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Worldviews and Ways of Life

Ann Taves joins us to discuss her work arguing that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

This interview summarizes her Gunning Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 19-21 March 2018.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

David Robertson (DR): It’s my pleasure to be joined here today by Professor Ann Taves from the Religious Studies Department and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not her first visit to the podcast, but the first full-length interview I think. So this should be interesting. She’s here in Edinburgh to deliver the Gunning Lectures and that’s where the topic of today’s discussion has come from: talking about worldviews and ways of life. So let’s start where we were kind-of already talking before I started recording: a little bit, maybe, about, how did we come to this position? You were asked to write a blog? Is that right?

Ann Taves (AT): Yes. I mean, really the question is: why am I even talking about worldviews and ways of life, or studying religion as worldviews and ways of life? Which was the topic of the Gunning Lectures. And, as we were just talking about before, I was pretty much what I would call an “anti-definitionalist”, when it comes to defining religion for research purposes. Because I think it’s really important that we look at how people understand religion – and other related sorts of terms – on the ground. But I was kind-of forced to make a more constructive move – internally forced – after I was asked to write a blog post on method for the Non-Religion and Secularity Project. And it just struck me that talking about non-religion and religion, without ever specifying any larger category or rubric under which these two items fell, was kind of absurd.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that got me searching for . . . trying to answer the question: what do these two things have in common? And terms like worldviews and ways of life are actually very widely used, as an overarching framework for talking about these things. In fact, Lois Lee’s first objection to the worldviews language was it was too commonplace, and too ordinary.

DR: Yes. And there’s a question, there, why ordinary and commonplace . . . ? That should be fine, really? Maybe that’s part of the Protestant thing that religion should be special and set apart? But . . .

AT: Yes, I think her concern – and I’m putting words in her mouth . . .

DR: Yes. She can respond, if she wants!

AT: Right. I think her concern was actually one that came up in the Q and A after my first lecture. The ease with which everyday definitions of worldviews might get confused with whatever we might want to mean by it, in a more technical sense. And that’s one of our problems with defining religion.

DR: Yes. Very much so.

AT: We construct these technical definitions of what we mean, but then everybody has their meanings on the ground. What I’m arguing with worldviews and ways of life is that we actually can define them in a way that I’m arguing can stabilise them, in a way that we can’t stabilise definitions of religion; that religion is a complex, cultural concept – it simply does not have a stable meaning. But worldviews and ways of life – I think that we can root them in a perspective, and show how the ability to actually generate a worldview is something that humans can do that’s grounded in evolved capacities, basically, that emerge out of all mobile organisms having a way of life.

DR: That’s really interesting. I’m going to get you to take us through some of that – albeit in a truncated way – later on. First though, I think we need to jump back a little bit. (5:00) So, tell us what you mean by worldviews. And you also use this term ways of life.

AT: Yes

DR: Just unpack, for the listeners, a little bit what we mean by these terms.

AT: Well, let me start with worldviews. Basically, there’s a range of scholarship on worldviews. There still is an interdisciplinary group in Belgium and there are scholars and anthropologists such as André Droogers in Amsterdam who’ve been working on this idea of worldviews. And generally, in this literature, they define worldviews in terms of what I would call Big Questions. So the kind of . . . they use fundamental terms that you hear in philosophy. So terms like ontology, cosmology epistemology, anthropology, axiology, and praxeology – those are the big philosophical concepts. But we can translate those into very everyday language.

DR: OK.

AT: So that’s basically how Egil Asprem and I are working to define worldviews: in terms of answers to these six fundamental big questions.

DR: Can you give us a couple of examples of those as questions?

AT: Yes, so the ontology questions would be, “What exists? What’s real?” And the cosmology question would start with the very basic question of either, “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” But it would expand to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The anthropology question would be, “What is our situation? What is the situation in which we find ourselves?” It could also then expand to, “What is our nature?” But two really crucial questions . . . . Well, let me just give you all of them. Because in relation to the “What’s real?” and “Who are we?”, “Where are we going?” questions, the next question is the epistemology question: “How do we know that?” And so you get answers from human beings, or science, or revelation – things like that. But then, after the one about our situation would come the question of goals and values. So, “What’s the good, or what’s the goal that we should be striving for?” And then, finally, the big path or action question: “How do we get there?” So we’re arguing that we can use this set of questions to unpack lots of things. From – at a very high level – teachings of a broad tradition, all the way down to how individuals would answer that question.

DR: So there’s a real scalability to this then?

AT: exactly

DR: And so these build into . . . am I understanding correctly, that the responses to these questions become embodied in ways of life? Would that be correct?

AT: Yes. We’re arguing that all mobile organisms, broadly speaking, have what we can think of as a way of life. But the more basic the organism, the more basic the way of life. There’s not going to be any choices. There’s certainly not going to be any mental reflection on ways of life, right? So, ways of life can get more and more complicated. But we see that as one of the ways that we can talk about humans as evolved animals. And we want to stress both continuity and difference. We’re trying to do a “both/and” kind of thing, rather than an “either/or”.

DR: OK

AT: But you were asking then, for humans, how do worldviews relate to ways of life?

DR: Yes. And prior to that, how do the big questions relate to ways of life and worldviews? What’s the direct relationship there?

AT: Yes. Well. We’re distinguishing – and I keep saying we, because Egil Asprem and I have been collaborating on some of this work. We’re talking about modes of worldview expression. And we’re distinguishing between enacted, articulated and recounted worldviews. (10:00) So recounted would include both oral traditions, where things are memorised, and textualised traditions. But before you can get to recounting, we’ve just got articulating a worldview in language. Then, prior to that, we’ve got the fact that they can be enacted without even being articulated. And all these levels can work together and interact. And so, at the enacted level, you’ve basically got implicit worldviews embedded in ways of life. And as researchers we would have to extract or infer answers to big questions, based on people’s actions and behaviour.

DR: So is it with this embodied, recounted level – is that where we start talking about worldviews rather than simply ways of life?

AT: Yes. Yes. So we’re arguing that, basically, you have to have a cultural capacity before you can have a worldview. And so we used a distinction, on the one hand, between natural and cultural affordances that we borrow from ecological psychology, and also a distinction between evolved and cultural schemas, which are a psychological construct for the kinds of representations that we have for things. And the distinction between natural and cultural is that natural affordances, or evolved schemas, are very much . . . there’s a direct relationship between the organism and the environment.

DR: OK.

AT: There’s no mediating possibility for some kind of cultural construct that organisms have agreed upon together. It’s not until we get to humans that – as far as we know – we have those more collective kinds of agreements about things that can be detached from the environment.

DR: So, maybe something like: you think you’ve seen something in the shadows, and you’re frightened – so it might be a schema: there’s an embodied reaction of fear. But that you saw a ghost, you are therefore frightened of ghosts – that’s more of a worldview? Or at least part of a way of life?

AT: Yes. It’s drawing in a cultural schema about ghosts.

DG: A collective cultural schema.

AT: And layering that on top of the evolved schema of when you hear a sound – or, more likely, when you perceive some sort of movement, right? We have an evolved tendency to assume there’s something animate there – something potentially dangerous.

DR: And potentially then, that would also tie into a larger view of the world. Because in order to have ghosts going about, you have to have some sort of notion of survival after death or non-real beings of some sort.

AT: Exactly. Right. So you can expand from that in steps to develop a larger underlying conception of how they would describe what’s real in the world.

DR: Right. And what’s nice about this schema, I think, is that it’s definitely a bottom-up approach to this, rather than top-down. So we’re starting with the most basic kind of responses and then building up to the worldviews from there.

AT: Well, certainly, if you want to start at the level of individual behaviour. But we actually can start in all kinds of places as long – I would argue – as we’re being responsible about the nature of our starting points. I mean as long as we’re up front about that.

DR: Yes.

AT: I think, as you know, I’ve been teaching Comparing Worldviews-type courses, which is an attempt to overcome some of the problems with the world religions paradigm.

DR: Which our listeners should, by now, be very familiar with! (Laughs).

AT: Exactly. That’s why I brought it up in this context, because I figured it might be relevant.

DR: Yes.

AT: But there, starting with a textbook depiction of the teachings of a so-called world religion, (15:00) we can have the students analyse that in terms of the big questions, to give themselves a basic sort-of framework. And I can then analyse or show them, using historical materials, how over time that those answers to the big questions coalesced into some sort of, say, orthodoxy, or some sort of tradition – including looking at the power structures and the authority structures that would make it coalesce into being that. But it doesn’t mean that every individual or all the groups all adhere to that. But we can still start at that level, and use this conception that way, is my point.

DR: How – and the answer to this might just be, “Not at all.” – but how is this in any way related to what Ninian Smart was trying to do, or at least what Ninian Smart said he was trying to do?

AT: Right. No, I think there is a relationship. And I think it’s important to see both what Ninian Smart did that I think is extremely positive, and the limitations of what he did. So the really positive thing is articulating, in a kind of obscure article (that I think more of us ought to be aware of) in which he, basically, argued that we ought to subsume the philosophy of religion under the philosophy of worldviews: the history of religions, in the broad religionsgeschichte sense, under the history of worldviews and the anthropology of religion under an anthropology of worldviews. So sort-of the whole range of methodologies that we tend to use in Religious Studies he saw as part of an expansive conception of Worldviews Studies. And I think that’s really cool.

DR: Yes.

AT: But the limitation is that he never defined what he meant by worldview. And what he did was simply import his six – or later, seven – dimensions of religion from the study of religion to the study of worldviews. And to me that was kind of importing . . . . You know, that was almost a new version of the missionary move – of taking our definition of religion and now applying it to worldviews.

DR: Yes. And the choice of the dimensions, and the relative weighting of them, kind-of speaks to that. So you know, like “texts” is there . . . But also, I’m not sure where exactly, but he certainly states at one point that obviously while we can view all of these things as worldviews, some of them are “more profound than others”. So, implicitly, he’s still making distinctions!

AT: Right. Right.

DR: And, of course, Christianity is going to be right at the top! I mean, I would put money on that.

AT: Right. But part of our move to viewing worldviews and ways of life from an evolutionary perspective is to try to turn that on its head. Because it makes the highly rationalised, highly systematised worldviews that philosophers and theologians are into – and maybe even world religions textbooks – into a very high end product that may, or may not, have that much relationship to everyday life. Or at least it’s a very open question – as scholars of so-called lived religion would argue – to how people live their everyday lives. So part of what we see, working from the bottom up, is a lot of open questions about: how integrated are people’s enacted worldviews? Do they need to articulate them in order to function? Or can an enculturated way of life be perfectly sufficient until it’s challenged in some way, by something or other? Then maybe people have to start to think about it on a need-to-know basis (20:00).

DR: And this is something that really interests me, actually. You said something about this. I think you said that we can see external . . . . What’s the term you used? Schemas. We can see schemas that are external to us, in other societies, very easily. But it’s very difficult to see schemas in our own. Which, obviously, is something that, as scholars, we’re trained to do, and we try and inculcate in our students as well. But I was thinking about . . . I’m very interested in the idea of challenging the idea of belief in the study of religion. I think there’s a lot of stress put on, “This is people’s belief.” And, when you actually look at the data on the ground, people are not consistent in these kind of things. Beliefs are not performative statements which people hold in their brain and then act in accordance to. And, for instance, we have ideas like situational belief, where people will respond differently in different circumstances. And I certainly saw this a lot in my research on New Age and conspiracy theories. That, for instance, people who were suffering from chronic pain will change their position or adopt multiple positions on alternative therapies. They may be the most scientifically-minded person going, but when pain-killers no longer work they’re willing to, subjunctively, entertain the idea that acupuncture, or flower remedies, or something else might work. And then, of course, if those seem to work, they may completely change their worldview.

AT: Or not completely.

DR: So yes. You can see where I’m . . .

AT: Yes. Because they may still be going to a more conventional physician or healer at the same time. So they may, people may actually be able to keep multiple variant implicit worldviews going, without thinking really carefully about the conflicts between them – as long as the conflicts aren’t causing them any problems.

DR: So are we seeing people, then, moving between different schemas? Are they moving between different worldviews, then? Or are we able to negotiate multiple schemas in different contexts?

AT: Yes. I mean I think . . . . Let me answer that a couple of ways. Because, if we think about other animals who would have evolved schemas that would be cued by the environment to elicit certain behaviours in certain situations, then certainly we could think that, at that basic level, we have tons of schemas that get differentially cued by different environmental contexts. Each of those contexts would be a whole situation where we could ask, “What’s the situation in which we find ourselves?” “What’s the goal in this situation?” “What is the means to get the goal?” “What kind of action . . .?” So, in that sense, we could begin to flesh out a micro-worldview, or micro-answers to the big questions, in that context. So part of the thing to keep in mind, I think, is the answers to the big questions don’t have to be super-big sounding! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs). No, absolutely! Yes!

AT: But at a more human level, I think, another way to think about your question, that again came up at our discussions, was to think about it in relationship to people that are bicultural. And it seems to me that there’s an analogy between the kinds of people dealing with medical problems switching between healing frames, we could call it, that could develop into a whole consistent way of life, but could just be these partial things that people can flip back and forth between. And if we look at bicultural people, they get cued to speak different languages, bring whole different sets of cultural schemas into play when they’re with their relatives, wherever their family came from, or when they’re with their family in their new context.

DR: Interestingly – I didn’t mention this when we were talking about this yesterday (25:00) – but, because I worked in catering for a long time, I’ve known a lot of bicultural people. And several of them have said to me that their personality is slightly different when they’re in the other register. Like, I’ve known a French friend of mine who says she’s much more sarcastic and aggressive with her French family and friends than she is with her Scottish friends, for instance.

AT: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, in that she’s answering the big question about “Who am I?” With different answers.

DR: Differently.

AT: Yes. And I think we need a language to make sense of that, to explore that. And that’s part of what I see as the power of this approach. It seems to me there’s a whole lot of different directions that we can use it to explore.

DR: Yes. So let’s pursue that then – briefly, I mean. In the Gunning lectures you used the example of the AA quite a lot. And I thought you could, maybe, talk us quite quickly through that – just so the listeners have a real world example to play with. So taking the Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that kind-of . . . you know: a debatable case, an edge case as to whether we’re talking about something that’s religious or not. So let’s see how the model works.

AT: Yes, well that was exactly why I picked it. Because they are adamant that they are not a religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

AT: So, alcoholics Anonymous is happy to call itself a spiritual . . . as embodying a spiritual path, or a spiritual way of life. They actually use the way of life kind of language, or call themselves a fellowship. So that was why I picked them. Plus, I know a fair amount about them – so it seemed like an example I could spell out.

DR: Yes. That helps!

AT: Yes. So part of what I did in the first lecture was just to show the variety of ways that we can analyse it. So in the first lecture I talked about it at the sort-of high level of itself as a group with official documents, you know, describing who they are collectively. And so I used the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, which are their core defining documents, to analyse how as an organisation they would officially answer the big questions. They don’t officially answer the big questions, but how we can tease out their answers to the big questions based on their official documents.

DR: OK

AT: And then I indicated that we could look, we could take that analysis in two directions. We could compare it to other groups in the culture to help us better understand how they were trying to position themselves, and why they wanted to insist they were not a religion. And it’s basically because they wanted to argue that their path is compatible with any religion or none at all. But then the other thing that I showed is how we can look at subgroups within AA, or individual narratives within AA, and examine the extent to which they buy the official conception that this is a generic spiritual path. And so I alluded to some of the different commentaries: feminist, Native American, Buddhist, Vedanta – you know. There’s all these different attempts to translate the Twelve Steps into other religious or spiritual terms.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that’s the kind of thing that I was looking at in the first lecture: some of the big picture things we could do. Then in the second lecture, when I looked at the evolutionary perspective, or foundations of worldviews, I used the kind of layered approach – developing the idea that we have these evolved schemas, and also internalised cultural schemas, that can lead us to act very quickly without thinking about it – to tease apart Bill Wilson – one of the Founders of AA – what he would describe as the sort of drinkers’ dilemma, which is that they can make this conscious choice to quit drinking and then have that immediately undermined when somebody hands them a drink (30:00). And so I use that to differentiate between an enacted way of life which is, “I’m an alcoholic”, and an articulated way of life, which is, “I’m going to quit drinking and I have the willpower to do it”.

DR: Yes.

AT: In the last lecture I looked at the emergence of AA and the transformation of the alcoholic as processes of change, both of groups and of individuals. And so I used this kind of analysis to analyse sort-of the before and after, and the transition from one way of life to another.

