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The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics

The methods we use to study religion have consequences, argues Dr. John Lardas Modern in this conversation with David McConeghy. Beginning with the approaches of late 19th century anthropologists like E.B. Tylor, Modern discusses how prayer became an object of study for social scientists. As they tried to find out whether ‘prayer works,’ researchers proposed a constellation of theoretical models and experiments that treated religion as a discrete object. Measuring prayer made it easier to use religion and its practices as tools or instruments available for commodification and capitalization. In this wide ranging episode, Modern sketches a few of the bio-political effects that can be seen from his genealogical approach, and he shares with listeners how the American rock band DEVO merits our attention as a surprising fusion of scientific and religious perspectives.

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The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics

Podcast with John Lardas Modern (22 June 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-science-of-prayer-genealogies-and-biopolitics/

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Professor John Lardas Modern, who teaches at Franklin and Marshall College, and is the author of several books: The Bop Apocalypse: Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs; Secularism in Antebellum America; and he is the co-editor, with Katie Lofton, of Class 200: New Studies in Religion, an excellent book series that I recommend heartily to all of our Listeners. Professor Modern, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate having your time today.

John Modern (JM): Well thank you, David. And good morning to you!

DMcC: Good morning, as well! I would invite you to share with us a little bit about your ongoing projects. What are you working on right now? And how can we develop that into an interesting conversation, for our Listeners, about the idea of the scientific study of prayer?

JM: Ah. Well, that’s a good question. So currently, I am sort-of betwixt-and-between different projects. I’m doing some final revisions on a book project that I’ve been working on for about, oh, ten years or so, which deals with the sort-of histories, the genealogies of the cognitive and neuroscientific studies of religion. And so a lot of my interest in measurement and calculability, and the kind-of incursion of certain forms of mathematical formalism into, you know, Humanities and Social Sciences in general, but for our particular purposes the Study of Religion and – even more specifically – the study of prayer, derives from that research. But I’m also very excited by a project that I have on the horizon that I’ve been dabbling in for the last few years. It is connected to the previous project on cognitive science, but it’s taking and thinking about the developments in science – particularly cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century – and trying to think through that problematic by telling a story about the history of Akron, Ohio from the nineteenth century through to the industrialisation in the 1970s.

DMcC: So let’s talk a little bit about that story. Some of what John and I are going to talk about is from the very first inaugural issue of American Religion, in an essay called “Praying Hands“, which really connects some of these issues for us. The scientific study of prayer, as you outline in the beginning of that piece, begins in the late nineteenth century. Can you talk about the origins of the scientific study of prayer?

JM: Yes. I mean, I guess I’d first qualify any sort-of questions about origins or . . . . Discussions about origins are always a little bit fraught because, to paraphrase Don DeLillo, you can never tell where it begins – anything – where it begins. But, for the conceit of the article, I do locate an origin point in sort-of Victorian England amongst natural scientists – particularly, three that I sort-of talk about in the article: EB Tylor – everybody’s favourite Victorian anthropologist of the nineteenth century.

DMcC: (Laughs).

JM: And his two-volume work, Primitive Culture in 1871, and also the following year, 1872 – which in England was the season of the Prayer Gauge Debates, in which prayer, the subject of prayer, became a kind-of talking point among certain kinds of established scientists from the Royal Society. Between John Tyndall and Francis Galton who, in their kind-of reaction to the state calling for a Day of National Prayer for the country – in terms of thinking about some of the issues – they kind-of responded in a way that reminds you, I would say, of almost a New Atheist pose in the present: your kind-of trolling attitude toward religion. So, in the Prayer Gauge Debates, basically, they used it as an opportunity to publish these almost tongue-in-cheek, but also semi-serious articles about what the scientific study of prayer really looked like. And, in doing so, kind-of pointed out what a ridiculous proposition it would be to take prayer seriously as a kind of religious faculty. But it could be taking it seriously by measuring it, and coming up with sophisticated experimental designs by which one would study the prayers of people and how effective they were. And this is combined with EB Tylor, who in a sort-of different setting . . . . EB Tylor is not trolling anybody with Primitive Culture! (5:00) But he is making some very kind-of provocative claims about the history and origins of religion. And he sees prayer as he sees religion, as a kind of necessary evolutionary development within human history; that it does serve an evolutionary purpose of advancing both cognition and social structure. And he sees it primarily as a kind of way – in similar ways in which contemporary cognitive science see it – as something that can, in fact, be measured. And for Tylor, his sort-of standard of measurement in the 1870s was adopting the new science . . . or not the new, but the exciting possibilities that were being unleashed by the science of statistics, and looking at, you know, large data sets of populations, and trying to crunch the numbers in such a way as you could figure something out about not only the population but the individuals that comprise the population. So in Tylor you also see, in a less ironic mode, this desire to proclaim that religion is something that is out there in the world that humans do – which is a founding assumption. But moreover, it’s something that cannot simply be described or compared, but it’s also something that can be measured with precision, and the tightness of numbers, with the underlying assumption that whatever mathematical formalism one brings to the object of prayer, that prayer can be contained within that sort of formal structure: that the idea that whatever accedes in human life in religion is not necessarily, first and foremost, on the minds of people like Tyler and Galton and Tyndall.

DMcC: I’m really amused by some of the examples that you cite. Especially in the research questions that they asked. So the simple question of, “Do sick persons who pray, or are prayed for, recover on average more rapidly than others?” was a kind-of like guiding question for the statistical model. But then, when they went to draw on the data, they crunched numbers from whether clerics had better health outcomes than lawyers, and whether slave ships were more likely to sink than those that were carrying missionaries on them. I mean, these are provocative data sets!

JM: Yes. And so that’s Galton again, kind-of trolling this . . . So, “If prayer really works or is effective, wouldn’t you think that these people who are prayed for more than others would feel the benefits, would feel the effects of those prayers?” And so, simply as a kind-of anecdote of Galton’s, this was kind-of a ridiculous proposition. And I think I also mention in my piece something to the effect of “It’s like, wouldn’t the insurance companies be on this?!” (Laughs) “If this was a viable option, who do you think would be first and foremost on it, in order to make money, and to maximise their capitalist margin?”

DMcC: I can’t imagine that that guy from State Farm would pass up an opportunity like that.

JM: Oh no. And I think in a lot of ways that’s, for me . . . . When I read that piece, actually, about Galton, I thought, “Oh my gosh!” In a lot of ways, as a kind-of genealogist, I sort-of live in the past, in a strange temporality, where I don’t, in a sense, walk around the world making hard and fast distinctions about past present and future. It’s a kind of cultivated temporality. And you see Galton doing this in the nineteenth century, which resonates so much with contemporary sort-of scientific studies of religion and spirituality, prayer, meditation. Where, you know, we at the AAR will see a session on the cognitive science of religion, on the study of meditation, or something. And we’ll go it, and we’ll have arguments, etc. But I think the one thing to keep in mind with research that these scientists are doing is it’s being operationalised far outside the discipline of Religious Studies. It is being operationalised by pharmaceutical companies. It is being operationalised by insurance companies, who . . . . In a lot of ways, in the last 15 years, the kind-of incursion of wellness programmes in every nook and cranny of institutional bureaucratic life, is, I think, a product of this kind-of conception that this is useful data. It’s data about religion that’s not simply about figuring out what religion is, or what the human is. It’s data that can be capitalised on. It’s data that can, in a sense, make your business model, or your drug, more effective or something like that. (10:00) So there are these consequences of this kind-of intellectual history that I’m sort-of putting together, that I think are haunting the piece, or in the background of the piece, in a lot of ways.

DMcC: I appreciate the idea that there’s a moment, perhaps, that you’re putting your finger on. It might not be the first moment, but it’s a very clear moment, where religion is being identified as an instrumental object. It is the thing that can act, it can do, it can be appropriated for certain ends. And we have a moment in the quantification of prayer, when we can trace deliberately the actions of specific persons pursuing those ends. And the ways in which that actually changes not only what religion is about, but maybe religion’s opposites. Can you speak a little bit about how measuring prayer actually changes something about the way that we understand the category of religion and non-religion, and the ways in which questioning, measuring, quantifying really provoke challenges to the categories that we use in the world to describe things like prayer?

JM: Yes. That’s a great question. You know I think the first thing I would say, if one stands in the world, and stands and looks upon the world, and assumes as a matter of course that the thing you are interested in it’s a matter of identifying it, locating it, and measuring it – with the confidence that one can identify, locate and measure with a precision to situate it in the world, to locate it in the world in a very specific way – to kind-of contain it in a lot of ways, it’s going to affect the kinds of questions that you’re going to ask. And so, with my sort-of genealogy of the measurement of prayer in this essay, I’m trying to think a lot about, think through . . . . So in the nineteenth century you had this kind-of science of statistics, this kind-of enthusiasm for the possibilities of measuring different kinds of means across populations, and trying to figure out what is essentially that which defines a population – in terms of religion, or mortality, or whatever it might be – where the study of prayer becomes, “Ok, does prayer work?” The initial questions are, for Tyndall and Galton and some of the people who responded to Tyndall and Galton . . . . You have all these religious folks – people who are practising theologians or sort-of self-identified religious leaders in the Anglican Church, who are kind-of hitting back against this trolling that they feel they have been subject to by saying that prayer does in a sense work: not because it can be measured in terms of better mortality rates of clerics, or something like that. But it works as a kind of moral salve, or a social cohesive energy, or something like that. So in that moment you have both sides sort-of thinking about religion – well, prayer in particular – and both are coming at it as it’s something in the world out there that can be identified and located. And although some of the religious critics are not using statistics they have, in a sense, moved into a space where we begin to see this kind of separation of categories of the religious and the secular. And so you fast forward a little bit, let’s say . . . . In my piece I also jump around a lot in the piece in terms of time periods. But you see in the contemporary moment, where nobody’s studying prayer statistically like that as much anymore. There was a recent study about ten years ago in the Harvard Medical Review or something. It was a Harvard scientist, I forget. But saying “I’m not sure prayer works.” (Laughs). “I’m not sure. We’ve done the data points. It doesn’t work as a model of cause and effect.” But now the question becomes, “Well, how do we measure what’s happening in the brain when somebody prays? Is there something about commonality across different kinds of brains so that we can, with a degree of certainty, claim that we can understand prayer as a particular style of cognition? Or we can reduce prayer to a kind of cognitive system?” And so I sort-of see that your initial question – like, what happens to these categories? – well we’re here where the brain, for example, in the contemporary moment, oddly becomes a kind of site, and location, and place of investment of energies and desires and fears and ambitions; (15:00) that maybe perhaps we would normally understand as something . . . that what we think when religion happens, that’s what happens. And so the brain itself – in a desire for measurement, the desire to calculate, and a kind of righteousness that is often adopted by those who would deign to measure such things as prayer and religion – itself becomes oddly, strangely resonant with precisely the category that they are trying to, in a sense, explain away through their regimes of measurement.

