What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.


Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

Religion Without Culture is No Religion at All

I’d like to start by thanking Jon Lanman for his insightful description of CREDs, CRUDs, and the larger issue of content and context biases as the foundations of religion. I want to focus my comments on this last part: the differing roles of content biases and context biases in explaining religion. The cognitive science of religion has spent much time and effort identifying different content biases that relate to religious belief, and has paid very little attention to the role of culture and cultural learning. The work that has been done by Lanman and others has shown that CREDs, and other context biases, play a fundamentally important role in understanding religions and religious belief (Lanman 2012), and I’d argue explain the bulk of what we generally think of when we think about religion.

One of the first things to recognize is that content and context biases play very different roles in the explanation of religious belief. I will leave aside minimally counterintuitive content (for all the reasons presented in Purzycki & Willard, 2015), and focus on theory of mind and agent based content (see Willard and Norenzayan, 2013). As Lanman mentioned, content biases constrain the type of supernatural concepts we are likely to create and explain why certain types of concepts are common in religions around the world. These biases explain things like why anthropomorphic gods are more compelling and more common than the idea of God as an abstract concept, but they have little to say about why we should believe in one person-like god over another. Context biases, on the other hand, explain all the parts of religion that we learn from other people. These are the cultural parts of religion. Context biases cause us to pay attention and learn from some people or groups over others, and therefore adopt the beliefs and practices of those people/groups over the beliefs and practices of others. Put simply, content biases can help explain why Zeus is very much like a person, but context biases are required to explain why people stopped believing in Zeus in favor of other Gods (Gervais & Henrich, 2010).

This problem of belief—known as the Zeus problem or the Mickey Mouse problem—is often talked about but rarely reflected on in any great depth. I see this problem as a much more fundamental one than just the problem of why people believe in one god over another. It is a problem of why people adopt complex religious beliefs and practices at all. The intuitive appeal of some types of content over others cannot explain why or how this content coalesces into religious traditions or why traditions that have persisted for centuries suddenly change or fade away.

I have shown before that individual differences in the susceptibility to these content biases do predict the likelihood that a person holds religious or other supernatural beliefs (Willard and Norenzayan, 2013). I would add that these findings should only apply in places where religion is optional. A person who is raised in a culture where religion is endorsed and practiced by most, or all, other people is unlikely to even consider the possibility of non-belief, regardless of their intuitions. The forces of conformity, prestige, and credibility will easily trump any lack of intuition. Even the most unintuitive of ideas can persist in a culture with some amount of learning (calculus is not going to disappear anytime soon).

On the other side, a person who is highly affected by these content biases but raised in a culture with no religious traditions is not going to spontaneously create Christianity and all its traditions (even Jesus needed help with this). At most, these content biases would create the sense that additional invisible minds exist in the world, and maybe, a desire to explain this feeling. Even in a culture in which some people are religious and some are not, strong intuitions are unlikely to lead people to religion without some input from culture, especially if there are other options.

In recent work, I have looked at exactly this. In a large study conducted in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, done in collaboration with Lubomir Cingl and Ara Norenzayan, I found that susceptibility to these content biases predicted far more of the individual variance in paranormal beliefs (21%) than in the belief in God (8%), and almost no variance in religious participation (3%). Exposure to religious CREDs showed the opposite effects. CREDs explain a substantial portion of the variance in religious participation (25%) and belief in God (15%), while explaining almost no variance in paranormal beliefs (2%). Content-based intuitions did lead people to believe, just not necessarily in religion. It was the CREDs that brought people to praise the lord (Willard, Cingl & Norenzayan, n.d.).

If content can explain the tendency to hold supernatural beliefs, but cultural learning is required to create religions, then we can make specific predictions about how these things should vary around the world. First, we should expect supernatural beliefs would persist in some proportion of the population even when religion declines. Second, cultures that have no religious beliefs should exist, but cultures devoid of all supernatural beliefs should not. I have two examples that demonstrate exactly these things. First, the high rate of supernatural belief among the religious ‘nones’, and the rise of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ suggest that many people who leave religion maintain some type of supernatural beliefs. In my own research I find that though only 18% of the 1000 people we sampled in the Czech Republic claim to be religious, 56% endorse the belief in some type of deity or spiritual power, and only 22% explicitly claim to believe in nothing at all.

