Rethinking the Cognitive Science of Religion in Light of Explanatory Pluralism

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

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

Explanatory pluralism

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

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

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science


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

Skipping levels in reductive sciences

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

Theoretical continuity

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

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

Complexity and reductionism in religion: Down the rabbit hole

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

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

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

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

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

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

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

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

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

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

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

Figure 4 Cultural "Causation" as an emergent feedback loop

Figure 4 Cultural “Causation” as an emergent feedback loop

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


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


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

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

Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies, 95(1-2), 3–36. Retrieved from Sense Emergence.1999.pdf

Lane, J. E. (2015). Semantic Network Mapping of Religious Material. Journal for Cognitive Processing.

Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., & Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 1–6.

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

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

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

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

Upal, M. A. (2005). Simulating the Emergence of New Religious Movements. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(1). Retrieved from

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

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


[1] Interested readers can go check out online conversion tools that will convert numbers with different bases, such as that found here:

[2] For those unfamiliar with the movie “The Matrix”, this is explained here:

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

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).


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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

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[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.


Between the Lab and the Field: Xygalatas and the Science of Extreme Rituals

The research project of Dimitris Xygalatas is part of a growing trend in cognitive approaches to human sociality. This trend involves breaking down the boundary between the lab and the field; sometimes this involves bringing the field into the lab—an approach not uncommon to many social psychologists—and other times it involves bringing the lab into the field—an approach favored and in many ways pioneered by Xygalatas. His work, which is well-presented in his (relatively) new book The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture in the Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria(Xygalatas, 2012), is a great example of this trend. Breaking down the boundary between the research lab and the “field site” is becoming more common beyond the boundaries of religious studies and anthropology.

I think it is worthwhile to explain a little more what is meant by “breaking down the boundary between the lab and the field”. Xygalatas notes that there has been a tension between those researchers who say that the lab is a great research environment because it allows one to control for extraneous variables, on the one hand, and those who say the lab is too sterile to adequately address questions relating to human action in the real world, on the other. For reasons that are discussed in many forums and at greater length than I can offer here (in religious studies, the work of Ted Slingerland and Ann Taves come to mind), both sides of the debate have good points. However, what Xygalatas and others do is question the dichotomy between “the lab” and “the field.” Xygalatas and others have published a number of studies that take lab-based measures deployed in the field (for examples see Konvalinka et al., 2011; Xygalatas, Mitkidis, et al., 2013; Xygalatas, Schjoedt, et al., 2013). Some of these methods are common to anthropology, such as coded interviews (Xygalatas, 2007, 2012). Other methods are common to social psychology, such as measures of identity. Still other of his methods are common to physiology, such as monitoring heart rate as a proxy for arousal.

What is most important about the integrated approach, and why this approach needs to be embraced by both the humanities and the sciences, is its ability to quantifiably study human action and social groups in situ. It corrects for sterile lab environments that suffer from a lack of ecological validity and often suffer from significant sampling issues (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). However it also allows for a quantification that can provide the opportunity for statistical testing to understand and compare groups. It also gives us a method for getting past the issues of relying solely on self-reporting. An empirical and theoretically grounded approach, like the one presented by Xygalatas, creates a very interesting foundation for a truly comparative approach to religions; one that it could be argued has been the focus of secular religious approaches since Max Müller. For the sciences, such an approach offers a more “realistic” look at human sociality. For instance, understanding what happens during certain social events can be reconstructed to an extremely limited extent in the lab. However, bringing lab techniques into the field gets around this issue. Furthermore, there are many things that researchers can’t recreate in the lab because it would be unethical for a researcher to ask participants to walk over hot coals, pierce themselves with rods, or carry great burdens for long distances in intense heat. However, many individuals do such actions of their own volition because it is an important part of many societies. Without taking an approach along the lines of Xygalatas’, researchers would not be able to get a truly scientific understanding of these experiences.

Thaipusam participant (Singaporean version of the same ritual that Xygalatas studies in Mauritius) Photo by Justin Lane

Thaipusam participant (Singaporean version of the same ritual that Xygalatas studies in Mauritius) Photo by Justin Lane