DMcC: This jives a lot . . . I was re-listening to a recent interview that Ben Marcus did about separation of church and state. And in that recent interview, one of the things that the lawyers that he was interviewing suggested was that efforts to expand the category of religious liberty in the contemporary era are a slippery slope that ends up limiting religious freedom later on. You think you want that liberty, but when you get it you find out that you did not get what you bargained for! And in some sense, I think that’s what you’re saying here as well. That by studying prayer, we turn prayer into an object that we can control. We study meditation, we turn it into an object that we can control. By doing that, we try to exert power over that particular exercise of religion, and try to define where and where its power does not rely, right? Whether meditation is valuable for us? Ok, then everybody should do it! Is prayer good for us? Everyone should do it! And if we prove it wrong, then we have reduced, potentially, the set of variables that prayer could act on to only, “Is it good or bad for our health?” and not the range of things that it might have been prior to that moment. So the studying of it actually narrows the focus down so much that it limits the object considerably. Is that something that you’re seeing here?

JM: Yes, and I think that’s a good recitation of that kind-of move of modernity, right? Because, again, we’re dealing with this kind-of objectification of prayer in a moment where biomedical regimes, pharmaceutical regimes, various risk assessment regimes are using this knowledge in a way that is, that is limiting, right? And the idea that one perhaps . . . . I’ll speak for my own institution. I am incentivised economically to do yoga, and to count calories, and to do various things that are going to prove to the health insurance overlords that I am employee who is going to save them money in the long-run. You know, I don’t do this, I don’t do this, I do these four or five things. . . . And so this is something that is troubling. Because, again, it’s not simply a kind of intellectual debate among scholars – although I love participating in those! I think the stakes are much higher in ways that have to do not just simply . . . . I mean, the study of prayer is one example of kind-of larger trajectory that we are moving into and through, kind-of just a continual unfolding of a kind-of biopolitical dynamic that Michel Foucault identified long ago. And so I’m also reminded here, where these larger things . . . . This came to a head when I was at a retreat in Denmark. And it was a retreat for those scientists, cognitive neuro-scientists and scholars who are associated with a project that came out of the University of Aarhus there, called the MINDLab project, which was a five-year sort-of huge thing that was happening, in which the study of cognition and religion sort-of came to the fore. And so this was a retreat. It was a beautiful retreat in this kind of pastoral setting. And the first night I sat down for dinner, the opening dinner, and I sat beside a PhD in Chemistry from Berlin. He wasn’t an academic, but he was somebody who worked for a major pharmaceutical company in Germany, in Berlin. And I was like, “Well what are you doing here? What’s your interest in the cognitive science of religion thing?” And basically, without any irony, it was just like “I’m really fascinated by what they’re showing about the kind-of neuro correlates of mysticism and meditation” for himself as a scientist. He felt that he could begin to take this data and to be able to see how the brain operates when one is mediating, or when one is praying. And to be able to, then, kind-of reverse engineer that process by literally coming up with a drug that would replicate what is happening in your brain – you know, in the light of what they think is going on in your brain when you’re meditating, or something like that (20:00) – which sounds almost like a conceit out of science fiction novel!

DMcC: It does!

JM: But it’s happening, right?

DMcC: There is a Doctor Who episode where the Doctor is . . . I think it’s about Season Three or Four, and they go to this community, and the community has polluted the earth beyond all measure. And everybody gets by on drugs that represent emotion. And so the Doctor and his companion, Martha – at that moment, I believe – are offered, “Do you want Happy?” That’s the drug. The drug is a patch that will give you happy. Or “Forget” is the drug. And those kind of designer drugs, that Sci-Fi future, that does not feel so terribly far off right now.

JM: Oh no. Let’s think of the saturation of different kinds of neuro-enhancers and various ways in which we are using drugs to sort-of change and to cultivate, à la phrenology: the nineteenth century sort-of practice of seeing brain plasticity as the key to actualising one’s freedom or subjectivity. You know, this is this future. And it ties in with . . . ok, the idea where we’re living in a situation where . . . . I mean, I know I’m just feeling the effects. For example, every year at my institution our healthcare gets cut. Because healthcare is just a ballooning expense, right? And you see a future where in order to, in a sense, treat people, or to have insurance, one might be subject to different kinds of strictions, the same way in which, for example, if you smoke you’re not . . . your health insurance, or your life insurance rates are going be higher. So what’s different like, well, if you pray – or more yet – if you don’t pray, do you take this drug that replicates what happens to your brain when you pray? And that’s a really strange world. Because then you can imagine the next step where, if you’re prognosticating, “What does the future of” let’s say, “American religious history look like?” you’ll begin to have different kinds of movements, different kinds of groups, and individuals, and formations that are revolving around the practice, the myths, and rituals of these kinds of conceptions of cognition. Which we already see, for example, in Scientology, which is emerging at a moment in the 1940s and 1950s where the sort-of concept . . . . Our concept of the brain that we have right now, in 2020: it’s basically constituted by a network of neurons that processes information. This kind of paradigm comes together in the 1940s with, you know, the kind-of notion of a “logical calculus” – an essay or an article in 1943 put out by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. And it gets kind-of integrated with burgeoning theories of information that are coming from Claude Shannon, Norbert Weiner, different kinds of mathematicians. And together, when these are integrated, there’s a paradigm shift in how we understand the brain. And that is, you know, more or less. There are many kinds of ups and downs, and kinds of tangents that happen. But essentially we do assume that the brain is constituted by neurons processing information. And that’s an interesting kind-of thing that Hubbard was way into. He designed an entire religion and cosmology around that conceit. So it’s happened before and it will happen again, I am sure.

DMcC: So if that’s one version of the story, in your article you propose that there might be some alternatives. And one of your sources for your alternatives, is the counter-cultural music band, Devo. (Laughs). Can you explain how Devo fits in to all this? How do we go from EB Tylor, and these folks that were arguing about whether or not prayer is effective, to Devo?

JM: Well yes. That . . . I guess once people, perhaps, hear this podcast, they might actually pick up the article! (Laughs) Like, “What on earth is going on here?!” So the essay does move from the nineteenth century, and it kind-of ends with this sort-of mediation on Akron in the 1970s, which, as I mentioned, is my next project that I’m sort-of thinking a lot about. And so, when I was asked to think about an essay to submit to this new journal that Sarah Imhoff and M. Cooper Harriss are editing. You know, I was like “Well, I don’t have anything quite right. But I have this kind-of idea where I can sort-of connect things, and it’s sort-of crazy and weird?” And they were like, “Yes. We want that!” (25:00) And so the invitation to really kind-of think outside of a standard academic essay was quite inviting. And so, in this piece, I put together all of these different kinds of components that on some level are addressing the notion of prayer. And, as you mention, a lot of the essay is about, I guess, maybe the kind of reductions that are happening, or the kinds of enclosures that I see happening in the objectification of religion, and the scientific measurement of prayer. And I do end with a kind-of moment, the conceit of “Praying Hands“, which is an early Devo song. Devo is a conceptual art project that emerged out of Kent State university in the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the May 4th shootings in 1970.You know, just a bunch of kids who had some kind-of nutty ideas, and who were reacting to what they saw was an utter failure of civilisation that contained them. And they started making weird music, wearing weird costumes, doing all kinds of just strange things. And this is one of their early songs that they talk about praying hands. And the line that keeps repeating is that “Praying hands, real praying hands pray to no man. They pray to no man.” And so one of the things that I am projecting upon Devo . . . . I’m not sure whether the leaders of Devo were sort-of reading a lot of negative theology at the time, but they were, you know, kind-of weirdly involved in a lot of weird religious stuff that I talk about there, and elsewhere. But it’s this kind-of notion of: what does it mean to think about a world that, at the end of the day, is resistant to calculation, is resistant to the human standards of measurement that we assume it can be subsumed under? What if, there is a kind of horizon of unknowing in our world? What if these categories of the religion versus the secular, this categorical difference, is simply seen as a kind of artefact of history, as a kind of social construction that has done a tremendous amount of work in this world, but still, at the end of the day, is something that is strangely made up? And so I see something like Devo as . . . given their artistic license to be able to sort-of act, create, think and live in a way that doesn’t first and foremost subscribe to some of the categorical differences and some of the common sense assumptions that people often do. And so in the piece they, over a season in 1979, they had this kind-of thing they would do where they came out as the opening act for their own concerts. They were not a big band at the time, or that big. They only had their first album out. And so people weren’t familiar with what they looked like. So they would come out for a twenty minute set before their main set, playing this band called Dove, D-O-V-E, the band of love. And they would do a twenty minute set of these sort-of cheesy religious songs. They did “A Worried Man”, by the Carter Family, and they did the song, “Praying Hands”. Which they would kind-of do this evangelical performance, a kind-of revivalist ethos, and they would sort-of do this thing before Devo came out. And I’ve always found that to be sort-of sweet, alluring and attractive. And my goal was to sort-of make sense of it in a way that perhaps pointed to an alternative, or an outside, of the fairly dark story that I tell. I tell a lot of dark stories in my work. Most of my stories are pretty dark. And so I’m always sort-of keen to try to find some sort-of spark of hope, or redemption, or light somewhere. Not too much, but just a little bit! (Laughter).

DMcC: I’m fascinated by the idea that a band would be its own opener, and would invert what they were doing. The line in your piece that really caught my attention was that the singer would say, “Oh brothers and sisters, praise Jesus! And now here’s a reborn Devo song. When they play the devil music, now it’s gone! The Praying Hands.”

JM: (Laughs).

DMcC: Which is just this openness to the inversion of who they’re about: “Hey, Crowd! You thought you were here for us weird punk people playing, you know, music, and dancing in weird ways, dressing in weird ways. And, by the way, here’s some Jesus music to start with.”(30:00)

JM: Yes! No, it’s so . . . I love it. And one of the things that I’ve been really lucky and privileged to have done, over the last couple of years, is to be in contact with some of those guys who were in Devo – Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, particularly – and to sort-of talk to them a little bit about what they were thinking, vis-à-vis religion in that moment. And both of them, in a sense, mention the kind-of weird strange influence of this televangelist named Rex Humbard, who’s also in the piece on prayer, where . . . . Something that Jerry told me was that he learned a lot watching Rex Humbard, watching these televangelists. Just as a performer of . . . like, how do you captivate an audience? How do you cultivate a kind of charismatic performance? And so, just at the level of aesthetics I think early Devo, particularly, borrowed much from the sort-of stagecraft of somebody like Rex Humbard, and the kind of evangelical stagecraft which has a very long and rich history in America. And so Devo has this very long, inverted endpoint, where they’re taking that tradition and inverting it, the same way in which they would . . . . You know, the whole point of Devo. They were originally called the De-evolution Band. That was the long version – de-evolution. So their whole point is the Adorno and Horkheimer dialectic of enlightenment point: the idea that all this work, and advertisement, that is going in to substantiate and to progress the enlightenment culture of civilisation is actually, ironically, producing the exact opposite. And it’s producing not evolution but de-evolution. It’s producing decline, not progress. And, you know, that is one of those kinds of what ifs: what if things are not getting better? What if things aren’t getting better? Imagine the kinds of questions you would ask. But also all the sort-of constellation of comments, and assumptions, that you hold to be self-evident. To what degree would they be up-ended, challenged, or at least put in tension in some way?

