Personality Differences

Men and women differ in more ways than just mentalizing, though. Researchers have found that, across many countries, men and women have different personality profiles. Although the size of these differences varies from place to place, their direction is fairly consistent. In a study in 55 different countries, David Schmitt (2008) and his colleagues found that women across the globe tend to score higher than men on four of the five major personality traits known as the Big Five: neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Results for the fifth personality dimension, openness to experience, were mixed. Two of the Big Five personality traits are known to be associated with religion: agreeableness and conscientious (Saroglou, 2002).

Sociality and Agreeableness

People who are high in agreeableness are pleasant, empathetic, friendly, etc. In other words, they are congenial social actors. Some evidence suggests that agreeableness may be a pre-requisite for religiosity. Longitudinal research suggests that those who are highly agreeable as adolescents go on to become more religious as adults (McCullough et al., 2005). Another group found this same relationship—but only among women (Wink et al., 2007). This relationship isn’t surprising when you consider that agreeableness is associated with many of the same social traits that are often credited to the religious. Agreeable people are more prosocial and altruistic; they get along better with others; and they prefer to cooperate. Would it be surprising to find agreeable people more attracted to social domains of human life and to religion? It seems plausible that agreeableness is a candidate to explain the higher rates of both among women.

An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control

The risk aversion account that Trzebiatowska briefly discusses goes something like this (courtesy of Stark, 2002): Men take more risks than women, as seen in their greater likelihood to commit crime, especially violent crime. The possibility of going to jail for committing a crime is akin to the possibility of going to Hell for not believing in (or practicing) a religion. Therefore, men are less likely than women to take Pascal’s Wager—the bet that one ought to believe because the potential cost not believing (eternity in Hell) is infinitely great, whereas the potential cost of believing (church attendance and the like) is comparably much smaller. Like Trzebiatowska, I find this account unconvincing. However, there may be more to the idea of risk-aversion and religiosity than merely Pascal’s wager.

Risk taking, men, and non-religion have something in common: an association with lower conscientiousness and self-control. Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (2009) have written an excellent review and synthesis of the research on personality, self-control, and religion. They conclude that religion attracts and promotes self-control and self-regulation—the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors to achieve a desired outcome. Religions involve things like worship attendance and ritual practice that may not necessarily be enjoyable or provide immediate benefits but have longer-term social and spiritual rewards. The ability to suffer hard work to achieve distant goals is a key characteristic of conscientiousness. It’s not surprising, then, that conscientious people engage in less risky sexual and health behaviors and that they are more religious. If women are more conscientious than men, this might promote their ability to perform the self-regulation needed to engage in religion.

These psychological explanations for the greater religiosity among women, mentalizing, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, do not contradict the sociological ones offered by Trzebiatowska. Rather, they are complementary explanations at different levels of analysis. As a psychologist, my emphasis and interest is in the properties of individuals (or the situations of individuals) that underlie behaviors. Given that women are more agreeable and conscientious than men and that they mentalize more than men, it is not surprising that women are more involved in the social and ritual aspects of human behavior and, therefore, with religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full c

References

  • Baron Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.
  • Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219–247.
  • Johnson, D. D. P., & Bering, J. M. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.
  • McCullough, M. E., Enders, C. K., Brion, S. L., & Jain, A. R. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Development in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Investigation of Religion and Rational Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(1), 78–89.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69–93. doi:10.1037/a0014213
  • Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. PLoS ONE, 1–8.
  • Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25.
  • Schjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A. W., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 199–207.
  • Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168–182.
  • Stark, R. (2002). Physiology and faith: Addressing the “universal” gender difference in religious commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 495–507.
  • Wink, P., Ciciolla, L., Dillon, M., & Tracy, A. (2007). Religiousness, Spiritual Seeking, and Personality: Findings from a Longitudinal Study. Journal of personality, 75(5), 1051–1070.

Editors’ Picks 2: The Phenomenology of Religion

The second of our Editors’ Picks “repodcasts”, and this time Jonathan has chosen our interview with James Cox on the Phenomenology of Religion. It was, incidentally, also our very first podcast, originally broadcast on the 14th of January, 2012. Jonathan also wrote the response to this interview, entitled “What is Phenomenology?“.

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted on the page where the podcast was originally posted, along with some further information. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

What We’re Learning from the Cognitive Study of Religion

By Erika Salomon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 27 January 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Armin Geertz on ‘Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion’ (23 January 2012).

In Armin Geertz’s recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, he provides an excellent overview of the methods and challenges in the cognitive study of religion and provides examples of some interesting theories and findings from the field. I would like to delve a little further into this latter part by providing a brief review of some of the interesting and important work that has resulted from the cognitive approach.

As Geertz’s interview suggests, researchers in this field have largely focused on the idea that supernatural agents (beings with minds that can think and plan), are a central feature of religious cognition. Such beliefs take many forms and are found throughout the world—from the God of Christianity to the ancestor spirits of the Fang. Two of the most active areas within the cognitive approach to religion are explaining why such beliefs are so widespread and studying how they are like or unlike other kinds of thoughts.