DR: We’re getting towards time, now. So let’s switch to the bigger questions. So, we’re talking about maybe the idea of subsuming RS under a broader umbrella of worldviews and stuff – where we started. But why is this so important now? What . . . ? This has some strong resonances with the field, and issues within the field generally, I think. And it would be good to speak to that, briefly.

AT: I think I’m frustrated with the field on a couple of levels. I’m frustrated with what strikes me as a continuing spinning of our wheels when it comes to critique. We’re very good at critiquing and identifying all the problems with the concept of religion. But I don’t see that much effort being put into solving the problems. And too often I see the potential solutions, including this one, being shut down because it might undermine our departments, and so-to-speak our way of life. So even if it might be more responsible intellectually, more consistent intellectually, we want to safeguard our way of life and therefore we’re not going to go there, and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels conceptually. I find that really frustrating – although I certainly understand why we might want to protect our way of life. The other frustration, for me, is the kind of polarisation between people that are deeply committed to a humanistic approach to the study of religion and people that are trying to approach it from a more scientific or cognitive scientific point of view. And I really see myself as trying to bridge between those two. And I strongly would argue for the value of both approaches. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. So, taken together, this kind of approach that I’m talking about is designed, one: to offer a constructive kind-of option to get us beyond just critique, and second: to bridge between the humanistic and the scientific approaches. So I’d just like to see more of us engaging in both bridge-building and trying to solve some of our problems.

DR: Yes. And we at the Religious Studies Project . . . those are two issues that we – well, certainly the former: moving beyond critique is something that we’ve taken quite seriously. And the interdisciplinary . . . I mean, we feature a lot of psychology and cognitive people on. But proper interdisciplinary work that builds on both sides equally is rare. But it’s also challenging to do, I think. This is may be a legacy of the way that the field’s construed. We’re already . . . you know, I’ve had to learn Sociology and History as methodologies, just in a standard RS context. So, then, to start building in Psychology and Cognitive Studies, you know – it’s big ask!

AT: I totally agree. It is a big ask. And I’ve been motivated to do it because I find it really fascinating. So if people don’t have any kind of internal curiosity driving them to do it, then you know it’s probably going to be pretty tough (35:00). But, on the other hand, people could be more open to those who are interested in doing it. But the second thing that I think we need to be really aware of is that people in the sciences tend to work collaboratively and people in the humanities tend to be single-author type folks.

DR: Yes.

AT: And so, the more of this kind of bridge-building work I’ve tried to do, the more I’ve been collaborating. So, just in this conversation, I’ve been mentioning Egil Asprem. I’ve been working with him on this worldviews and ways of life stuff, but when we decided to work out some of these ideas for a psychology journal we enlisted a psychologist as a third author. And we’re also working on a another paper that I’m going to be giving in an evolution of religion conference, where I’m going to argue about: why are we talking about the evolution of religion? Shouldn’t we be talking about the evolution of worldviews and ways of life? But, anyway, we’re enlisting an evolutionary psychologist as a third author on that paper. So, I want to have that kind of collaborative input so that I’m more confident that the ways that we’re pushing these ideas makes sense to people who are deeply invested in those particular fields. So it’s one thing to kind-of sketch a big picture, but it’s another to present it with the kind of detail that the people specialising in that area would want to have.

DR: Absolutely. And, you know, I know this myself from the limited amount of collaboration I’ve had in terms of working with conspiracy theory scholars. Because, as someone trained in Religious Studies, I’m kind of a minority there. Probably 50% of them are psychologists and maybe 30% are political science – so very different methodologies. But very clear that the next stage in the scholarship needs to take the humanities’ critiques, and analyses, and understanding of terms together with the kind of data-generating ability, and the quantitative analysis that they can do. And so, yes, I think there’s a very timely call. And it’s probably a good place to leave, on that kind-of rousing call to action!

AT: Yes.

DR: So I’m just going to say – thanks so much for joining us today, Ann. Thank you.

Citation Info: Taves, Ann, and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Worldviews and Ways of Life”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/worldviews-and-ways-of-life/

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Situating Religion within Justice

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

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

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

 

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

Situating Religion within Justice

Podcast with Joseph Bulbulia (7 May 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TW: Thank you.

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

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Mentalizing and Religion

A response to “Autism, Religion, and Imagination with Ingela Visuri”

by Hans van Egyhen

Read more

Autism, Religion, and Imagination

Due to their atypical thinking styles, individuals on the autism spectrum represent a unique population of study in the cognitive and psychological sciences of religion. Because religious cognition stems from normal social-cognitive capacities, which are altered for individuals on the spectrum, researchers also expect variation in how they think about supernatural agents. In her interview with Thomas J. Coleman III for the Religious Studies Project, PhD student Ingela Visuri, from Sodertorn and Gavle Universities in Sweden, discusses the findings of her research with adolescents on the spectrum, which challenges and informs past theorization in the scientific study of religion and nonreligion.

 

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

Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Visuri_-_Autism,_Religion_and_Imagination_1.1

 

Thomas Coleman (TC): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Thomas Coleman and today I have the pleasure of speaking with a doctoral student at Södertörn and Gavle Universities, Miss Ingela Visuri, who is conducting some fascinating multi-method research, which I suspect is going to change the way Cognitive Science of Religion conceptualises the relationship between individuals on the autism spectrum and belief, or lack thereof, in supernatural agents. Ingela, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Ingela Visuri (IV): Thanks Tommy, I’m so happy to be here.

TC: Good. I was hoping you could start by telling us, briefly, about how your research began and then we will jump straight into some general questions, and end with a more detailed account of your current research.

IV: Right. So I was always very interested in empathy and role-taking while I was at university doing my basic courses. And after graduating I started working in schools, teaching religious education which is a non-confessional subject here in Sweden. And by coincidence I was recruited to this special educational department with pupils who are on the autism spectrum. And at that time it was just called Asperger’s syndrome, which is high functioning autism. And I had a pupil there at this department who was a member of a Pentecostal congregation. He used to ask me questions about glossolalia and he didn’t really understand why he didn’t speak in tongues. And also, he had had teachers who were religious and they had told him that God used to speak to them, and told him a lot of different things. So one day this pupil said, “You know, sometimes I think that God might be talking to everyone else but me.” And, for me, this was the moment when my research actually began. Because I immediately came to think of theories about how people use their empathy to communicate with invisible agents. And this was before I was acquainted with the Cognitive Science of Religion. But already in the fifties, in Social Psychology, there were such discussions which I knew about. So I decided first to write a Master’s thesis trying to explore how individuals who do have autism, but also have religion or spirituality in their lives, how does communication work for them with theses invisible agents? And this was how I slipped into the Cognitive field, discovering that there were a lot of interesting theories that could be useful.

TC: Very cool. So you have mentioned specifically the autism spectrum, or I think we’ll call it the autism spectrum continuum. What is that, for listeners? I wondered if you could give us a brief description.

IV: I would say that autism is a different type of cognition, and it’s really a collection of symptoms. So, for instance, there are difficulties in the intuitive understanding of social communication and there’s also unusual sensory processing in individuals with autism. Just to exemplify, people who don’t have autism are typically unaware of automatically responding to social cues that are really subtle, such as reading facial expressions, or interpreting the intonation when speaking to people, or drawing information from body language. But for autistic people this doesn’t happen intuitively or automatically. And I think it’s important to understand that people who are high functioning and autistic, they are able to compensate by using their intelligence and verbal ability. So they may learn how to do it, but it takes a lot of effort because these responses are not automated.

TC: So, just summarising here – if I understand correctly – that individuals on the spectrum aren’t lacking cognitions per se, but they go about thinking about the world – and particularly other people – in a little bit different way than we neuro-typicals might . . . your average person.

IV: Exactly. And I also think it’s important . . . in autism studies there’s an ongoing debate on the role of sensory perception (5:00). And I think this has been very much overlooked in the Cognitive Science of Religion when we’re discussing autism. And so, for instance, autistic people might be hypo- or hyper-sensitive to different social input and this differs a lot between people. And it also differs between senses; it can fluctuate. And there also seems to be difficulties in the synchronisation of multi-modal input. And I think this is also crucial when we’re trying to understand how autistic people experience the world.

TC: An example of multimodal input would be, like, listening to someone and watching them as they’re speaking as well. Just to give some examples.

IV: Exactly. So watching a movie, for instance, would be a multimodal experience, while reading a book is a unimodal experience.

TC: Now why have Cognitive Scientists of Religion been interested in individuals on the spectrum?

IV: Well, cognitive researchers who depart from what is called the “naturalness hypothesis of religion”, they have expected that social abilities such as mind reading or theory of mind – as it’s also called at times – that this is what underpins belief in superhuman agents. So to figure out what gods or ghosts or ancestors want, you need to sort-of think of their mind in a similar way as when you’re thinking about agency in any person, right? But with autism there’s a case of mind reading difficulties. And number of scholars had expected that autistic people may not be able to mentalise or believe in invisible agents. But for me it was a little bit different, because I had this teaching experience. And I couldn’t really see any difference in my different classrooms – because I was teaching autistic pupils certain days and non-autistic pupils on other days. And I couldn’t really see any difference between how many religious or spiritual pupils there would be in these groups, or how many were, you know, really disinterested or atheistically oriented. So what I did was, I decided to turn the question around. And I wanted to explore how individuals who do experience differences in social communication, why do they still engage in invisible relations? Right? Why do they keep on reading invisible minds if mind reading would be so difficult for them? Right?

TC: Right.

IV: So this was a starting point for the PhD thesis that I’m now working on.

TC: Fascinating. So you had some suspicions that, maybe, the current the state of the field in CSR, as it related to the autism spectrum, might be incomplete. And I was hoping, I guess, that we could get into how some of your research perhaps challenges and informs some of this past theory. And, I guess we’ll add, there hasn’t been much work done on individuals on the spectrum within the cognitive science of religion.

IV: Right. And the previous research has been quantitative, and hypotheses that people are testing on large groups. But I decided to design an explorative study using mixed methods. And I’m also aiming to work a bit like an anthropologist, because I think that all new fields of research – we need this phase before we move onto testing hypotheses, right? We need to explore the field. And what I’m doing, I’m using my participants as experts, because I’m not autistic, right? So I can never experience the world form an autistic perspective. So I need them to help me get insights into what’s happening. So, for instance, I let them prepare their own interviews. This is to minimise my own impact on the material. And also, when I’m formulating my own hypotheses I discuss – with both my participants and also other people that I know that are on the spectrum – if they think that this makes sense to them. Because if it doesn’t make sense to them, then it’s probably not right.

TC: Right

IV: And my finding so far is that, my participants in this study, they do really think of their preferred superhuman agents in relational terms. So there seems to be a lot of mind reading going on in thinking why these agents cause certain things to happen, or what these agents think of one’s behaviour, like (10:00): “Is this a good thing to do, or is it a bad thing to do?” And you would feel what God wants, for instance.

TC: So I was hoping you could also maybe discuss some of the narratives that some of your participants have shared with you, and how do they relate or contrast with the previous theory?

IV: Well, for instance, I have an example from my participant who calls himself John. And he calls himself a spiritual Christian. And when I asked him if there was a specific starting point for his current view of life he told me – this a quote from the interview: “I think it has developed because I . . . . It kind-of happened a couple of times, that if I did something that felt morally right or something, I felt like I got quite happy, and I got energised, and it kind-of felt like the world was more with me. It’s like something agreed with what I did and said, ‘That’s good,’ and gave me pat on the shoulder and kind-of: ‘You did something right.’ And that, I think, developed into me doing something according to God.” And I think this is also an interesting example, because it begins with an emotion, an experience, and that developed into what he perceives to be God.

TC: Fascinating. So how, then, does some of this research perhaps pose new questions for the field to follow up on, with more anthropological, ethnographic research as well as quantitative and perhaps experimental?

IV: Well, I think to begin with I would like to challenge this previous supposition that we need intuitive mentalising skills for interpreting superhuman agents. And I actually think that when autistic people get rid of bodies it helps mentalising. Because you have both the automated, quick responses and then you have the slower, more reflective responses. And despite lacking the intuitive responses they use their reflective mentalising skills to think of what these agents want. And it helps that they don’t have any facial expressions, they don’t have any body language, they don’t need to interpret any intonation. And there’s also an emotional coherence in invisible agents that you don’t get in ordinary people.

TC: How so?

IV: Well, people who are non-autistic, we are quite good at hiding our emotions.

TC: I have to disagree. No, just kidding. Of course, of course! (Laughs)

IV: (Laughs) If you spend time with autistic people you’ll notice that they are very straightforward and they tell you what’s going on. Which also gets them into trouble because we’re not expected to be that straightforward. We’re expected to be, you know, lying a little bit here and there. But these kind of lies in terms of body language are really confusing for autistic people. So if I’m really annoyed with you, for instance, I still want you to like me so I’m trying to hide that I’m annoyed and trying to behave . . .

TC: Is that what’s going on here? (Laughs) No, just kidding.

IV: No, Tommy! But for autistic people they able to feel what other people feel, but it’s difficult to understand what other people are thinking. So this discrepancy between emotional and cognitive input is really confusing. This is also something you get rid of in superhuman agents that are bodiless.

TC: So is it almost a limiting of distractions: that bodiless agents perhaps make it easier – I think you’re suggesting – to interact with?

IV: Exactly. I think. And I’m not suggesting that autistic people would be more or less religious. That’s not my point. But what my study shows is that people who have both autism and religion or spirituality in their lives, for them it seems to be easier to think of a mind when you don’t have any bodies. That messes up communication (15:00). And it’s pretty much the same if you’re communicating with a friend over the internet. It’s easier because you don’t have a body, right? And also, because you have a lot of time to think about what the other person means and you also have time to formulate a proper response. You don’t get that in real life interaction, because it’s quite fast and quick, because we’re expecting people to have these intuitive skills.

TC: And many people on the spectrum actually prefer kind-of remote or internet-type communication, is that correct?

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

IV: I guess precisely because it’s lacking in some of the more embodied features that we use, on an everyday basis, to understand other people.

IV: Exactly. And I was actually asking – this is an example of my anthropological method, if you would call it that – I was hanging out on a sofa one day in one of these schools – because I’ve been spending a lot time with my participants and other pupils in their schools – and I notice that autistic people generally, in Sweden, they’re really good at speaking English. And I asked a group of pupils, “How come the autistic people seem to be so much better at speaking English?” And one guy, he said that, “For us it’s so much easier to interact with people online, and therefore we become gamers. And gamers interact in English. And that’s why we become better.” Right?

TC: Now, how does this open up perhaps some new directions for researching religion and non-religion in neuro-typicals? Because, as I understand it, your work primarily concerns individuals on the spectrum but it also, of course, has implications for people who are not on the spectrum.

IV: Yes. So first, when it comes to mentalising, cognitive research on mentalising, I think it’s important to think of that as a complex construct. It’s like a toolbox with different instruments that we can use in different manners. So first we have this difference between fast and intuitive processes, that I’ve been talking a lot about, and the slow and reflective processing. And then there is also the difference between emotional and cognitive empathy. So we sort-of have to elaborate with all these different mentalising aspects.

TC: Could I ask for an example between cognitive and more emotional empathy for our listeners? How are the two different?

IV: Yes. The emotional empathy is feeling what other people are feeling. So, for instance, if someone is sad you would become affected by that sadness, right? But the cognitive empathy is more in the head, so to speak. So for instance, if you’re nodding you would know that someone is still listening to you or you know you just get these little cues. Or someone’s frowning, for instance, then you can interpret that this is an emotional response going on. But it’s more in the cognitive level.

TC: Alright. And so then, how does this distinction relate to individuals on the spectrum and off the spectrum and belief in supernatural agents?

IV: Well I think . . . and my point is that this is for both autistic and non-autistic individuals. I think that we need to acknowledge that people use reflected thinking a lot more than has been expected in the Cognitive Science of Religion. For instance, non-autistic people might have intuitions about supernatural agency, but if you’re living in Sweden, for instance, it’s not the norm to be religious. We have a rather secular norm, so that means that you might discard your intuitions and search for another explanation. But also, in autistic people, I don’t really see that it should affect them so much that these intuitive responses are not there. Because they use these slow processes instead.

TC: So they’re not lacking the intuiting, certainly, but perhaps they’re a little bit different. And therefore they rely more on reflective-type thinking. As I understand, you’ve also crept into some interesting avenues with your research having to do with fantasy. I think you touched on imagination earlier. I was wondering if you could further elucidate how those might play into religiosity or non-religiosity, for those individuals on the spectrum (20:00).