DMcC: While you were talking I was picturing a moment from the movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Have you seen that before?

JM: Yes, I saw that a long time ago. Yup.

DMcC: So there’s a big political scene, and they’re at a rally. And the main characters are on stage and they’re playing their song which the political person is kind-of against. But then he sees how much the crowd is into the music, and he changes his tune instantly, right? He pivots, and he says “Oh the crowd is into this. I guess I need to be into this too.” And he walks up on stage and he celebrates them, and he says, “And now you’re going to lead us all in a rousing chorus of ‘You are my Sunshine’.” This kind-of inversion. I wonder, when you see Devo as kind-of taking its inspiration from the stagecraft of religious persons, whether that’s part of the story that you’re telling with the scientific study of prayer, too?

JM: Absolutely. Which gets us back to the idea where, you know . . . think about a concern with “charisma”, or a concern with “the crowd”. Think about these terms. These terms are central to the development of the academic study of religion, right? When people thought about religion they would go, “Charisma!”, or think about crowd behaviour, “Durkheim or Weber!” or something like that. And so you get to Devo, where my kind-of conceit is that they’re exploding these kinds of categorical differences, where: to what degree is that a religious thing or a secular thing? And so I’m not really interested in saying “Well Devo is a little bit, ‘Is this religion, or is that secular?’” And I have a little fun thing at the end, where, you know, where Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo, mentioned to me – you know, it wasn’t serious, necessarily – but it’s like, you know: “Talking to you, John, we probably should have made Devo a religion!” (Laughs). He was kind-of mocking me, a little bit! And I was just like “Yeah! Yeah!” And I just got excited in a kind-of almost fan-boy sort of way! And it was this moment when . . . . This kind-of encapsulates for me something about our desire, our reliance upon, for example, the distinction between the religious and the secular. Even for somebody like myself, who has spent a lot of time trying to sort-of think through the making of that distinction, and to make kinds-of claims about how that distinction is not some sort-of universal thing that is written into the very fabric of the cosmos, but it is a kind-of human construct. I know that, right? But yet I feel the pull of that binary. (35:00) I feel the pull of kinds of systems of values that are embedded within that binary, that allow me access to the different parts of the world that I live in. Which is a kind-of . . . . For me, Devo – listening to Devo or talking about Devo – at least gives you some sort-of small space by which one could possibly gain a degree of leverage, reflection, and distance from the culture that contains you.

DMcC: I’m so glad that I had the chance to speak with you today. And I think your recommendation is really useful: “Go listen to Devo!”

JM: That’s right! All the time. All day long! Promise me! (Laughs).

DMcC: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

JM: Oh. Thank you so much, David. I really, very much enjoyed it.

 

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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.

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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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Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

“Practice What You Preach”: CREDs and CRUDs

 

Actions typically speak louder than words. A common version of this statement – practice what you preach – is a popular conversational quip, used by the religious and nonreligious alike to scoff hypocrites. In short, action codifies our cognitive sentiments – our beliefs. It is one thing to say you believe and quite another to act “as if” you believe. We typically take some actions (e.g. going to a church) to both entail, and lend credence to certain beliefs (e.g. believing in the Christian God), as opposed to others (e.g. not believing in a god, or believing in Allah). Nonetheless it is quite possible to attend church or participate in ritual without holding belief in a God or gods (c.f. Silver, Coleman, Hood & Holcombe, 2014). Importantly however, acting on our beliefs only lends CREDibility to them, and not veridicality. Conversely, failing to act on a professed belief has the potential to undermine the credibility of said belief (CRUDs): if it is important to attend church, but no one goes – is it really that important to attend? Moreover, if no one is going to church, maybe belief in God is not that important after all?

Much of the past research in the cognitive sciences of religion (CSR) has dealt primarily with how abstract symbols (minimally counterintuitive content (MCI); e.g. a talking mouse or invisible entities that can communicate with you) are processed by our mental architecture, and easily transmitted within populations due to their conceptual shape (for a critical review see, Purzycki & Willard, practices what they preach (both in and out of the religious domain), they may be seen as credible sources with which to acquire further information from (Henrich, 2009; Lanman, 2012). In this interview with Thomas Coleman, Dr. Jonathan Lanman highlights the role that public displays of commitment (CREDs & CRUDs) play in the acquisition of both belief and nonbelief.

Dr. Lanman begins by discussing his research interests and some of the current work underway at the Institute of Cognition and Culture.  Next, he explains both content and context biases, and briefly outlines the notion of dual-inheritance theory. Importantly, Lanman goes on to emphasize how actions (CREDs), and failing to act (CRUDs), may contribute to the varying levels of religiosity seen throughout the world. In closing, Lanman suggests that while content biases are important for the transmission of religious concepts, they always occur in a given context: “upon initial evidence…[CREDs/CRUDs are] one of the most important factors in determining who ends up a theist and who ends up a nontheist.”

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References

  • Silver, C. F., Coleman, T. J. III, Hood, R. W. Jr., & Holcombe, J. M., (2014) The Six Types of Nonbelief: A qualitative and quantitative study of type and narrative. Mental Health, Religion & Culture. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2014.987743
  • Henrich, J. (2009). The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion. Evolution And Human Behavior, 30(4), 244-260. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005
  • Lanman, J. (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal Of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 49-65. doi:10.1080/13537903.2012.642726
  • Purzycki, B. G., & Willard, A. K. (in press). MCI Theory: A Critical Discussion [Target Article with Commentaries]. Religion, Brain and Behavior.

The Logics of Bricolage Reconsidered: A Cognitive Approach to Individuals and Their Constraints

An Important Intervention

Veronique Altglas is to be commended for her intervention into the contemporary academic discussions and (often uncritical) usage of the concept of bricolage. As she rightly suggests, the naïve view that the acts of cultural improvisation of a modern bricoleur are unconstrained and unlimited by anything beyond the free and willful activity of his or her own individual whims is long overdue for retirement. And, in the wake of her efforts, one certainly hopes that the analytic appeal to such a naïve sense of radical cognitive autonomy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

However, I must admit that I do wonder to what degree such an extreme view ever actually had a significant conceptual hold over sociological analysis in the first place. Throughout her interview, Altglas is very careful to emphasize that, of course, bricoleurs cannot be so extravagantly free in their acts of picking and mixing among cultural representations because, after all, not all cultural resources are available to them. This is both an important intervention and, simultaneously, a rather obvious and nearly tautological point: people cannot pick from, or mix with, resources that are not available to them. One wonders if there were ever actually any scholars who would have argued otherwise, or who have genuinely suggested that cultural context plays no role whatsoever in the syncretic activities of modern bricoleurs.

Even Thomas Luckmann, who Altglas uses as her go-to example of a sociologist who supposedly endorses this radically individualistic stance, doesn’t really express such an extreme view as the one that Altglas uses as her foil. She quotes Luckmann as having said that, in the case of contemporary bricoleurs, “anything goes,” and suggests this view as indicative of a position that holds the creative powers of the bricoleur to be “unlimited.” However, in the very sentence that Altglas is quoting, Luckmann, himself, characterizes his claim as little more than a suggestive “exaggeration” (Luckmann 1979, 136; cited in Altglas 2014, 2). In fact, what Luckmann had in mind here seems to be precisely the same point that Altglas herself eventually comes around to in the final portion of her RSP interview: When religious organizations begin to lose their hold as authoritative interpreters of available cultural representations, especially in a context of easy access to a large and highly diverse spectrum of informational resources, this can result in a situation, as Dr. Altglas seems to agree, in which, due to a context of “religious deregulation in modern societies,” as she puts it, “a dimension of choice and diversity” becomes a relevant factor in analyzing the types of constraints on, as well as, I would add, the types of empowerments toward, bricolage that are present in this kind of institutionally deregulated social environment

A Further Appeal to the Individual as a Relevant Level of Analysis

This response, then, is not so much a defense of the scholarly value of the concept of bricolage, as I am not particularly invested in its use. This is, however, a defense of the academic interest in the individual, which I take to be inclusive of the variety of ways that the activities of individuals are constrained, or not, in any given context. It is an insistence that all macro-scale social phenomena are composed of a large number of micro-scale processes among individual humans. To that degree, it is important to notice that while, indeed, all acts of bricolage are constrained, they are certainly not all equally constrained and, indeed, some contexts may encourage bricolage while others might act, relatively speaking, to diminish its occurrence. There are always, in any act of cultural improvisation, a unique array of factors which go into determining whether any particular representation will be chosen as the tool for a particular job at a particular time by a particular individual. However, Altglas’ analysis would seem to overemphasize the importance of external, social factors and, as a result, downplays other significant, internal, cognitive factors that are inevitably in play during any act of bricolage. Indeed, Dan Sperber has emphasized that,

“[t]hough which factors will contribute to the explanation of a particular strain of representations cannot be decided in advance, in every case, some of the factors to be considered will be psychological, and some will be environmental or ecological (taking the environment to begin at the individual organism’s nerve endings and to include, for each organism, all the organisms it interacts with)” (Sperber 1996, 84).

To the extent that it is, indeed, true that scholars have tended to ignore what Sperber calls the environmental or ecological factors that influence the reception, retention, and further conceptual utilization of available cultural representations, Altglas’ attempt to bring environmental factors, such as nationality or economic class, back into focus is an important correction to an analytic oversight. It is also important, however, to insist that she be careful not to pull too far in the other direction toward an equally lopsided type of analysis which leaves the mental or psychological factors largely unconsidered. Since, as Sperber notes, both will be present in every case, when a potential bricoleur encounters a cultural representation, both psychological and environmental factors need to be considered when analyzing constraints on, and empowerments toward, the utilization of that representation for an act of bricolage.

Potentially pertinent psychological factors include the ease with which a particular representation can be memorized, the existence of background knowledge in relationship to which the representation is relevant, and a motivation to communicate the content of the representation. Ecological factors, include the recurrence of situations in which the representation gives rise to, or contributes to, appropriate action, the availability of external memory stores (writing in particular), and the existence of institutions engaged in the transmission of the representation” (Sperber 1996, 84).

But, where does that leave us? To my reading, it leaves us with quite a wide spectrum of potential degrees of constraint on the abilities of individuals to pick and mix cultural representations. Are there some contexts in which such constraints are more oppressive toward innovation than others? Are there, on the contrary, some contexts in which interpretive freedom is relatively more unconstrained? Does the relevant question, then, become not simply ‘when is bricolage taking place’, but, rather, to what degree is the density and regularity of the practice of bricolage itself encouraged or constrained by different psycho-socio-cultural contexts?

Individualism and Organizations: On the Selection of Case Studies

I will look forward with anticipation toward the studies that Altglas has signaled that she is interested in pursuing in the future. I think that analyses of “bricolage in more conservative religious settings” or in “in messianic congregations” might provide important accounts of exactly to what degree institutional settings might constrain (or even empower) certain acts of bricolage. I would argue, however, that ultimately, as important as such studies will inevitably be, they cannot adequately address the question that Altglas most seems to want to address, which is the issue of religious individualism. I fear that in her eagerness to debunk Sheilaism, Altglas has failed to select representative case studies for her analysis. Given an attempt to investigate radical individualism, the choice to undertake that examination through the sociological analysis of religious organizations (Altglas’ study is based on fieldwork among Siddha Yoga and Sivananda Centers and the Kabbalah Center) that are rooted in particular cultural traditions would seem to obviate any serious chance at arriving at the desired conclusions. It is simply an analysis of the wrong data. In the introduction to her book, Altglas attempts to account for this oversight but, ultimately, her mea culpa does not overcome the problem.

“The readers might wonder why these case studies in particular have been selected. For a start, new religious movements (NRMs), as circumscribed groups with a specific teaching, represent good settings to the production and appropriation of religious resources. These processes in less ‘formative’ (Wood 2009) environments, such as those designated New Age, are more diffuse and therefore less easy to study” (Altglas 2014, 19).

In other words, the very populations that would be most appropriate to a study of religious individualism are here claimed to be too difficult to study, precisely because they are so individualistic and lack a central organizational hub from which to launch the study. Now, don’t get me wrong, as someone who spends his time studying these ‘non-formative’ communities of discourse, I am well aware that what she says is true. It can certainly be much more difficult to systematically study a decentralized milieu than to study a centrally-organized group with a more clearly delineated membership (though it certainly need not be inherently more difficult to do so—I’m quite sure that I’ve had more success with analyzing many of my decentered populations of interest than others have had getting access to, for instance, the inner realms of Scientology). For those of us who have spent quite a lot of time and effort investigating such ‘non-formative’ milieus, however, Altglas’ justification for her selection of case studies is not likely to be satisfying, when we note that the materials that we specialize in are shrugged off so effortlessly, as though that omission were, in the end, unlikely to actually inform the conclusions drawn from the study. In that sense, Altglas has provided us a particularly intriguing analysis of the of the constraints on activities of bricolage among members of the movements that she has studied, but, in order to corroborate her broader arguments against considerations of more radically individual combinatory practices, a study is still needed of the right kinds of case studies to address those issues, and that has not been accomplished here.

This discrepancy becomes clear in some of Altglas’ comments during the interview. For instance, she describes a potential bricoleur “doing a bit of yoga and then, perhaps, after two or three years, deciding that meditation is better.” This hardly sounds like the kind of highly individualized bricolage that we would be interested in so much as it appears to be an instance of serial participation in different activities. This seems miles apart from the types of improvisational cultural combinations that I would want to study in terms of bricolage or anything that might be considered a pronounced variety of individualism. If we really want to look at the types of bricolage that many of the scholars that Altglas critiques are actually interested in, we’d want to look at people creating websites which lay out their beliefs that link, for instance, Jesus’ last words on the cross, the Mayan calendar, Atlantis, Freemasonry, the electric telegraph, Vedic astrology, UFOs, the secret government, the Galactic Federation of Light, and the psychoactive properties of the pineal gland into some sort of ‘cohesive’ narrative that makes sense to them (at some point in time). There are millions of people like this out there in the world who don’t actively participate in centrally-organized religious communities, who don’t have a local group of peers to share metaphysical discourse with, and who develop their views primarily through reading books, participating in online forums, listening to music, watching YouTube, and the like. These individuals, too, are, of course, not unlimited in their improvisational capabilities. They also only have certain cultural resources available to them. They exist in a certain kind of society that instills certain kinds of values. Nonetheless, many of these individuals are significantly less constrained in their acts of bricolage than many others who explore religious themes only in the context of an established community or from within a particularly restrictive national setting (e.g. North Korea). Indeed, many of these individuals exist in social contexts that actually empower them to participate in copious acts of bricolage. The outlook of the Perennial Philosophy, in particular, which sees all religious traditions as equally fair game for religious inspiration as they are all taken as access points to a single, universal truth, dominates contemporary alternative spirituality, and, in many ways, actually demands those who adopt such a viewpoint to become rampant bricoleurs. While these modern bricoleurs still face very real and very important constraints, it is pertinent for scholars to take note of the ways in which their acts of bricolage are undertaken in a more highly individualized manner than is common in many more traditional, institutional religious settings. The question then should not be simply whether or not individuals are free or constrained in their combinatory endeavors, but rather how free or constrained they are in any given context and, thus, precisely how individualistic they are being. In the final analysis, all constraints are certainly not equal.

References

Altglas, Veronique. 2014. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luckmann, Thomas. 1979. “The Structural Conditions of Religious Consciousness in Modern Societies.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6, pp. 121-137.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Religion and Memory

In the year 2000, English-speaking scholars interested in ‘religion’ were introduced (in translation) to one of the most important texts in the sociology of religion in recent years, Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s “Religion as a Chain of Memory”. This book placed the study of ‘religion and memory’ firmly on the academic agenda, and the past decade has seen an explosion of exciting research into this area, not least in the cognitive sciences.

As testament to this growth of research, the Alexandra Grieser (Trinity College Dublin) on this intriguing topic.

How does it help the study of’ religion’ to think about it through the lens of memory? Links with cognitive approaches? Is ‘memory’ different from ‘tradition’? ‘Memorialisation’? ‘Myth’? ‘Legend’? ‘Story’? What makes religion distinctive in this sense? Are we not just studying memories? In what sense is basically every element of research an act of research into memory? An act of memorialisation? Must all ‘memory’ and ‘experience’ be articulated in order to be studied? These questions and more form the framework for this interview, which demonstrates the utility of thinking about ‘religion’ theoretically and methodologically through the interpretive lens of memory.

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Ritual, Religion, and the Evolutionary Foundations of Human Culture

Although it is more than 150 years since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (1859), it is only in recent decades that the evolutionary paradigm has become properly elaborated. But despite the wide range of developments across archaeology and the physical sciences, evolutionary treatments of religion have remained few and far between, with most prominent ones coming from the hyper-partisan scholars of the New Atheist movement. But that situation has begun to change. Although works such as Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) began to lay the ground for a more nuanced treatment, the publication of Robert Bellah’s groundbreaking new work, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011), signals a new era in the study of long-term religious and cultural history in which scientific, social-scientific and historical approaches can be properly brought into conversation.

Donald_memoryOne of the key figures behind Bellah’s work is evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald, who spoke with Jack Tsonis at the 2013 AAR meeting in Baltimore about his paper “Ritual, Religion, and the Drama of Daily Life: The continued dominance of mimetic representation”.  In addition to an overview of Donald’s work and a discussion about ritual in the basic sense of “culturally patterned sequences of expression”, Jack also asks Professor Donald about the way that Bellah has used his ideas, which reveals a subtle but important difference in emphasis. This interview will fascinate anybody interested in the evolution of human culture, and helps to scramble the common notion that there is a clear distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” behaviour.

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Religion as Anthropomorphism

As of the late 1950’s, radical ‘Behaviorism’ was beginning to decline in lieu of cognitive-behavioral approaches. The mind was no longer a ‘black box’ that prevented us from looking inside, nor was it a ‘blank slate’ shaped solely by ones environment. Largely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’, and a foundation laid by Alan Turing that conceived of the brain as analogous to a computer, anthropology slowly shifted from an interpretive hermeneutic endeavor, to one aimed at identifying culturally reoccurring patterns of behavior and thought (i.e. universals), and providing an explanation for these universals. This explanation was rooted not in culture itself, but within the mind.

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

It was only a matter of time before a cognitive approach was applied to religion. While cognitive anthropologists such as Dan Sperber (1975) set the tone for such an approach, Dr. Stewart Guthrie was the first to offer up a “comprehensive cognitive theory of religion” (Xygalatas, 2012). In 1980 Guthrie published his seminal paper titled A Cognitive Theory of Religion. In 1993 he greatly expanded upon his earlier work and published the book Faces In The Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion further supporting “religion as anthropomorphism” (p. 177). Standing on the shoulders of giants, Guthrie’s “new theory of religion” peeked above the clouds ushering in a shift from purely descriptive levels of analysis applied to religion, to ones that also provided explanations for religion.

In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Guthrie begins by outlining what it means to ‘explain religion’. He defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman events” and gives an example of this as applied to auditory and visual phenomena throughout the interview. After discussing some current support for his theory, he presents the purview of scholarship on anthropomorphism stretching back to 500 BCE. Guthrie argues for anthropomorphism as ‘the core of religious experience’ synthesizing prior thought from Spinoza and Hume and applying an evolutionary perspective situated on the concept of ‘game theory’. He draws important distinctions between anthropomorphism and Justin Barrett’s Hyper Active Agent Detection Device (HADD), a concept built from Guthrie’s theory, and departs discussing the complexities involved in understanding and researching the human tendency to attribute agency to the world around them.

See the face on Mars?

See the face on Mars?

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References

  • Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Guthrie, S. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion [and comments and reply]. Current            Anthropology, pp. 181–203.
  • Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special

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

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

You can also download this audio recording, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes and other podcatchers. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying any of your books, birthday presents, or other paraphernalia.

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

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

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

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

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

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

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


Why are Women more Social than Men?

 

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

Cognitive Differences

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

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

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

Personality Differences

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

Sociality and Agreeableness

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

An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control

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

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

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

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

References

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

Podcasts

The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics

The methods we use to study religion have consequences, argues Dr. John Lardas Modern in this conversation with David McConeghy. Beginning with the approaches of late 19th century anthropologists like E.B. Tylor, Modern discusses how prayer became an object of study for social scientists. As they tried to find out whether ‘prayer works,’ researchers proposed a constellation of theoretical models and experiments that treated religion as a discrete object. Measuring prayer made it easier to use religion and its practices as tools or instruments available for commodification and capitalization. In this wide ranging episode, Modern sketches a few of the bio-political effects that can be seen from his genealogical approach, and he shares with listeners how the American rock band DEVO merits our attention as a surprising fusion of scientific and religious perspectives.