The general consensus among researchers in this area is that humans are “cognitively prepared” for belief, even before they are capable of understanding the complex ideas of any given religious or supernatural belief system. Evidence from developmental psychology suggests that adult religious cognition may develop from a series of underlying cognitive biases displayed by children. Deborah Kelemen’s (1999) research, for example, suggests that children have a tendency (termed promiscuous teleology) to see natural objects as serving some kind of purpose—for example, that trees are for climbing. Lurking behind such statements is the premise that purposes are given by an agentic mind. Thus, this kind of teleological reasoning indicates an underlying belief in some being that intends objects in the natural world to serve some purpose. Similarly, in studying why adults and children both struggle to reach a scientifically-accurate understanding of evolution, Margaret Evans (2000) has found that, regardless of religious and educational background, children tend to develop towards creationist explanations for the origins of organisms up until about 10 years of age, only after which does background seem to influence these beliefs. These and a host of other biases (e.g., Jesse Bering’s simulation constraint hypothesis; see Bering & Bjorklund, 2004) seem like good candidates for precursors to religious thought in adults. The exact form that religious thought takes, of course, depends on the culture in which a person lives.

Cognitive scientists of religion are not just interested in how religious ideas originate in development but also in how such ideas work within adults’ minds. Geertz points out his own research, which suggests that at least some forms of religious thought are neurologically similar to non-religious thought. Such findings are compatible with the dominant theory in the cognitive science of religion—that religious concepts are constrained by the cognitive architecture of the human mind. Pascal Boyer (2001) has advanced the theory that humans have an innate ontology, a set of basic categories onto which all of our concepts are mapped. This ontology includes categories like human, animal, plant, and natural object, and each is associated with a set of properties. We attribute psychological, biological, and physical properties to humans, for example, whereas natural objects possess physical properties but not biological or psychological ones. Supernatural concepts are those concepts that violate the normal, intuitive properties of these categories. Thus, the concept ghost is based on the human category, but deviates from it by not possessing biological properties (i.e., ghosts do not need to eat, sleep, or perform the normal biological functions of humans). Experimental research by cognitive scientists such as Geertz and Justin Barrett has started to confirm that there are many similarities in how people reason about humans and supernatural agents. In a particularly clever set of studies, Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) found that, under cognitive load, participants seemed not to account for the counterintuitive properties of God. Instead, they reasoned that the supernatural deity would have to obey the normal laws of physics, despite explicitly believing that God need not follow such laws. For example, when asked to retell a story about God’s saving a drowning boy, participants who believed that God does not follow the normal rules of space and time inserted the detail that God finished answering a prayer somewhere else in the world before he began saving the boy, despite this detail’s not being in the original story. Like Geertz’s research, this suggests that human thinking about God and other supernatural agents is very similar to thinking about other humans.

One of the most active ongoing debates within the field involve the origins of religious thought, not just in individuals, but in humans as a species, and especially whether religious thought was selected for in the course of evolution. Many researchers, including Dominic Johnson, Azim Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan, adhere to some form of the supernatural punishment hypothesis (see, for example, Shariff & Norenzayan, 2011)—the idea that the threat of punishment from morally concerned supernatural agents helped humans increase cooperation and live in larger societies—though there are several version of this hypothesis and not everyone buys into it. This debate is exploding within the field and driving much new research into when and how religious thinking inspires cooperation.

Although cognitive scientists have begun proposing answers to questions about religious thinking, the field is quite young and there is still much to be studied. As the cognitive science of religion matures, there will no doubt be creative and exciting approaches to the current debates and to questions that are only beginning to arise in the field, such as how thinking about malevolent agents differs from thinking about benevolent ones. It is an exciting time for the study of religious cognition.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Erika Salomon is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. She occasionally blogs about religious cognition at A Theory of Mind.

References:

Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

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

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. London: William Heinneman.

Evans, E. M. (2000). The Emergence of Beliefs about the Origins of Species in School-Age Children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 221–254.

Kelemen, D. (1999). Function, goals and intention: children’s teleological reasoning about objects. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 461–468.

Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85–96. doi:10.1080/10508619.2011.556990

Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion

The cognitive study of religion has quickly established itself as the paradigmatic methodology in the field today. It’s grounded in the concept that religiosity is natural because it is well adapted to the cognitive propensities developed during the evolution of our species. In this episode, Professor Armin Geertz tells Chris why it deserves its prominent profile, and how it is developing.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

What we’re learning from the cognitive study of religion.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference in Budapest in September 2011. Out of necessity it was not recorded on our normal equipment, and we apologise for the poorer quality of the sound this week.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with Armin W. Geertz on Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion (23 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by Christopher R. CotterTranscribed by Travis W. Cooper.

 

 

Chris Cotter (CC): Today we are joined by Professor Armin Geertz of Aarhus University. He’s the head of the Religion and Cognition and Culture Research unit (or RCC) in the section for the study of religion. There’s a new book series coming out of this unit with Equinox, called Religion, Cognition, and Culture and Armin is the editor of the series. And volume one is called Religious Narrative: Cognition and Culture and due for publication next month. We’re going to be talking about cognitive approaches to the study of religion. Welcome, Armin.

Armin Geertz (AG): Thank you, Chris. I’m very happy to be here.

CC: Good. A lot of our listeners really won’t have any idea about what “cognitive approaches to the study of religion” are; I suppose the first thing we should start with is, what does this “cognitive” word mean—what is cognitive science at all?