IV: Well something that surprised me in my results was the majority of my autistic participants turned out to be fantasy-prone. And some of these fantasy-prone people, they’re gamers and some of them love fantasy fiction. But what’s common for all of them is that they switch between different realities. So they have their empirical reality which is quite fragmented and difficult and exhausting. And then they create their own imaginary realities which they switch into. And I suspect this is a kind of coping mechanism. So they create – with the help of their imagination – really interesting worlds that they fill with characters that might be influenced from religion and spirituality, but also fantasy fiction and popular culture. It could even be artists, you know, pop stars for instance. And they have these worlds, and they interact with all these characters in a sense that reminds me a lot about how cognitive research describes interaction with superhuman agents.

TC: Really? Ok.

IV: So I think this is something that we need to look into. That if mentalising is used, and it’s a non-human agent, I think that’s equivalent to the study of gods and spirits and ancestors, which is more traditional. And I also think this is relevant for younger generations. This is something really interesting to look into.

TC: I know on the Religious Studies Project we usually pride ourselves in challenging traditional conceptualisations of the category of religion. And of course, supernatural agents as well. And what I’m hearing is that some of your work does just that, as well as, perhaps, the Cognitive Science of Religion in general. And I think we can certainly expect it to open up some exciting new avenues for religious agents as they are traditionally understood: perhaps, maybe, the magic of Harry Potter; or massive multi-player online gaming; and all these other types of fantastical imaginative agents that people seem to engage with on a daily basis, but perhaps don’t think of as religious or spiritual.

IV: I totally agree with you and, for instance, one of my participants who describes himself as a Christian, he also says that he’s totally into Harry Potter. And until he was 14 years old, he literally believed that there were unicorns. And now that he’s older he says that, “Well, I don’t believe in them in the ontological sense any more, but they’re still with me and I fantasise a lot about them. And when I’m fantasising it becomes real for me.” And I think this is also something that we risk missing out on, if we don’t do these explorative studies, if we just hold onto scales and questionnaires that have always been used. Because many of my participants might describe themselves . . . well, you know. It’s not that they believe in God and they don’t go to Church, but they still experience a lot of interesting things that they interpret: it’s spirits; or ghosts; or demons; or then you have these fictional characters, as well, that they interact with on a daily basis.

TC: And it seems like an even further challenge to the notion of belief: what it means to believe, or whether belief is important – as we often think it is – if there are all these various other imaginative fantasy religious agents that perhaps people wouldn’t say that they believe in per se, but interact with, engage with perhaps emotionally, in a number of manners. So it’s very interesting. So, just wrapping up here, I was hoping, if you felt we had left anything out of this podcast, or if you had any closing words, or some take-away points for the listeners: anything else you’d like to discuss with us today about your researching the field.

IV: I think I would like to return to your previous comment. I think that when we’re researching belief it’s very easy to end up in these ontological categories (25:00). It’s like a statement: is it true? Is it not? It’s like a number of things that you need to sort-of hold on to or reject. But this is not interesting for the people that I have interviewed. They start from their own experience. And I think the body’s important here: that you feel, you know, that you have a sensed presence of a ghost, for instance. And these sensed presences they turn into some kind of notion of what’s going on in invisible agency. But they don’t depart from, you know, thinking; “Is it true, or is it not, that there are ghosts?” Because it’s not interesting for them, because they experience them. So I think that experience is the really interesting analytical category that we could use a lot more in the Cognitive Science of Religions.

TC: Awesome. I think that’s a good note to end on. Ingela Visuri thank you very much for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project.

IV: Thanks Tommy.

TC: I want to remind our listeners, be sure to check out some of the previous podcasts that are closely related to today’s topics. I’ll include some links in the description, such as interviews with Dr Will Gervais, on God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind, and also with Dr Stuart Guthrie on Religion as Anthropomorphism. So thank you all for listening.

Citation Info: Visuri, Ingela, and Thomas J. Coleman III. 2018. “Autism, Religion and Imagination”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 31 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/autism-religion-and-imagination/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT 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.

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

“Communicating Religion”. Annual Conference of the EASR

A conference report by Hans Van Eyghen

Visiting your Alma Mater is always accompanied by mixed emotions. On the one hand you see familiar things you missed but on the other hand you’re confronted with downsides you hoped were a thing of the past. My visit to the KULeuven for the EASR conference had both, although the positives far outweighed the downsides. Read more

Sitting on the bench: is the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion a team sport?

A Response to Wesley J. Wildman on “Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion”

By Leonardo Ambasciano

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

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

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

Tom_White,_Wesley_Wilding_27-Jul-2017

Tom White (left) and Wesley Wildman (right)

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

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

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, the movie Terminator 2, lollipops, and more.

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

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

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

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Wildman-_Modelling_Religion_1.1

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

Wesley Wildman (WW): Thanks, Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WW: My pleasure.

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

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Reliability and Religion: A response to Misplaced Faith?

Professor Galen’s podcast is refreshing in many ways. Claiming that recent scientific theories about religious belief are neutral has been the orthodox position in both philosophy and science for some time now. Galen questions the validity of this position. I will first formulate what I take Galen’s position to be and then offer some critical remarks.

I take Galen to argue that religious belief is unreliably formed. His point mirrors claims made by philosophers of religion who claim that recent theories of religious belief support the claim that these beliefs are reliably formed. The meaning of unreliability is widely discussed in philosophy. It is usually predicated of belief-forming mechanisms and means that the mechanism produces many false beliefs. Because they produce many false beliefs, beliefs produced by unreliable mechanisms cannot be considered rational.

In the discussion over recent scientific theories about religious belief, unreliability claims see the (potential) unreliability of religious mechanisms as following from their evolutionary history. The mechanisms at the root of religious beliefs are claimed to be the way they are as a result of evolutionary processes like natural selection. Since natural selection selects for traits that increase fitness and cares little about truth, the mechanisms are unlikely to be aimed at truth. Some authors have concluded to unreliability in this way.[i]

Galen’s argument for unreliability is different. He claims that there is independent evidence that the mechanisms at the root of religious belief produce many false beliefs. The evidence he offers is threefold.

  • First cognitive science shows that there are important individual differences in religious mechanisms. It is well established that, on average, women are more religious than men. People with a more analytic style of thinking also seem to be less likely to form religious beliefs. Tanya Luhrmann’s absorption theory, finally, states that some people are more gifted to form religious beliefs.
  • Second some mechanisms that contribute to forming religious beliefs have been connected with the production of false beliefs. Luhrmann’s absorption was connected to falsely detecting agency. Higher religiosity was correlated with blending of ontological categories.
  • Finally, (and this is the strongest evidence according to Galen) religious beliefs are malleable. When people encounter counterevidence for their beliefs they are inclined to double down on those beliefs rather than revising them. People suffering from social deficits are also found to be more likely to have religious beliefs. furthermore, manipulations of the brain can give rise to misattributions of agency; for example to attribution to a supernatural agent.

Galen claims scientific theories can lead to metaphysical conclusions. I think his argument is better understood as epistemological. From a claim of unreliability no strong metaphysical claims about what exists can be drawn. When a religious belief is produced by an unreliable mechanism, the object of that belief (in this case God or another supernatural being) can still exist. I believe Galen’s argument can be reformulated and summarized as follows:

  • There is strong evidence that religious beliefs are unreliably produced.
  • Beliefs that are unreliably produced are not rational.
  • Therefore, religious beliefs are not rational.

The argument is logically valid as the conclusion follows from the premises. The second premise is widely assumed in recent epistemology but is not obvious. A minority position states that rationality of beliefs is a function of how well they cohere with other beliefs. In this case religious beliefs can be considered rational because they cohere well with beliefs about order in the universe and beliefs about a supernatural origin of morality. Another minority position is pragmatic and states that beliefs are rational if they work, that is if they allow an individual to better make sense of her environment. In both cases, whether the belief in question is unreliably produced or not is (largely) irrelevant.

Denying premise 2 may seem implausible but in many cases we do tend to deny it. In the podcast the interviewer noted that many political beliefs are formed by similar unreliable mechanisms as religious beliefs are. These beliefs are sometimes claimed to be rational in virtue of their coherence with other beliefs or in virtue of their pragmatic use.

Nonetheless, the second premise is widely accepted. Therefore the crux of Galen’s argument is in premise 1. Galen’s first group of evidence is not really evidence for unreliability. Contrary to what Galen claims, I believe the strongest evidence for the premise are the second group of reasons. Mechanisms that are like other known unreliable mechanisms or that have been connected to the production of false beliefs are likely unreliable. The third group of reasons say more about what people do with their beliefs  than how they form their beliefs. Doubling down on religious beliefs when confronted with counterevidence presupposes that the individual already had a religious belief on forehand. Claiming that social deficit increases religious belief is also hard without presupposing that some belief was already there. Compensating lack of social interactions by interacting with an invisible, divine, being is easier if the individual already has some prior belief. Without it, jumping to beliefs in invisible beings seems a long jump. Misattributing agency also comes a lot easier if the individual already has some idea about the agent to whom actions can be attributed.

Concluding,  I agree with Galen that there is evidence for unreliability but disagree over what evidence is the strongest. His arguments are also rooted in a particular position in epistemology, and may need some refinement.  However, Galen has raised an interesting argument for the unreliability of mechanisms involved in religious cognition and as he rightly points out, CSR cannot be taken as completely irrelevant for the status of religious beliefs.

Endnotes

[i] Though they are a minority position, some unreliability claims have been made. Examples of this approach are: Wilkins, J. S. and P. E. Griffiths (2012). Evolutionary Debunking Arguments in Three Domains. A New Science of Religion. G. W. Dawes and J. Maclaurin. London, Routledge: 133-146 and Goodnick, L. (2016). “A De Jure Criticism of Theism.” Open Theology 2(1).

DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

DeathfullOne year before his own death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste, codified a witty remark into popular history about two things anyone living can always count on: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” You might be able to dodge the taxman, but not death—we are all going to die. Roughly 100,000 years prior to Franklin’s quote the first evidence of intentional human burial appears in the archaeological record (Mithen, 2009). Humans have been thinking about death for a very long time and the threat of nonexistence can be a terrifying reality to face. According to terror management theory (TMT), cultural worldviews, which can manifest religious, political, or a bricolage of other meanings, serve to assuage this fear of our ever impending demise (Jong & Halberstadt, forthcoming). Interestingly, this TMT triage care for the existential self occurs outside of conscious awareness. However, in this podcast interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, death researcher and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Jong, draws on experimental research as he teases the fear of death and the religious worldviews that may help confront this fear, into your conscious awareness.

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, dihydrogen monoxide, plastic Tyrannosaurus rex replicas, and more.

References

Jong, J., & Halberstadt, J. (forthcoming). Death, anxiety, and religious belief. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mithen, S. (2009). Peopling the World. In B. Cunliffe, C. Gosden & R. Joyce, The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology (pp. 281-304). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rethinking the Cognitive Science of Religion in Light of Explanatory Pluralism

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

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

Explanatory pluralism

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

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

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Critique

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

Skipping levels in reductive sciences

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

Theoretical continuity

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

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

Complexity and reductionism in religion: Down the rabbit hole

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

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

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

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

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

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

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

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

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

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

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

Figure 4 Cultural "Causation" as an emergent feedback loop

Figure 4 Cultural “Causation” as an emergent feedback loop

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

Conclusion

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

References

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

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

Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies, 95(1-2), 3–36. Retrieved from http://www.zeww.uni-hannover.de/Kim_Making Sense Emergence.1999.pdf

Lane, J. E. (2015). Semantic Network Mapping of Religious Material. Journal for Cognitive Processing. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-015-0649-1

Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., & Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 1–6. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.049

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

McCorkle, W. W., & Lane, J. E. (2012). Ancestors in the simulation machine: measuring the transmission and oscillation of religiosity in computer modeling. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 215–218. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.703454

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

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

Upal, M. A. (2005). Simulating the Emergence of New Religious Movements. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(1). Retrieved from http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/8/1/6.html

Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182–201. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.691033

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

 

[1] Interested readers can go check out online conversion tools that will convert numbers with different bases, such as that found here: http://www.unitconversion.org/unit_converter/numbers.html

[2] For those unfamiliar with the movie “The Matrix”, this is explained here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_pill_and_blue_pill

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

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.

SPSP 2016 Report: The state of religion in social and personality psychology

This past January, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology had its biggest turn out to date for its 17th Annual Convention in San Diego, California. Despite religion, as a broad category of research, all to often being missing in action in the psychological sciences, researchers embracing the study of religion were hard to miss throughout SPSP 2016. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Adam Baimel, University of British Columbia.

The Religion and Spirituality Preconference meeting kicked off as Aiyana Willard presented her work on the cognitive foundations of belief. Much ink has been spilled as to what sorts of cognitive processes make supernatural beliefs ‘easy to think’ – Willard’s work demonstrates how we can actually test these theoretical and causal models in the minds of real believers (for more on this, see here). What this type of work demonstrates is that what we need, as psychologists, to understand religion in any sort of systematic way, is access to empirical data.

ARDA database hub.

ARDA Research Hub.

Representatives from the Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA) drove this very point home by presenting both the existing (and quite impressive) database that they have built and what sorts of features users can expect from the ARDA in the near future.  The ARDA currently offers researchers a large collection of international and national survey data on the broad topic of religion – and they have recently made mining through these surveys by topic and specific questions of interest all that much easier. Joining in on the benefits of open and transparent science – the ARDA has made a call for researchers to publish their data sets of all varieties (experimental, ethnographic, etc.) on the website in the hopes of the ARDA becoming the premier location of all that is empirical data on religion. Best of all, their databases are open-access – so get digging, I know I will be.

The remainder of this year’s Religion and Spirituality Preconference emphasized how (1) the psychological sciences can add to our broader understanding of religion as well as (2) how believers can be an important population of individuals to study in furthering our understanding of more typical social psychological hypotheses. For example, Zhen Cheng and Kimberly Rios presented their work on the how stereotype threat – feeling at risk of confirming a stereotype of one’s social group – might play an important role in keeping religious believers from pursuing interests and performing in scientific domains.  This is important to consider given the demographic majority of liberals, and atheists (or at the very least less-fervently devoted) amongst psychologists. Speaking to the complexity of how ‘religion’ manifests in human psychological processes and behavior, Joni Sasaki presented her lab’s work exploring how interactions between genetic differences in oxytocin receptor genes and social contexts moderate the strength of religious reminders in promoting self-control (full paper here). The theme of this bi-directional interest and value in exploring religion in the psychological sciences persisted throughout the remainder of the conference.

The issue of replicability (and non-replicability) is currently a pressing concern for researchers in psychology, and was a topic of a number of presentations at SPSP 2016 (for more info see here). At the forefront of this ‘crisis’, and of particular interest to those who study religion, is work on priming. Psychological priming, the method of exposing individuals to some stimulus (often done outside of the individual’s awareness) to detect its effects on a later stimulus, is used in all sorts of psychological research. For example, Shariff & Norenzayan (2007), in their now foundational study, had participants complete a sentence unscrambling task that either involved god-related (e.g., blessed, divine), government (e.g., jury, contract), or neutral words. The mere presence of these words serve as a prime, making the concepts of god or government more readily accessible to the minds of their subjects. What they demonstrated is that activating god or government related concepts shifted the norm from being selfish (not giving much at all), to being more fair – as participants, on average, gave up just under half of their allotted windfall of money in a dictator game. These findings have served as the bedrock for continued exploration into the role of religion in sustaining human cooperation.

Despite its varied applications (not just in the study of religion), recent efforts to replicate priming studies have lead psychologists to understand how complicated (finicky) these methods really are. However, as part of a symposium organized to demonstrate important examples of how and when priming is useful – Aiyana Willard presented the results of a meta-analysis (a statistical approach to studying an effect over a number of studies – in this case, 93 studies) that suggests that religious priming is indeed an effective method for studying the effects of activating ‘religion’ on a number psychological processes and behaviors. This effect holds even after statistically correcting for publication bias (the reality that there are many an unpublished study hiding in the physical and virtual file-drawers of researchers around the world).