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The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics

Podcast with John Lardas Modern (22 June 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-science-of-prayer-genealogies-and-biopolitics/

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Professor John Lardas Modern, who teaches at Franklin and Marshall College, and is the author of several books: The Bop Apocalypse: Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs; Secularism in Antebellum America; and he is the co-editor, with Katie Lofton, of Class 200: New Studies in Religion, an excellent book series that I recommend heartily to all of our Listeners. Professor Modern, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate having your time today.

John Modern (JM): Well thank you, David. And good morning to you!

DMcC: Good morning, as well! I would invite you to share with us a little bit about your ongoing projects. What are you working on right now? And how can we develop that into an interesting conversation, for our Listeners, about the idea of the scientific study of prayer?

JM: Ah. Well, that’s a good question. So currently, I am sort-of betwixt-and-between different projects. I’m doing some final revisions on a book project that I’ve been working on for about, oh, ten years or so, which deals with the sort-of histories, the genealogies of the cognitive and neuroscientific studies of religion. And so a lot of my interest in measurement and calculability, and the kind-of incursion of certain forms of mathematical formalism into, you know, Humanities and Social Sciences in general, but for our particular purposes the Study of Religion and – even more specifically – the study of prayer, derives from that research. But I’m also very excited by a project that I have on the horizon that I’ve been dabbling in for the last few years. It is connected to the previous project on cognitive science, but it’s taking and thinking about the developments in science – particularly cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century – and trying to think through that problematic by telling a story about the history of Akron, Ohio from the nineteenth century through to the industrialisation in the 1970s.

DMcC: So let’s talk a little bit about that story. Some of what John and I are going to talk about is from the very first inaugural issue of American Religion, in an essay called “Praying Hands“, which really connects some of these issues for us. The scientific study of prayer, as you outline in the beginning of that piece, begins in the late nineteenth century. Can you talk about the origins of the scientific study of prayer?

JM: Yes. I mean, I guess I’d first qualify any sort-of questions about origins or . . . . Discussions about origins are always a little bit fraught because, to paraphrase Don DeLillo, you can never tell where it begins – anything – where it begins. But, for the conceit of the article, I do locate an origin point in sort-of Victorian England amongst natural scientists – particularly, three that I sort-of talk about in the article: EB Tylor – everybody’s favourite Victorian anthropologist of the nineteenth century.

DMcC: (Laughs).

JM: And his two-volume work, Primitive Culture in 1871, and also the following year, 1872 – which in England was the season of the Prayer Gauge Debates, in which prayer, the subject of prayer, became a kind-of talking point among certain kinds of established scientists from the Royal Society. Between John Tyndall and Francis Galton who, in their kind-of reaction to the state calling for a Day of National Prayer for the country – in terms of thinking about some of the issues – they kind-of responded in a way that reminds you, I would say, of almost a New Atheist pose in the present: your kind-of trolling attitude toward religion. So, in the Prayer Gauge Debates, basically, they used it as an opportunity to publish these almost tongue-in-cheek, but also semi-serious articles about what the scientific study of prayer really looked like. And, in doing so, kind-of pointed out what a ridiculous proposition it would be to take prayer seriously as a kind of religious faculty. But it could be taking it seriously by measuring it, and coming up with sophisticated experimental designs by which one would study the prayers of people and how effective they were. And this is combined with EB Tylor, who in a sort-of different setting . . . . EB Tylor is not trolling anybody with Primitive Culture! (5:00) But he is making some very kind-of provocative claims about the history and origins of religion. And he sees prayer as he sees religion, as a kind of necessary evolutionary development within human history; that it does serve an evolutionary purpose of advancing both cognition and social structure. And he sees it primarily as a kind of way – in similar ways in which contemporary cognitive science see it – as something that can, in fact, be measured. And for Tylor, his sort-of standard of measurement in the 1870s was adopting the new science . . . or not the new, but the exciting possibilities that were being unleashed by the science of statistics, and looking at, you know, large data sets of populations, and trying to crunch the numbers in such a way as you could figure something out about not only the population but the individuals that comprise the population. So in Tylor you also see, in a less ironic mode, this desire to proclaim that religion is something that is out there in the world that humans do – which is a founding assumption. But moreover, it’s something that cannot simply be described or compared, but it’s also something that can be measured with precision, and the tightness of numbers, with the underlying assumption that whatever mathematical formalism one brings to the object of prayer, that prayer can be contained within that sort of formal structure: that the idea that whatever accedes in human life in religion is not necessarily, first and foremost, on the minds of people like Tyler and Galton and Tyndall.

DMcC: I’m really amused by some of the examples that you cite. Especially in the research questions that they asked. So the simple question of, “Do sick persons who pray, or are prayed for, recover on average more rapidly than others?” was a kind-of like guiding question for the statistical model. But then, when they went to draw on the data, they crunched numbers from whether clerics had better health outcomes than lawyers, and whether slave ships were more likely to sink than those that were carrying missionaries on them. I mean, these are provocative data sets!

JM: Yes. And so that’s Galton again, kind-of trolling this . . . So, “If prayer really works or is effective, wouldn’t you think that these people who are prayed for more than others would feel the benefits, would feel the effects of those prayers?” And so, simply as a kind-of anecdote of Galton’s, this was kind-of a ridiculous proposition. And I think I also mention in my piece something to the effect of “It’s like, wouldn’t the insurance companies be on this?!” (Laughs) “If this was a viable option, who do you think would be first and foremost on it, in order to make money, and to maximise their capitalist margin?”

DMcC: I can’t imagine that that guy from State Farm would pass up an opportunity like that.

JM: Oh no. And I think in a lot of ways that’s, for me . . . . When I read that piece, actually, about Galton, I thought, “Oh my gosh!” In a lot of ways, as a kind-of genealogist, I sort-of live in the past, in a strange temporality, where I don’t, in a sense, walk around the world making hard and fast distinctions about past present and future. It’s a kind of cultivated temporality. And you see Galton doing this in the nineteenth century, which resonates so much with contemporary sort-of scientific studies of religion and spirituality, prayer, meditation. Where, you know, we at the AAR will see a session on the cognitive science of religion, on the study of meditation, or something. And we’ll go it, and we’ll have arguments, etc. But I think the one thing to keep in mind with research that these scientists are doing is it’s being operationalised far outside the discipline of Religious Studies. It is being operationalised by pharmaceutical companies. It is being operationalised by insurance companies, who . . . . In a lot of ways, in the last 15 years, the kind-of incursion of wellness programmes in every nook and cranny of institutional bureaucratic life, is, I think, a product of this kind-of conception that this is useful data. It’s data about religion that’s not simply about figuring out what religion is, or what the human is. It’s data that can be capitalised on. It’s data that can, in a sense, make your business model, or your drug, more effective or something like that. (10:00) So there are these consequences of this kind-of intellectual history that I’m sort-of putting together, that I think are haunting the piece, or in the background of the piece, in a lot of ways.

DMcC: I appreciate the idea that there’s a moment, perhaps, that you’re putting your finger on. It might not be the first moment, but it’s a very clear moment, where religion is being identified as an instrumental object. It is the thing that can act, it can do, it can be appropriated for certain ends. And we have a moment in the quantification of prayer, when we can trace deliberately the actions of specific persons pursuing those ends. And the ways in which that actually changes not only what religion is about, but maybe religion’s opposites. Can you speak a little bit about how measuring prayer actually changes something about the way that we understand the category of religion and non-religion, and the ways in which questioning, measuring, quantifying really provoke challenges to the categories that we use in the world to describe things like prayer?

JM: Yes. That’s a great question. You know I think the first thing I would say, if one stands in the world, and stands and looks upon the world, and assumes as a matter of course that the thing you are interested in it’s a matter of identifying it, locating it, and measuring it – with the confidence that one can identify, locate and measure with a precision to situate it in the world, to locate it in the world in a very specific way – to kind-of contain it in a lot of ways, it’s going to affect the kinds of questions that you’re going to ask. And so, with my sort-of genealogy of the measurement of prayer in this essay, I’m trying to think a lot about, think through . . . . So in the nineteenth century you had this kind-of science of statistics, this kind-of enthusiasm for the possibilities of measuring different kinds of means across populations, and trying to figure out what is essentially that which defines a population – in terms of religion, or mortality, or whatever it might be – where the study of prayer becomes, “Ok, does prayer work?” The initial questions are, for Tyndall and Galton and some of the people who responded to Tyndall and Galton . . . . You have all these religious folks – people who are practising theologians or sort-of self-identified religious leaders in the Anglican Church, who are kind-of hitting back against this trolling that they feel they have been subject to by saying that prayer does in a sense work: not because it can be measured in terms of better mortality rates of clerics, or something like that. But it works as a kind of moral salve, or a social cohesive energy, or something like that. So in that moment you have both sides sort-of thinking about religion – well, prayer in particular – and both are coming at it as it’s something in the world out there that can be identified and located. And although some of the religious critics are not using statistics they have, in a sense, moved into a space where we begin to see this kind of separation of categories of the religious and the secular. And so you fast forward a little bit, let’s say . . . . In my piece I also jump around a lot in the piece in terms of time periods. But you see in the contemporary moment, where nobody’s studying prayer statistically like that as much anymore. There was a recent study about ten years ago in the Harvard Medical Review or something. It was a Harvard scientist, I forget. But saying “I’m not sure prayer works.” (Laughs). “I’m not sure. We’ve done the data points. It doesn’t work as a model of cause and effect.” But now the question becomes, “Well, how do we measure what’s happening in the brain when somebody prays? Is there something about commonality across different kinds of brains so that we can, with a degree of certainty, claim that we can understand prayer as a particular style of cognition? Or we can reduce prayer to a kind of cognitive system?” And so I sort-of see that your initial question – like, what happens to these categories? – well we’re here where the brain, for example, in the contemporary moment, oddly becomes a kind of site, and location, and place of investment of energies and desires and fears and ambitions; (15:00) that maybe perhaps we would normally understand as something . . . that what we think when religion happens, that’s what happens. And so the brain itself – in a desire for measurement, the desire to calculate, and a kind of righteousness that is often adopted by those who would deign to measure such things as prayer and religion – itself becomes oddly, strangely resonant with precisely the category that they are trying to, in a sense, explain away through their regimes of measurement.

DMcC: This jives a lot . . . I was re-listening to a recent interview that Ben Marcus did about separation of church and state. And in that recent interview, one of the things that the lawyers that he was interviewing suggested was that efforts to expand the category of religious liberty in the contemporary era are a slippery slope that ends up limiting religious freedom later on. You think you want that liberty, but when you get it you find out that you did not get what you bargained for! And in some sense, I think that’s what you’re saying here as well. That by studying prayer, we turn prayer into an object that we can control. We study meditation, we turn it into an object that we can control. By doing that, we try to exert power over that particular exercise of religion, and try to define where and where its power does not rely, right? Whether meditation is valuable for us? Ok, then everybody should do it! Is prayer good for us? Everyone should do it! And if we prove it wrong, then we have reduced, potentially, the set of variables that prayer could act on to only, “Is it good or bad for our health?” and not the range of things that it might have been prior to that moment. So the studying of it actually narrows the focus down so much that it limits the object considerably. Is that something that you’re seeing here?

JM: Yes, and I think that’s a good recitation of that kind-of move of modernity, right? Because, again, we’re dealing with this kind-of objectification of prayer in a moment where biomedical regimes, pharmaceutical regimes, various risk assessment regimes are using this knowledge in a way that is, that is limiting, right? And the idea that one perhaps . . . . I’ll speak for my own institution. I am incentivised economically to do yoga, and to count calories, and to do various things that are going to prove to the health insurance overlords that I am employee who is going to save them money in the long-run. You know, I don’t do this, I don’t do this, I do these four or five things. . . . And so this is something that is troubling. Because, again, it’s not simply a kind of intellectual debate among scholars – although I love participating in those! I think the stakes are much higher in ways that have to do not just simply . . . . I mean, the study of prayer is one example of kind-of larger trajectory that we are moving into and through, kind-of just a continual unfolding of a kind-of biopolitical dynamic that Michel Foucault identified long ago. And so I’m also reminded here, where these larger things . . . . This came to a head when I was at a retreat in Denmark. And it was a retreat for those scientists, cognitive neuro-scientists and scholars who are associated with a project that came out of the University of Aarhus there, called the MINDLab project, which was a five-year sort-of huge thing that was happening, in which the study of cognition and religion sort-of came to the fore. And so this was a retreat. It was a beautiful retreat in this kind of pastoral setting. And the first night I sat down for dinner, the opening dinner, and I sat beside a PhD in Chemistry from Berlin. He wasn’t an academic, but he was somebody who worked for a major pharmaceutical company in Germany, in Berlin. And I was like, “Well what are you doing here? What’s your interest in the cognitive science of religion thing?” And basically, without any irony, it was just like “I’m really fascinated by what they’re showing about the kind-of neuro correlates of mysticism and meditation” for himself as a scientist. He felt that he could begin to take this data and to be able to see how the brain operates when one is mediating, or when one is praying. And to be able to, then, kind-of reverse engineer that process by literally coming up with a drug that would replicate what is happening in your brain – you know, in the light of what they think is going on in your brain when you’re meditating, or something like that (20:00) – which sounds almost like a conceit out of science fiction novel!

DMcC: It does!

JM: But it’s happening, right?

DMcC: There is a Doctor Who episode where the Doctor is . . . I think it’s about Season Three or Four, and they go to this community, and the community has polluted the earth beyond all measure. And everybody gets by on drugs that represent emotion. And so the Doctor and his companion, Martha – at that moment, I believe – are offered, “Do you want Happy?” That’s the drug. The drug is a patch that will give you happy. Or “Forget” is the drug. And those kind of designer drugs, that Sci-Fi future, that does not feel so terribly far off right now.

JM: Oh no. Let’s think of the saturation of different kinds of neuro-enhancers and various ways in which we are using drugs to sort-of change and to cultivate, à la phrenology: the nineteenth century sort-of practice of seeing brain plasticity as the key to actualising one’s freedom or subjectivity. You know, this is this future. And it ties in with . . . ok, the idea where we’re living in a situation where . . . . I mean, I know I’m just feeling the effects. For example, every year at my institution our healthcare gets cut. Because healthcare is just a ballooning expense, right? And you see a future where in order to, in a sense, treat people, or to have insurance, one might be subject to different kinds of strictions, the same way in which, for example, if you smoke you’re not . . . your health insurance, or your life insurance rates are going be higher. So what’s different like, well, if you pray – or more yet – if you don’t pray, do you take this drug that replicates what happens to your brain when you pray? And that’s a really strange world. Because then you can imagine the next step where, if you’re prognosticating, “What does the future of” let’s say, “American religious history look like?” you’ll begin to have different kinds of movements, different kinds of groups, and individuals, and formations that are revolving around the practice, the myths, and rituals of these kinds of conceptions of cognition. Which we already see, for example, in Scientology, which is emerging at a moment in the 1940s and 1950s where the sort-of concept . . . . Our concept of the brain that we have right now, in 2020: it’s basically constituted by a network of neurons that processes information. This kind of paradigm comes together in the 1940s with, you know, the kind-of notion of a “logical calculus” – an essay or an article in 1943 put out by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. And it gets kind-of integrated with burgeoning theories of information that are coming from Claude Shannon, Norbert Weiner, different kinds of mathematicians. And together, when these are integrated, there’s a paradigm shift in how we understand the brain. And that is, you know, more or less. There are many kinds of ups and downs, and kinds of tangents that happen. But essentially we do assume that the brain is constituted by neurons processing information. And that’s an interesting kind-of thing that Hubbard was way into. He designed an entire religion and cosmology around that conceit. So it’s happened before and it will happen again, I am sure.

DMcC: So if that’s one version of the story, in your article you propose that there might be some alternatives. And one of your sources for your alternatives, is the counter-cultural music band, Devo. (Laughs). Can you explain how Devo fits in to all this? How do we go from EB Tylor, and these folks that were arguing about whether or not prayer is effective, to Devo?

JM: Well yes. That . . . I guess once people, perhaps, hear this podcast, they might actually pick up the article! (Laughs) Like, “What on earth is going on here?!” So the essay does move from the nineteenth century, and it kind-of ends with this sort-of mediation on Akron in the 1970s, which, as I mentioned, is my next project that I’m sort-of thinking a lot about. And so, when I was asked to think about an essay to submit to this new journal that Sarah Imhoff and M. Cooper Harriss are editing. You know, I was like “Well, I don’t have anything quite right. But I have this kind-of idea where I can sort-of connect things, and it’s sort-of crazy and weird?” And they were like, “Yes. We want that!” (25:00) And so the invitation to really kind-of think outside of a standard academic essay was quite inviting. And so, in this piece, I put together all of these different kinds of components that on some level are addressing the notion of prayer. And, as you mention, a lot of the essay is about, I guess, maybe the kind of reductions that are happening, or the kinds of enclosures that I see happening in the objectification of religion, and the scientific measurement of prayer. And I do end with a kind-of moment, the conceit of “Praying Hands“, which is an early Devo song. Devo is a conceptual art project that emerged out of Kent State university in the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the May 4th shootings in 1970.You know, just a bunch of kids who had some kind-of nutty ideas, and who were reacting to what they saw was an utter failure of civilisation that contained them. And they started making weird music, wearing weird costumes, doing all kinds of just strange things. And this is one of their early songs that they talk about praying hands. And the line that keeps repeating is that “Praying hands, real praying hands pray to no man. They pray to no man.” And so one of the things that I am projecting upon Devo . . . . I’m not sure whether the leaders of Devo were sort-of reading a lot of negative theology at the time, but they were, you know, kind-of weirdly involved in a lot of weird religious stuff that I talk about there, and elsewhere. But it’s this kind-of notion of: what does it mean to think about a world that, at the end of the day, is resistant to calculation, is resistant to the human standards of measurement that we assume it can be subsumed under? What if, there is a kind of horizon of unknowing in our world? What if these categories of the religion versus the secular, this categorical difference, is simply seen as a kind of artefact of history, as a kind of social construction that has done a tremendous amount of work in this world, but still, at the end of the day, is something that is strangely made up? And so I see something like Devo as . . . given their artistic license to be able to sort-of act, create, think and live in a way that doesn’t first and foremost subscribe to some of the categorical differences and some of the common sense assumptions that people often do. And so in the piece they, over a season in 1979, they had this kind-of thing they would do where they came out as the opening act for their own concerts. They were not a big band at the time, or that big. They only had their first album out. And so people weren’t familiar with what they looked like. So they would come out for a twenty minute set before their main set, playing this band called Dove, D-O-V-E, the band of love. And they would do a twenty minute set of these sort-of cheesy religious songs. They did “A Worried Man”, by the Carter Family, and they did the song, “Praying Hands”. Which they would kind-of do this evangelical performance, a kind-of revivalist ethos, and they would sort-of do this thing before Devo came out. And I’ve always found that to be sort-of sweet, alluring and attractive. And my goal was to sort-of make sense of it in a way that perhaps pointed to an alternative, or an outside, of the fairly dark story that I tell. I tell a lot of dark stories in my work. Most of my stories are pretty dark. And so I’m always sort-of keen to try to find some sort-of spark of hope, or redemption, or light somewhere. Not too much, but just a little bit! (Laughter).

DMcC: I’m fascinated by the idea that a band would be its own opener, and would invert what they were doing. The line in your piece that really caught my attention was that the singer would say, “Oh brothers and sisters, praise Jesus! And now here’s a reborn Devo song. When they play the devil music, now it’s gone! The Praying Hands.”

JM: (Laughs).

DMcC: Which is just this openness to the inversion of who they’re about: “Hey, Crowd! You thought you were here for us weird punk people playing, you know, music, and dancing in weird ways, dressing in weird ways. And, by the way, here’s some Jesus music to start with.”(30:00)

JM: Yes! No, it’s so . . . I love it. And one of the things that I’ve been really lucky and privileged to have done, over the last couple of years, is to be in contact with some of those guys who were in Devo – Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, particularly – and to sort-of talk to them a little bit about what they were thinking, vis-à-vis religion in that moment. And both of them, in a sense, mention the kind-of weird strange influence of this televangelist named Rex Humbard, who’s also in the piece on prayer, where . . . . Something that Jerry told me was that he learned a lot watching Rex Humbard, watching these televangelists. Just as a performer of . . . like, how do you captivate an audience? How do you cultivate a kind of charismatic performance? And so, just at the level of aesthetics I think early Devo, particularly, borrowed much from the sort-of stagecraft of somebody like Rex Humbard, and the kind of evangelical stagecraft which has a very long and rich history in America. And so Devo has this very long, inverted endpoint, where they’re taking that tradition and inverting it, the same way in which they would . . . . You know, the whole point of Devo. They were originally called the De-evolution Band. That was the long version – de-evolution. So their whole point is the Adorno and Horkheimer dialectic of enlightenment point: the idea that all this work, and advertisement, that is going in to substantiate and to progress the enlightenment culture of civilisation is actually, ironically, producing the exact opposite. And it’s producing not evolution but de-evolution. It’s producing decline, not progress. And, you know, that is one of those kinds of what ifs: what if things are not getting better? What if things aren’t getting better? Imagine the kinds of questions you would ask. But also all the sort-of constellation of comments, and assumptions, that you hold to be self-evident. To what degree would they be up-ended, challenged, or at least put in tension in some way?

DMcC: While you were talking I was picturing a moment from the movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Have you seen that before?

JM: Yes, I saw that a long time ago. Yup.

DMcC: So there’s a big political scene, and they’re at a rally. And the main characters are on stage and they’re playing their song which the political person is kind-of against. But then he sees how much the crowd is into the music, and he changes his tune instantly, right? He pivots, and he says “Oh the crowd is into this. I guess I need to be into this too.” And he walks up on stage and he celebrates them, and he says, “And now you’re going to lead us all in a rousing chorus of ‘You are my Sunshine’.” This kind-of inversion. I wonder, when you see Devo as kind-of taking its inspiration from the stagecraft of religious persons, whether that’s part of the story that you’re telling with the scientific study of prayer, too?

JM: Absolutely. Which gets us back to the idea where, you know . . . think about a concern with “charisma”, or a concern with “the crowd”. Think about these terms. These terms are central to the development of the academic study of religion, right? When people thought about religion they would go, “Charisma!”, or think about crowd behaviour, “Durkheim or Weber!” or something like that. And so you get to Devo, where my kind-of conceit is that they’re exploding these kinds of categorical differences, where: to what degree is that a religious thing or a secular thing? And so I’m not really interested in saying “Well Devo is a little bit, ‘Is this religion, or is that secular?’” And I have a little fun thing at the end, where, you know, where Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo, mentioned to me – you know, it wasn’t serious, necessarily – but it’s like, you know: “Talking to you, John, we probably should have made Devo a religion!” (Laughs). He was kind-of mocking me, a little bit! And I was just like “Yeah! Yeah!” And I just got excited in a kind-of almost fan-boy sort of way! And it was this moment when . . . . This kind-of encapsulates for me something about our desire, our reliance upon, for example, the distinction between the religious and the secular. Even for somebody like myself, who has spent a lot of time trying to sort-of think through the making of that distinction, and to make kinds-of claims about how that distinction is not some sort-of universal thing that is written into the very fabric of the cosmos, but it is a kind-of human construct. I know that, right? But yet I feel the pull of that binary. (35:00) I feel the pull of kinds of systems of values that are embedded within that binary, that allow me access to the different parts of the world that I live in. Which is a kind-of . . . . For me, Devo – listening to Devo or talking about Devo – at least gives you some sort-of small space by which one could possibly gain a degree of leverage, reflection, and distance from the culture that contains you.

DMcC: I’m so glad that I had the chance to speak with you today. And I think your recommendation is really useful: “Go listen to Devo!”

JM: That’s right! All the time. All day long! Promise me! (Laughs).

DMcC: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

JM: Oh. Thank you so much, David. I really, very much enjoyed it.

 

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

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Mentalizing and Religion

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

by Hans van Egyhen

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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.

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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/

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.

Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

“Practice What You Preach”: CREDs and CRUDs

 

Actions typically speak louder than words. A common version of this statement – practice what you preach – is a popular conversational quip, used by the religious and nonreligious alike to scoff hypocrites. In short, action codifies our cognitive sentiments – our beliefs. It is one thing to say you believe and quite another to act “as if” you believe. We typically take some actions (e.g. going to a church) to both entail, and lend credence to certain beliefs (e.g. believing in the Christian God), as opposed to others (e.g. not believing in a god, or believing in Allah). Nonetheless it is quite possible to attend church or participate in ritual without holding belief in a God or gods (c.f. Silver, Coleman, Hood & Holcombe, 2014). Importantly however, acting on our beliefs only lends CREDibility to them, and not veridicality. Conversely, failing to act on a professed belief has the potential to undermine the credibility of said belief (CRUDs): if it is important to attend church, but no one goes – is it really that important to attend? Moreover, if no one is going to church, maybe belief in God is not that important after all?

Much of the past research in the cognitive sciences of religion (CSR) has dealt primarily with how abstract symbols (minimally counterintuitive content (MCI); e.g. a talking mouse or invisible entities that can communicate with you) are processed by our mental architecture, and easily transmitted within populations due to their conceptual shape (for a critical review see, Purzycki & Willard, practices what they preach (both in and out of the religious domain), they may be seen as credible sources with which to acquire further information from (Henrich, 2009; Lanman, 2012). In this interview with Thomas Coleman, Dr. Jonathan Lanman highlights the role that public displays of commitment (CREDs & CRUDs) play in the acquisition of both belief and nonbelief.

Dr. Lanman begins by discussing his research interests and some of the current work underway at the Institute of Cognition and Culture.  Next, he explains both content and context biases, and briefly outlines the notion of dual-inheritance theory. Importantly, Lanman goes on to emphasize how actions (CREDs), and failing to act (CRUDs), may contribute to the varying levels of religiosity seen throughout the world. In closing, Lanman suggests that while content biases are important for the transmission of religious concepts, they always occur in a given context: “upon initial evidence…[CREDs/CRUDs are] one of the most important factors in determining who ends up a theist and who ends up a nontheist.”

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References

  • Silver, C. F., Coleman, T. J. III, Hood, R. W. Jr., & Holcombe, J. M., (2014) The Six Types of Nonbelief: A qualitative and quantitative study of type and narrative. Mental Health, Religion & Culture. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13674676.2014.987743
  • Henrich, J. (2009). The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion. Evolution And Human Behavior, 30(4), 244-260. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005
  • Lanman, J. (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal Of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 49-65. doi:10.1080/13537903.2012.642726
  • Purzycki, B. G., & Willard, A. K. (in press). MCI Theory: A Critical Discussion [Target Article with Commentaries]. Religion, Brain and Behavior.

The Logics of Bricolage Reconsidered: A Cognitive Approach to Individuals and Their Constraints

An Important Intervention

Veronique Altglas is to be commended for her intervention into the contemporary academic discussions and (often uncritical) usage of the concept of bricolage. As she rightly suggests, the naïve view that the acts of cultural improvisation of a modern bricoleur are unconstrained and unlimited by anything beyond the free and willful activity of his or her own individual whims is long overdue for retirement. And, in the wake of her efforts, one certainly hopes that the analytic appeal to such a naïve sense of radical cognitive autonomy becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.

However, I must admit that I do wonder to what degree such an extreme view ever actually had a significant conceptual hold over sociological analysis in the first place. Throughout her interview, Altglas is very careful to emphasize that, of course, bricoleurs cannot be so extravagantly free in their acts of picking and mixing among cultural representations because, after all, not all cultural resources are available to them. This is both an important intervention and, simultaneously, a rather obvious and nearly tautological point: people cannot pick from, or mix with, resources that are not available to them. One wonders if there were ever actually any scholars who would have argued otherwise, or who have genuinely suggested that cultural context plays no role whatsoever in the syncretic activities of modern bricoleurs.

Even Thomas Luckmann, who Altglas uses as her go-to example of a sociologist who supposedly endorses this radically individualistic stance, doesn’t really express such an extreme view as the one that Altglas uses as her foil. She quotes Luckmann as having said that, in the case of contemporary bricoleurs, “anything goes,” and suggests this view as indicative of a position that holds the creative powers of the bricoleur to be “unlimited.” However, in the very sentence that Altglas is quoting, Luckmann, himself, characterizes his claim as little more than a suggestive “exaggeration” (Luckmann 1979, 136; cited in Altglas 2014, 2). In fact, what Luckmann had in mind here seems to be precisely the same point that Altglas herself eventually comes around to in the final portion of her RSP interview: When religious organizations begin to lose their hold as authoritative interpreters of available cultural representations, especially in a context of easy access to a large and highly diverse spectrum of informational resources, this can result in a situation, as Dr. Altglas seems to agree, in which, due to a context of “religious deregulation in modern societies,” as she puts it, “a dimension of choice and diversity” becomes a relevant factor in analyzing the types of constraints on, as well as, I would add, the types of empowerments toward, bricolage that are present in this kind of institutionally deregulated social environment

A Further Appeal to the Individual as a Relevant Level of Analysis

This response, then, is not so much a defense of the scholarly value of the concept of bricolage, as I am not particularly invested in its use. This is, however, a defense of the academic interest in the individual, which I take to be inclusive of the variety of ways that the activities of individuals are constrained, or not, in any given context. It is an insistence that all macro-scale social phenomena are composed of a large number of micro-scale processes among individual humans. To that degree, it is important to notice that while, indeed, all acts of bricolage are constrained, they are certainly not all equally constrained and, indeed, some contexts may encourage bricolage while others might act, relatively speaking, to diminish its occurrence. There are always, in any act of cultural improvisation, a unique array of factors which go into determining whether any particular representation will be chosen as the tool for a particular job at a particular time by a particular individual. However, Altglas’ analysis would seem to overemphasize the importance of external, social factors and, as a result, downplays other significant, internal, cognitive factors that are inevitably in play during any act of bricolage. Indeed, Dan Sperber has emphasized that,

“[t]hough which factors will contribute to the explanation of a particular strain of representations cannot be decided in advance, in every case, some of the factors to be considered will be psychological, and some will be environmental or ecological (taking the environment to begin at the individual organism’s nerve endings and to include, for each organism, all the organisms it interacts with)” (Sperber 1996, 84).

To the extent that it is, indeed, true that scholars have tended to ignore what Sperber calls the environmental or ecological factors that influence the reception, retention, and further conceptual utilization of available cultural representations, Altglas’ attempt to bring environmental factors, such as nationality or economic class, back into focus is an important correction to an analytic oversight. It is also important, however, to insist that she be careful not to pull too far in the other direction toward an equally lopsided type of analysis which leaves the mental or psychological factors largely unconsidered. Since, as Sperber notes, both will be present in every case, when a potential bricoleur encounters a cultural representation, both psychological and environmental factors need to be considered when analyzing constraints on, and empowerments toward, the utilization of that representation for an act of bricolage.

Potentially pertinent psychological factors include the ease with which a particular representation can be memorized, the existence of background knowledge in relationship to which the representation is relevant, and a motivation to communicate the content of the representation. Ecological factors, include the recurrence of situations in which the representation gives rise to, or contributes to, appropriate action, the availability of external memory stores (writing in particular), and the existence of institutions engaged in the transmission of the representation” (Sperber 1996, 84).