AG: Yes, yes. Actually, it’s not a very clear area because there are many approaches to the cognitive—in the cognitive sciences. But basically the idea is that we have a… we have universal capacities of the mind, with universal constraints. We’re not born as blank slates. We’re born with certain attitudes and certain ways of understanding and dealing with the world, even as small babies. Babies are geared to get into—to plug into—a social group and to become attached to important figures and it’s the study of those processes, mechanisms, and constraints in our brains and in our minds that are perhaps the core of the cognitive sciences. One can say that the cognitive sciences became important for the cognitive study of religion around 1990 with the publication of a book by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley, called Stewart Guthrie who already introduced the cognitive theory of religion a long time ago, in the eighties. And he’s had also a decided influence on the cognitive study of religion, the cognitive science of religion, as it’s called. One of the things that is a problem in the cognitive approach to the study of religion is that we’re not completely in agreement about what cognition is.  

CC: Okay.

AG: And it’s not only us. It’s also cognitive scientists that are in disagreement. Some consider the mind to be a kind of advanced computer based on formal, logical procedures, getting information, getting data, and analyzing the data and turning it into useful information for us to get on in the world. Others, however, have been pointing out—and especially recently, and especially because of an interest in the mind by neurologists, by brain scientists—that the brain is not simply a computer and is not simply a machine that deals with information. The mind is in a body and it’s in a brain, which means that the functions of the brain in the body have a decided influence on our cognition and our minds. It’s our very foundation, and much of the way we look at the world is based on the way our bodies move in the world. It’s also considered to be situated in a sense that we are in a group—we are in a social group—and certain situations and our way of understanding the world is based on our relationship to the group. It’s also… there are also others who consider cognition to be extended. In other words, the way our minds work is put out into the world—exuded into the world. And we surround ourselves in the world with cognitive structures that help us think and help us survive in the world. Archaeologists are also very interested in improving the—our—understanding of cognition, where they are claiming, quite rightly that objects, material objects, are extremely important for our cognition. Not only to help us in the world but to influence our very way of thinking. You’ll notice small children, babies, already grabbing at things and trying to understand and manipulate with objects. And just that fact in itself is helping to develop the neural networks in the baby’s brain, and making the baby a socially competent and cognitively competent creature.

            So there are many understandings of what cognition is. And one can say that… because the focus is on the mind, scholars have the tendency to downplay cultural systems, cultural ideas, [and] cultural assumptions and values, as being secondary to our cognitive abilities. And this is where there are many who are doing—and we are as well, in our research unit, Religion, Cognition and Culture—that we need to reintroduce culture as an important causal factor in human cognition. In other words, that culture is not secondary. You can’t take culture away and just study what is left over; it’s impossible. Mainly because we are cultural creatures. And we are cultural creatures who have become cultural creatures long before homo sapiens even showed up on the scene. So earlier hominids were also deeply cultural. So it’s very difficult for us to design experiments where you can kind of ignore the cultural factor. What people claim are cognitive constraints, in other words, frameworks for understanding the world around us and also setting limits for how we think about the world—they could just as well be cultural constraints that have been so deeply embedded in our minds and in our bodies, of course, that they seem just as intuitive as cognitive procedures. This is something we’re still arguing about, but it’s a friendly argument. We agree that there are bottom-up procedures and there are top-down procedures and we need to take both into serious consideration if we want to understand the human mind and our human cognitive abilities.

            So what you can conclude is that the cognitive science of religion is based on the cognitive sciences, and on experimental psychology, with a specific interest in religious thought.

CC: Okay. Very stimulating introduction there…

AG: Thank you.

CC: You mentioned we and you mentioned anthropologists and archaeologists and then scholars of religion and then presumably we have neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, in there there as well. How does one juggle these different disciplines? I mean, presumably, you have scholars working with you who are mainly from the study of religion and how do they learn all this cognitive science and do you have to work with other people, and if you do, how does that dynamic work?

AG: Right, yes. We have a coalition at my university that’s called Mind Lab. And Mind Lab consists of scientists from the natural sciences, primarily the neurosciences and health sciences, people working with pain at the pain research center at Aarhus [University]. We have scholars from the psychiatric hospital, psychologists, physicists, statisticians, people studying music, and a whole array of people in the humanities. And of course, my particular group is focusing on religion. However, we have an extremely stimulating cooperation with our colleagues in the other sciences. The bearing idea—the founding idea—of Mind Lab is that we try to apply the natural sciences on age-old human problems, age-old philosophical and religious problems. By doing this it requires that we work in teams because if you’re going to, for example, perform an experiment with a brain scanner, you definitely have to work with people who understand a brain scanner and who also can handle all of the enormous data that comes out of the scanning. You need a statistician for that. And you need to talk with experimentalists who can help you interpret the data that’s come out of this brain scan. So you’ll find that a lot of the articles that we’ve been publishing in the major journals in the neurosciences, and psychology, and other journals… we have a whole list of authors, sometimes five or six authors. And the first person might be a scholar of religion—usually is—and then the one’s that follow will be the specialists who are part of the team in helping perform this experiment. Now, the trick is to get people in the natural sciences and the health sciences to become interested in what we’re doing. And fortunately, religion has been brought back on the agenda on world affairs so that many scientists are puzzled and neuroscientists are puzzled and they’re wondering, “What is it that moves people to do what they do in the name of religion?” The problem for them is that they don’t know very much about religion. If they do, it’s their own particular religion if they happen to have one. So therefore, it’s an ideal situation that we have specialists who know about religion, who know about the history of religions and are experts in particular religions, working together with neuroscientists who want to help us think experimentally. So it requires a lot of patience and graciousness on behalf of both the humanists and the natural scientists. And fortunately we have that situation at my university and the government has funded our coalition and important results are coming out of it.

CC: Thanks, very much. Anything which gets academics talking to each other is going to be a good thing.