The psychological sciences face another important problem in understanding religion and more broadly, the psychological foundations of human nature – the over-representation of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) populations in our studies. Religion is by no means a monolithic phenomenon, and our understanding of religion should reflect the rampant theodiversity that exists across cultures today, and has existed throughout our collective cultural histories. In one symposium session, researchers representing the Cultural Evolution of Religion Consortium (CERC), with its home at the University of British Columbia, demonstrated how the study of religion is an ideal test case for breaking through this boundary.

Michael Muthukrishna introduced the audience to the Database of Religious History and its goals of becoming a premier source for quantified religious history. This database is being built with the help of religious scholars and historians from around the world whose knowledge of diverse religious beliefs and practices is being mapped and quantified in order for history to move off the page and become subject to statistical inquiry. Edward Slingerland spoke to the value of moving beyond the laboratory and seeking answers to our questions about religion in what he called the untapped population of ‘dead minds’ in the process of quantifying and statistically mining the literary corpus at the core of many religions.

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joseph Henrich and Coren Apicella presented results from a cross-cultural study exploring the relationship between big moralizing gods and prosociality in eight diverse societies around the world. Henrich spoke to the broader goals of such a massive undertaking, in that understanding cultural variation is key to understanding anything about human nature. Apicella presented her work on this project with the Hadza – indigenous hunter-gatherers in Tanzania who serve as an interesting case study for questions regarding religion and morality given that previous ethnographies have indicated that they have no religion at all. In (very) brief, this study supports the hypothesis that belief in omniscient, punishing, moralizing gods extends the bounds of prosociality to distant others – and thus may have played an important role in the expansion of human societies. For the complete report of the work presented at SPSP, check out Benjamin Purzycki et al.’s recently published piece in Nature.

The work highlighted here is just beginning to scratch the surface of what was on offer at SPSP 2016 on the study of religion. However, what is clear across the board is that the general interest in religion as a psychological phenomenon is growing – with the countless poster presentations by the next generation of researchers as evidence. Furthermore, there is a growing consensus in the field that religion is not only an interesting phenomenon to study – but an essential one to explore in furthering our understanding of human psychological processes and behaviors.

Theologically Incorrect

Foremost, I want to commend Dr. Claire White on her research on the cognitive science of reincarnation beliefs. Examining how humans cognitively recognize agents based on the continuity of certain attributes is an ingenious way to explore the criteria people intuitively construct for the continuity of agents across lifetimes. It solves the difficult problem of operationalizing belief in reincarnation to make it available for scientific study. While I applaud the project and its initial hypothesis, some of the methodology seems to reflect an incomplete understanding of the religious doctrine it is attempting to link with fundamental cognitive processes.

Dr. White identifies the continuity of physical traits and memories as telltales by which the continuity of an agent between lives is typically identified. From her research, Dr. White shows that if participants are asked how they would determine someone is a deceased’s reincarnation, they overwhelmingly would look for shared physical characteristics (e.g. a birth mark) between the two, as well as shared memories, e.g. the reincarnation retaining a memory of an experience of the deceased. Dr. White then attempts to show that mental and physical continuity are actually intuitive cognitive processes that help us identify agents in the world, and so they, in turn, inform how we conceptualize reincarnation. She makes this case through a notion of theological incorrectness. The notion of theological incorrectness is a well-established tool in the cognitive science of religion literature which helps to differentiate intuitive (i.e. innate) cognitive processes from culturally learned beliefs. The idea is that when someone is asked to reason about a theological concept (what Dr. White in the interview calls a “reason task”), they are likely to use intuitive cognitive notions about the world even if those notions diverge from the indoctrinated theology that the person otherwise claims to believe. Appealing to the presence of theologically incorrect intuitions in individual reasoning about theological concepts shows that something other than just a cultural construct is operative in that reasoning, pointing to more fundamental cognitive structures.

The use of theological incorrectness as a criterion for the operation of an intuitive cognitive mechanism thus depends on the existence of a divergence between the reasoning of the participant and the formal theological reasoning of the tradition to which they belong. If there is no divergence, it is just as likely that the participant is reasoning from a culturally constructed concept as from some intuitive cognitive structure.

But, I don’t think Dr. White has shown that continuity of memory or physical traits as criteria for reincarnation does actually diverge from the theological system. In the case of Buddhism, she cites the Dalai Lama who is recognized as a reincarnation by remembering objects from his past life. She says this criteria is theologically incorrect from the perspective of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. If the self is impermanent, how could someone carry a memory from one life to the next? The doctrine of no-self, however, does not just govern the transition between lifetimes. All Buddhist schools argue that a person changes from moment to moment, endlessly, and thus has no stable self. If memory continuity between lifetimes is problematic for the doctrine of no-self, then so is memory within one life, let alone between. However, there is no reason to think this is the case. The Buddhist doctrine of no-self is actually none too different than the cognitive science (CS) view of self. CS rejects the notion of a permanent homunculus pulling the strings inside the brain. The experience of a self is made of functioning neural components processing ever changing electro-chemical signals. This is sufficiently a no-self conception in the Buddhist sense. If CS can have a no-self view and explain memory, there is no reason to assume a priori that memory continuity is inconsistent with a Buddhist standpoint of no-self. In fact, I would argue, all Buddhist systems have thorough analyses about how memories are transferred between lives despite there being no-self. To say that memory transfer is theologically incorrect just demonstrates not being acquainted with the theology.

Physical trait continuity also is not theologically incorrect. White argues that in the reincarnationist doctrine, the mind or soul inhabits a new form when it reincarnates. If it is something non-corporeal that reincarnates, why is there any physical continuity? This first assumes that reincarnation doctrine is essentially mind-body dualist, which, at least in Buddhism, is a much more complicated debate. But, even if we grant a type of dualism, the assumption that physical continuity is theologically incorrect completely dismisses the doctrine of karma, which is indispensible in most Eastern reincarnationist doctrines. Karma is not only thought to be carried in the mind or soul between lives; it is also instrumental in physically forming the reincarnate body. Physical continuity is thus not theologically problematic. There is nothing grossly physical that reincarnates, but the mind or soul carries propensities from the past life that necessitate one’s physical form in the next.

If neither of these concepts, physical or mental continuity, are theologically incorrect, it’s hard to make the case that they are borne out of some more fundamental agent-recognition cognitive structures. Because of the research design, I am even more suspect that the convergence Dr. White has shown is the result of a shared conceptual understanding of reincarnation rather than some intuitive structure. Dr. White said that she asked participants to reason about “reincarnation” without any religious language, so as not to prime their answers. “Reincarnation,” even in another guise, however, is already a religious concept, so I’m unclear how this isn’t already a sort of priming. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that each of the three studies she mentions are drawing on groups that have similar religious notions of “reincarnation.” The U.K. has had long cultural exchange with India, Jains themselves have conceptions of reincarnation drawn from an Upanishadic Indian milieu, and the American New Age draws largely on the Theosophists, who themselves also developed their religiosity out of this milieu. The convergence on continuity of memory and physical traits as criteria for reincarnation could be as much explained by a shared Indian notion of reincarnation than by some fundamental cognitive process. These studies do not demonstrate a true cross-cultural slice.

Lastly, Dr. White presents her upcoming research problem: why is it that upper class whites have adopted the notion of reincarnation but with a positive valence? She argues that in traditional reincarnationist doctrine, rebirth is to be escaped, not embraced. This question again shows an incomplete understanding of these traditions. In Buddhism, for example, it was only the very elite, probably a very small minority of monks, that were concerned with escaping rebirth. The vast majority of Buddhists are focused on what’s called the “lower scope,” attaining a better rebirth. The irony here is that White is trying to identify a cultural difference between American whites and traditional reincarnationist where there may actually be a shared cognitive structure, perhaps an intuition that the mind continues after death. Whereas earlier I argued that she is confusing cultural structures for cognitive ones, here she may be doing the reverse.

In sum, I think a lot of these problems could be rectified with a more thorough understanding of the theological positions about the phenomena under investigation. We cannot hope to identify theological incorrectness with an incomplete understanding of theology itself. Even if participants profess a different theology “on the ground” than the party line, investigating the relationship between the professed theology and its source requires a deep understanding of theology in general. Perhaps this demonstrates a good opportunity for collaborative research toward consilience. Just as the humanities can broaden understanding in their domain through the inclusion of cognitive science, the cognitive scientist has much to gain in collaborating with the religious studies scholar who has thoroughly investigated the doctrinal level of the phenomena under investigation.

Not Just Any Body Will Do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not In That Dead Body

 

“Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” – Dr. Robert White, Neurosurgeon and Bioethicist

Dr. Robert White

Interdisciplinary pioneers of otherwise uncharted territory in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are apt to ask some of the most provocative yet fundamental questions of human existence. These questions extend not only across the lifespan, but also into the realm of continued existence after death. A religious notion traversing cultural boundaries, reincarnation in particular and the cognitive processes underlying reincarnation beliefs are arguably foundational to understanding how people reason about existence and identity. Whether addressing how reincarnation is conceptualized or how to go about identifying the reincarnated, such questions are not only religious in nature, but experimental researchers are also beginning to explore these subjects and their associated cognitive processes through controlled empirical studies. Dr. Claire White of the Cognitive Science of Religion Lab at Cal State-Northridge asks exactly these questions in her research, which she summarizes in a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Claire White

Who are you?

Obviously, reincarnation invites inquiries around identity: What does it mean to be the same person or different people, either within or between lives? With the diversity of reincarnation beliefs in the world, there is no single consensus on the matter of identity, though converging streams exist.

Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout Buddhism and Hinduism as well as within several new age religious movements and among plenty of spiritual seekers in the west. Dr. C. White explains that other researchers of reincarnation have documented reincarnation beliefs in at least 30% of cultures, a figure that may actually be an underestimate on account of excluding ambiguous cases. Among those studying reincarnation, Dr. Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath and Dr. Helen Waterhouse, Visiting Honorary Associate in Religious Studies through the Open University have found that fewer people (of those surveyed in the UK) endorse the belief in reincarnation than those who find reincarnation plausible, which may include up to a quarter of all respondents [1].

In the interview, Dr. C. White points out this important distinction between 1) ontological commitment and 2) plausibility (on account of a belief being “cognitively sticky” or intriguing). Needless to say, significantly more people are willing to entertain the plausibility of reincarnation than are likely to wholeheartedly adopt reincarnation into their existing belief structure.

The prevalence of reincarnation beliefs cross-culturally and the appeal even to those who are not firm believers in reincarnation begs the question: why? Although there are several possible (and equally true) reasons for cultures and the individuals that comprise them to endorse reincarnation beliefs at some level, one possible function of reincarnation beliefs that deserves further attention is that they provide a means of circumventing one’s own mortality.

Talking to Death

To confront the inevitability of one’s own death from the perspectives of nihilism and annihilationism in which death is viewed as the ultimate end raises the crisis of meaninglessness, which according to existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, “stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning” [2]. In a world where the only certainty is death, the sense of having no meaning in life conjures existential terror. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), this existential terror results from the desire to live while being forced to acknowledge the reality of death [3], creating unavoidable conflict in the mind of the mortal. Importantly, empirical research on TMT indicates that mortality salience, or bringing to mind thoughts of one’s own death, leads to self-esteem striving, which involves pursuit of positive self-evaluations as a means of buffering against the terror and anxiety evoked by the uniquely human awareness of mortality [4].

Looking at Death

Both traditional and modern accounts of reincarnation presume continued existence and the preservation of some form of identity across lives in spite of physical death. The belief that death is not the end of existence (whether through adoption of reincarnation beliefs or some other form of afterlife) is understandably comforting to many. In fact, according to Yalom, desire for psychological “immortality” is the default response to existential anxiety. However, immortality, whether real or imagined as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety, requires some-thing to be immortal, some kind of enduring feature(s) to maintain uninterrupted identity.

What are you?

Two types of features are typically taken as evidence of identity, Dr. C. White explains:

  1. Physical marks
  2. Memories

When seeking to identify a reincarnated person, one strategy entails looking for specific physical marks, especially distinctive marks that are unlikely to belong to many people. Congenital traits are preferred and considered more reliable, since what is present from birth is less likely to change, indicating some degree of underlying stability.

The other commonly employed strategy is to match a reincarnate-candidate to the previous incarnation on the basis of memories, specifically episodic memories. Recognition, whether of another person or a particular object that should otherwise be unfamiliar, is trusted as an indication of identity during reincarnation searches. This is largely on account of the commonly accepted reasoning that memories represent continuity of self and communicate ownership.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Early research by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the 1960s also attempted to address questions of reincarnation, albeit through an overwhelmingly anecdotal approach. Documenting cases of children whose memories and birthmarks matched those of the deceased, Dr. Stevenson accumulated several thousands of pages worth of photographic “evidence” of reincarnation. While groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation research was unfortunately lacking in the empiricism and scientific rigor necessary to procure sufficient evidence for what he was purporting to prove. Nonetheless, his was among the first research to suggest that memories and physical marks can be transferred from one lifetime to another, thus serving as identifying traits among the reincarnated.

Where is your soul or spirit?

Meditation on Mortality

Buddhists are one religious group to directly confront the inevitability of death through meditation on mortality (which may involve visualization of corpses) while proposing rebirth as a means of [not-]self-preservation. The not-self part here is crucial, for reasons that Dr. C. White also mentions in her interview. She notes that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent and enduring self, yet in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the belief that an individual (e.g., His Holiness the Dalai Lama) reincarnates and can be identified based on recognition of objects belonging to their previous incarnation implies continuity of identity, or at least episodic memory. Dr. C. White suggests these reincarnation beliefs contradict the official teachings of the Buddhist tradition within which they are embedded.

Aging and Death

As should be evident from any serious inquiry into the teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha rejected the existence of an enduring self that persists from life to life, like a soul or spirit, rendering the question “Where is your soul or spirit?” meaningless. Yet within Buddhism the notion of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread. A common question then raised by the uninitiated is, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated or reborn?” The question again becomes, “Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” Focus inevitably returns to that dead body… What once animated it and gave it life that is lacking in death?

As for the Buddha’s response, he discouraged needless speculation on the matter, deeming it unnecessary to the cessation of suffering [5]. Yet few find this silence satisfactory. Probing the annals of Buddhist philosophy, one finds that several schools of Buddhism purport that some subtle level of selfless consciousness is the culprit. Whether it is the bhavanga-sota/bhavanga-citta referenced by commentarial sources in Theravada Buddhism or the alaya-vijnana of Mahayana Buddhism, some form of sub-conscious life-continuum yokes together past, present, and future.

It’s not in that dead body.

Dr. Robert White - Monkey Head Transplant

The other Dr. White quoted at the beginning of this piece, while never explicitly endorsing reincarnation beliefs, nonetheless raised several questions regarding identity that called upon both science and religion. Pivotal in the field of neurosurgery, the late Dr. Robert White, Professor of Neurological Surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine until his death in 2010, is best known as a prominent head transplant surgeon, operating on several species ranging from dogs to monkeys. Obviously concerned about the ethical dimensions of his bizarre operations, throughout his career, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he is otherwise called, often questioned his own practices as a surgeon from a critically bioethical perspective. Dr. Robert White proposed that the brain (which he believed was responsible for housing the soul) plays a central role in identity preservation. In fact, he is quoted in Scene Magazine: “I believe the brain tissue is the physical repository for the human soul.” He is also quoted in Scene Magazine, remarking “We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation…It’s dead for all practical purpose – for over an hour – then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”

As far as what happens to “that dead body” once “the not-self” uninhabits it, that is a question no scientist can sufficiently answer, as its metaphysical assumptions lie outside the purview of physicalist science and cannot be encapsulated by any intellectual system aiming to quantify qualia. Understanding what the self is and is not, and that even conceiving of “the not-self” is problematic in its reification of substanceless phenomena, seem to take precedence yet pose obstacles to CSR. Yet with emerging interdisciplinary research within CSR, the reasoning processes behind these notions of identity, existence, and continuity can at least be illuminated, even if the metaphysics remain unscathed.

Dr. Robert White

Footnotes

[1] Walter, T., & Waterhouse, H. (2001). Lives-long learning: The effects of reincarnation belief on everyday life in England. Nova Religio, 5(1), 85-101.

[2] Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

[3] Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189-212.

[4] Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.

[5] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).

Podcasts

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Ann Taves joins us to discuss her work arguing that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

This interview summarizes her Gunning Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 19-21 March 2018.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

David Robertson (DR): It’s my pleasure to be joined here today by Professor Ann Taves from the Religious Studies Department and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not her first visit to the podcast, but the first full-length interview I think. So this should be interesting. She’s here in Edinburgh to deliver the Gunning Lectures and that’s where the topic of today’s discussion has come from: talking about worldviews and ways of life. So let’s start where we were kind-of already talking before I started recording: a little bit, maybe, about, how did we come to this position? You were asked to write a blog? Is that right?