The second, far more compelling, example is the Hadza of Tanzania. The Hadza are one of the few hunter-gatherer societies still remaining on the planet, and they have no ritual practices or any formal belief system (Marlowe, 2010). What they do have is basic supernatural beliefs. Many Hadza believe that the sun is a god, and some believe that the moon is too, but these beliefs are not shared by everyone nor are they enforced. Though supernatural beliefs exist among the Hadza, they have never coalesced into something that we would identify as a religion. They have not lost their religious beliefs through increased existential security and modernization. Science has not given them an alternative to religion. They simply never created a religion in the first place.

None of this suggests that content biases are not important; they are extremely important, but they explain only a small piece of the larger puzzle that is religion. Content biases can explain why supernatural beliefs are everywhere, but when we talk about religions, we are often not talking about this. When we talk about religions, we are generally referring to the complex sets of beliefs and practices that extend far beyond these basic intuitions. Since we humans are a highly cultural species, we cannot help but pass our beliefs to others and build traditions around them. It is this process that drives the creation of religions. Content biases are more like a slow moving current than a rushing stream. They can push our boat in one specific direction, but only if no one is rowing in the boat in another direction. Rowing up stream may be more effortful than rowing down stream, but ultimately it is the rowing that will get us where we are going.


Gervais, W. M., & Henrich, J. (2010). The Zeus Problem: Why Representational Content Biases Cannot Explain Faith in Gods. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10, 383–389

Lanman, J. A. (2012). The Importance of Religious Displays for Belief Acquisition and Secularization. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), 49–65

Marlowe, F. (2010). The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania (Vol. 3). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Purzycki, B. G., & Willard, A. K. (2015). MCI theory: a critical discussion. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1–42.

Willard, A. K., & Norenzayan, A. (2013). Cognitive biases explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in life’s purpose. Cognition, 129(2), 379–391.

Keeping the Bar Steady: The Complexities of Interdisciplinary Approaches to Religion

Interdisciplinary approaches to religion have become nearly commonplace in the field today. Many would argue (and I would agree) that religious studies has always been inherently interdisciplinary. Although many departments today take a “zoo approach” to presenting religions, those who are primarily engaged in theoretical and methodological questions concerning religion and how to study it often keep at their disposal theories from anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, and biology.

The presence of biology in the above list is due largely to the academic and public engagement of David Sloan Wilson, who has for many years situated himself in an interesting place in this debate. Rather than being a scholar of religion extending his hand into the world of biologists to root around for useful ways to understand their phenomena, Wilson is a biologist who has extended his hand to scholars of religion. This does not only include his role as a biologist looking to use evolutionary theory as a framework for studying religion, as he did in his must-read book Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), but also as a collaborator and critic who has seriously engaged the work of scholars of religion; as reflected in the work of two of my mentors, William Paden (2010) and Luther H. Martin (2008). For his role as both critic and collaborator—even in my own work in association with the BSRP’s sister project the Singapore Religion and Spirituality Project—I owe Wilson a great debt for his engagement with the field of religious studies.

After having greatly enjoyed his podcast here and similar discussions in other venues (such as his recent interview with biologist Richard Lewontin (Wilson, 2015), I feel that a word of caution must be offered to anyone attempting to undertake an interdisciplinary research program—and even more to those who wish to study religion—whatever that is. Wilson notes that “religion is a fuzzy set” (a brilliant description in my opinion). This may be somewhat of an understatement since many scholars, such as J.Z. Smith (2004), have stated that religion is a western academic construct. This is echoed to an extent by two of the fathers of the cognitive approach, Lawson & McCauley (1990), who take religious beliefs and behaviors to be no different than non-religious beliefs and behaviors at a psychological level. Even within the evolutionary literature, those such as Pascal Boyer (2001) have noted that religion is—at best—a recent amalgamation of many different beliefs and behaviors that we deem religious. By and large, I agree with his view that evolution helps us to understand human actions—including religious ones. I also agree that religion is one of many meaning making systems that humans use. Keeping in mind my general agreement with Dr. Wilson, I would like to highlight one complication of using evolution to study religion as an explanatory framework.