AG: Yes, indeed. Yes.

CC: So you’ve spoken a bit there about why neuroscientists, etc., are interested in helping the study of religion. So I’m wondering—this is quite a big question—but what are the benefits to the study of religion, of using this, we’ll say more scientific—maybe I shouldn’t “more scientific”—but this more traditionally science-based approach?

AG: Alright, yeah. Well there are at least two advantages. The first advantage is that through this cooperation with the natural sciences we may be able to test theories and hypotheses that we’ve developed in the human approaches—the humanistic approaches to the study of religion—empirically. Of course, you can go out and do fieldwork, you can ask people, you can observe people, you can use questionnaires and so forth and get statistical data and all that. But sometimes there are assumptions, especially assumptions about the psychological capacities of religious human beings, where you need to test—you need to experiment—to gain empirical access indirectly, you might say. Of course, experiments are not—it’s not a natural situation. But they can open the possibility that you could find support for, or maybe not support for a particular hypothesis. So it’s hypothesis driven. And in that sense, it’s important for us in the humanities to try to think, to rethink, or to attempt to approach our subject in ways that we had not thought of before. So there’s the empirical aspect. That’s the one aspect, the one advantage, the experimentally empirical approach. The other one is the whole methodology involved, that it’s a new—it’s a supplement to our toolbox of methods, where we have the more traditional methods, which are still highly relevant: studies of texts, studies of archaeological sites, using various approaches such as iconography or semiotics or structural analyses or philological analyses of the expressive side of religion. And on the other hand we have a whole array of methods for studying human behavior: the social sciences, and ethnography, anthropology. And now the new ones that have shown up: the neurosciences, psychology (has of course always been interested in religion, at least for the past 150 years). And then the third toolbox, you might say, is theoretical reflection: philosophy, theory of—philosophy of—science, and theories of religion and religious behavior. So it’s a supplement to our toolboxes. However, it’s a very technical supplement, where you need to understand statistics and you need to understand how to use this new hardware that’s been showing up. I mean, a brain scanner is a big thing and it’s very expensive and you have to go to the hospital and perform your experiments there. So it requires some kind of insight. And there we need, of course, the help of our specialist colleagues. But there are those two advantages. The empirical advantage: Can we test some of our most cherished ideas and philosophies about religion? And the other is: Can we think in another way in relationship to our topic?

CC: Okay. Talking about empirically testing religious ideas, experience, etc., I’m sure our listeners would be interested if you had an example of just how you construct a scientific test of something religious.

AG: Right. One of the things that—the basic procedure is that you have a theory. You have a theory about, maybe, let’s take an example from one of the experiments that we’ve been working on: the topic of prayer. Prayer is a very simple procedure. It is not necessarily connected to a specific situation; you can pray anytime, anywhere, and this is an advantage if you want to put people into a brain scanner because they have to lay very still; they can’t move their heads. The machine is noisy so you have earplugs. You cannot talk; you have to think. You can be shown pictures, for example, and the machine will be recording where the blood is flowing in your brain as you look at these images, but in order to get something meaningful out of it you have to have some kind of a contrast. Because basically, what these kind of approaches involve is that you have a control and then you have the experimental aspect and you subtract from the two. And what’s left over gives an indication of what brain areas are active.

            So our hypothesis was that prayer, as simple as it is, is also very complicated. It’s not only the words that are being spoken, it’s not only the message that’s being sent or received; it’s also behavior, and it involves both the brain and the body. Emotions can be very much connected to prayerful behavior. So our hypothesis was that prayer, simple as it is, is very complicated, and we hypothesized that types of prayer will stimulate different areas of the brain. And the reason we’re doing this—the theory that’s behind it—is that we seriously doubt this claim that’s being spread around, assumed by several neuroscientists and others, that there are specific areas of the brain that are dedicated to religious experience. We’re not convinced by their experimental results, we’re not convinced by their experimental designs, and we do think that there are religious agendas that are behind it all. At least there are religious organizations that are financing these particular experiments. So what we’re claiming is that the brain is a multipurpose organ, where there are no specific—well, let’s say besides the senses and the body—there are no dedicated areas of the brain. So for sight, there is a dedicated area; for hearing, there is a dedicated area, and so forth. But for religious behavior and thought, there is no dedicated area. This is our claim. So, taking this simple, human action of praying to a divinity or to an ancestor or to a spirit, we claim that this is, as a matter of fact, quite complicated, and draws on areas of the brain that are used in other ways.

            And we designed the experiment so that as the participants lay in the scanner, they were asked to “think” a prayer. And we have four things, well actually, five things that they were asked to do. They have to think The Lord’s Prayer. We’re talking about Protestants—young Protestants—from conservative Protestant groups who believe in prayer, believe in the power of prayer, and believe that they indeed have contact with God when they pray. We ask them to think the Lord’s Prayer in a thirty-second slot. Or “slice,” as we call it, which fits the physics of a brain scan. And then the next slot, which, of course, depend on—it wouldn’t be a particular sequence, but at least four. The next one might be, “We would like you to think a personal prayer”. And then we would ask, “We would like you to think a nursery rhyme.” And the fourth would be that “We would like you to think up wishes to Santa Claus.” And the idea behind those four types is that we have different styles, okay. The Lord’s Prayer is more automatic, and more abstract; the personal prayer is more personal and there are two different kinds of activities. And we were then comparing them with similar activities that are not religious. So the nursery rhyme should stimulate the same areas of the brain as the Lord’s Prayer. And wishes to Santa Claus should, in principle, stimulate the same areas as personal prayer. (It turns out that these religious individuals don’t believe in Santa Claus so it was a little bit difficult for them to take it all seriously.)