But, where does that leave us? To my reading, it leaves us with quite a wide spectrum of potential degrees of constraint on the abilities of individuals to pick and mix cultural representations. Are there some contexts in which such constraints are more oppressive toward innovation than others? Are there, on the contrary, some contexts in which interpretive freedom is relatively more unconstrained? Does the relevant question, then, become not simply ‘when is bricolage taking place’, but, rather, to what degree is the density and regularity of the practice of bricolage itself encouraged or constrained by different psycho-socio-cultural contexts?

Individualism and Organizations: On the Selection of Case Studies

I will look forward with anticipation toward the studies that Altglas has signaled that she is interested in pursuing in the future. I think that analyses of “bricolage in more conservative religious settings” or in “in messianic congregations” might provide important accounts of exactly to what degree institutional settings might constrain (or even empower) certain acts of bricolage. I would argue, however, that ultimately, as important as such studies will inevitably be, they cannot adequately address the question that Altglas most seems to want to address, which is the issue of religious individualism. I fear that in her eagerness to debunk Sheilaism, Altglas has failed to select representative case studies for her analysis. Given an attempt to investigate radical individualism, the choice to undertake that examination through the sociological analysis of religious organizations (Altglas’ study is based on fieldwork among Siddha Yoga and Sivananda Centers and the Kabbalah Center) that are rooted in particular cultural traditions would seem to obviate any serious chance at arriving at the desired conclusions. It is simply an analysis of the wrong data. In the introduction to her book, Altglas attempts to account for this oversight but, ultimately, her mea culpa does not overcome the problem.

“The readers might wonder why these case studies in particular have been selected. For a start, new religious movements (NRMs), as circumscribed groups with a specific teaching, represent good settings to the production and appropriation of religious resources. These processes in less ‘formative’ (Wood 2009) environments, such as those designated New Age, are more diffuse and therefore less easy to study” (Altglas 2014, 19).

In other words, the very populations that would be most appropriate to a study of religious individualism are here claimed to be too difficult to study, precisely because they are so individualistic and lack a central organizational hub from which to launch the study. Now, don’t get me wrong, as someone who spends his time studying these ‘non-formative’ communities of discourse, I am well aware that what she says is true. It can certainly be much more difficult to systematically study a decentralized milieu than to study a centrally-organized group with a more clearly delineated membership (though it certainly need not be inherently more difficult to do so—I’m quite sure that I’ve had more success with analyzing many of my decentered populations of interest than others have had getting access to, for instance, the inner realms of Scientology). For those of us who have spent quite a lot of time and effort investigating such ‘non-formative’ milieus, however, Altglas’ justification for her selection of case studies is not likely to be satisfying, when we note that the materials that we specialize in are shrugged off so effortlessly, as though that omission were, in the end, unlikely to actually inform the conclusions drawn from the study. In that sense, Altglas has provided us a particularly intriguing analysis of the of the constraints on activities of bricolage among members of the movements that she has studied, but, in order to corroborate her broader arguments against considerations of more radically individual combinatory practices, a study is still needed of the right kinds of case studies to address those issues, and that has not been accomplished here.

This discrepancy becomes clear in some of Altglas’ comments during the interview. For instance, she describes a potential bricoleur “doing a bit of yoga and then, perhaps, after two or three years, deciding that meditation is better.” This hardly sounds like the kind of highly individualized bricolage that we would be interested in so much as it appears to be an instance of serial participation in different activities. This seems miles apart from the types of improvisational cultural combinations that I would want to study in terms of bricolage or anything that might be considered a pronounced variety of individualism. If we really want to look at the types of bricolage that many of the scholars that Altglas critiques are actually interested in, we’d want to look at people creating websites which lay out their beliefs that link, for instance, Jesus’ last words on the cross, the Mayan calendar, Atlantis, Freemasonry, the electric telegraph, Vedic astrology, UFOs, the secret government, the Galactic Federation of Light, and the psychoactive properties of the pineal gland into some sort of ‘cohesive’ narrative that makes sense to them (at some point in time). There are millions of people like this out there in the world who don’t actively participate in centrally-organized religious communities, who don’t have a local group of peers to share metaphysical discourse with, and who develop their views primarily through reading books, participating in online forums, listening to music, watching YouTube, and the like. These individuals, too, are, of course, not unlimited in their improvisational capabilities. They also only have certain cultural resources available to them. They exist in a certain kind of society that instills certain kinds of values. Nonetheless, many of these individuals are significantly less constrained in their acts of bricolage than many others who explore religious themes only in the context of an established community or from within a particularly restrictive national setting (e.g. North Korea). Indeed, many of these individuals exist in social contexts that actually empower them to participate in copious acts of bricolage. The outlook of the Perennial Philosophy, in particular, which sees all religious traditions as equally fair game for religious inspiration as they are all taken as access points to a single, universal truth, dominates contemporary alternative spirituality, and, in many ways, actually demands those who adopt such a viewpoint to become rampant bricoleurs. While these modern bricoleurs still face very real and very important constraints, it is pertinent for scholars to take note of the ways in which their acts of bricolage are undertaken in a more highly individualized manner than is common in many more traditional, institutional religious settings. The question then should not be simply whether or not individuals are free or constrained in their combinatory endeavors, but rather how free or constrained they are in any given context and, thus, precisely how individualistic they are being. In the final analysis, all constraints are certainly not equal.

References

Altglas, Veronique. 2014. From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luckmann, Thomas. 1979. “The Structural Conditions of Religious Consciousness in Modern Societies.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6, pp. 121-137.

Sperber, Dan. 1996. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Religion and Memory

In the year 2000, English-speaking scholars interested in ‘religion’ were introduced (in translation) to one of the most important texts in the sociology of religion in recent years, Danièle Hervieu-Léger’s “Religion as a Chain of Memory”. This book placed the study of ‘religion and memory’ firmly on the academic agenda, and the past decade has seen an explosion of exciting research into this area, not least in the cognitive sciences.

As testament to this growth of research, the Alexandra Grieser (Trinity College Dublin) on this intriguing topic.

How does it help the study of’ religion’ to think about it through the lens of memory? Links with cognitive approaches? Is ‘memory’ different from ‘tradition’? ‘Memorialisation’? ‘Myth’? ‘Legend’? ‘Story’? What makes religion distinctive in this sense? Are we not just studying memories? In what sense is basically every element of research an act of research into memory? An act of memorialisation? Must all ‘memory’ and ‘experience’ be articulated in order to be studied? These questions and more form the framework for this interview, which demonstrates the utility of thinking about ‘religion’ theoretically and methodologically through the interpretive lens of memory.

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Ritual, Religion, and the Evolutionary Foundations of Human Culture

Although it is more than 150 years since Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (1859), it is only in recent decades that the evolutionary paradigm has become properly elaborated. But despite the wide range of developments across archaeology and the physical sciences, evolutionary treatments of religion have remained few and far between, with most prominent ones coming from the hyper-partisan scholars of the New Atheist movement. But that situation has begun to change. Although works such as Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) began to lay the ground for a more nuanced treatment, the publication of Robert Bellah’s groundbreaking new work, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011), signals a new era in the study of long-term religious and cultural history in which scientific, social-scientific and historical approaches can be properly brought into conversation.

Donald_memoryOne of the key figures behind Bellah’s work is evolutionary psychologist Merlin Donald, who spoke with Jack Tsonis at the 2013 AAR meeting in Baltimore about his paper “Ritual, Religion, and the Drama of Daily Life: The continued dominance of mimetic representation”.  In addition to an overview of Donald’s work and a discussion about ritual in the basic sense of “culturally patterned sequences of expression”, Jack also asks Professor Donald about the way that Bellah has used his ideas, which reveals a subtle but important difference in emphasis. This interview will fascinate anybody interested in the evolution of human culture, and helps to scramble the common notion that there is a clear distinction between “religious” and “non-religious” behaviour.

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Religion as Anthropomorphism

As of the late 1950’s, radical ‘Behaviorism’ was beginning to decline in lieu of cognitive-behavioral approaches. The mind was no longer a ‘black box’ that prevented us from looking inside, nor was it a ‘blank slate’ shaped solely by ones environment. Largely inspired by Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’, and a foundation laid by Alan Turing that conceived of the brain as analogous to a computer, anthropology slowly shifted from an interpretive hermeneutic endeavor, to one aimed at identifying culturally reoccurring patterns of behavior and thought (i.e. universals), and providing an explanation for these universals. This explanation was rooted not in culture itself, but within the mind.

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

It was only a matter of time before a cognitive approach was applied to religion. While cognitive anthropologists such as Dan Sperber (1975) set the tone for such an approach, Dr. Stewart Guthrie was the first to offer up a “comprehensive cognitive theory of religion” (Xygalatas, 2012). In 1980 Guthrie published his seminal paper titled A Cognitive Theory of Religion. In 1993 he greatly expanded upon his earlier work and published the book Faces In The Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion further supporting “religion as anthropomorphism” (p. 177). Standing on the shoulders of giants, Guthrie’s “new theory of religion” peeked above the clouds ushering in a shift from purely descriptive levels of analysis applied to religion, to ones that also provided explanations for religion.

In Stewart Guthrie’s interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Guthrie begins by outlining what it means to ‘explain religion’. He defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman events” and gives an example of this as applied to auditory and visual phenomena throughout the interview. After discussing some current support for his theory, he presents the purview of scholarship on anthropomorphism stretching back to 500 BCE. Guthrie argues for anthropomorphism as ‘the core of religious experience’ synthesizing prior thought from Spinoza and Hume and applying an evolutionary perspective situated on the concept of ‘game theory’. He draws important distinctions between anthropomorphism and Justin Barrett’s Hyper Active Agent Detection Device (HADD), a concept built from Guthrie’s theory, and departs discussing the complexities involved in understanding and researching the human tendency to attribute agency to the world around them.

See the face on Mars?

See the face on Mars?

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

References

  • Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Guthrie, S. (1980). A cognitive theory of religion [and comments and reply]. Current            Anthropology, pp. 181–203.
  • Sperber, D. (1975). Rethinking symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

RSP Psychology of Religion Participatory Panel Special

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

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

You can also download this audio recording, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes and other podcatchers. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying any of your books, birthday presents, or other paraphernalia.

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

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

Religion, Violence, and Cognition

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

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

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.

References:

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


Why are Women more Social than Men?

 

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

Cognitive Differences

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

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

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

Personality Differences

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

Sociality and Agreeableness

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

An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control

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

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

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

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

References

  • Baron Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.
  • Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219–247.
  • Johnson, D. D. P., & Bering, J. M. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.
  • McCullough, M. E., Enders, C. K., Brion, S. L., & Jain, A. R. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Development in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Investigation of Religion and Rational Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(1), 78–89.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69–93. doi:10.1037/a0014213
  • Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. PLoS ONE, 1–8.
  • Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25.
  • Schjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A. W., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 199–207.
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