Ann Taves (AT): Yes. I mean, really the question is: why am I even talking about worldviews and ways of life, or studying religion as worldviews and ways of life? Which was the topic of the Gunning Lectures. And, as we were just talking about before, I was pretty much what I would call an “anti-definitionalist”, when it comes to defining religion for research purposes. Because I think it’s really important that we look at how people understand religion – and other related sorts of terms – on the ground. But I was kind-of forced to make a more constructive move – internally forced – after I was asked to write a blog post on method for the Non-Religion and Secularity Project. And it just struck me that talking about non-religion and religion, without ever specifying any larger category or rubric under which these two items fell, was kind of absurd.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that got me searching for . . . trying to answer the question: what do these two things have in common? And terms like worldviews and ways of life are actually very widely used, as an overarching framework for talking about these things. In fact, Lois Lee’s first objection to the worldviews language was it was too commonplace, and too ordinary.

DR: Yes. And there’s a question, there, why ordinary and commonplace . . . ? That should be fine, really? Maybe that’s part of the Protestant thing that religion should be special and set apart? But . . .

AT: Yes, I think her concern – and I’m putting words in her mouth . . .

DR: Yes. She can respond, if she wants!

AT: Right. I think her concern was actually one that came up in the Q and A after my first lecture. The ease with which everyday definitions of worldviews might get confused with whatever we might want to mean by it, in a more technical sense. And that’s one of our problems with defining religion.

DR: Yes. Very much so.

AT: We construct these technical definitions of what we mean, but then everybody has their meanings on the ground. What I’m arguing with worldviews and ways of life is that we actually can define them in a way that I’m arguing can stabilise them, in a way that we can’t stabilise definitions of religion; that religion is a complex, cultural concept – it simply does not have a stable meaning. But worldviews and ways of life – I think that we can root them in a perspective, and show how the ability to actually generate a worldview is something that humans can do that’s grounded in evolved capacities, basically, that emerge out of all mobile organisms having a way of life.

DR: That’s really interesting. I’m going to get you to take us through some of that – albeit in a truncated way – later on. First though, I think we need to jump back a little bit. (5:00) So, tell us what you mean by worldviews. And you also use this term ways of life.

AT: Yes

DR: Just unpack, for the listeners, a little bit what we mean by these terms.

AT: Well, let me start with worldviews. Basically, there’s a range of scholarship on worldviews. There still is an interdisciplinary group in Belgium and there are scholars and anthropologists such as André Droogers in Amsterdam who’ve been working on this idea of worldviews. And generally, in this literature, they define worldviews in terms of what I would call Big Questions. So the kind of . . . they use fundamental terms that you hear in philosophy. So terms like ontology, cosmology epistemology, anthropology, axiology, and praxeology – those are the big philosophical concepts. But we can translate those into very everyday language.

DR: OK.

AT: So that’s basically how Egil Asprem and I are working to define worldviews: in terms of answers to these six fundamental big questions.

DR: Can you give us a couple of examples of those as questions?

AT: Yes, so the ontology questions would be, “What exists? What’s real?” And the cosmology question would start with the very basic question of either, “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” But it would expand to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The anthropology question would be, “What is our situation? What is the situation in which we find ourselves?” It could also then expand to, “What is our nature?” But two really crucial questions . . . . Well, let me just give you all of them. Because in relation to the “What’s real?” and “Who are we?”, “Where are we going?” questions, the next question is the epistemology question: “How do we know that?” And so you get answers from human beings, or science, or revelation – things like that. But then, after the one about our situation would come the question of goals and values. So, “What’s the good, or what’s the goal that we should be striving for?” And then, finally, the big path or action question: “How do we get there?” So we’re arguing that we can use this set of questions to unpack lots of things. From – at a very high level – teachings of a broad tradition, all the way down to how individuals would answer that question.

DR: So there’s a real scalability to this then?

AT: exactly

DR: And so these build into . . . am I understanding correctly, that the responses to these questions become embodied in ways of life? Would that be correct?

AT: Yes. We’re arguing that all mobile organisms, broadly speaking, have what we can think of as a way of life. But the more basic the organism, the more basic the way of life. There’s not going to be any choices. There’s certainly not going to be any mental reflection on ways of life, right? So, ways of life can get more and more complicated. But we see that as one of the ways that we can talk about humans as evolved animals. And we want to stress both continuity and difference. We’re trying to do a “both/and” kind of thing, rather than an “either/or”.

DR: OK

AT: But you were asking then, for humans, how do worldviews relate to ways of life?

DR: Yes. And prior to that, how do the big questions relate to ways of life and worldviews? What’s the direct relationship there?

AT: Yes. Well. We’re distinguishing – and I keep saying we, because Egil Asprem and I have been collaborating on some of this work. We’re talking about modes of worldview expression. And we’re distinguishing between enacted, articulated and recounted worldviews. (10:00) So recounted would include both oral traditions, where things are memorised, and textualised traditions. But before you can get to recounting, we’ve just got articulating a worldview in language. Then, prior to that, we’ve got the fact that they can be enacted without even being articulated. And all these levels can work together and interact. And so, at the enacted level, you’ve basically got implicit worldviews embedded in ways of life. And as researchers we would have to extract or infer answers to big questions, based on people’s actions and behaviour.

DR: So is it with this embodied, recounted level – is that where we start talking about worldviews rather than simply ways of life?

AT: Yes. Yes. So we’re arguing that, basically, you have to have a cultural capacity before you can have a worldview. And so we used a distinction, on the one hand, between natural and cultural affordances that we borrow from ecological psychology, and also a distinction between evolved and cultural schemas, which are a psychological construct for the kinds of representations that we have for things. And the distinction between natural and cultural is that natural affordances, or evolved schemas, are very much . . . there’s a direct relationship between the organism and the environment.

DR: OK.

AT: There’s no mediating possibility for some kind of cultural construct that organisms have agreed upon together. It’s not until we get to humans that – as far as we know – we have those more collective kinds of agreements about things that can be detached from the environment.

DR: So, maybe something like: you think you’ve seen something in the shadows, and you’re frightened – so it might be a schema: there’s an embodied reaction of fear. But that you saw a ghost, you are therefore frightened of ghosts – that’s more of a worldview? Or at least part of a way of life?

AT: Yes. It’s drawing in a cultural schema about ghosts.

DG: A collective cultural schema.

AT: And layering that on top of the evolved schema of when you hear a sound – or, more likely, when you perceive some sort of movement, right? We have an evolved tendency to assume there’s something animate there – something potentially dangerous.

DR: And potentially then, that would also tie into a larger view of the world. Because in order to have ghosts going about, you have to have some sort of notion of survival after death or non-real beings of some sort.

AT: Exactly. Right. So you can expand from that in steps to develop a larger underlying conception of how they would describe what’s real in the world.

DR: Right. And what’s nice about this schema, I think, is that it’s definitely a bottom-up approach to this, rather than top-down. So we’re starting with the most basic kind of responses and then building up to the worldviews from there.

AT: Well, certainly, if you want to start at the level of individual behaviour. But we actually can start in all kinds of places as long – I would argue – as we’re being responsible about the nature of our starting points. I mean as long as we’re up front about that.

DR: Yes.

AT: I think, as you know, I’ve been teaching Comparing Worldviews-type courses, which is an attempt to overcome some of the problems with the world religions paradigm.

DR: Which our listeners should, by now, be very familiar with! (Laughs).

AT: Exactly. That’s why I brought it up in this context, because I figured it might be relevant.

DR: Yes.

AT: But there, starting with a textbook depiction of the teachings of a so-called world religion, (15:00) we can have the students analyse that in terms of the big questions, to give themselves a basic sort-of framework. And I can then analyse or show them, using historical materials, how over time that those answers to the big questions coalesced into some sort of, say, orthodoxy, or some sort of tradition – including looking at the power structures and the authority structures that would make it coalesce into being that. But it doesn’t mean that every individual or all the groups all adhere to that. But we can still start at that level, and use this conception that way, is my point.

DR: How – and the answer to this might just be, “Not at all.” – but how is this in any way related to what Ninian Smart was trying to do, or at least what Ninian Smart said he was trying to do?

AT: Right. No, I think there is a relationship. And I think it’s important to see both what Ninian Smart did that I think is extremely positive, and the limitations of what he did. So the really positive thing is articulating, in a kind of obscure article (that I think more of us ought to be aware of) in which he, basically, argued that we ought to subsume the philosophy of religion under the philosophy of worldviews: the history of religions, in the broad religionsgeschichte sense, under the history of worldviews and the anthropology of religion under an anthropology of worldviews. So sort-of the whole range of methodologies that we tend to use in Religious Studies he saw as part of an expansive conception of Worldviews Studies. And I think that’s really cool.

DR: Yes.

AT: But the limitation is that he never defined what he meant by worldview. And what he did was simply import his six – or later, seven – dimensions of religion from the study of religion to the study of worldviews. And to me that was kind of importing . . . . You know, that was almost a new version of the missionary move – of taking our definition of religion and now applying it to worldviews.

DR: Yes. And the choice of the dimensions, and the relative weighting of them, kind-of speaks to that. So you know, like “texts” is there . . . But also, I’m not sure where exactly, but he certainly states at one point that obviously while we can view all of these things as worldviews, some of them are “more profound than others”. So, implicitly, he’s still making distinctions!

AT: Right. Right.

DR: And, of course, Christianity is going to be right at the top! I mean, I would put money on that.

AT: Right. But part of our move to viewing worldviews and ways of life from an evolutionary perspective is to try to turn that on its head. Because it makes the highly rationalised, highly systematised worldviews that philosophers and theologians are into – and maybe even world religions textbooks – into a very high end product that may, or may not, have that much relationship to everyday life. Or at least it’s a very open question – as scholars of so-called lived religion would argue – to how people live their everyday lives. So part of what we see, working from the bottom up, is a lot of open questions about: how integrated are people’s enacted worldviews? Do they need to articulate them in order to function? Or can an enculturated way of life be perfectly sufficient until it’s challenged in some way, by something or other? Then maybe people have to start to think about it on a need-to-know basis (20:00).

DR: And this is something that really interests me, actually. You said something about this. I think you said that we can see external . . . . What’s the term you used? Schemas. We can see schemas that are external to us, in other societies, very easily. But it’s very difficult to see schemas in our own. Which, obviously, is something that, as scholars, we’re trained to do, and we try and inculcate in our students as well. But I was thinking about . . . I’m very interested in the idea of challenging the idea of belief in the study of religion. I think there’s a lot of stress put on, “This is people’s belief.” And, when you actually look at the data on the ground, people are not consistent in these kind of things. Beliefs are not performative statements which people hold in their brain and then act in accordance to. And, for instance, we have ideas like situational belief, where people will respond differently in different circumstances. And I certainly saw this a lot in my research on New Age and conspiracy theories. That, for instance, people who were suffering from chronic pain will change their position or adopt multiple positions on alternative therapies. They may be the most scientifically-minded person going, but when pain-killers no longer work they’re willing to, subjunctively, entertain the idea that acupuncture, or flower remedies, or something else might work. And then, of course, if those seem to work, they may completely change their worldview.

AT: Or not completely.

DR: So yes. You can see where I’m . . .

AT: Yes. Because they may still be going to a more conventional physician or healer at the same time. So they may, people may actually be able to keep multiple variant implicit worldviews going, without thinking really carefully about the conflicts between them – as long as the conflicts aren’t causing them any problems.

DR: So are we seeing people, then, moving between different schemas? Are they moving between different worldviews, then? Or are we able to negotiate multiple schemas in different contexts?

AT: Yes. I mean I think . . . . Let me answer that a couple of ways. Because, if we think about other animals who would have evolved schemas that would be cued by the environment to elicit certain behaviours in certain situations, then certainly we could think that, at that basic level, we have tons of schemas that get differentially cued by different environmental contexts. Each of those contexts would be a whole situation where we could ask, “What’s the situation in which we find ourselves?” “What’s the goal in this situation?” “What is the means to get the goal?” “What kind of action . . .?” So, in that sense, we could begin to flesh out a micro-worldview, or micro-answers to the big questions, in that context. So part of the thing to keep in mind, I think, is the answers to the big questions don’t have to be super-big sounding! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs). No, absolutely! Yes!

AT: But at a more human level, I think, another way to think about your question, that again came up at our discussions, was to think about it in relationship to people that are bicultural. And it seems to me that there’s an analogy between the kinds of people dealing with medical problems switching between healing frames, we could call it, that could develop into a whole consistent way of life, but could just be these partial things that people can flip back and forth between. And if we look at bicultural people, they get cued to speak different languages, bring whole different sets of cultural schemas into play when they’re with their relatives, wherever their family came from, or when they’re with their family in their new context.

DR: Interestingly – I didn’t mention this when we were talking about this yesterday (25:00) – but, because I worked in catering for a long time, I’ve known a lot of bicultural people. And several of them have said to me that their personality is slightly different when they’re in the other register. Like, I’ve known a French friend of mine who says she’s much more sarcastic and aggressive with her French family and friends than she is with her Scottish friends, for instance.

AT: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, in that she’s answering the big question about “Who am I?” With different answers.

DR: Differently.

AT: Yes. And I think we need a language to make sense of that, to explore that. And that’s part of what I see as the power of this approach. It seems to me there’s a whole lot of different directions that we can use it to explore.

DR: Yes. So let’s pursue that then – briefly, I mean. In the Gunning lectures you used the example of the AA quite a lot. And I thought you could, maybe, talk us quite quickly through that – just so the listeners have a real world example to play with. So taking the Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that kind-of . . . you know: a debatable case, an edge case as to whether we’re talking about something that’s religious or not. So let’s see how the model works.

AT: Yes, well that was exactly why I picked it. Because they are adamant that they are not a religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

AT: So, alcoholics Anonymous is happy to call itself a spiritual . . . as embodying a spiritual path, or a spiritual way of life. They actually use the way of life kind of language, or call themselves a fellowship. So that was why I picked them. Plus, I know a fair amount about them – so it seemed like an example I could spell out.

DR: Yes. That helps!

AT: Yes. So part of what I did in the first lecture was just to show the variety of ways that we can analyse it. So in the first lecture I talked about it at the sort-of high level of itself as a group with official documents, you know, describing who they are collectively. And so I used the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, which are their core defining documents, to analyse how as an organisation they would officially answer the big questions. They don’t officially answer the big questions, but how we can tease out their answers to the big questions based on their official documents.

DR: OK

AT: And then I indicated that we could look, we could take that analysis in two directions. We could compare it to other groups in the culture to help us better understand how they were trying to position themselves, and why they wanted to insist they were not a religion. And it’s basically because they wanted to argue that their path is compatible with any religion or none at all. But then the other thing that I showed is how we can look at subgroups within AA, or individual narratives within AA, and examine the extent to which they buy the official conception that this is a generic spiritual path. And so I alluded to some of the different commentaries: feminist, Native American, Buddhist, Vedanta – you know. There’s all these different attempts to translate the Twelve Steps into other religious or spiritual terms.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that’s the kind of thing that I was looking at in the first lecture: some of the big picture things we could do. Then in the second lecture, when I looked at the evolutionary perspective, or foundations of worldviews, I used the kind of layered approach – developing the idea that we have these evolved schemas, and also internalised cultural schemas, that can lead us to act very quickly without thinking about it – to tease apart Bill Wilson – one of the Founders of AA – what he would describe as the sort of drinkers’ dilemma, which is that they can make this conscious choice to quit drinking and then have that immediately undermined when somebody hands them a drink (30:00). And so I use that to differentiate between an enacted way of life which is, “I’m an alcoholic”, and an articulated way of life, which is, “I’m going to quit drinking and I have the willpower to do it”.

DR: Yes.

AT: In the last lecture I looked at the emergence of AA and the transformation of the alcoholic as processes of change, both of groups and of individuals. And so I used this kind of analysis to analyse sort-of the before and after, and the transition from one way of life to another.

DR: We’re getting towards time, now. So let’s switch to the bigger questions. So, we’re talking about maybe the idea of subsuming RS under a broader umbrella of worldviews and stuff – where we started. But why is this so important now? What . . . ? This has some strong resonances with the field, and issues within the field generally, I think. And it would be good to speak to that, briefly.