            But anyway, the results came out, anyway—very interesting results and statistically significant results—that when our participants were asked to think the Lord’s Prayer, it was their more abstract areas of the brain, up in the prefrontal areas of the brain, that were being active. And the same with nursery rhymes. When they were asked to think personal prayer, the areas that were stimulated in the brain were those areas that are well known in brain sciences as the social cognition areas, in other words, when you are communicating with other human beings. So the conclusion would be that the Lord’s Prayer is abstract, not quite as personal. It might be due to the rhythm because we find the same areas stimulated by nursery rhymes. We also found that it might have to do with expectations of reward because it turns out that the particular area that’s being stimulated is an area that’s known for reward expectation. It’s known for the production of a particular brain chemical that’s called dopamine. It’s also an area that has been experimentally shown to be stimulated when you trust someone. So we’re thinking and concluding that perhaps it’s an expectation of a reward from God or from whatever being that they’re praying to, that’s being stimulated, or it might be simply because of the rhythm. We can’t decide. We can only go so far. The other one—the other result about social cognition—is very interesting because it shows that people are more moved in personal matters by a personal deity, probably conceived of as like a human-like creature, rather than this abstract, all-knowing, omnipresent creature that theology is reflecting on. And it also indicates that what defines us as being humans, as being social creatures, is at play when we are praying to a deity or to a greater creature.

CC: I’m just going to ask another couple of questions.

AG: Yes.

CC: Time is getting on.

AG: Okay.

CC: But what you were just saying there, that basically, what I understand is that as far as the brain’s concerned, when we’re talking to a deity—whether or not that deity exists, we’ll not comment on that—it’s like we’re talking to another person.

AG: Exactly.

CC: So in that sense, how do you find your research—this particular bit of research or cognitive sciences in general—are taken by religious individuals. You need them—you need people who are religious to participate in your experiments. So how do they react to your research?

AG: Yes, a very good question. It’s a very complicated situation to perform experiments with religious people because we of course must—we have respect for their religious beliefs. We’re not trying to disprove the existence of God or to disprove the effects that they claim that a religious behavior has. On the contrary, we want to try to find out what human, bodily, brain, and psychological mechanisms are involved in these… in their religious behavior. The press, however, has a completely different take on it, and they think that we’re proving or disproving. As a matter of fact, when we first published the experiment that I’ve just described to you, we got reactions from atheists who said, “Now you’ve proven that it’s just humans that are just thinking the way they usually do.” And we got supportive mails from religious people who were saying, “Now you’ve proven that God has given us the ability to communicate with him and it’s so much like being human that it’s quite natural.” And the fact is, we haven’t proven anything. What we’ve done is we’ve supported a particular hypothesis. Which can always—the part of doing science is that you present your results among your peers and they, then, if they think this is interesting, they might either move on, using some of the results that we have presented, or they might want to try to replicate what we’ve done. And if it’s conceivable that a team who would want to replicate our experiments would say, “Well, we couldn’t replicate your experiments so it doesn’t support your hypothesis.” So we always have to be open to the fact that our results are open to debate, and criticism, and negotiation.

            The people who participate, who are so kind and willing to help us in the experiments, of course have their own agendas. They’re not interested in our hypotheses and so forth. Although in some way, I think, it’s important for everyone, whether they’re religious or not, to understand what science is doing and understand what it can contribute to human life. But besides that, our religious participants, of course, are interested in showing that religious behavior helps. It helps in personal situations; it helps in social situations, and so forth. And they, of course, are also interested in finding out, how does that work, actually, physiologically. How does it work? So we share our results with them. We are very careful not to over-interpret our data, rather under-interpret rather than over-interpret, and making sure to deal with the press in a reticent manner so that there isn’t rampant claims about religious areas of the brain or religious activity or anything like that.

            Our young people, our team, consists of young scholars: Ph.D. students, post-docs, young established scholars who have done excellent fieldwork. Who understand reciprocity; who understand you have to give in order to receive. And they attend the religious services of the people that they ask to participate in their experiments and attend in other activities, social activities, and so forth. This is the way human beings deal with each other; you try and make a connection and you give and take. And they’ve done this; they’ve done it quite well. So we have people coming back to help us with our other experiments. So that’s the positive aspect. Of course there are people who are afraid and who maybe are afraid that we’re out to disprove something. But we’re always clear on that fact; we’re not trying to disprove anything.

CC: I’m afraid that we are out of time, so we we’ll have to call it a day, there. But thank you very much, Armin Geertz.

AG: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Citation Info: Geertz, Armin W. and Christopher R. Cotter. 2012. “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 January 2012. Transcribed by Travis W. Cooper. Version 1.1, 25 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-armin-geertz-on-cognitive-approaches-to-the-study-of-religion/

The Phenomenology of Religion

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on What is Phenomenology?

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

Cox’s latest and most complete work on the subject is An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010), published by Continuum. A review which questions his relating phenomenological and cognitive approaches by Paul Tremlett in Culture and Religion 11/4 (2010) is available here. Also recommended is his earlier A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (2006), also published by Continuum. His 2008 article from DISKUS, the BASR journal, “Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism” applies the phenomenological method to certain African practices in order to argue for Shamanism as a universal  categoryIf you are interested in what Professor Cox had to say about the development of Religious Studies more broadly, we heartily recommend From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007). It is simultaneously an account of colonial contact with indigenous religions, a history of how scholars have conceptualised religion, and an attempt to create a new definition of “religion”.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with James L. Cox  on The Phenomenology of Religion (14 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. RobertsonTranscribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The phenomenology of religion has been one of the most influential approaches to studying religion in recent decades. To discuss it, we are joined today by professor emeritus James Cox of the University of Edinburgh, who is the author of An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, a guide aimed at students and the general reader. So Professor Cox, what is the phenomenology of religion?

James Cox: Well, the phenomenology of religion caries a rather philosophical title because it’s rooted in philosophical phenomenology in effect, probably developed out of thinking of the late 19th century and early 20th century, where the study of religions was just beginning to develop in the comparative sense. So, in the late 19th century, for example, when missionaries had gone around to various parts of the world, bringing back tales and stories of other religions than Christianity, it became apparent that scholars and theologians particularly needed to develop some kind of theory about the relationship of Christianity to the other religions. So in the late 19th century, they developed essentially the comparative study of religions and comparison was done fundamentally from a Christian theological perspective; a liberal perspective in the sense that the scholar would begin to compare different aspects of say Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam with Christianity in order to show how Christianity is really the pinnacle of these religions. This developed into a kind of reaction, I should say, by certain scholars as they got into the 20th century, that the study of religion, although very much still rooted in Christian ideas and Christian thoughts, was regarded as something a bit more not just comparative in the sense to show Christianity is superior, but in fact to show how the different religions could be compared according to typologies. So, for example, the typology of sacrifice was a very common idea. Sacrifice seemed to be appearing in all religions of the world : in India, in Africa, in Asia and certainly in Christianity with the Eucharist being essential sacrificial meal. Sacrifice became a typology that was compared and then ideas like certain kinds of rituals, life cycle rituals, for example, seem to be universal in all these religious groups. So as comparative study of religion developed, it developed a sort of typological approach. That’s one aspect that led into what I should call the comparative study of religions from a less theological perspective than was originally developed in the late 19th century. Then, you have the philosophical development, which is really associated with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl was, well, the founder, you might say, of philosophical phenomenology. And his problem, that he saw in the intellectual sphere, at the time, was the problem of what he called the natural attitude. That is to say, with the development of science, and what’s called positivism, that is, the naïve idea that what we see is exactly what is. And therefore the study of the world is a sort of compartmentalization, a kind of breaking down of the component parts of the world, putting them into certain kinds of categories so that we can study them in a way that is based on observation, being the fundamental tool for what you might call the… justification or… the validation of knowledge. Husserl said the natural attitude displaces consciousness. That is the role of the consciousness, the intentional active role of the consciousness in apprehending reality. What he wanted to do was to set aside or bracket out, he used the term epoché, which is to bracket out [what are] naïve or unexamined assumptions (5:00) about the world. The fact that we’re sitting in this room, and I assume it is an objective room, you’re an objective person, there are objective photographs or pictures on the wall or window and so on, as if it is just given. But Husserl said no, the consciousness needs to say “okay, let’s put this into brackets” and began to think “What kinds of influences affect my consciousness?” So, of course, I have lived in this room for the past thirteen years, I’ve lived in it, it’s been my office for the last thirteen years. I have lots of memories associated with this. Also I’ve collected loads of books and boxes, which means that the view that I’m having of the room now is different from when I first came here. Or if I look out the window I see entirely different perspective from what you see looking at me, or I looking towards my filing cabinet, for example. Anyway, the whole point was that one should bracket out these assumptions about the world and begin to understand the relationship between the consciousness and the apprehension of the objective world. Anyway, that’s quite a lot of background in terms of how the comparative study of religions came in to play, and then the notion of the philosophical epoché. Now where does this put us then in terms of, say, the early to mid-20th century of the study of religions? Certain scholars, particularly Dutch scholars, for example Gerardus van der Leeuw was one, W. Brede Kristensen who was his teacher, and followed also C. J.  Bleeker who was at Amsterdam. These Dutch scholars began to say “Wait a minute! What are the assumptions that are informing the study of religions?” One, we have the theological assumptions, the superiority of Christianity, which I’ve already talked about. This needs to be bracketed out, we need to set this aside, use Husserl’s notion of the epoché. But we also have the scientific interpretation, and the scientific interpretation was largely that we can assign status or priority or value to religions according to an evolutionary scale. So you have lesser-developed religions, such as the primitive, the primal, the animistic religions. And then you have, developing up, more polytheistic religions, and from polytheistic religions, you then move towards the more monotheistic, ethical monotheistic and Christianity being the pinnacle. And some scientists thought, beyond Christianity, then, is science, the end of the evolutionary scale of humanity. So you move out of religion towards science. Well, the phenomenologists, particularly Kristensen and van der Leeuw, but also Bleeker, argued that what should happen in the study of religions is that these attitudes, these assumptions, should also be bracketed out, they should be put in abeyance, they should be suspended, or employ the epoché. So now you have theological priorities, theological gradations of religions being bracketed. You have scientific gradations or levels of religion being bracketed in order to do what? That the phenomena can speak for themselves, which is Husserl’s word. “Let the phenomena speak for themselves” and the phenomenologists of religion said “Let the phenomena of religion speak for themselves”. And this meant studying, describing, understanding and incorporating the perspectives of believers. So that at the end of the day, the phenomenologists of religion can say “We have entered into the religious phenomena, including believers. We have attempted to suspend our judgments about their truth or value, their relationship, their gradations, their… sort of priorities of ranking of religion and we have allowed the phenomena of religion to speak for themselves.” Then, you could begin to do the classifications; then, you could begin to say “Alright, now we can begin to identify these typologies, now we can say not gradating them or ranking them but say “How does myth, for example, a cosmogonic myth, operate in Hindu tradition, or Buddhist traditions, or African tradition, or Christian or Jewish or whatever tradition. And this was intended to lead ultimately to understanding religions.