This brings me to my title: Keeping the Bar Steady. The science of religion is like walking a tightrope; this endeavor should be interdisciplinary, drawing between historians, anthropologists, psychologists, biologists, and all the scholars of religion participating within those dialogues (there may be others as well that I have forgotten). As we walk this tightrope, we go from observing religion to explaining it, testing predictions (i.e. hypotheses) and theories back and forth in order to generate new knowledge about our subject with the ultimate goal of explanation. Beneath this tightrope-walking scholar is a vast canyon of speculation. Just as a tightrope-walker needs a bar to keep their balance and steady themselves to mediate between their points, the interdisciplinary scholar also needs to steady themselves. Now, the question naturally arises: What is the bar for those of us who wish to study religion scientifically?

Evolutionary theory is a (extremely productive) theoretical framework within which one could integrate the study of human groups (anthropology), human sociality (sociology), and how humans came to be that which we are today (history/archaeology). However, the study of religion, is ultimately the study of human beliefs and behaviors—specifically those referencing a belief in a supernatural agent. This roots the target phenomena of beliefs and behaviors—things of the mind—solidly within the realm of psychology. When evolutionary theorists attempt to provide a story or narrative of how religions came to be as they are today, their descriptions are insufficient without clear references to the mechanisms producing how beliefs and behaviors were either motivated or remembered and then shared. The empirical evidence and descriptions of these mechanisms fall primarily within the purview of cognitive psychology (for example, see Barrett, 2005). That religious beliefs vary within a population and large trends can be tracked overtime—this is generally the approach of “cultural evolution”—seems to be the case given the evidence. However, this observation is as true for the evolutionist as it is for the historian, and evolutionary theory need not be employed to describe these changes (Martin, 2008). This point was echoed recently by renowned biologist Richard Lewontin when he raised the following:


Why do you use cultural evolution instead of cultural history? Why evolution instead of history? Can you avoid—let me put it another way—can you generally avoid the false similarities, the made up structures that we are criticizing, if we continue to use the word evolution when what we really mean is historical change?

(From a recent interview with Wilson; Wilson, 2015)


Although I would agree with Lewontin that history provides a sufficient description of the changes over time, it is only psychology that provides the necessary explanations for how these changes were produced by the human minds within those historical contexts. Evolution may provide another interpretive framework for historical dynamics as environments change over time but they do not offer predictive hypotheses, only a postdictive framework.

Part 2:

However, let’s not throw evolutionary theory out with the bath-water. Evolutionary theory is useful in explaining how the cognitive mechanisms that produce religious beliefs and behaviors came to be (in my opinion Barrett, 2004 and Boyer, 2001 offer some of the best anecdotes). This falls under what evolutionary theorists call “ultimate explanations”—which address how a trait evolved—whereas the psychological mechanisms provide “proximate explanations”—which address phenomena in their immediate contexts—(recently addressed by Laland, Sterelny, Odling-Smee, Hoppitt, & Uller, 2011; see discussion in Tinbergen, 1963). On the one hand, some (Wilson, 2002) state that “religion” is an adaptation and evolves as the beliefs and groups are selected for (e.g. Boyd & Richerson, 2005; Richerson & Boyd, 2005; Richerson & Christiansen, 2013). On the other hand, evolutionary psychologists have taken a different approach. Their approach states that culture and religion are the result of cognitive responses to environmental stimuli and generally view “religion” as a by-product of the outputs of a fuzzy set of cognitive mechanism (e.g. Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Boyer & Liénard, 2006; Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Liénard & Lawson, 2008).