AT: I think I’m frustrated with the field on a couple of levels. I’m frustrated with what strikes me as a continuing spinning of our wheels when it comes to critique. We’re very good at critiquing and identifying all the problems with the concept of religion. But I don’t see that much effort being put into solving the problems. And too often I see the potential solutions, including this one, being shut down because it might undermine our departments, and so-to-speak our way of life. So even if it might be more responsible intellectually, more consistent intellectually, we want to safeguard our way of life and therefore we’re not going to go there, and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels conceptually. I find that really frustrating – although I certainly understand why we might want to protect our way of life. The other frustration, for me, is the kind of polarisation between people that are deeply committed to a humanistic approach to the study of religion and people that are trying to approach it from a more scientific or cognitive scientific point of view. And I really see myself as trying to bridge between those two. And I strongly would argue for the value of both approaches. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. So, taken together, this kind of approach that I’m talking about is designed, one: to offer a constructive kind-of option to get us beyond just critique, and second: to bridge between the humanistic and the scientific approaches. So I’d just like to see more of us engaging in both bridge-building and trying to solve some of our problems.

DR: Yes. And we at the Religious Studies Project . . . those are two issues that we – well, certainly the former: moving beyond critique is something that we’ve taken quite seriously. And the interdisciplinary . . . I mean, we feature a lot of psychology and cognitive people on. But proper interdisciplinary work that builds on both sides equally is rare. But it’s also challenging to do, I think. This is may be a legacy of the way that the field’s construed. We’re already . . . you know, I’ve had to learn Sociology and History as methodologies, just in a standard RS context. So, then, to start building in Psychology and Cognitive Studies, you know – it’s big ask!

AT: I totally agree. It is a big ask. And I’ve been motivated to do it because I find it really fascinating. So if people don’t have any kind of internal curiosity driving them to do it, then you know it’s probably going to be pretty tough (35:00). But, on the other hand, people could be more open to those who are interested in doing it. But the second thing that I think we need to be really aware of is that people in the sciences tend to work collaboratively and people in the humanities tend to be single-author type folks.

DR: Yes.

AT: And so, the more of this kind of bridge-building work I’ve tried to do, the more I’ve been collaborating. So, just in this conversation, I’ve been mentioning Egil Asprem. I’ve been working with him on this worldviews and ways of life stuff, but when we decided to work out some of these ideas for a psychology journal we enlisted a psychologist as a third author. And we’re also working on a another paper that I’m going to be giving in an evolution of religion conference, where I’m going to argue about: why are we talking about the evolution of religion? Shouldn’t we be talking about the evolution of worldviews and ways of life? But, anyway, we’re enlisting an evolutionary psychologist as a third author on that paper. So, I want to have that kind of collaborative input so that I’m more confident that the ways that we’re pushing these ideas makes sense to people who are deeply invested in those particular fields. So it’s one thing to kind-of sketch a big picture, but it’s another to present it with the kind of detail that the people specialising in that area would want to have.

DR: Absolutely. And, you know, I know this myself from the limited amount of collaboration I’ve had in terms of working with conspiracy theory scholars. Because, as someone trained in Religious Studies, I’m kind of a minority there. Probably 50% of them are psychologists and maybe 30% are political science – so very different methodologies. But very clear that the next stage in the scholarship needs to take the humanities’ critiques, and analyses, and understanding of terms together with the kind of data-generating ability, and the quantitative analysis that they can do. And so, yes, I think there’s a very timely call. And it’s probably a good place to leave, on that kind-of rousing call to action!

AT: Yes.

DR: So I’m just going to say – thanks so much for joining us today, Ann. Thank you.

Citation Info: Taves, Ann, and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Worldviews and Ways of Life”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/worldviews-and-ways-of-life/

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Situating Religion within Justice

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

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

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

 

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

Situating Religion within Justice

Podcast with Joseph Bulbulia (7 May 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TW: Thank you.

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

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Mentalizing and Religion

A response to “Autism, Religion, and Imagination with Ingela Visuri”

by Hans van Egyhen

Read more

Autism, Religion, and Imagination

Due to their atypical thinking styles, individuals on the autism spectrum represent a unique population of study in the cognitive and psychological sciences of religion. Because religious cognition stems from normal social-cognitive capacities, which are altered for individuals on the spectrum, researchers also expect variation in how they think about supernatural agents. In her interview with Thomas J. Coleman III for the Religious Studies Project, PhD student Ingela Visuri, from Sodertorn and Gavle Universities in Sweden, discusses the findings of her research with adolescents on the spectrum, which challenges and informs past theorization in the scientific study of religion and nonreligion.

 

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

Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Visuri_-_Autism,_Religion_and_Imagination_1.1

 

Thomas Coleman (TC): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Thomas Coleman and today I have the pleasure of speaking with a doctoral student at Södertörn and Gavle Universities, Miss Ingela Visuri, who is conducting some fascinating multi-method research, which I suspect is going to change the way Cognitive Science of Religion conceptualises the relationship between individuals on the autism spectrum and belief, or lack thereof, in supernatural agents. Ingela, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Ingela Visuri (IV): Thanks Tommy, I’m so happy to be here.

TC: Good. I was hoping you could start by telling us, briefly, about how your research began and then we will jump straight into some general questions, and end with a more detailed account of your current research.

IV: Right. So I was always very interested in empathy and role-taking while I was at university doing my basic courses. And after graduating I started working in schools, teaching religious education which is a non-confessional subject here in Sweden. And by coincidence I was recruited to this special educational department with pupils who are on the autism spectrum. And at that time it was just called Asperger’s syndrome, which is high functioning autism. And I had a pupil there at this department who was a member of a Pentecostal congregation. He used to ask me questions about glossolalia and he didn’t really understand why he didn’t speak in tongues. And also, he had had teachers who were religious and they had told him that God used to speak to them, and told him a lot of different things. So one day this pupil said, “You know, sometimes I think that God might be talking to everyone else but me.” And, for me, this was the moment when my research actually began. Because I immediately came to think of theories about how people use their empathy to communicate with invisible agents. And this was before I was acquainted with the Cognitive Science of Religion. But already in the fifties, in Social Psychology, there were such discussions which I knew about. So I decided first to write a Master’s thesis trying to explore how individuals who do have autism, but also have religion or spirituality in their lives, how does communication work for them with theses invisible agents? And this was how I slipped into the Cognitive field, discovering that there were a lot of interesting theories that could be useful.

TC: Very cool. So you have mentioned specifically the autism spectrum, or I think we’ll call it the autism spectrum continuum. What is that, for listeners? I wondered if you could give us a brief description.

IV: I would say that autism is a different type of cognition, and it’s really a collection of symptoms. So, for instance, there are difficulties in the intuitive understanding of social communication and there’s also unusual sensory processing in individuals with autism. Just to exemplify, people who don’t have autism are typically unaware of automatically responding to social cues that are really subtle, such as reading facial expressions, or interpreting the intonation when speaking to people, or drawing information from body language. But for autistic people this doesn’t happen intuitively or automatically. And I think it’s important to understand that people who are high functioning and autistic, they are able to compensate by using their intelligence and verbal ability. So they may learn how to do it, but it takes a lot of effort because these responses are not automated.

TC: So, just summarising here – if I understand correctly – that individuals on the spectrum aren’t lacking cognitions per se, but they go about thinking about the world – and particularly other people – in a little bit different way than we neuro-typicals might . . . your average person.

IV: Exactly. And I also think it’s important . . . in autism studies there’s an ongoing debate on the role of sensory perception (5:00). And I think this has been very much overlooked in the Cognitive Science of Religion when we’re discussing autism. And so, for instance, autistic people might be hypo- or hyper-sensitive to different social input and this differs a lot between people. And it also differs between senses; it can fluctuate. And there also seems to be difficulties in the synchronisation of multi-modal input. And I think this is also crucial when we’re trying to understand how autistic people experience the world.

TC: An example of multimodal input would be, like, listening to someone and watching them as they’re speaking as well. Just to give some examples.

IV: Exactly. So watching a movie, for instance, would be a multimodal experience, while reading a book is a unimodal experience.

TC: Now why have Cognitive Scientists of Religion been interested in individuals on the spectrum?

IV: Well, cognitive researchers who depart from what is called the “naturalness hypothesis of religion”, they have expected that social abilities such as mind reading or theory of mind – as it’s also called at times – that this is what underpins belief in superhuman agents. So to figure out what gods or ghosts or ancestors want, you need to sort-of think of their mind in a similar way as when you’re thinking about agency in any person, right? But with autism there’s a case of mind reading difficulties. And number of scholars had expected that autistic people may not be able to mentalise or believe in invisible agents. But for me it was a little bit different, because I had this teaching experience. And I couldn’t really see any difference in my different classrooms – because I was teaching autistic pupils certain days and non-autistic pupils on other days. And I couldn’t really see any difference between how many religious or spiritual pupils there would be in these groups, or how many were, you know, really disinterested or atheistically oriented. So what I did was, I decided to turn the question around. And I wanted to explore how individuals who do experience differences in social communication, why do they still engage in invisible relations? Right? Why do they keep on reading invisible minds if mind reading would be so difficult for them? Right?

TC: Right.

IV: So this was a starting point for the PhD thesis that I’m now working on.

TC: Fascinating. So you had some suspicions that, maybe, the current the state of the field in CSR, as it related to the autism spectrum, might be incomplete. And I was hoping, I guess, that we could get into how some of your research perhaps challenges and informs some of this past theory. And, I guess we’ll add, there hasn’t been much work done on individuals on the spectrum within the cognitive science of religion.

IV: Right. And the previous research has been quantitative, and hypotheses that people are testing on large groups. But I decided to design an explorative study using mixed methods. And I’m also aiming to work a bit like an anthropologist, because I think that all new fields of research – we need this phase before we move onto testing hypotheses, right? We need to explore the field. And what I’m doing, I’m using my participants as experts, because I’m not autistic, right? So I can never experience the world form an autistic perspective. So I need them to help me get insights into what’s happening. So, for instance, I let them prepare their own interviews. This is to minimise my own impact on the material. And also, when I’m formulating my own hypotheses I discuss – with both my participants and also other people that I know that are on the spectrum – if they think that this makes sense to them. Because if it doesn’t make sense to them, then it’s probably not right.

TC: Right

IV: And my finding so far is that, my participants in this study, they do really think of their preferred superhuman agents in relational terms. So there seems to be a lot of mind reading going on in thinking why these agents cause certain things to happen, or what these agents think of one’s behaviour, like (10:00): “Is this a good thing to do, or is it a bad thing to do?” And you would feel what God wants, for instance.

TC: So I was hoping you could also maybe discuss some of the narratives that some of your participants have shared with you, and how do they relate or contrast with the previous theory?

IV: Well, for instance, I have an example from my participant who calls himself John. And he calls himself a spiritual Christian. And when I asked him if there was a specific starting point for his current view of life he told me – this a quote from the interview: “I think it has developed because I . . . . It kind-of happened a couple of times, that if I did something that felt morally right or something, I felt like I got quite happy, and I got energised, and it kind-of felt like the world was more with me. It’s like something agreed with what I did and said, ‘That’s good,’ and gave me pat on the shoulder and kind-of: ‘You did something right.’ And that, I think, developed into me doing something according to God.” And I think this is also an interesting example, because it begins with an emotion, an experience, and that developed into what he perceives to be God.

TC: Fascinating. So how, then, does some of this research perhaps pose new questions for the field to follow up on, with more anthropological, ethnographic research as well as quantitative and perhaps experimental?

IV: Well, I think to begin with I would like to challenge this previous supposition that we need intuitive mentalising skills for interpreting superhuman agents. And I actually think that when autistic people get rid of bodies it helps mentalising. Because you have both the automated, quick responses and then you have the slower, more reflective responses. And despite lacking the intuitive responses they use their reflective mentalising skills to think of what these agents want. And it helps that they don’t have any facial expressions, they don’t have any body language, they don’t need to interpret any intonation. And there’s also an emotional coherence in invisible agents that you don’t get in ordinary people.

TC: How so?

IV: Well, people who are non-autistic, we are quite good at hiding our emotions.

TC: I have to disagree. No, just kidding. Of course, of course! (Laughs)

IV: (Laughs) If you spend time with autistic people you’ll notice that they are very straightforward and they tell you what’s going on. Which also gets them into trouble because we’re not expected to be that straightforward. We’re expected to be, you know, lying a little bit here and there. But these kind of lies in terms of body language are really confusing for autistic people. So if I’m really annoyed with you, for instance, I still want you to like me so I’m trying to hide that I’m annoyed and trying to behave . . .

TC: Is that what’s going on here? (Laughs) No, just kidding.

IV: No, Tommy! But for autistic people they able to feel what other people feel, but it’s difficult to understand what other people are thinking. So this discrepancy between emotional and cognitive input is really confusing. This is also something you get rid of in superhuman agents that are bodiless.

TC: So is it almost a limiting of distractions: that bodiless agents perhaps make it easier – I think you’re suggesting – to interact with?

IV: Exactly. I think. And I’m not suggesting that autistic people would be more or less religious. That’s not my point. But what my study shows is that people who have both autism and religion or spirituality in their lives, for them it seems to be easier to think of a mind when you don’t have any bodies. That messes up communication (15:00). And it’s pretty much the same if you’re communicating with a friend over the internet. It’s easier because you don’t have a body, right? And also, because you have a lot of time to think about what the other person means and you also have time to formulate a proper response. You don’t get that in real life interaction, because it’s quite fast and quick, because we’re expecting people to have these intuitive skills.

TC: And many people on the spectrum actually prefer kind-of remote or internet-type communication, is that correct?

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

IV: I guess precisely because it’s lacking in some of the more embodied features that we use, on an everyday basis, to understand other people.

IV: Exactly. And I was actually asking – this is an example of my anthropological method, if you would call it that – I was hanging out on a sofa one day in one of these schools – because I’ve been spending a lot time with my participants and other pupils in their schools – and I notice that autistic people generally, in Sweden, they’re really good at speaking English. And I asked a group of pupils, “How come the autistic people seem to be so much better at speaking English?” And one guy, he said that, “For us it’s so much easier to interact with people online, and therefore we become gamers. And gamers interact in English. And that’s why we become better.” Right?

TC: Now, how does this open up perhaps some new directions for researching religion and non-religion in neuro-typicals? Because, as I understand it, your work primarily concerns individuals on the spectrum but it also, of course, has implications for people who are not on the spectrum.

IV: Yes. So first, when it comes to mentalising, cognitive research on mentalising, I think it’s important to think of that as a complex construct. It’s like a toolbox with different instruments that we can use in different manners. So first we have this difference between fast and intuitive processes, that I’ve been talking a lot about, and the slow and reflective processing. And then there is also the difference between emotional and cognitive empathy. So we sort-of have to elaborate with all these different mentalising aspects.

TC: Could I ask for an example between cognitive and more emotional empathy for our listeners? How are the two different?

IV: Yes. The emotional empathy is feeling what other people are feeling. So, for instance, if someone is sad you would become affected by that sadness, right? But the cognitive empathy is more in the head, so to speak. So for instance, if you’re nodding you would know that someone is still listening to you or you know you just get these little cues. Or someone’s frowning, for instance, then you can interpret that this is an emotional response going on. But it’s more in the cognitive level.

TC: Alright. And so then, how does this distinction relate to individuals on the spectrum and off the spectrum and belief in supernatural agents?

IV: Well I think . . . and my point is that this is for both autistic and non-autistic individuals. I think that we need to acknowledge that people use reflected thinking a lot more than has been expected in the Cognitive Science of Religion. For instance, non-autistic people might have intuitions about supernatural agency, but if you’re living in Sweden, for instance, it’s not the norm to be religious. We have a rather secular norm, so that means that you might discard your intuitions and search for another explanation. But also, in autistic people, I don’t really see that it should affect them so much that these intuitive responses are not there. Because they use these slow processes instead.

TC: So they’re not lacking the intuiting, certainly, but perhaps they’re a little bit different. And therefore they rely more on reflective-type thinking. As I understand, you’ve also crept into some interesting avenues with your research having to do with fantasy. I think you touched on imagination earlier. I was wondering if you could further elucidate how those might play into religiosity or non-religiosity, for those individuals on the spectrum (20:00).