DR: So the phenomenology of religion, if I’m understanding, is essentially a method by which… an inherently comparative method that prioritizes the experience of religion… perhaps you could outline for us how (10:00) you would go about applying this method practically?

JC: Well, yes, okay, I can tell you how I did it when I was doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe. I’ll take one example of a ritual that I observed, which was a rain ritual in a chief’s region. I went to the ritual, I didn’t have a lot of background preparation, because when I went out to the area, I was with the chief’s son. He said “We’re going to go to attend various rituals which were in the area. But there is an important ritual taking place which was for rain ritual.  Now the gist of the ritual was this, that the ancestors, according to the Shona traditions of Zimbabwe, are responsible for providing rain for the community and the larger community in a sense, because it covered quite a wide area. In that year, which was 1992, there was a drought, a terrible drought. This ritual took place at the end of the rainy season, which was unusual. Now, in the ritual, they took some time, about ten or twelve hours, this ritual taking place. But the center of the ritual was the possession of a spirit medium by the chief’s ancestor spirit. During this event, the medium became possessed, she became the man, the doumda (11:23) spirit, she dressed in traditional attire, with a eagle feather hat and an animal skin skirt, a walking stick, she was a man, she was the ancestor, the man spirit of the chief. At one point in the ritual, I, who was an observer, of course I know I wasn’t unaffected or not affecting the ritual, she called the chief’s family down, underneath the tree and she began talking with them. And she called me down as well at one point, and she said something to me in Shona. I didn’t understand precisely what she said, but I clapped my hands in the traditional way, shook her hand, and, in a sense, I was involved in the ritual, not equally with the community that I was there… so what I had to do then, in my own view is that, I think, personally, that rain does not, could not be caused by ancestors. Rain could not be caused by God either. Rain is an atmospheric condition, and in that area, when the what they call the inter-tropical convergence on works that is the warm air from the north and the south meet then rains occur. When they don’t converge, rains don’t happen. What I had to say, if I was to really understand the ritual in the phenomenological method is to say “Okay, these scientific assumptions I have about how rain is produced need to be bracketed, suspended, put into abeyance, not given up, because I believe that rain occurs according to scientific explanations. But in order to understand what was going on, I needed to put that in brackets and enter into. And in my descriptions, when I wrote about this, I tried to be as descriptive, as impartial as possible, explaining what happened. And then, after describing it, I then tried to interpret it, to try to find certain kinds of connections and meanings to it. And in the end I interpreted it, not so much, you might say, religiously, if you might used that term, but I interpreted it politically and sociologically, to do with the status of the chief and his relationship to the Zanu-PF, Mugabwe’s government, and so on. But in other words, I gave an interpretation of it, but only after I had suspended my judgments, described and tried to understand what was going on.

DR: One of the most interesting aspects for me of the phenomenological method as you describe it in your book is the final stage of eidetic intuition. Perhaps you could describe…

JC: Yeah that’s the most controversial part of the whole method, I think, and this is largely where phenomenology has gone, I think, out of date, and isn’t really accepted so much in the sense that the eidetic intuition was intended to be that the scholar of comparative religions… I mean, I’ve given an example of one Zimbabwean ritual. So now I get this ritual, compare this ritual, I look at other Zimbabwean rituals, then I begin to say “Okay certain patterns develop in these rituals, we can see certain things occurring… beer poured as libations to ancestors, and so on; the centrality of ancestors, the idea that ancestors carry messages to higher ancestors, and so on. And you build up this sort of idea of what the sort of Shona religious experience is about. (15:00) Then, you say “Okay, now, how does this compare to rituals, which are rituals, in this case, a crisis ritual, that might occur in an other society?” A crisis ritual, for example, of illness, when somebody is ill, in a Christian sense, and a priest is called, prayers are made to try to effect a cure or a healing within this person. And you say “Okay, now we have two different types of crisis ritual.” Then you build up all the rituals, the myths, the categories, the typologies, the classifications and you begin to say “Well, we can talk about the meaning of cosmogonic myth, in various societies, or crisis rituals or calendrical rituals, or the role of religious practitioners and various, and you begin to say “Well, we can find some general meaning for myth, ritual, practitioner… morality, art, and so on, all these classifications. Then you ask the question “Is it possible, that out of all this comparative study, we can see into the fundamental meaning of religion itself? What is religion about? What do all these comparative studies of religion tell us about the human religious understanding? And here you have different theorists that have developed ideas about that, in the tradition. So, you have Mircea Eliade who’s a famous so-called historian of religions, but is indeed a phenomenologist of religion who develops the whole theory about the sacred making itself known or manifesting itself though what he calls hierophanies. These are mundane, worldly kinds of objects or ideas, it could be a stone, it could be a pool, it could be a person, it could be a book, like Muhammad receives the messages from Allah and produces the Quran, this is a hierophany, the Quran. In other words, Eliade says you can develop a whole theory of religion based on the idea of the dialectic of the sacred. And that’s what I’ve called his eidetic intuition, his essence, his meaning of religion in general, based on his comparative studies. And that’s what the eidetic intuition tries to do. The problem with it is that the further one gets away from contextualized studies, from social, cultural, specific kinds of activities, the generalisations become almost impossible to test. And this becomes a problem… and it becomes the kind of idea that there is an essential characteristic of religion which sits some place in the heavens and makes itself known and manifested in all sorts of ways.

DR: That leads perfectly into what was going to be my next question, then. Phenomenology of religion is an essentialist methodology with a lot of connections to people like Eliade and many other really quite unfashionable scholars and approaches and… so phenomenology of religion is a somewhat unfashionable approach. Do you think that that reputation is deserved and what do you think the present and future of phenomenology of religion within religious studies is?

JC: In the sense that Eliade follows, and other people even like Bleeker who said that the central idea of religion or the key-word of religion is the divine… you know, so… you have all these people… for van der Leeuw, it was power. So you find these sort of essential categories that apply everywhere and one gives it kind of a generalized interpretation of what religion is. I think that this has been largely dismissed today, and phenomenologists… there are still persistent phenomenologists… they don’t do it in that sense. They don’t try to find some universal category into which all religions can then be placed or fitted. That has to be given up. The other problem with phenomenology of religion is privileging the insider’s point of view, which has been heavily criticised, for example, Robert Segal from the University of Aberdeen has criticized it heavily saying that if you privilege the insider’s point of view, if you say that you are not going to be critical of it, but simply present it as fairly as possible, then you cut off the scientific ability to actually test or explain events in ways that might contradict the believer’s point of view. In other words, for Segal, if you refuse to criticize (20:00)  the believer’s perspective, you’re endorsing it. In that sense there’s no difference between that and being a theologian, you might as well be a theologian. Those are the two main criticisms: philosophical essentialism, which cannot be tested and is rooted in some sort of almost platonic ideal; and the other idea that by privileging the insider’s, W. Brede Kristensen is famous for saying “The believers were always right. They have to be right.” Or Cantwell Smith, who was another phenomenologist of religion, a Canadian scholar, argued that the faith is the core of religion, that faith is the… personal faith, which we can never penetrate, and in order to understand religion, one, the scholar, must acknowledge that this personal faith is the core element of religion. And this idea, then, that the believers have the final authority over the interpretation of religion is another problem with the phenomenology of religion. Now, I think that these can be resolved, that there are certain aspects of phenomenology of religion that are still helpful and still quite contemporary. For example, if you say “What is the epoché?”. The epoché can be understood as the scholar, in this case me, becoming aware of my most, well, obvious or… apparent kinds of presuppositions about any religion I’m trying to study. There are lots of assumptions that I make that may not be transparent to my consciousness, like my western… ideas about the way knowledge is constructed and so on. I mean, I could bring these to consciousness as well, in so far as I can. But the point is, it has to do very much with the contemporary idea of self-reflexivity. Where is my starting point? Where am I coming from? What are those presuppositions which inform my perspective? As I just gave the example, I don’t think rain comes from ancestors or from God, [but] comes from atmospheric conditions, that is a presupposition. That is a potentially distorting presupposition from a believer’s point of view. In that sense, by bringing these into consciousness, then knowing that you don’t sit back as some superior, some kind of objective observer who isn’t at all influenced or involved in the whole enterprise of knowledge, then, I think the epoché helps to fit into this. Suspending judgements does not mean that I wipe my mind blank, it doesn’t mean that I’m a blank slate. What it means is that I try to become aware of those presuppositions and potentially distorting assumptions that would influence [my] ability to enter into and to understand what I’m trying to study. So, I think in one sense, self-reflexivity is that. And, secondly, the idea that we’re not producing objective knowledge, that we’re not producing a study of a human community as if that community were capable of being fitted into a scientific laboratory. So, in that sense, I think phenomenology has certain things still to offer. And the other thing is that if you look at the new wave of cognitive scientists of religion. The cognitive scientists of religion, like Harvey Whitehouse, who’s at Oxford, has created categories, universal categories of religious behaviour and action, which he says is rooted in the way humans think. Of course, he recognizes cultural specificity, but nevertheless, his sort of distinction between doctrinal and experiential kinds of religious behaviours is very typological, very similar to phenomenological typologies and categories. And I’ve argued in my book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, that the cognitive science of religion has many parallel ways of approaching the study of religion as phenomenology, particularly by trying to understand the way humans think, the way humans behave and putting these into sorts of categories and classifications. One assumption of phenomenology of religion has always been that there’s nothing alien to one human to another. In other words, there’s nothing human that we cannot understand, because we’re all human beings. Even though we may express it in different ways, we may have cultural symbols, which are different. Nonetheless, we can understand something which is human. This is based on the old idea, that… again derived from Husserl, that we can employ an empathy. We’re capable of empathizing because we’re all human beings. (25:00) And the cognitive science of religion, perhaps in some different ways, but nonetheless is based on the idea that humans all basically think the same, counter-intuitively, when they come to the notion of certain kinds of expressions or certain kinds of experiences of the world.

DR: As always, I could listen to you talk all day, but I think that’s a perfect place to end the interview. So I’m going to say thank you very much Professor Cox.

JC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Cox, James L. and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Phenomenology of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 13 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-james-cox-on-the-phenomenology-of-religion/