Ultimately, both of these approaches provide accounts for changes observed over time; and a great deal of the literature shows that. However, those who state that culture evolves—without the need for addressing cognitive mechanisms–have some major issues to overcome. First, they cannot offer predictions concerning how novel religious traits might arise; usually religious variants are accounted for as adaptations to new environments if they aren’t considered mutations that are selected for via one of many evolutionary mechanisms. A cognitive psychologist would consider them output from a cognitive mechanism rather than a phenotypic mutation. Finally, they do not seem to admit that much of the domain of religion, including imitation, learning, and language are domain general psychological capacities[1] (Heyes & Pearce, 2015) and that many features of human religiosity can be explained by triggering the actual domain of mechanisms that evolved for other purposes (Barrett, 2004; Boyer, 2001; Buss, Haselton, Shackelford, Bleske, & Wakefield, 1998) such as belief in superhuman agents (Barrett, 2004; Guthrie, 1993) and ritual capacities (Boyer & Liénard, 2006; Liénard & Lawson, 2008). Ultimately, this is reflective of the fact that much of evolutionary theory is used in the study of religion to interpret—not explain—religious beliefs and behaviors.

This raises a question of its utility as a scientific—i.e. explanatory—paradigm for use by scholars of religion along the lines of Lewontin quoted above. While evolution does provide a biologically rooted framework that affords cognitive psychologists the theoretical rationale for extrapolating that all cultures utilize the same mental facilities (albeit quite differently depending on their environment), in order to explain religion in all its variants both past and present, cognitive psychology is both necessary and sufficient. The empirical findings of the evolutionary psychologists above would still be just as valid without framing the mechanisms as “evolved.” Evolution is the elegant packaging that serves to explain how these facets came to be; psychology explains how they happen now.

Part 3:

This brings me to my final point, an interdisciplinary study of religion must be truly interdisciplinary. This does not mean we can take data from religious studies and reinterpret it using the statistics of biology (for example, creating a phylogeny of traits based on belief similarity when there is ample historical evidence describing the lineage). This means taking seriously the archaeological and historical data of religions in their own right. Dr. Wilson provides a testable claim for us here. He makes the claim that Judaism did not have a Christian-like afterlife belief (an opinion also presented in Angier, Wilson, & Bass, 2006; also in Angier, 2002) until the third century B.C.E. (this is found at approx. 16 minutes).[2] His evidence comes from his reading of the Old Testament, particularly the use of the Hebrew term שְׁאוֹל – Sheol- or hell (A deeper discussion of this term and its meanings in bibilcal texts can be found in Gowan, 2003, pp. 188–190; Reicke, 2001). This is complicated by at least two findings: one from psychology and the other from biblical studies. First, it has been demonstrated that belief in the afterlife is rooted in the human psychological mechanisms that give rise to mind-body dualism. This cognitive capacity is naturally developed in humans at a very young age (Barrett, 2004; Bering & Bjorklund, 2004; Cohen, Burdett, Knight, & Barrett, 2011; also see Hodge, In Press, 2010, 2011). To show that a population as large as Israel—as recent as two millennia ago—overcame this proclivity or did not have this cognitive capacity would have vast repercussions for evolutionary psychology.

To test the claim(s) we can then use the tools of religious studies. This provides our second complication concerning the claim that there were no Jewish afterlife beliefs until the Maccabean Revolt (this claim was also addressed in Segal, 2004). Leaving aside historical issues[3], taking Sheol as a marker for afterlife beliefs, and using the tools of religious studies (Strong’s Concordance), we find that Sheol appears in Genesis (4 times), Numbers and 1 Kings (2 times each), Job (8 times), Proverbs and Isaiah (9 times each), Ezekiel (5 times), Psalms (15 times), and is found only once in the books of Habakkuk, Jonah, Amos, Hoseah, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, 1 & 2 Samuel and Deuteronomy; often in reference to an afterlife, punishment, and is often portrayed negatively (Reicke, 2001). It would seem that what is at hand is not an example where there was no belief in the afterlife until the Maccabean revolt resulting in the spread of afterlife beliefs (the strong interpretation of the claim). In fact, it was used more often in the pre-Maccabean period. Furthermore, the negative connotations and divine punishment associations don’t seem to be Christian inventions either (the weak interpretation). Lastly, the term for “resurrection” (קוּץ) is also found in reference to raising from the dead more times than just Daniel (Daniel 12:2). For example, of its 22 uses, some are clearly in reference to resurrection of the dead; for example Isiah 26:19, considered part of the text written by “proto-Isiah” and dating to around 400-500 BCE (Vriezin & van der Woude, 2004, p. 323). Rather, in line with the predictions of cognitive psychology, that Judaism did have afterlife beliefs rooted in mind-body dualism and that these beliefs were present prior to the Maccabean revolt. It is also likely that such beliefs would have been popular during the Babylonian Captivity, which was arguably a more impactful period for the group.

Again however, we can learn from Dr. Wilson’s evidence. While there were likely some theological camps within Judaism at the time, such as the Sadducees who did not endorse the theological position of an afterlife in the contemporary Judeo-Christian sense, this may be a simple discrepancy between the beliefs of laity and theologians (see Sloan, 2004).[4] Such an approach may benefit from the population thinking approach of biological evolution (Boyd & Richerson, 2005). It would seem that history, religious studies, and cognitive psychology offer a good basis for Jewish afterlife beliefs before the Maccabean period. However, what I believe sets cognitive science above cultural evolution in regards to explanatory power is that no theory of cultural evolution makes a prediction concerning the target phenomenon at hand (the onset of a belief in the afterlife). Rather, it provides an account for the phenomenon post-hoc; this is still a valuable and powerful framework in my opinion. Cognitive theories such as those provided by Sperber (Claidière, Scott-phillips, & Sperber, 2014; Sperber & Wilson, 1995), Festinger (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 2008), and—to an extent—Lawson & McCauley (1990; see Chapter 5 on implicit mechanisms concerning agent competency) provide hypotheses concerning what beliefs/behaviors would or would not be likely to spread within a population due to pre-existing cognitive mechanisms.[5]

In conclusion, religious scholars have always been interdisciplinary. But to do a “science of religion” we need to make sure that we are working within a single research paradigm-even if it is from many disciplines. I have argued here and elsewhere (IAHR 2010) that we have to utilize theoretical continuity and a research paradigm of cognitive science (i.e. information processing) to do this. While utilizing biology can be useful to interpret trends, it ultimately misses its target, religion is our beliefs and behaviors. Religion is—like culture—a “thing that’s in our cranium” (quote from Lewontin in Wilson, 2015).


Angier, N. (2002, December 24). A Conversatoin with: David Sloan Wilson; The Origins of Religions, From a Distinctly Darwinin View. New York Times. New York. Retrieved from

Angier, N., Wilson, D. S., & Bass, T. A. (2006, December 30). God VS. Science: A Debate Between Natalie Angier, and David Sloan Wilson, Moterated by Thomas A. Bass. Edge. Retrieved from

Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.). (1992). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Barrett, J. L. (2005). In the Empirical Mode: Evidence Needed for the Modes of Religiosity Theory. In H. Whitehouse & R. N. McCauley (Eds.), Mind and Religion: Psychological and Cognitive Foundations of Religiosity (pp. 109–126). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Bering, J. M., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2004). The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 40, 217–233. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.40.2.217

Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2005). The Origin and Evolution of Cultures. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Boyer, P., & Liénard, P. (2006). Why ritualized behavior? Precaution Systems and action parsing in developmental, pathological and cultural rituals. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(6), 595–613; discussion 613–50. Retrieved from

Buss, D. M., Haselton, M. G., Shackelford, T. K., Bleske, A. L., & Wakefield, J. C. (1998). Adaptations, Exaptations, and Spandrels. American Psychologist, 54(5), 533–548.

Claidière, N., Scott-phillips, T. C., & Sperber, D. (2014). How Darwinian is cultural evolution ? How Darwinian is cultural evolution ? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, (369:20130368). doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0368

Cohen, E., Burdett, E., Knight, N., & Barrett, J. (2011). Cross-Cultural Similarities and Differences in Person-Body Reasoning: Experimental Evidence From the United Kingdom and Brazilian Amazon. Cognitive Science, 35(June 2009), 1282–1304. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01172.x

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 163–228). New York: Oxford University Press.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (2008). When Prophecy Fails (2nd editio.). London: Pinter & Martin.

Gowan, D. E. (2003). The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heyes, C., & Pearce, J. M. (2015). Not-so-social learning strategies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282(1802), 1–7. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.1709

Hodge, K. M. (n.d.). The Death We Fear is Not Our Own: The Folk Psychology of Souls Revisited and Reframed. In H. De Cruz & R. Nichols (Eds.), The Cognitive Science of Religion and its Philosophical Implications.

Hodge, K. M. (2010). Cognitive Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs. Queen’s University Belfast.

Hodge, K. M. (2011). Why immortality alone will not get me to the afterlife. Philosophical Psychology, 24(936089229), 395–410. doi:10.1080/09515089.2011.559620

Laland, K. N., Sterelny, K., Odling-Smee, J., Hoppitt, W., & Uller, T. (2011). Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful? Science, 334(December), 1512–1516. doi:10.1126/science.1210879

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

Liénard, P., & Lawson, E. T. (2008). Evoked culture, ritualization and religious rituals. Religion, 38(March), 157–171. doi:10.1016/j.religion.2008.01.004

Martin, L. H. (2008). Can Religion Really Evolve? (And What Is It Anyway?). In J. Bulbulia, R. Sosis, E. Harris, R. Genet, C. Genet, & K. Wyman (Eds.), The Evolution of Religions: Studies, Theories, and Critiques. Santa Margarita, CA: The Collins Foundation Press.

Paden, W. E. (2010). The History of Religions and Evolutionary Models: Some Reflections on Framing and Mediating Vocabulary. In P. Pachis & D. Wiebe (Eds.), Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences (pp. 293–304). Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Reicke, B. (2001). Hell. In B. M. Metzger & M. Coogan (Eds.), The Oxford Guide to Ideas and Issues of the Bible (pp. 196–198). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evoluion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Richerson, P. J., & Christiansen, M. H. (Eds.). (2013). Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Langage, and Religion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Segal, A. F. (2004). Life after death: A history of the afterlife in the religions of the West. New York: Doubleday.

Setzer, C. (2004). Resurrection of the body in early Judaism and early Christianity. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Sloan, J. (2004). Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Tinbergen, N. (1963). On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift Für Tierpsychologie, (20), 410–433.

Vriezin, T. C., & van der Woude, A. S. (2004). Ancient Israelite and early Jewish literature. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers.

Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, And The Nature Of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, D. S. (2015, April). The Spandrels Of San Marco Revisited : An Interview With Richard C. Lewontin. This View of Life. Retrieved from


[1] That is to say it isn’t a mechanism we have for a specific purpose but can be used for many things–including things we’ve never encountered before

[2] We could interpret the claim here and other places as a strong claim, Judaism didn’t have an afterlife belief, or as a weak claim, that Judaism didn’t have a Christian like afterlife belief involving negative punishment.

[3] These include, among other things, dating of the Maccabean period, the differences between messianic beliefs concerning eschator and parousia in relation to the beliefs at the time, the fact that the Hebrew version is a re-translation from the Greek Septuagint, and the role of ‘ōlām ha-bā as afterlife rather than sheol, and the fact that resurrection debates even among Christians went on well into the second century and that this belief differed between sects in Judaism both before and after the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.E. (Setzer, 2004).

[4] Also, to what extent it is clear that at the time Pharisees and Essene’s didn’t have an afterlife belief is debatable.

[5] Festinger specifically provides this account in relation to millennial beliefs.


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.


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.