IV: Well something that surprised me in my results was the majority of my autistic participants turned out to be fantasy-prone. And some of these fantasy-prone people, they’re gamers and some of them love fantasy fiction. But what’s common for all of them is that they switch between different realities. So they have their empirical reality which is quite fragmented and difficult and exhausting. And then they create their own imaginary realities which they switch into. And I suspect this is a kind of coping mechanism. So they create – with the help of their imagination – really interesting worlds that they fill with characters that might be influenced from religion and spirituality, but also fantasy fiction and popular culture. It could even be artists, you know, pop stars for instance. And they have these worlds, and they interact with all these characters in a sense that reminds me a lot about how cognitive research describes interaction with superhuman agents.

TC: Really? Ok.

IV: So I think this is something that we need to look into. That if mentalising is used, and it’s a non-human agent, I think that’s equivalent to the study of gods and spirits and ancestors, which is more traditional. And I also think this is relevant for younger generations. This is something really interesting to look into.

TC: I know on the Religious Studies Project we usually pride ourselves in challenging traditional conceptualisations of the category of religion. And of course, supernatural agents as well. And what I’m hearing is that some of your work does just that, as well as, perhaps, the Cognitive Science of Religion in general. And I think we can certainly expect it to open up some exciting new avenues for religious agents as they are traditionally understood: perhaps, maybe, the magic of Harry Potter; or massive multi-player online gaming; and all these other types of fantastical imaginative agents that people seem to engage with on a daily basis, but perhaps don’t think of as religious or spiritual.

IV: I totally agree with you and, for instance, one of my participants who describes himself as a Christian, he also says that he’s totally into Harry Potter. And until he was 14 years old, he literally believed that there were unicorns. And now that he’s older he says that, “Well, I don’t believe in them in the ontological sense any more, but they’re still with me and I fantasise a lot about them. And when I’m fantasising it becomes real for me.” And I think this is also something that we risk missing out on, if we don’t do these explorative studies, if we just hold onto scales and questionnaires that have always been used. Because many of my participants might describe themselves . . . well, you know. It’s not that they believe in God and they don’t go to Church, but they still experience a lot of interesting things that they interpret: it’s spirits; or ghosts; or demons; or then you have these fictional characters, as well, that they interact with on a daily basis.

TC: And it seems like an even further challenge to the notion of belief: what it means to believe, or whether belief is important – as we often think it is – if there are all these various other imaginative fantasy religious agents that perhaps people wouldn’t say that they believe in per se, but interact with, engage with perhaps emotionally, in a number of manners. So it’s very interesting. So, just wrapping up here, I was hoping, if you felt we had left anything out of this podcast, or if you had any closing words, or some take-away points for the listeners: anything else you’d like to discuss with us today about your researching the field.

IV: I think I would like to return to your previous comment. I think that when we’re researching belief it’s very easy to end up in these ontological categories (25:00). It’s like a statement: is it true? Is it not? It’s like a number of things that you need to sort-of hold on to or reject. But this is not interesting for the people that I have interviewed. They start from their own experience. And I think the body’s important here: that you feel, you know, that you have a sensed presence of a ghost, for instance. And these sensed presences they turn into some kind of notion of what’s going on in invisible agency. But they don’t depart from, you know, thinking; “Is it true, or is it not, that there are ghosts?” Because it’s not interesting for them, because they experience them. So I think that experience is the really interesting analytical category that we could use a lot more in the Cognitive Science of Religions.

TC: Awesome. I think that’s a good note to end on. Ingela Visuri thank you very much for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project.

IV: Thanks Tommy.

TC: I want to remind our listeners, be sure to check out some of the previous podcasts that are closely related to today’s topics. I’ll include some links in the description, such as interviews with Dr Will Gervais, on God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind, and also with Dr Stuart Guthrie on Religion as Anthropomorphism. So thank you all for listening.

Citation Info: Visuri, Ingela, and Thomas J. Coleman III. 2018. “Autism, Religion and Imagination”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 31 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/autism-religion-and-imagination/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT 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.

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

“Communicating Religion”. Annual Conference of the EASR

A conference report by Hans Van Eyghen

Visiting your Alma Mater is always accompanied by mixed emotions. On the one hand you see familiar things you missed but on the other hand you’re confronted with downsides you hoped were a thing of the past. My visit to the KULeuven for the EASR conference had both, although the positives far outweighed the downsides. Read more

Sitting on the bench: is the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion a team sport?

A Response to Wesley J. Wildman on “Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion”

By Leonardo Ambasciano

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

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

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

Tom_White,_Wesley_Wilding_27-Jul-2017

Tom White (left) and Wesley Wildman (right)

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

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

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, the movie Terminator 2, lollipops, and more.

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

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

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

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Wildman-_Modelling_Religion_1.1

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

Wesley Wildman (WW): Thanks, Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WW: My pleasure.

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

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Reliability and Religion: A response to Misplaced Faith?

Professor Galen’s podcast is refreshing in many ways. Claiming that recent scientific theories about religious belief are neutral has been the orthodox position in both philosophy and science for some time now. Galen questions the validity of this position. I will first formulate what I take Galen’s position to be and then offer some critical remarks.

I take Galen to argue that religious belief is unreliably formed. His point mirrors claims made by philosophers of religion who claim that recent theories of religious belief support the claim that these beliefs are reliably formed. The meaning of unreliability is widely discussed in philosophy. It is usually predicated of belief-forming mechanisms and means that the mechanism produces many false beliefs. Because they produce many false beliefs, beliefs produced by unreliable mechanisms cannot be considered rational.

In the discussion over recent scientific theories about religious belief, unreliability claims see the (potential) unreliability of religious mechanisms as following from their evolutionary history. The mechanisms at the root of religious beliefs are claimed to be the way they are as a result of evolutionary processes like natural selection. Since natural selection selects for traits that increase fitness and cares little about truth, the mechanisms are unlikely to be aimed at truth. Some authors have concluded to unreliability in this way.[i]

Galen’s argument for unreliability is different. He claims that there is independent evidence that the mechanisms at the root of religious belief produce many false beliefs. The evidence he offers is threefold.

  • First cognitive science shows that there are important individual differences in religious mechanisms. It is well established that, on average, women are more religious than men. People with a more analytic style of thinking also seem to be less likely to form religious beliefs. Tanya Luhrmann’s absorption theory, finally, states that some people are more gifted to form religious beliefs.
  • Second some mechanisms that contribute to forming religious beliefs have been connected with the production of false beliefs. Luhrmann’s absorption was connected to falsely detecting agency. Higher religiosity was correlated with blending of ontological categories.
  • Finally, (and this is the strongest evidence according to Galen) religious beliefs are malleable. When people encounter counterevidence for their beliefs they are inclined to double down on those beliefs rather than revising them. People suffering from social deficits are also found to be more likely to have religious beliefs. furthermore, manipulations of the brain can give rise to misattributions of agency; for example to attribution to a supernatural agent.

Galen claims scientific theories can lead to metaphysical conclusions. I think his argument is better understood as epistemological. From a claim of unreliability no strong metaphysical claims about what exists can be drawn. When a religious belief is produced by an unreliable mechanism, the object of that belief (in this case God or another supernatural being) can still exist. I believe Galen’s argument can be reformulated and summarized as follows:

  • There is strong evidence that religious beliefs are unreliably produced.
  • Beliefs that are unreliably produced are not rational.
  • Therefore, religious beliefs are not rational.

The argument is logically valid as the conclusion follows from the premises. The second premise is widely assumed in recent epistemology but is not obvious. A minority position states that rationality of beliefs is a function of how well they cohere with other beliefs. In this case religious beliefs can be considered rational because they cohere well with beliefs about order in the universe and beliefs about a supernatural origin of morality. Another minority position is pragmatic and states that beliefs are rational if they work, that is if they allow an individual to better make sense of her environment. In both cases, whether the belief in question is unreliably produced or not is (largely) irrelevant.

Denying premise 2 may seem implausible but in many cases we do tend to deny it. In the podcast the interviewer noted that many political beliefs are formed by similar unreliable mechanisms as religious beliefs are. These beliefs are sometimes claimed to be rational in virtue of their coherence with other beliefs or in virtue of their pragmatic use.

Nonetheless, the second premise is widely accepted. Therefore the crux of Galen’s argument is in premise 1. Galen’s first group of evidence is not really evidence for unreliability. Contrary to what Galen claims, I believe the strongest evidence for the premise are the second group of reasons. Mechanisms that are like other known unreliable mechanisms or that have been connected to the production of false beliefs are likely unreliable. The third group of reasons say more about what people do with their beliefs  than how they form their beliefs. Doubling down on religious beliefs when confronted with counterevidence presupposes that the individual already had a religious belief on forehand. Claiming that social deficit increases religious belief is also hard without presupposing that some belief was already there. Compensating lack of social interactions by interacting with an invisible, divine, being is easier if the individual already has some prior belief. Without it, jumping to beliefs in invisible beings seems a long jump. Misattributing agency also comes a lot easier if the individual already has some idea about the agent to whom actions can be attributed.

Concluding,  I agree with Galen that there is evidence for unreliability but disagree over what evidence is the strongest. His arguments are also rooted in a particular position in epistemology, and may need some refinement.  However, Galen has raised an interesting argument for the unreliability of mechanisms involved in religious cognition and as he rightly points out, CSR cannot be taken as completely irrelevant for the status of religious beliefs.

Endnotes

[i] Though they are a minority position, some unreliability claims have been made. Examples of this approach are: Wilkins, J. S. and P. E. Griffiths (2012). Evolutionary Debunking Arguments in Three Domains. A New Science of Religion. G. W. Dawes and J. Maclaurin. London, Routledge: 133-146 and Goodnick, L. (2016). “A De Jure Criticism of Theism.” Open Theology 2(1).

DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

DeathfullOne year before his own death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste, codified a witty remark into popular history about two things anyone living can always count on: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” You might be able to dodge the taxman, but not death—we are all going to die. Roughly 100,000 years prior to Franklin’s quote the first evidence of intentional human burial appears in the archaeological record (Mithen, 2009). Humans have been thinking about death for a very long time and the threat of nonexistence can be a terrifying reality to face. According to terror management theory (TMT), cultural worldviews, which can manifest religious, political, or a bricolage of other meanings, serve to assuage this fear of our ever impending demise (Jong & Halberstadt, forthcoming). Interestingly, this TMT triage care for the existential self occurs outside of conscious awareness. However, in this podcast interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, death researcher and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Jong, draws on experimental research as he teases the fear of death and the religious worldviews that may help confront this fear, into your conscious awareness.

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, dihydrogen monoxide, plastic Tyrannosaurus rex replicas, and more.

References

Jong, J., & Halberstadt, J. (forthcoming). Death, anxiety, and religious belief. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mithen, S. (2009). Peopling the World. In B. Cunliffe, C. Gosden & R. Joyce, The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology (pp. 281-304). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rethinking the Cognitive Science of Religion in Light of Explanatory Pluralism

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

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

Explanatory pluralism

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

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

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Critique

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

Skipping levels in reductive sciences

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

Theoretical continuity

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

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

Complexity and reductionism in religion: Down the rabbit hole

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

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

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

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

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

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

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

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

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

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

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

Figure 4 Cultural "Causation" as an emergent feedback loop

Figure 4 Cultural “Causation” as an emergent feedback loop

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

Conclusion

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

References

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

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

Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies, 95(1-2), 3–36. Retrieved from http://www.zeww.uni-hannover.de/Kim_Making Sense Emergence.1999.pdf

Lane, J. E. (2015). Semantic Network Mapping of Religious Material. Journal for Cognitive Processing. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-015-0649-1

Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., & Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 1–6. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.049

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

McCorkle, W. W., & Lane, J. E. (2012). Ancestors in the simulation machine: measuring the transmission and oscillation of religiosity in computer modeling. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 215–218. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.703454

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

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

Upal, M. A. (2005). Simulating the Emergence of New Religious Movements. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(1). Retrieved from http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/8/1/6.html

Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182–201. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.691033

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

 

[1] Interested readers can go check out online conversion tools that will convert numbers with different bases, such as that found here: http://www.unitconversion.org/unit_converter/numbers.html

[2] For those unfamiliar with the movie “The Matrix”, this is explained here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_pill_and_blue_pill

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

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.

SPSP 2016 Report: The state of religion in social and personality psychology

This past January, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology had its biggest turn out to date for its 17th Annual Convention in San Diego, California. Despite religion, as a broad category of research, all to often being missing in action in the psychological sciences, researchers embracing the study of religion were hard to miss throughout SPSP 2016. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Adam Baimel, University of British Columbia.

The Religion and Spirituality Preconference meeting kicked off as Aiyana Willard presented her work on the cognitive foundations of belief. Much ink has been spilled as to what sorts of cognitive processes make supernatural beliefs ‘easy to think’ – Willard’s work demonstrates how we can actually test these theoretical and causal models in the minds of real believers (for more on this, see here). What this type of work demonstrates is that what we need, as psychologists, to understand religion in any sort of systematic way, is access to empirical data.

ARDA database hub.

ARDA Research Hub.

Representatives from the Association of Religion Data Archives (the ARDA) drove this very point home by presenting both the existing (and quite impressive) database that they have built and what sorts of features users can expect from the ARDA in the near future.  The ARDA currently offers researchers a large collection of international and national survey data on the broad topic of religion – and they have recently made mining through these surveys by topic and specific questions of interest all that much easier. Joining in on the benefits of open and transparent science – the ARDA has made a call for researchers to publish their data sets of all varieties (experimental, ethnographic, etc.) on the website in the hopes of the ARDA becoming the premier location of all that is empirical data on religion. Best of all, their databases are open-access – so get digging, I know I will be.

The remainder of this year’s Religion and Spirituality Preconference emphasized how (1) the psychological sciences can add to our broader understanding of religion as well as (2) how believers can be an important population of individuals to study in furthering our understanding of more typical social psychological hypotheses. For example, Zhen Cheng and Kimberly Rios presented their work on the how stereotype threat – feeling at risk of confirming a stereotype of one’s social group – might play an important role in keeping religious believers from pursuing interests and performing in scientific domains.  This is important to consider given the demographic majority of liberals, and atheists (or at the very least less-fervently devoted) amongst psychologists. Speaking to the complexity of how ‘religion’ manifests in human psychological processes and behavior, Joni Sasaki presented her lab’s work exploring how interactions between genetic differences in oxytocin receptor genes and social contexts moderate the strength of religious reminders in promoting self-control (full paper here). The theme of this bi-directional interest and value in exploring religion in the psychological sciences persisted throughout the remainder of the conference.

The issue of replicability (and non-replicability) is currently a pressing concern for researchers in psychology, and was a topic of a number of presentations at SPSP 2016 (for more info see here). At the forefront of this ‘crisis’, and of particular interest to those who study religion, is work on priming. Psychological priming, the method of exposing individuals to some stimulus (often done outside of the individual’s awareness) to detect its effects on a later stimulus, is used in all sorts of psychological research. For example, Shariff & Norenzayan (2007), in their now foundational study, had participants complete a sentence unscrambling task that either involved god-related (e.g., blessed, divine), government (e.g., jury, contract), or neutral words. The mere presence of these words serve as a prime, making the concepts of god or government more readily accessible to the minds of their subjects. What they demonstrated is that activating god or government related concepts shifted the norm from being selfish (not giving much at all), to being more fair – as participants, on average, gave up just under half of their allotted windfall of money in a dictator game. These findings have served as the bedrock for continued exploration into the role of religion in sustaining human cooperation.

Despite its varied applications (not just in the study of religion), recent efforts to replicate priming studies have lead psychologists to understand how complicated (finicky) these methods really are. However, as part of a symposium organized to demonstrate important examples of how and when priming is useful – Aiyana Willard presented the results of a meta-analysis (a statistical approach to studying an effect over a number of studies – in this case, 93 studies) that suggests that religious priming is indeed an effective method for studying the effects of activating ‘religion’ on a number psychological processes and behaviors. This effect holds even after statistically correcting for publication bias (the reality that there are many an unpublished study hiding in the physical and virtual file-drawers of researchers around the world).

The psychological sciences face another important problem in understanding religion and more broadly, the psychological foundations of human nature – the over-representation of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) populations in our studies. Religion is by no means a monolithic phenomenon, and our understanding of religion should reflect the rampant theodiversity that exists across cultures today, and has existed throughout our collective cultural histories. In one symposium session, researchers representing the Cultural Evolution of Religion Consortium (CERC), with its home at the University of British Columbia, demonstrated how the study of religion is an ideal test case for breaking through this boundary.