Although I believe that Xygalatas’ research project is a good example of a scientific approach to religion, I would argue that there is a second approach that works best in conjunction with an approach such as Xygalatas’, and this approach utilizes “big data.” Recently, I discussed in a very general way how the use of computational approaches can offer a valid and interdisciplinary approach to understanding complex human social systems (Lane, 2013). In this article I mentioned that there is a large depository of data from our digital lives that remains basically untouched, at least by academic researchers. Over the past few years, a number of scholars have teamed up with the private sector (either directly or indirectly) in order to gather and analyze data. Examples of this include work with Facebook (Backstrom, Boldi, Rosa, Ugander, & Vigna, 2012), Twitter (Goldberg, Hayvanovych, & Magdon-Ismail, 2010; Gonçalves, Perra, & Vespignani, 2011; Lerman, Ghosh, & Surachawala, 2010; Ritter, Preston, & Hernandez, 2013), and Microsoft (Leskovec & Horvitz, 2008). Many researchers are also supplementing this data approach with what has been termed “reality mining” (Eagle & Pentland, 2005). This “reality mining” uses our online data, mobile phone data, or sociometric badges—devices designed to collect data on our interactions in real time—in order to collect data on social interactions (see Pentland, 2014 for an overview). Researchers can leverage these highly quantified data sets (as well as construct their own) to test hypotheses concerning human sociality. What is human religiosity if not some social phenomenon? Of course, there are many definitions of religion; however, if you take social interactions away from any of them, you are likely left with a definition that is at least lacking. While these data sets are not always recording information about religious beliefs and behaviors, they are recording—with great precision—the social fabric of human organizations. This fabric, that until recently we haven’t really known that much about in any quantified sense, is the foundation of religion as well as other social phenomena such as culture, politics, and economics. I think that a convergence or dialogue between the computational/big data approach—that gives a very broad and precise view of sociality—and Xygalatas’ experimental anthropological approach—that gives an in depth and explanatory view—could create a framework for studying religion that can answer questions without denying the role of context, the role of the individual, or the role of the inter-personal relationships.




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Guthrie’s Anthropomorphism Helped Bring Religious Studies into the Modern Academic Age

Without theories such as that presented by Prof. Guthrie, particularly in his book Faces in the Clouds (1993), the current move towards an empirical study of religious beliefs and behaviors would likely have never taken root in anthropology and religious studies. (Strong claim warning!) Without moving these disciplines into an arena where their claims are subject to falsification, they would not be able to participate in modern scholarship and would have made little progress since their founding in the 19th century.[1]

It was during my time as an undergraduate student at the picture Admittedly, my first reaction to the theory was something along the lines of “so what, that’s fairly obvious”. That is until I started to supplement Guthrie’s ideas with those of Pascal Boyer (2001), in particular, his findings that “minimally counterintuitive” concepts (i.e. those concepts that violate our expectations of what should be) are more likely to be remembered. These two points combined go a long way toward explaining why religious concepts such as gods, spirits, ancestors, etc. are created and persist throughout human populations. It was at this point that I started to understand the elegance and true theoretical power of what Guthrie was moving towards: that due to the similarities of the human brain, which is an organ that functions similarly in humans cross-culturally, the mind is likely to produce patterns of belief and behavior in accordance with that functioning. Furthermore, this can be used as a foundation for creating an empirically viable cross-cultural study of contemporary and historical religious movements.

Shortly after that, I became very interested in a phenomena common to new religious movements: the deification of their leader as a god or sole proprietor of the divine. This phenomena (also known as apotheosis) can be observed in the leaders of many NRMs from Jim Jones of the People’s Temple/Jonestown (see Layton, 1999; Nelson, 2006; Reiterman, 1982), to Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate (see DiAngelo, 2007), to David Koresh of the Branch Davidians (see Newport, 2006; Tabor & Gallagher, 1997), to the Rev. Moon of the Unification Church (see Barker, 1984). This odd pattern held to many other religious groups in other cultures and historical periods (Lane, 2012); e.g. Early Christianity, Greco-Roman religion, many African initiated churches, and also NRMs in Asia such as Aum Shinrikyo. These patterns may be contextually unique, but similarities emerge when they are viewed at the level of human cognition, and Guthrie’s work largely set the framework for such an approach. After all, how can one have a scientific understanding of New Age religions (Lane, 2013a) or UFO cults (Lane, 2013b) without understanding the spirits, ‘energies’, UFOs, and extraterrestrials that inhabit those religious worlds? Guthrie provided, for the first time, a theoretical basis for such a research project.

Guthrie’s work is—in the religious studies world—standing on the shoulders of giants as he himself notes that the patterns that he describes are similar to those noticed by Spinoza, Hume, Tylor, and others from the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. Guthrie’s ultimate contribution is situating this already-observed pattern within an empirically viable theoretical paradigm: that of evolutionary psychology. His work—as he mentions—was even the theoretical motivation for the Hyperactive (or ‘Hypersensitive’) Agency Detection Device (HADD); a cognitive mechanism now well known to the cognitive science of religion (see Barrett, 2004).

Guthrie’s work opens a “Pandora’s Box” to the scholar and student of religion. Not only does it act as a “gateway drug” for the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), it calls those interested in religion to begin to look at their subject through a different lens, one that is constrained by the empirical findings of psychology. Although “cognitive science” is more of an umbrella term that encompasses a dedication to understanding “information processing” generally and involves the fields of neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, computer science, and even history, CSR has mostly focused its efforts on empirical findings in psychology or utilizing the cognitive findings as an interpretive framework oftentimes focusing ultimately on semiotics or phenomenology. Ultimately, this rests shamelessly on theoretical commitments of epistemological positivism and scientific reduction, that is to say, the idea that we can actually know something and that observable phenomena can largely be reduced to their constituent parts (and that these parts can in turn act as objects of study). This is where you realize that inside of “Pandora’s Box” is Alice’s “rabbit hole”: if you reduce “religion”—as an evolutionary “spandrel” (a by-product that exists due to human evolution, but is not itself an adaptation)—can you reduce the cognitive mechanisms of your “spandrel” to the neuronal firings and neuro-transmitters of the brain? Can those interactions be reduced to the chemical reactions that govern the laws of biology? In one sense, these questions are easily answered with a practical statement: “no, we have neither the knowledge nor power (nor funding) to answer these questions in the foreseeable future”.

But, is there another answer to the overly-reductionist[2] tendencies of the empirical study of religion? I argue that there is. Guthrie places his theory solidly in the realm of evolutionary psychology. In the field of evolutionary studies, there are very strange things happening. For instance, the acceptance of complex and dynamic systems as commonplace often destroys the preconceived supremacy of linear thinking that is so ubiquitous in psychology. The idea that epigenetics is a very real force and that our experiences within our lifetime might affect the lives of our offspring, even to the genetic level, complicates the reductionist approach to anything operating within evolutionary studies.

Guthrie’s work, within an evolutionary approach, shows this point quite elegantly. The idea that we “anthropomorphize” signals in our environment involves three things: the raw input signal from the environment; the mental mechanisms that change the input signal (i.e. our “thinking” about the stimulus); and an output signal (such as the anthropomorphized representation in the mind). With this sort of system (operating in every human brain in a social group), even if the mechanism of perception were the same in each and every human brain (i.e. perfectly symmetrical), the fact that we experience different perceptions would allow for nearly infinite complexity by the time the cognitive system produces some output. This could be demonstrated by simply viewing something at a different angle, one which creates a face and one which doesn’t, as the “Martian face” on the cover of Guthrie’s book so brilliantly demonstrates (when light hits the mountain at a certain angle it looks like a face, but from other angles it does not).

This near-chaotic complexity may seem daunting, and rightly so, but scholars have already proposed theories of religious ritual systems that are compatible with both the broad theoretical claims of Guthrie (and directly utilize his work) but are also flexible enough to make predictions about the contextualized cultural forms that are observed in the historical, ethnographic, and now empirical records. While they have been viewed as competing but largely compatible theories, the work of Whitehouse on the theory of Divergent Modes of Religiosity (2000, 2002, 2004) and that of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley on ritual competence theory (Lawson & McCauley, 1990; McCauley & Lawson, 2002) both present structured arguments for the description and analysis of religious ritual systems that are amenable to the complexities of evolutionary perspectives (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011; Lane, 2011; McCauley & Lawson, 2002; Turchin, Whitehouse, Francois, Slingerland, & Collard, 2012).

In conclusion, Guthrie’s work was critical to ushering in a new period of study for scholars of religion; one which embraces both the abstract similarities and patterns noticed by early scholars such as Eliade (1959) and Durkhiem (1912) as well as the contextualized complexity so staunchly defended by cultural anthropologists. Guthrie’s work is situated between the two, in a tradition joined by scholars looking to test predictions with data first popularized by Stark & Bainbridge’s A Theory of Religion (1996) and being moved forward by research institutes such as the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology and LEVYNA at Masaryk University, which push us into a brave new scientific world of supercomputers, big data, and a real understanding of the mind and what makes us human. It is this middle ground that also seems to be exciting droves of students to again take up the social sciences but in a way that is just as social as ever, but more scientific than its founders could have imagined.


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[1] Now that you’ve read the strong claim, a point of clarification: this is not to say that religious studies without any empirical focus is not useful. To the contrary, many of the theories produced by the history and philosophy of religions are very useful and have informed the empirical approach. I would suggest that the empirical and traditional forms of religious studies work together and that each is weaker without the other.

[2] I say “overly” because researchers who do brilliant scientific work might overlook how their findings contribute to an understanding of “religion” or reduce so far down that it doesn’t address anything about “religion” any more than it addresses any other human social phenomena.