Michael Muthukrishna introduced the audience to the Database of Religious History and its goals of becoming a premier source for quantified religious history. This database is being built with the help of religious scholars and historians from around the world whose knowledge of diverse religious beliefs and practices is being mapped and quantified in order for history to move off the page and become subject to statistical inquiry. Edward Slingerland spoke to the value of moving beyond the laboratory and seeking answers to our questions about religion in what he called the untapped population of ‘dead minds’ in the process of quantifying and statistically mining the literary corpus at the core of many religions.

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joseph Henrich and Coren Apicella presented results from a cross-cultural study exploring the relationship between big moralizing gods and prosociality in eight diverse societies around the world. Henrich spoke to the broader goals of such a massive undertaking, in that understanding cultural variation is key to understanding anything about human nature. Apicella presented her work on this project with the Hadza – indigenous hunter-gatherers in Tanzania who serve as an interesting case study for questions regarding religion and morality given that previous ethnographies have indicated that they have no religion at all. In (very) brief, this study supports the hypothesis that belief in omniscient, punishing, moralizing gods extends the bounds of prosociality to distant others – and thus may have played an important role in the expansion of human societies. For the complete report of the work presented at SPSP, check out Benjamin Purzycki et al.’s recently published piece in Nature.

The work highlighted here is just beginning to scratch the surface of what was on offer at SPSP 2016 on the study of religion. However, what is clear across the board is that the general interest in religion as a psychological phenomenon is growing – with the countless poster presentations by the next generation of researchers as evidence. Furthermore, there is a growing consensus in the field that religion is not only an interesting phenomenon to study – but an essential one to explore in furthering our understanding of human psychological processes and behaviors.

Theologically Incorrect

Foremost, I want to commend Dr. Claire White on her research on the cognitive science of reincarnation beliefs. Examining how humans cognitively recognize agents based on the continuity of certain attributes is an ingenious way to explore the criteria people intuitively construct for the continuity of agents across lifetimes. It solves the difficult problem of operationalizing belief in reincarnation to make it available for scientific study. While I applaud the project and its initial hypothesis, some of the methodology seems to reflect an incomplete understanding of the religious doctrine it is attempting to link with fundamental cognitive processes.

Dr. White identifies the continuity of physical traits and memories as telltales by which the continuity of an agent between lives is typically identified. From her research, Dr. White shows that if participants are asked how they would determine someone is a deceased’s reincarnation, they overwhelmingly would look for shared physical characteristics (e.g. a birth mark) between the two, as well as shared memories, e.g. the reincarnation retaining a memory of an experience of the deceased. Dr. White then attempts to show that mental and physical continuity are actually intuitive cognitive processes that help us identify agents in the world, and so they, in turn, inform how we conceptualize reincarnation. She makes this case through a notion of theological incorrectness. The notion of theological incorrectness is a well-established tool in the cognitive science of religion literature which helps to differentiate intuitive (i.e. innate) cognitive processes from culturally learned beliefs. The idea is that when someone is asked to reason about a theological concept (what Dr. White in the interview calls a “reason task”), they are likely to use intuitive cognitive notions about the world even if those notions diverge from the indoctrinated theology that the person otherwise claims to believe. Appealing to the presence of theologically incorrect intuitions in individual reasoning about theological concepts shows that something other than just a cultural construct is operative in that reasoning, pointing to more fundamental cognitive structures.

The use of theological incorrectness as a criterion for the operation of an intuitive cognitive mechanism thus depends on the existence of a divergence between the reasoning of the participant and the formal theological reasoning of the tradition to which they belong. If there is no divergence, it is just as likely that the participant is reasoning from a culturally constructed concept as from some intuitive cognitive structure.

But, I don’t think Dr. White has shown that continuity of memory or physical traits as criteria for reincarnation does actually diverge from the theological system. In the case of Buddhism, she cites the Dalai Lama who is recognized as a reincarnation by remembering objects from his past life. She says this criteria is theologically incorrect from the perspective of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. If the self is impermanent, how could someone carry a memory from one life to the next? The doctrine of no-self, however, does not just govern the transition between lifetimes. All Buddhist schools argue that a person changes from moment to moment, endlessly, and thus has no stable self. If memory continuity between lifetimes is problematic for the doctrine of no-self, then so is memory within one life, let alone between. However, there is no reason to think this is the case. The Buddhist doctrine of no-self is actually none too different than the cognitive science (CS) view of self. CS rejects the notion of a permanent homunculus pulling the strings inside the brain. The experience of a self is made of functioning neural components processing ever changing electro-chemical signals. This is sufficiently a no-self conception in the Buddhist sense. If CS can have a no-self view and explain memory, there is no reason to assume a priori that memory continuity is inconsistent with a Buddhist standpoint of no-self. In fact, I would argue, all Buddhist systems have thorough analyses about how memories are transferred between lives despite there being no-self. To say that memory transfer is theologically incorrect just demonstrates not being acquainted with the theology.

Physical trait continuity also is not theologically incorrect. White argues that in the reincarnationist doctrine, the mind or soul inhabits a new form when it reincarnates. If it is something non-corporeal that reincarnates, why is there any physical continuity? This first assumes that reincarnation doctrine is essentially mind-body dualist, which, at least in Buddhism, is a much more complicated debate. But, even if we grant a type of dualism, the assumption that physical continuity is theologically incorrect completely dismisses the doctrine of karma, which is indispensible in most Eastern reincarnationist doctrines. Karma is not only thought to be carried in the mind or soul between lives; it is also instrumental in physically forming the reincarnate body. Physical continuity is thus not theologically problematic. There is nothing grossly physical that reincarnates, but the mind or soul carries propensities from the past life that necessitate one’s physical form in the next.

If neither of these concepts, physical or mental continuity, are theologically incorrect, it’s hard to make the case that they are borne out of some more fundamental agent-recognition cognitive structures. Because of the research design, I am even more suspect that the convergence Dr. White has shown is the result of a shared conceptual understanding of reincarnation rather than some intuitive structure. Dr. White said that she asked participants to reason about “reincarnation” without any religious language, so as not to prime their answers. “Reincarnation,” even in another guise, however, is already a religious concept, so I’m unclear how this isn’t already a sort of priming. Furthermore, there is good reason to think that each of the three studies she mentions are drawing on groups that have similar religious notions of “reincarnation.” The U.K. has had long cultural exchange with India, Jains themselves have conceptions of reincarnation drawn from an Upanishadic Indian milieu, and the American New Age draws largely on the Theosophists, who themselves also developed their religiosity out of this milieu. The convergence on continuity of memory and physical traits as criteria for reincarnation could be as much explained by a shared Indian notion of reincarnation than by some fundamental cognitive process. These studies do not demonstrate a true cross-cultural slice.

Lastly, Dr. White presents her upcoming research problem: why is it that upper class whites have adopted the notion of reincarnation but with a positive valence? She argues that in traditional reincarnationist doctrine, rebirth is to be escaped, not embraced. This question again shows an incomplete understanding of these traditions. In Buddhism, for example, it was only the very elite, probably a very small minority of monks, that were concerned with escaping rebirth. The vast majority of Buddhists are focused on what’s called the “lower scope,” attaining a better rebirth. The irony here is that White is trying to identify a cultural difference between American whites and traditional reincarnationist where there may actually be a shared cognitive structure, perhaps an intuition that the mind continues after death. Whereas earlier I argued that she is confusing cultural structures for cognitive ones, here she may be doing the reverse.

In sum, I think a lot of these problems could be rectified with a more thorough understanding of the theological positions about the phenomena under investigation. We cannot hope to identify theological incorrectness with an incomplete understanding of theology itself. Even if participants profess a different theology “on the ground” than the party line, investigating the relationship between the professed theology and its source requires a deep understanding of theology in general. Perhaps this demonstrates a good opportunity for collaborative research toward consilience. Just as the humanities can broaden understanding in their domain through the inclusion of cognitive science, the cognitive scientist has much to gain in collaborating with the religious studies scholar who has thoroughly investigated the doctrinal level of the phenomena under investigation.

Not Just Any Body Will Do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not In That Dead Body

 

“Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” – Dr. Robert White, Neurosurgeon and Bioethicist

Dr. Robert White

Interdisciplinary pioneers of otherwise uncharted territory in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) are apt to ask some of the most provocative yet fundamental questions of human existence. These questions extend not only across the lifespan, but also into the realm of continued existence after death. A religious notion traversing cultural boundaries, reincarnation in particular and the cognitive processes underlying reincarnation beliefs are arguably foundational to understanding how people reason about existence and identity. Whether addressing how reincarnation is conceptualized or how to go about identifying the reincarnated, such questions are not only religious in nature, but experimental researchers are also beginning to explore these subjects and their associated cognitive processes through controlled empirical studies. Dr. Claire White of the Cognitive Science of Religion Lab at Cal State-Northridge asks exactly these questions in her research, which she summarizes in a recent interview with the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Claire White

Who are you?

Obviously, reincarnation invites inquiries around identity: What does it mean to be the same person or different people, either within or between lives? With the diversity of reincarnation beliefs in the world, there is no single consensus on the matter of identity, though converging streams exist.

Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout Buddhism and Hinduism as well as within several new age religious movements and among plenty of spiritual seekers in the west. Dr. C. White explains that other researchers of reincarnation have documented reincarnation beliefs in at least 30% of cultures, a figure that may actually be an underestimate on account of excluding ambiguous cases. Among those studying reincarnation, Dr. Tony Walter, Professor of Death Studies at the University of Bath and Dr. Helen Waterhouse, Visiting Honorary Associate in Religious Studies through the Open University have found that fewer people (of those surveyed in the UK) endorse the belief in reincarnation than those who find reincarnation plausible, which may include up to a quarter of all respondents [1].

In the interview, Dr. C. White points out this important distinction between 1) ontological commitment and 2) plausibility (on account of a belief being “cognitively sticky” or intriguing). Needless to say, significantly more people are willing to entertain the plausibility of reincarnation than are likely to wholeheartedly adopt reincarnation into their existing belief structure.

The prevalence of reincarnation beliefs cross-culturally and the appeal even to those who are not firm believers in reincarnation begs the question: why? Although there are several possible (and equally true) reasons for cultures and the individuals that comprise them to endorse reincarnation beliefs at some level, one possible function of reincarnation beliefs that deserves further attention is that they provide a means of circumventing one’s own mortality.

Talking to Death

To confront the inevitability of one’s own death from the perspectives of nihilism and annihilationism in which death is viewed as the ultimate end raises the crisis of meaninglessness, which according to existential psychiatrist Dr. Irvin Yalom, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Stanford University, “stems from the dilemma of a meaning-seeking creature who is thrown into a universe that has no meaning” [2]. In a world where the only certainty is death, the sense of having no meaning in life conjures existential terror. According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), this existential terror results from the desire to live while being forced to acknowledge the reality of death [3], creating unavoidable conflict in the mind of the mortal. Importantly, empirical research on TMT indicates that mortality salience, or bringing to mind thoughts of one’s own death, leads to self-esteem striving, which involves pursuit of positive self-evaluations as a means of buffering against the terror and anxiety evoked by the uniquely human awareness of mortality [4].

Looking at Death

Both traditional and modern accounts of reincarnation presume continued existence and the preservation of some form of identity across lives in spite of physical death. The belief that death is not the end of existence (whether through adoption of reincarnation beliefs or some other form of afterlife) is understandably comforting to many. In fact, according to Yalom, desire for psychological “immortality” is the default response to existential anxiety. However, immortality, whether real or imagined as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety, requires some-thing to be immortal, some kind of enduring feature(s) to maintain uninterrupted identity.

What are you?

Two types of features are typically taken as evidence of identity, Dr. C. White explains:

  1. Physical marks
  2. Memories

When seeking to identify a reincarnated person, one strategy entails looking for specific physical marks, especially distinctive marks that are unlikely to belong to many people. Congenital traits are preferred and considered more reliable, since what is present from birth is less likely to change, indicating some degree of underlying stability.

The other commonly employed strategy is to match a reincarnate-candidate to the previous incarnation on the basis of memories, specifically episodic memories. Recognition, whether of another person or a particular object that should otherwise be unfamiliar, is trusted as an indication of identity during reincarnation searches. This is largely on account of the commonly accepted reasoning that memories represent continuity of self and communicate ownership.

Dr. Ian Stevenson

Early research by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the 1960s also attempted to address questions of reincarnation, albeit through an overwhelmingly anecdotal approach. Documenting cases of children whose memories and birthmarks matched those of the deceased, Dr. Stevenson accumulated several thousands of pages worth of photographic “evidence” of reincarnation. While groundbreaking for its time, Dr. Stevenson’s reincarnation research was unfortunately lacking in the empiricism and scientific rigor necessary to procure sufficient evidence for what he was purporting to prove. Nonetheless, his was among the first research to suggest that memories and physical marks can be transferred from one lifetime to another, thus serving as identifying traits among the reincarnated.

Where is your soul or spirit?

Meditation on Mortality

Buddhists are one religious group to directly confront the inevitability of death through meditation on mortality (which may involve visualization of corpses) while proposing rebirth as a means of [not-]self-preservation. The not-self part here is crucial, for reasons that Dr. C. White also mentions in her interview. She notes that in Buddhism there is no such thing as a permanent and enduring self, yet in Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the belief that an individual (e.g., His Holiness the Dalai Lama) reincarnates and can be identified based on recognition of objects belonging to their previous incarnation implies continuity of identity, or at least episodic memory. Dr. C. White suggests these reincarnation beliefs contradict the official teachings of the Buddhist tradition within which they are embedded.

Aging and Death

As should be evident from any serious inquiry into the teachings of Buddhism, the Buddha rejected the existence of an enduring self that persists from life to life, like a soul or spirit, rendering the question “Where is your soul or spirit?” meaningless. Yet within Buddhism the notion of rebirth or reincarnation is widespread. A common question then raised by the uninitiated is, “if there’s no self, what gets reincarnated or reborn?” The question again becomes, “Who are you? What are you? Where is your soul or spirit? It’s not in that dead body…” Focus inevitably returns to that dead body… What once animated it and gave it life that is lacking in death?

As for the Buddha’s response, he discouraged needless speculation on the matter, deeming it unnecessary to the cessation of suffering [5]. Yet few find this silence satisfactory. Probing the annals of Buddhist philosophy, one finds that several schools of Buddhism purport that some subtle level of selfless consciousness is the culprit. Whether it is the bhavanga-sota/bhavanga-citta referenced by commentarial sources in Theravada Buddhism or the alaya-vijnana of Mahayana Buddhism, some form of sub-conscious life-continuum yokes together past, present, and future.

It’s not in that dead body.

Dr. Robert White - Monkey Head Transplant

The other Dr. White quoted at the beginning of this piece, while never explicitly endorsing reincarnation beliefs, nonetheless raised several questions regarding identity that called upon both science and religion. Pivotal in the field of neurosurgery, the late Dr. Robert White, Professor of Neurological Surgery at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine until his death in 2010, is best known as a prominent head transplant surgeon, operating on several species ranging from dogs to monkeys. Obviously concerned about the ethical dimensions of his bizarre operations, throughout his career, “Dr. Frankenstein,” as he is otherwise called, often questioned his own practices as a surgeon from a critically bioethical perspective. Dr. Robert White proposed that the brain (which he believed was responsible for housing the soul) plays a central role in identity preservation. In fact, he is quoted in Scene Magazine: “I believe the brain tissue is the physical repository for the human soul.” He is also quoted in Scene Magazine, remarking “We discovered that you can keep a human brain going without any circulation…It’s dead for all practical purpose – for over an hour – then bring it back to life. If you want something that’s a little bit science fiction, that is it, man, that is it!”

As far as what happens to “that dead body” once “the not-self” uninhabits it, that is a question no scientist can sufficiently answer, as its metaphysical assumptions lie outside the purview of physicalist science and cannot be encapsulated by any intellectual system aiming to quantify qualia. Understanding what the self is and is not, and that even conceiving of “the not-self” is problematic in its reification of substanceless phenomena, seem to take precedence yet pose obstacles to CSR. Yet with emerging interdisciplinary research within CSR, the reasoning processes behind these notions of identity, existence, and continuity can at least be illuminated, even if the metaphysics remain unscathed.

Dr. Robert White

Footnotes

[1] Walter, T., & Waterhouse, H. (2001). Lives-long learning: The effects of reincarnation belief on everyday life in England. Nova Religio, 5(1), 85-101.

[2] Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

[3] Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. Public Self and Private Self, 189-212.

[4] Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.

[5] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition).