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Putting an Umbrella Over a Bridge

A Response to “Worldviews and Ways of Life”

by Alex Uzdavines

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Worldviews and Ways of Life

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

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

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

DR: Yes. Very much so.

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

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

AT: Yes

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

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

DR: OK.

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

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

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

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

AT: exactly

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

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

DR: OK

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

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

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

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

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

DR: OK.

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

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

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

DG: A collective cultural schema.

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

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

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

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

AT: Right. Right.

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

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

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

AT: Or not completely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DR: Differently.

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

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

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

DR: Absolutely, yes.

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

DR: Yes. That helps!

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

DR: OK

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

DR: Yes.

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

AT: Yes.

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

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

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Religious cliché and stigma

A Response to “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”

by Christopher F. Silver

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Autism, Religion, and Imagination

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

 

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

Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TC: Right.

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

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

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

TC: Right

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

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

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

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

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

TC: How so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TC: Really? Ok.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Thanks Tommy.

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

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

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The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) in many respects has a fixed place in the academic memory of religious studies and cultural anthropology yet acknowledgement of his role is often purely historical, as a key ancestor of little direct relevance to contemporary discussions. This has left us with a limited narrative about the man and his work; a particular received or canonical Tylor defined by his introduction of the concept of animism, his intellectualist approach to religion, his armchair research and staunch social evolutionism. The year of his centenary is an opportunity to begin the task of critically examining the legacy left by Tylor’s work on religion and culture, how much the received Tylor matches his body of work, whether other Tylors can be extracted from these texts which undermine such a limited perspective on a long and eventful career and whether contemporary scholars can find anything of ongoing relevance in the work of such a historically distant figure.

This roundtable recorded at the annual BASR conference at the University of Chester 2017 brought together a group of scholars interested in different perspectives on the legacy of Tylor. Topics discussed included his impact on indigenous societies, the debates over animism, monotheism and the definition of religion as well as his relevance to the cognitive sciences of religion and the degree to which Tylor can be classed as an ethnographer and more. This roundtable includes contributions from Dr Miguel Astor-Aguilera of Arizona State University, Dr Jonathan Jong of Coventry University’s Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab, James L. Cox Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, Liam T. Sutherland – PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Paul Tremlett at the Open University and the much appreciated audience!

The centenary of Tylor’s death was also the theme for a new volume edited by Tremlett, Sutherland and Harvey ‘Edward Tylor, Religion and Culture’ published with Bloomsbury which features contributions from all of the roundtable participants (apart from the audience) and several other scholars, which was launched at the conference.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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

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

Podcast with Graham Harvey, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera (22 January 2018).

Chaired by Graham Harvey

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Tylor_Roundtable_1.1.

Graham Harvey (GH): So this is the Roundtable for our discussion of Edward Tylor for the anniversary of his death, 100 year commemoration. And including myself, we have contributors to this book: Edward Tylor: Religion and Culture. Paul, you had a suggestion for what we should do first?

Paul-Francois Tremlett (PT): I did. My suggestion, as a point of departure, was thinking about this Tylor project as part of a wider question about our relationship to classical theory. And I just thought that might be a nice place to begin. What do we do with early scholarship in Anthropology of Religion/Sociology/Religious Studies, etc? And what’s our relationship to it?

GH: OK, would you like to show us how that’s done?

PT: Well, I don’t think it’s a question of showing you how it’s done. But for me anyway, being involved in this project made me read Tylor in a different way. I’d been used to particular kind of accounts of Tylor’s work in secondary literature. I’d been used to allowing those works to direct me to Primitive Culture and a couple of other things that Tylor wrote. And my Tylor, as it were, was framed by that secondary literature. For this project I read Primitive Culture, two volumes, and a couple of other books- the book Anthropology, a few articles. And I started to get a sense that there were other Tylors, apart from the sort of canonical account. And I found it a really refreshing process. At the same time as doing that, I was actually involved in a slightly different project which meant that I was also reading The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkheim. And I was reading that – also from cover to cover – and a few other things by Durkheim. And I started to get a very different picture of the kinds of conversations taking place between scholars at the end of the 19th, early 20th century. And it changed my relationship with that theory, and I think I got a hell of a lot out of it, frankly. And I’d thoroughly recommend it to others: read that material. Yes, of course you need the secondary literature – it’s there for a reason and it’s helpful – but at the same time you also need to de-familiarise yourself, and go through the texts as freshly as possible.

GH: It was also interesting, as well as doing some of that re-reading – I wouldn’t say I’ve read both the volumes and all the other work – but reading more of Tylor, but also reading other people’s work as we were editing the book. And being pointed to other parts to look up, and thinking, “OK, so that enriches my understanding of what he was trying to do, and the data he was using and the way he used it.” But also, it’s been interesting . . . A lot of the chapters in the book do this comparative thing – as Jim’s does, and as mine does and other people’s do – to think about Tylor’s practice and his argument alongside other peoples, and to see that. So that, too, was quite an interesting experience: seeing selective reading, sometimes, by other people and thinking how our theories and work arises out of these interesting conversations.

Liam Sutherland (LS): Well, I mean, I came at this very much from a different stage in my career, because I looked at the relationship between modern theory and EB Tylor for my Master’s project. So this really came out from my undergraduate exposure to Theory and Method, which was one of the elements I found the most interesting. But I was quite fascinated with the bits of Tylor that had been presented. But it was very much – as Paul has touched on – in a very kind of codified, boxed in way. But I thought there was a lot of explanatory potential there, so I wanted to go back and pursue this at a deeper level with my Master’s. And I think it was when I actually, really had to get to grips with this, with the primary sources, with the two volumes of Primitive Culture, (5:00) that it really became apparent to me, sort-of really just how much can be lost without necessarily being wrong. It’s not – as we touch on in the book – it’s not necessarily the case that the canonical Tylor, as we’ve called it, is completely, is an inaccurate depiction; it’s a limited one, and perhaps a necessarily limited one. But it’s the fact that when you go and read the primary sources in context, it’s quite a different experience. And sometimes the kind of voice, the nuances, and the humanity of some of the early scholars that you look at can really get lost; that they’re actually far more persuasive, especially in their own context, than we actually give credit for. So, as much as my particular focus has been Tylor, I hope that I’ve at least internalised these lessons. So that with other key theorists that I’m only dimly aware of, or that I’m only aware of the canonical version of, that I might already begin to suspect that there’s more to the picture that I’m missing, and at least try to look for that in future.

Jonathan Jong (JJ): So Liam, you discovered Tylor during your undergraduate studies,

LS: Yes.

JJ: . . .which is to say that your lecturers put him on the reading list, right?

LS: Yes, that’s true.

JJ: And for that reason, I think, it’s kind of surprising that we are surprised that we get a lot out of reading Tylor. Because we must have known this at some level, assuming- I don’t do this kind of work – but, like, the rest of you around this table presumably assign Tylor. So why do you do that?

GH: No, I haven’t.

Miguel Astor-Aguilera (MAA): I assign him, but it’s in the same manor that it was when I was in graduate school in seminars: little snippets. Nobody assigned a complete work of Tylor, Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard, or Frazer. Oftentimes they wind up in readers where: “This is what they meant, so that’s what you get.” So this is one of the fantastic things about not only being in the volume, but it’s also, as you mentioned, going in and actually reading exactly what he said, which makes a world of difference.

JJ: But what motivates people who design syllabi to put the classical – even if snippets of the classical texts – what motivates people who construct theses syllabi to put them there in the first place? Is it for historical interest? Do scholars like yourselves think that there is something of value for today? How does it come about that these people appear in our textbooks? I ask this question because, in the Sciences, this doesn’t really happen. We don’t assign Darwin’s Origin, really, any more, in biology classes, right? We don’t really assign Freud in Psychology classes.

MAA: The question would be: Why not?

JJ: Indeed. But if the question is, what is it that we get out of it, I think it is precisely as you say: why, and why not? Pros and cons of putting in, or omitting the venerable texts of our intellectual traditions in the syllabi. I don’t think we should take it for granted that all the things of the past should be jettisoned in a sort of . . . . Like, Dan Dennet likes to say that he’s never read any philosophy within 60 years prior, or something like that. But that’s ridiculous, right? But just because those two positions are ridiculous it doesn’t mean that we don’t need reasons for there to be no position.

GH: One of the answers to your question, I think, is Liam’s phrase, “the canonical Tylor”. There are a number of canonical figures who are set as readings. So there has been . . . . I don’t know if people are still producing readers, maybe they are – I’ve produced a couple – in which we select short extracts from canonical texts – very rarely saying, I think, that the issues that they engaged with, or the methods that they practised are still current, or should generate more work. However, some of them do do that, very clearly, and I think we’ve demonstrated that very well. Tylor and others do, clearly, have the potential to generate new questions, or to bring us back to the nub of the question we are asking now. So, in my case: what does animism mean? In James’ case, what does monotheism mean? How do they define it? How do they – putatively – among whom you research, what do they think those terms mean?

James L. Cox (JC): Well I think, part of the approach has been, for example, in Eric Sharpe’s classic Comparative Religion: A History, is to provide a kind of basis and understanding of what’s gone before. Sot that the students don’t think that we’re just inventing things as they come along, and: “Aha! Here’s a new idea!” Because many of the new ideas are old ideas (10:00). And they’ve been reworked, and thought through, and so on. And so I think that students need a background, but of course they can make the mistake of – which we sometimes make – just simply critiquing them in the light of a hundred-and-some years later, and applying theories and methods, and ignoring everything that’s come in between. But I do think it’s important to study the classical and important figures in the history. Another thing that I’ve done has been to use these figures, because my area of development has been the phenomenology of religion. And many of the key phenomenologists of religion, writing in the early to mid-20th century, bounced themselves off (early ethnographers), particularly criticising them for their assumptions about evolutionary ideas about development, advancement according to almost an application of Darwinian theory in social contexts. And part of the theory there was to say: “Well, unless we’re aware of these presuppositions that influence the way we think, we won’t be able to critique our own ways of thinking.” And so, just one other thing, and that is – I have most recently been doing work on Australia – the practical effect of these writers. For example, the theories of Baldwin Spencer and his colleague Frank Gillen, about the aboriginal peoples of Australia being the lowest form of human development. And there’s a very famous quote that I use: “Just like the platypus has gone and faded away, so will these people inevitably be taken over by the more advanced civilisations.” And if one thinks about the social consequences of this idea, it could be argued, and has been argued that this way of thinking led to justification for genocide. Because aboriginal peoples are going to be made extinct anyway, naturally: “so we can take over”. And it could be said that these theories are not just in the air – just up in the air – but they actually have social consequences. So these are the three things I would say: they need a foundation; we need to be able to critique them according to other theories; and we need to know the social consequences of our thinking.

PT: That’s interesting. I mean, the way I encountered Tylor as an undergraduate was in a class about definitions. So you had the substantive Tylorian definition, the functional Durkheimian definition, and the pinnacle, at that point, was Clifford Geertz. And maybe we read Talal Asad alongside that, if we had a particularly brave tutor!

All: (Laughter)

JC: Which you probably, usually didn’t! (Laughter)

PT: So, that’s the kind of way in which Tylor would appear in undergraduate curricula. I was thinking of readers. The last anthropology of religion reader I recall is Lambek’s: Michael Lambek. And I think Tylor’s in there. And I think, again, it’s around this definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings – as we all know. And that’s part of the history, the conversation – Eric Sharpe’s is a good example; Brian Morris’ anthropology . . . .

JC: Fiona Bowie

PT: Exactly. And Tylor’s in all of them one way or another.

LS: But that’s exactly how I encountered it first. It was in a class talking about the definition of religion and I . . . because sometimes you’re just given a slight quote. And obviously, students can’t be interested in every quote that they’re fed. The thing is that sometimes you’re only given a little piece and then you’re not given the materials to read them on your own. You might not be given a chapter to read or anything like that. In my case, though, it really sparked my curiosity, because I wanted to know a bit more about what this actually meant. And when we went on to explore theories, for example, in greater detail, I found that James Fraser . . . . One of the texts we were using was Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion, and I think it’s a very, very good introduction, actually. But he puts Tylor and Fraser together, because they do have similar theories in many respects, but they’re actually quite different. So they just a get a chapter in and of themselves. And he rushes through the material, because he has to, at quite a pace (15:00). So the issues and the nuances can really get lost.

JC: They can, but undergraduates need to have this. And they can be introduced to the primary sources, but if they don’t have the foundation . . . . You’re not going to assign a first year undergraduate student to read two volumes of Primitive Culture!

PT: No!

JC: So you have to give them a kind-of basis. And that can generate their interest and go further. And they might go on to post-graduate work.

MAA: There are seminars where I have colleagues that assign Pals. But it’s because, at the introductory level, they may be coming in from other disciplines.

JC: That’s right.

MAA: So Graham, as you mentioned, you have a reader. And this is where I was actually introduced to your work, and others. So, like a stepping stone to many of these larger works, I think they certainly have their place. Within being a third year into a graduate school, I think it’s certainly time to start reading some of the major heavyweights that we’re talking about, certainly including Tylor.

GH: That’s interesting that we, in the book, most of us engage with primitive cultures and we go right back on that. But you went somewhere very different, somewhere that I’m not even sure that I knew that you’d written anything on it before!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: Well, indeed!

GH: And you’d been to London to hang out with spiritualists and so on, but the whole idea of going to Cuba and Mexico . . . . So is that book used by anthropologists?

  1. No. Most of my colleagues, when I told them about this chapter that I was writing, they were like: “He did what?!”

All: (Laughter)

JJ: “Are you talking about that Tylor??” “Yes, yes!”

GH: The father of armchair anthropology!

JC: I know; it’s all you hear!

JC: But it was not one – that (Pals) book – that was a reader. But we used it in a first year course many years ago. But it had little introductions, and in the introduction it mentioned that Tylor went to Mexico, and that he wasn’t just an armchair anthropologist. It was trying to give the students and idea that: he’s noted for that, he’s criticised for that, but he actually did do some field studies.

All: Absolutely, yes.

JJ: The Pals thing is interesting I think. Because one way of reading the Pals book, as opposed to An Introduction to – now Nine, I believe – Theorists of Religion– of course the title is now Theories of Religion, right? So what Pals does with these figures is uses them as paradigmatic examples of ideas. And that seems like a perfectly reasonable way to think about what to do with these classical texts: as just very good examples of – maybe a terrible thing – but, nonetheless, very good examples of the thing.

LS: I think you’re both absolutely correct. But because you’re introducing these ideas to students you can only package them in so many ways. And obviously, you cannot cover everything to the same degree. And actually, I think what was interesting is, that there’s actually . . . . Because Tylor seems to be one of these figures that people develop a periodic interest in that sometimes is not quite as sustained as figures such as Durkheim. And there’s not even, necessarily, always the scholarship to cover every kind of theorist that has had an input in the process. No, I certainly agree that you cannot . . . that you have to package these ideas in one way or another, and you’re always going to leave something out. So I don’t mean that as a critique of Pals, per se.

GH: There seems to be something different between the ways that Durkheim and others in Sociology, as kind-of the founding figures, are much more positively quoted. Whereas Tylor, my impression is, is usually set up as: “Ok, that was fine in the 19th-century, but we don’t do that anymore!”

LS: (Laughs)

PT: Yes. Absolutely.

GH: “He was stuck in his armchair” – and even if we know (differently), he didn’t do enough of it to allow us to be enthusiastic.

PT: I want to mention Anne Kalvig’s chapter at this point, because Anne’s chapter is all about the séances and Tylor’s interest in spiritualism

GH: Don’t tap the table!

PT: Indeed! Well if the chairs dance, what are we going to do?

All: (Laughter)

PT: And I think – like Miguel’s chapter – that it really contributes to . . . . All I remember, as an undergraduate student, was that Tylor didn’t do any fieldwork. Turns out he actually did quite a lot!

LS: Quite a lot, yes!

PT: And the posthumously published fieldwork notes about the séance that were published by Stocking – that Anne Kalvig works with – I thought they were really interesting. And there’s a very ambivalent Tylor there – about what’s taking place – that reveal quite a lot about his own relationships with mortality,(20:00) with his class, with his background as a Quaker, with what he wants to, I think, perhaps, believe about science and superstition – but at the same time being emotionally and intellectually challenged by being at these events.

GH: I think that’s like in Mexico. Things happened in the séances and things happen when he’s wandering about, he gets a taste for certain kinds of food and these experiences that he has. And he obviously wants to be more celebratory. And then, perhaps, retreats into this more distant version, for whatever reason, I mean.. So that’s the kind-of interesting “multiple Tylors” that we discover. And maybe there wasn’t one, even for him – that he’s a kind-of conflicted figure, being attracted to things that he then wants to dismiss as superstition, you know: “They must have been manipulating the table for this to happen!” So yes, a very interesting character.

MAA: So coming back to what gets assigned and why, these are very . . . . he’s obviously a genius, but like most people of that intellect, he’s very complicated. In Mexico, it would be great to have a photo of him in a sarape as he says he used to wear. I can just see him (Laughter- audio unclear) to the Mexican gods.

GH: There’s a quest there, in the archive, is to find such a picture!

MAA: So one of the things that happens, I think, in studies – and I think it’s a symptom just of academia – is having a knee-jerk reaction to who these people were : “This is what I learned in a seminar: Tylor was this – or this other academic – however great they were in their time. But I want nothing to do with them!” Without actually ever reading their work.

JJ: Well Freud would have a field day with that!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: I don’t know about the other classical thinkers but certainly one good reason to read the Victorian theorists is that nobody writes like that anymore!

LS: That’s true!

JJ: I don’t want to give the audience the impression that the two-volume, dusty Primitive Cultures – four inches of book – is a hard read, because it’s not. But it’s a cracking read! And this is true of so many Victorian theorists. I don’t know what happened, really. I don’t know why we started writing terribly, but it isn’t true of Tylor.

GH: There’s a wealth of examples that he brings together, and whether he does that in the strange cabinet of curiosities thing sometimes, not quite like The Golden Bough, but something of that flavour, with all these weird and wonderful things. And you think, some of it, he’s got this information, data that has been sent to him and he’s presenting it back to people to say, “Look. Humans do amazing things! What are we going to do with that?” So yes, very rich.

JJ: I’m going to be so bold – as the person who is not an anthropologist – to suggest that it is entirely Durkheim’s fault!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: So in scholarship we generally learn about thinkers from the debates that they get into, right? So we read Tylor and Durkheim at the same time. If we work on early Christianity, a lot of what we know about early Christian heresies are from orthodox people who write about them, and not from them themselves. And a similar thing has happened, I think, and has always happened in academic work. So, because we learn about and teach about figures via these debates, I think what you get, necessarily, are these polarised caricatures, which by necessity lack richness, depth and nuance. So I don’t know if there’s something in particular about our history, per se. I think it has something to do with our pedagogical tools, and our tools of the transmission of ideas. So, for whatever reason, this is how we transmit ideas: by pitting people against each other.

MAA: So within anthropology . . . . So, when I was an undergrad I never heard of any of these folks, or just very slightly. Going into graduate school at phase one at the MA level, one of the people who turned into one of my professors – not on my advisory or my supervisory committee – but when I told him I was interested in religion, the first thing that came out of his mouth was (25:00): “You must really love Durkheim!” And I was like, “Durkheim? Who’s Durkheim?”

All: (Laughter)

MAA: But then, it’s curious as to why Durkheim? He becomes like the champion of actually studying religion, where apparently Tylor is dealing with other things.

LS: That’s kind of understandable in the 20th century, I think. Because if you have a book that’s called The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and you have book called Primitive Culture, there’s, like, a political zeitgeist which means you might want to recommend one book and not the other, for purely optics reasons.

GH: There’s also the thing about the armchair in the early 20th century and mid-20th century – that the whole Oxford style is just put aside, demonised in that sense. So then, I don’t know, maybe it becomes impossible to find that other Tylor again out of old Stockings’ notes, there’s a few bits of a diary, or whatever it was. Somebody else has to represent it.

JJ: But Durkheim didn’t go to Australia!

All: Exactly! (Laughter)

LS: He focussed on one case study and drew all his conclusions about all of human religion from it!

PT: Brilliantly!

LS: Brilliantly – yes! I think we should not get into Durkheim bashing!

All: (Laughter)

GH: But does Sociology . . . . Do you have to do that? Can’t Sociology stay in the study?

JC: What I was trying to do in my paper was to underscore that Tylor, like many others, had certain criteria for determining the validity of a statement, you might say. So, in the issue of the question of whether humans were originally monotheistic, or whether they were at lower levels and developed higher a social evolutionary scale, what I tried to argue was that Tylor had already decided the answer to this, not on the basis of his empirical investigations – although he cited empirical investigations, as so did Lang, both did, and so did Wilhelm Schmidt. Wilhelm Schmidt was fantastic in his ethnographies – but he started from a position and he proved his position. So one way that I tried to look at these influential scholars is to try to help students see these fundamental starting points. And show how, therefore, the starting point produces the conclusion. And then examine how it would be possible to insert actual empirical evidence into this, in order to determine the value of their arguments. That’s one thing. But then, the other point I tried to make in the paper was that all of these things, all of these discussions – at least in the study of indigenous peoples – is about people who are just there as sort of laboratory agents and not really agents themselves. But they’re there to be studied to prove the theory with which I began. And what I’ve tried to do is to say, if we look at the some of the ways in which indigenous people have been depicted: as passive; as powerless; as incapable of thinking, or dreaming, or whatever; and they just do things because they’re caught in this horrible existence, and they have to solve their problems. But actually, to let them have the voice, or a voice, a prominent voice in how these questions are addressed and answered. And to my mind, if you go back to Tylor or any of these classical theorists, one can begin looking at ways which will impact on the ways we do our own studies. And that, to me, is an important way of using these scholars.

LS: A point that another contributor to the book, Martin Stringer, likes to point out is that it’s very easy to classify Tylor in certain respects because he was writing at was the very early stage in the generation of the social sciences. That he, in some ways, lacked the kind of language to actually discuss some of the things he wanted to get at (30:00). So one of the things that can get quite . . . . Actually reading the text, and then comparing that with the way Tylor was often interpreted, he was interpreted as someone who’s just talking about individuals, who are just kind of reflecting . . . . The term “savage philosopher” makes you think of an individual. If I actually recall the text accurately, I think he actually only uses this expression once or twice. I don’t think he uses it very often.

GH: That’s right.

LS: It’s quite an over-played term, because it’s the term to explain Tylor. But he actually only refers to it once or twice. I think something that really gets missed . . . . Martin likes to talk about the fact that Tylor was fascinated with language and with different groups – always remember that these were ethnological examples. So sometimes these things were far more social than they sometimes appeared. And to relate that to the kind of work that is going on in the cognitive sciences of religion now, we seem to be talking about “cognitive capacities”. This is where the psychic unity of mankind comes in. What are patterns of thought that are widely shared? But behind this is very much a social context. So there’s a brilliant quote where he talks about the fact that when people encounter dreams and visions, these are always in a very, very specific local form. If you’re a Catholic you’re encountering dreams of the Virgin Mary, and this is produced by your social context. So, for example, a 1st century Catholic – inasmuch as you can talk about Catholicism at the that time – is not encountering the kind of 16th century vision of the Madonna with all of the tiaras and the stylised – the stylised depiction of the Madonna has already become an important part – and that’s inherently social, what he’s talking about. If I may just expand on one point: in terms of his, he actually, at one point tried to explain the evolution of the concept of ideas. That’s a word that we take for granted: idea. But actually, we trace that to . . . I think it was Democritus, I think – one of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. And he actually tried to explain this as a product of a sort of animistic culture, where what would be termed ideas were actually encountered as almost personalities. And he tried to locate this in the context of Greece itself.

JC: One thing that appears, at least, when we talk about Tylor’s projection theory, that of the inner individual – you have dreams, you see somebody die, breath goes out of them – it seems to imply that there is a spirit or a soul or that there’s a body and soul and so on. That seems to me, at least, that what appears lacking in this part of it, is the social context, the ritual context, in which these dreams or visions, or relationships with the dead or ancestors, is all, in a sense, socially validated, socially constructed. And then becomes lived out in ritual contexts. For example, the work that I’ve been doing on Australian Aboriginal religions and, in the 1930s what this man I’ve been looking at, TGH Draylaw, has discovered was that the ancestors who then went back into the ground after creating – and then come forth again in the rituals – are actually reincarnated in their ancestors. But these reincarnations in the ritual now become the original ancestor. But none of this, it seems to me, would make sense to . . . . It’s very difficult to make sense of anyway. But to make sense of it in strictly individualistic ways of thinking, it has to be understood in the whole way that this society’s constructed, and the relationships that people have amongst one another, and with other groups within that society. So it’s not directly related to your question, but it is sort of looking at this idea. If you say that Tylor was using a projection theory – that is, projecting out of the individual experience, to create this – it seems to me that, insofar as he did that, he overlooked and was deficient in the concept of the social construction of which these experiences occur. I’m not saying that these experiences don’t occur, but I’m saying that they can only be interpreted and, in a sense, made useful and meaningful in the social context.

PT: And I think that’s what Tylor shows us about the history of anthropology. (35:00) In the beginning Tylor and others are collecting instances of beliefs or practices of X kind, of Y kind and then plotting where they are in populations. And as people start to look at the kind of methodologies, the evolutionist methodologies, then you get that moment where ethnography starts to become, you know . . . . Perhaps following Boas in the United States – the idea that rather than collecting and arranging ethnographic data in that way, one should contextualise it, rather than see it as individual units that have that kind of distribution. But understand them as holistically interdependent with one another. In other words, ethnography fieldwork: going to a particular place, staying there for a sustained period of time during which one learns the language and understands how this data is all connected relationally. That’s partly what studying a figure does, isn’t it? It allows you to have access to the history of a discipline in a slightly different light, and seeing it unfold.

GH: We’ve actually come to end of the time allotted for this conversation. And that maybe actually a perfect point, that we’ve reached, to stop: this thought about why these classic figures remain important and what we pick up from them. So thank you all for joining me in the conversation.

All: Thank you. A pleasure.

LS: Thanks to our audience, as well, for participating!

All: (Laughter)

Citation Info: Harvey, Graham, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera. 2018. “Tylor Roundtable”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/tylor-roundtable/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

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

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

Tom_White,_Wesley_Wilding_27-Jul-2017

Tom White (left) and Wesley Wildman (right)

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Wildman-_Modelling_Religion_1.1

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

Wesley Wildman (WW): Thanks, Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WW: My pleasure.

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

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

Dear subscriber,

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just send them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com, which is now back in order!

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

Deadline: January 1, 2017

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Conference: Old Norse Myth and Völkisch Ideology

September 6–8, 2017

Basel, Switzerland

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Conference: Apocalypse and Authenticity

July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

Deadline: December 1, 2016

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Conference: SocRel: On the Edge? Centres and Margins in the Sociology of Religion

July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: December 9, 2016

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Conference: British Association for Islamic Studies

April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: November 30, 2016

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Conference: SISR/ISSR: Religion, Cooperation, and Conflict in Diverse Societies

4–7 July 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: American Psychological Association

Special issue: American Atheism, Agnosticism, and Non-Religious Worldviews: Theoretical Models and Psychological Measurement

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Journal: Religion, State & Society

Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

Deadline: August 15, 2017

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Journal: Religions

Special issue: Religion and Genocide

Deadline: March 15, 2017

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Summer School: Prophétologies musulmanes: discours et représentations

June 29 – July 5, 2017

Aix en Provence, France

Deadline: January 4, 2017

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Symposium: 500 years: The Reformation and Its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: April 30, 2017

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Symposium: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Symposium: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: December 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Communicative Figurations

December 7–9, 2016

Universität Bremen, Germany

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SSNB Lecture Series: Evangelical and Tablighi Pioneers on Post-Atheist Frontiers

December 1, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Roundtable: Who cares about unbelief?

December 2, 2016, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

London, UK

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NSRN Annual Lecture: Is atheism a religion?

December 2, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Lecture Series: Jewish atheists in foxholes? Phenomenologies of violence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

December 7, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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Jobs and funding

Faculty Fellowships: Summer Institute for Israel Studies

Brandeis University, USA

Deadline: January 20, 2017

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Lecturer: Modern Jewish Studies

Pennsylvania State University, USA

Deadline: March 19, 2017

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Postdoctoral position: Religion and Its Publics

University of Virginia, USA

Deadline: December 15, 2016

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DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

ARDA database hub.

ARDA Research Hub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joe Henrich presenting.

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

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

See you in the next life? Cognitive foundations of reincarnation beliefs

Human reincarnation: Same person, different body, another life. From established theological doctrines to local folk beliefs, the idea that deceased individuals may be “reborn” into the body of another can be found all over the world (White, In press). Since the writings of philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, establishing personal identity has primarily focused on memory. The interplay between memories and what constitutes a person’s identity plays an interesting role in reincarnation beliefs. For example, when juxtaposed alongside theologies that teach that the individual undergoes mental or physical changes in the process of rebirth, how can this same individual be identified in the new life if they have undergone changes (White, 2015)? In this podcast, Dr. Claire White brings the tools of cognitive science of religion (CSR) to bear on this question and several others surrounding reincarnation beliefs.  

Dr. White begins  by discussing the ongoing research at her laboratory at California State University, Northridge. She goes on to introduce the topic of reincarnation, noting that only recently has CSR paid much attention to these types of beliefs. While conceptual scaffolding surrounding the idea of reincarnation can vary widely from culture to culture, Dr. White draws on some of her recent research pointing out that many similarities exist in how individuals reason about and discern the pre-rebirth identities of the reincarnated. In closing, Dr. White shares some preliminary insights gathered from her ethnography of “past-life groups” in the western United States. Interested in why some individuals may be attracted to these groups, she suggests the groups may function as a form of psychotherapy and self-actualization for those attending.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Memory, and Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, small dinosaur figurines, poppy seeds, and more.

Many thanks to NAASR for facilitating the recording of this interview.

References

  • White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 15(3-4), 402-429. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685373-12342158
  • White, C. (In press). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.

Mysticism, Spirituality, and Boats at the IAPR 2015 World Congress

The International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) 2015 World Congress was held on August 17th-20th. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Alex Uzdavines, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

It’d be too much to say that I finally “get” horizontal transcendence (Coleman, Silver, & Hood, In Press), but I certainly got a horizontally transcendent experience at the IAPR 2015 World Congress in Istanbul, Turkey. Obviously, I was on a boat. It might have been related to the truly international collection of researchers discussing fascinating things (shop talk and otherwise) while enjoying a flagrantly stunning day on the  Bosphorous. Although on reflection, the sea-sickness meds probably didn’t hurt. Regardless, there were several points along the way where I found myself disconnected, floating for a moment in a sense of overwhelming peace and happiness. Of course, I might have also been primed for this experience by a symposium the day before, which stuck (and has continued to stick) in my mind.

 Jesper Sørensen presenting.

Jesper Sørensen

One could almost describe the first invited symposium of the conference, organized by Heinz Streib, as magical, although not the kind I usually deal with. Magic, Mysticism, Spirituality: Religion’s Fellow Species delivered exactly what was promised, as series of interesting talks on areas which are both components of and discreet from religion more broadly. After an introduction by Dr. Streib which outlined both the usefulness and problems with using prototypical categories like the ones dealt with in the symposium, Jesper Sørensen outlined his work in fractioning the idea of magic. He discussed both the discreet components of what it is (people have a goal with doing it, the causal mechanism is opaque, ritualized, etc.) and that before we can synthesize these components together to study magic as a whole, we need to develop and explore hypotheses about the discreet components. For instance, when thinking about ritual behavior one component might be a need to negate strong causal expectations or develop weak ones. He used the ritual of Christian Communion as an example, “There’s no intuitive schema for why eating bread leads to grace,” but the ritual surrounding the cracker consumption develops a causal link where there otherwise might not be one. For me, this discussion highlighted the furor surrounding the desecration of a communion wafer by PZ Myers, and perhaps explained some of the underlying cognitive reasons behind it.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

symposium from the APA Division 36 mid-year conference. It also, in some ways, ran counter to Sørensen’s discussion of the need to explore the individual components of higher-order factors before working with the factors themselves. Of course, much of this has to do with what one means by, “reductionism.” Nevertheless, Hood described the push to make the psychology of religion fit into mainstream psychology by jettisoning many of the variables and ideas unique to religion and theology. Instead early researchers framed the sub-field using the same variables as the rest of psychology, but with some being more salient within a religious context than others. In doing so, the field might have lost out on exploring some of the more ineffable experiences that are associated with mysticism. This jettisoning is reflected in a lack of critical history among the current crop of handbooks on the psychology of religion and spirituality. They don’t discuss the tensions and interplay between the fields of psychology and theology which have led to the current state of the psychology of religion.

The final talk, presented by Streib, dealt with the semantics of spirituality and his work exploring the subfactors which may comprise this construct. He presented the results of several principal component analyses on data derived from a content analysis of open responses from roughly 1700 Germans and Americans on what they considered to be, “spirituality.” The participants had a wide range of belief identifications within the religious, spiritual, and nonreligious spectrum, allowing Streib and the other researchers to get a wider range of meanings than what might be found in a purely theistic sample. The PCAs generated ten different subfactors nested along three higher-order axes and, when taken together, define the range of meanings which grew out of their content analysis of the qualitative data. In particular, I was interested in how the three axes worked to explain some of the tension which can occur when trying to stitch together the definitions of “spirituality” generated by both believers and nonbelievers. In particular, the axes Mystical vs. Humanistic Transcending (something beyond, higher self) and Theistic vs. Nontheistic Transcending (higher power(s), part of religion) seem to be a big step towards shaving off some of the “fuzz” which often surrounds findings that rely on measures of “spirituality” which don’t take into account that different people can come at that term from very different meanings.

However, the big issue that was (and is) still in my mind after these three talks was the idea of supernaturalism vs. naturalism and the tensions between these that Hood raised. Here, Sørensen’s work seemed to be placed firmly within the realm of the naturalistic by breaking magic down into the cognitive processes that go into the beliefs surrounding it. Yet this doesn’t seem to be hitting on the “ineffable” components that may be unique to religion and mystical experience, which magic certainly seems to be a part of. Similarly, the two axes presented by Streib (which I discussed here) seem to imply a dichotomy of spirituality that is supernaturalistically versus naturalistically derived. Most of the constructs he presented seemed to sit more on the side of the “supernatural” with “natural” spirituality seemingly defined more in opposition, similarly to how theistic nonbelief is defined mostly in opposition to or as absence of theistic belief, rather than being a thing within itself. In effect, is it possible that people who identify as “neither religious, nor spiritual,” yet experience similar feelings of connectedness to those who identify as “spiritual,” have just removed the “spirit” component which implies the supernatural, while still retaining the other components of the term? It’s hard to say, but I’m looking forward to seeing more work (and producing some myself!) to try and figure this out.

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

My particular focus on this symposium came out of its relationship to my own work and what I feel are some of the major discussions going on in our field rather than out of lack of other fascinating talks to cover, not to mention the boat trip. However, several examples pertaining to nonbelief and nonbelievers can be found in Thomas Coleman’s forthcoming report for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Blog. Further, due to travel difficulties among the other presenters, Peter Hill gracefully carried an entire symposium on measurement with a discussion of his work generating a scale to measure Intellectual Humility and Paul Harris’ keynote about how children only seem to come to believe in magical and miraculous thinking when they have a religious upbringing (as opposed to magical and miraculous thinking being native) is worthy of its own discrete report.

The academic quality of the conference alone was strong enough to make this one of the best conference experiences in my career so far. However, given the stunning beauty of the location, the warmth and kindness of our hosts from Marmara and İzmir Katip Çelebi Universities and the Center for Islamic Studies (special mention going to Kenan Sevinç both for much of the photography throughout the conference and helping me navigate a Turkish pharmacy so I could go on the boat trip), I suspect this conference will stand out in my memory for a long time to come.

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

References

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (In Press). “…if the universe is beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – A ‘Neither Religious nor Spiritual’ Biography as Horizontal Transcendence In Streib, H. & Hood, R. (Eds.) The Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality. Dordrecht, NL:
Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-21245-6_22

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

‘Religious’ and ‘Spiritual’ Struggles: Now in ‘Nonreligious’ and ‘Nonspiritual’ flavors!

The fact that not only do religious believers sometimes question, struggle with, or even doubt their beliefs, but that resolving these issues can lead someone to a greater level of acceptance and understanding of their faith has been embodied in the form of quest-orientation for some time (Batson & Ventis, 1982). But recently, researchers studying the psychology of religion and spirituality have become more interested in how these spiritual stuggles might also lead towards distress as well (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014). But are these struggles only experienced by the ‘religious’ about ‘religious’ beliefs? Or could people, even nonbelievers, also experience analogous struggles which impact their lives, for both good and bad.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Julie Exline talks about her work in developing the Religious and Spiritual Struggles scale, where the original ideas came from and how they interacted with her previous work surrounding anger towards god (Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011). She then goes on to describe how some interesting findings within her previous work led her to be interested in whether or not nonbelievers experience similar ‘spiritual’ struggles, if they could be measured and compared to believers’ struggles, and how to measure them in a way valid for both believers and nonbelievers. She also gives a brief overview of some of her current work and interests in the area of nonbelief and secularity more broadly.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us (but only if you enjoyed it, please). And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, non-academic texts, arcane grimoires, miscellaneous intellectual paraphernalia, and more!

This is our last podcast until September 2015… but don’t forget that you can keep up with the RSP on Martin will be featuring podcasts from the archive on the homepage throughout the summer, and that there will be the occasional feature to keep you entertained. Thanks for listening!

References

  • Batson, C. D., & Ventis, W. L. (1982). The religious experience: A social-psychological perspective. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465
  • Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smyth, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 129–148. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0021716

Self-Report: We Can Do Better (And Are!)

The Religious Studies Project interview with Dr. Luke Galen conducted by Tommy Coleman was an excellent cross-section of some of the a long way to go in figuring out ways to both incorporate nonbelievers into our work as well as to signal when our findings only apply to a particular belief group, instead of all humans (ie. “Increased religiosity helps prevent recurring depression for religious believers” instead of “Religion prevents depression”). The idea that we need to explicitly include nonbelievers in our samples has begun to find solid ground, both in Dr. Galen’s work and others’ (e.g. Galen, 2012; Streib & Klein, 2013), but there have been some issues with developing this idea further. Dr. Galen alluded to one of the major issues in continuing to include nonbelievers, namely the increasing usage of the word “spirituality.” Does it include well-being and having a sense of meaning in life? Feelings of Awe and transcendence? Believing in Ghosts, angels, and demons? Yes, and this lack of clarity is a major problem for studies which try and link “spirituality” with mental health and well-being.

I strongly agree with Dr. Galen’s assertion that the amount of criterion contamination found in most discussions and measures of “spirituality” is problematic, and this point was well-highlighted in Tommy’s point about, “long walks on the beach.” A question that covers so much territory may not even be an accurate reflection of general well-being for people who prefer walking in the woods, let alone serve as a marker of the supernatural component implicit in “spirituality.” While I don’t think Dr. Galen presented a hard-experimentalist view completely dismissing self-report, the criterion contamination introduced by our fuzzy definition of “spirituality” and poorly-constructed self-report measures seem to be bundled up into a problem that exists for self-report measures in general. Just as in the study of moral reasoning, experimental designs which attempt to tap implicit beliefs risk ignoring the fact that humans also seem to be able to exert some conscious control over their beliefs and thus can’t be treated as simply heuristic machines (Cunningham et al., 2004; Turiel, 2008).

Instead, it seems best to attempt to fix the problem of poor self-report measures more directly. We can do this by making measures which don’t use double-barreled questions which nonbelievers can’t straightforwardly answer, explicitly addressing the issue of “supernatural spirituality,” and ensuring that aspects of the measure which tap more general well-being concepts are sufficiently differentiated from supernatural concepts. Additionally, to construct better measures we’ll need to include large enough samples of nonbelievers during all stages of scale development to ensure that the resulting measures are valid for both believers and nonbelievers.

I bring all of this up because there are already measures which have been (or are being) published which meet these criteria, so I can flagrantly advertise them. Cragun, Hammer, and Nielsen’s Nonreligious-Nonspirituality Scale (in press) addresses the problem of fuzzy-spirituality by clearly specifying that respondents should only respond in regards to their beliefs regarding the supernatural aspects of spirituality and not the more general well-being aspects. In addition, their scale was developed for use with believers as well and seems to validly measure the extent of their nonreligious and nonspiritual beliefs, allowing for comparisons between believers and nonbelievers which might not be feasible with “beach walking” measures of spirituality.

While Dr. Galen’s assertion that the well-being of nonbelievers has been underestimated due to incorrectly grouping them with believers who might be experiencing religious and/or spiritual struggles seems to be an accurate depiction of the literature at the moment, this also seems likely to be a problem of improperly interpreted self-report measures rather than with self-report in general. There is initial evidence pointing to a U-shaped curve of well-being related to the strength of a person’s (non)belief (Streib & Klein, 2013). Investigating this idea using the level of control afforded by in-lab experimental studies will be important, but it will also be important to leverage the generalizability of broad self-report studies. We just need a measure of “spiritual” struggles which actually works with the kinds of struggles which might point to lower levels of belief for both believers and nonbelievers.

At the risk of continuing to over-toot the horns of projects that I’m involved with, the Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014) seems like it will work in that regard. While two of the sub-scales explicitly contain supernatural items, the scale is modular and our early analyses indicated that atheists experience less spiritual struggles than agnostics, when excluding the explicitly supernatural scales (Uzdavines, Bradley, & Exline, 2014). We are currently working on confirming that the scale is measurement invariant with fine-grained belief identification groups (ie. Atheists, Agnostics, Theists, etc) before investigating the link between non-supernatural “spiritual” struggles and well-being, but our early analyses show that it is invariant when considering nonbelievers and believers as two broad groups.

Which is all to say; those of us within psychology of religion who study secularity are privileged to be working in a time where secular beliefs and nonbelievers are starting to be taken seriously within the field as a whole. Maintaining a high level of rigor in the methodology we employ, while important in and of itself, is even more crucial because of the history of criterion contamination within the field that Dr. Galen discussed in this interview and in his own work. “Spirituality” is an overly broad term and, when interpreted incorrectly, can lead to conclusions that more religion leads to more well-being without considering that more nonreligion might also lead to more well-being. It will take much more work to shift the field towards accepting religious nonbelief as a discreet and important category, separate from religious belief even if we still need to clarify our terminology.

But rigorous does not only mean experimental. Self-report can provide interesting avenues of investigation, but more care needs to be taken in building self-report measures which minimize criterion contamination and allow nonbelievers to indicate their level of nonbelief or well-being without having to dance around double-barreled questions. Fortunately, the rapidly expanding breadth of research communities dedicated to investigating secularity should allow the field of secular studies to continue pooling ideas and methodology to illuminate the nature of nonbelief and nonbelievers.

References

Cragun, R. T., Hammer, J. H., & Nielsen, M. (in press). The Nonreligious-Nonspiritual Scale (NRNSS): Measuring Everyone from Atheists to Zionists. Science, Religion, and Culture.

Cunningham, W. A., Johnson, M. K., Raye, C. L., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., & Banaji, M. R. (2004). Separable neural components in the processing of black and white faces. Psychological Science, 15(12), 806–813.

Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465

Galen, L. W. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876–906. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0028251

Streib, H., & Klein, C. (2013). Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, & J. W. Jones (Eds.), APA handbook of psychology, peligion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research (Vol. 1, pp. 713–728). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Turiel, E. (2008). The Development of Children’s Orientations toward Moral, Social, and Personal Orders: More than a Sequence in Development. Human Development, 51(1), 21–39. http://doi.org/10.1159/000113154

Uzdavines, A., Bradley, D. F., & Exline, J. J. (2014). Struggle and the nonreligious: Do weaker forms of nonbelief increase susceptibility to spiritual struggle? In Religious and spiritual struggles: New research frontiers. La Mirada, CA.

 

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing and Prosociality

Is religion good for your health and wellbeing? Does religion promote prosociality? While positive stereotypes prevail in these domains, studies also typically answer these questions in the affirmative[1] and as such, it is easy to think that there must be something special, sui generis, or even perhaps supernatural at work, which increases psychological health and drives charitable behavior. However, regardless of whether or not a deity may be at work, the Devil is certainly in the details. Recently, methodological critiques have been proposed (Galen, 2012, in press) and empirical studies are accruing (Galen & Kloet 2011; Moore & Leach, 2015) that cast doubt on whether there is anything “special” about the possible effects of religiosity on wellbeing and prosociality.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Luke Galen provides a critical assessment of the literature linking religiosity to wellbeing and prosocial behavior. The interview begins with a short review of Galen’s past research and current projects. Next, he presents an overview of how researchers currently conceptualize the wellbeing and prosociality link before discussing some of the measurement limitations present in these studies. Further, Dr. Galen covers recent priming studies that suggest both religious and secular primes achieve equal ends in terms of behavioral monitoring. In closing, he discusses whether or not there is anything unique to the religion, wellbeing, and prosociality link that couldn’t be accounted for through general naturalistic mechanisms.

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

References

  • Galen, L. (in press) Atheism, Wellbeing, and the Wager: Why Not Believing in God (With Others) is Good for You. [Special issue] Shook, J. R., Hood, R. W. Jr., & Coleman, T. J. III, (Eds.) Science, Religion & Culture.
  • Galen, L. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876-906. doi:10.1037/a0028251
  • Galen, L., & Kloet, J. (2010). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious: evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(7), 673-689.      doi:10.1080/13674676.2010.510829
  • Koenig, H. (2011). Spirituality & health research. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.
  • Moore, J., & Leach, M. (2015). Dogmatism and Mental Health: A Comparison of the Religious and Secular. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality. doi:10.1037/rel0000027
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A., Gervais, W., Willard, A., McNamara, R., Slingerland, E., & Henrich, J. (2014). The Cultural evolution of Prosocial Religions. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 1-86. doi:10.1017/s0140525x14001356

[1] (for a review of religion and health see, Koenig, 2011; for a review of religious prosociality see, Norenzayan, Shariff, Willard, Slingerland, Gervais, McNamara & Henrich, 2014)

Podcasts

Putting an Umbrella Over a Bridge

A Response to “Worldviews and Ways of Life”

by Alex Uzdavines

Read more

Worldviews and Ways of Life

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

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

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, the classic album Wu-Tang Forever, peanut butter, and more.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

DR: Yes. Very much so.

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

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

AT: Yes

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

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

DR: OK.

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

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

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

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

AT: exactly

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

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

DR: OK

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

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

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

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

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

DR: OK.

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

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

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

DG: A collective cultural schema.

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

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

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

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

AT: Right. Right.

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

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

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

AT: Or not completely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DR: Differently.

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

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

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

DR: Absolutely, yes.

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

DR: Yes. That helps!

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

DR: OK

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

DR: Yes.

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

DR: Yes.

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

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

AT: Yes.

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

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

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Religious cliché and stigma

A Response to “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”

by Christopher F. Silver

Read more

Autism, Religion, and Imagination

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

 

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

Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TC: Right.

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

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

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

TC: Right

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

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

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

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

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

TC: How so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TC: Really? Ok.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Thanks Tommy.

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

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

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The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable

Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) in many respects has a fixed place in the academic memory of religious studies and cultural anthropology yet acknowledgement of his role is often purely historical, as a key ancestor of little direct relevance to contemporary discussions. This has left us with a limited narrative about the man and his work; a particular received or canonical Tylor defined by his introduction of the concept of animism, his intellectualist approach to religion, his armchair research and staunch social evolutionism. The year of his centenary is an opportunity to begin the task of critically examining the legacy left by Tylor’s work on religion and culture, how much the received Tylor matches his body of work, whether other Tylors can be extracted from these texts which undermine such a limited perspective on a long and eventful career and whether contemporary scholars can find anything of ongoing relevance in the work of such a historically distant figure.

This roundtable recorded at the annual BASR conference at the University of Chester 2017 brought together a group of scholars interested in different perspectives on the legacy of Tylor. Topics discussed included his impact on indigenous societies, the debates over animism, monotheism and the definition of religion as well as his relevance to the cognitive sciences of religion and the degree to which Tylor can be classed as an ethnographer and more. This roundtable includes contributions from Dr Miguel Astor-Aguilera of Arizona State University, Dr Jonathan Jong of Coventry University’s Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab, James L. Cox Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, Liam T. Sutherland – PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Paul Tremlett at the Open University and the much appreciated audience!

The centenary of Tylor’s death was also the theme for a new volume edited by Tremlett, Sutherland and Harvey ‘Edward Tylor, Religion and Culture’ published with Bloomsbury which features contributions from all of the roundtable participants (apart from the audience) and several other scholars, which was launched at the conference.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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

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

Podcast with Graham Harvey, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera (22 January 2018).

Chaired by Graham Harvey

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Tylor_Roundtable_1.1.

Graham Harvey (GH): So this is the Roundtable for our discussion of Edward Tylor for the anniversary of his death, 100 year commemoration. And including myself, we have contributors to this book: Edward Tylor: Religion and Culture. Paul, you had a suggestion for what we should do first?

Paul-Francois Tremlett (PT): I did. My suggestion, as a point of departure, was thinking about this Tylor project as part of a wider question about our relationship to classical theory. And I just thought that might be a nice place to begin. What do we do with early scholarship in Anthropology of Religion/Sociology/Religious Studies, etc? And what’s our relationship to it?

GH: OK, would you like to show us how that’s done?

PT: Well, I don’t think it’s a question of showing you how it’s done. But for me anyway, being involved in this project made me read Tylor in a different way. I’d been used to particular kind of accounts of Tylor’s work in secondary literature. I’d been used to allowing those works to direct me to Primitive Culture and a couple of other things that Tylor wrote. And my Tylor, as it were, was framed by that secondary literature. For this project I read Primitive Culture, two volumes, and a couple of other books- the book Anthropology, a few articles. And I started to get a sense that there were other Tylors, apart from the sort of canonical account. And I found it a really refreshing process. At the same time as doing that, I was actually involved in a slightly different project which meant that I was also reading The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, by Emile Durkheim. And I was reading that – also from cover to cover – and a few other things by Durkheim. And I started to get a very different picture of the kinds of conversations taking place between scholars at the end of the 19th, early 20th century. And it changed my relationship with that theory, and I think I got a hell of a lot out of it, frankly. And I’d thoroughly recommend it to others: read that material. Yes, of course you need the secondary literature – it’s there for a reason and it’s helpful – but at the same time you also need to de-familiarise yourself, and go through the texts as freshly as possible.

GH: It was also interesting, as well as doing some of that re-reading – I wouldn’t say I’ve read both the volumes and all the other work – but reading more of Tylor, but also reading other people’s work as we were editing the book. And being pointed to other parts to look up, and thinking, “OK, so that enriches my understanding of what he was trying to do, and the data he was using and the way he used it.” But also, it’s been interesting . . . A lot of the chapters in the book do this comparative thing – as Jim’s does, and as mine does and other people’s do – to think about Tylor’s practice and his argument alongside other peoples, and to see that. So that, too, was quite an interesting experience: seeing selective reading, sometimes, by other people and thinking how our theories and work arises out of these interesting conversations.

Liam Sutherland (LS): Well, I mean, I came at this very much from a different stage in my career, because I looked at the relationship between modern theory and EB Tylor for my Master’s project. So this really came out from my undergraduate exposure to Theory and Method, which was one of the elements I found the most interesting. But I was quite fascinated with the bits of Tylor that had been presented. But it was very much – as Paul has touched on – in a very kind of codified, boxed in way. But I thought there was a lot of explanatory potential there, so I wanted to go back and pursue this at a deeper level with my Master’s. And I think it was when I actually, really had to get to grips with this, with the primary sources, with the two volumes of Primitive Culture, (5:00) that it really became apparent to me, sort-of really just how much can be lost without necessarily being wrong. It’s not – as we touch on in the book – it’s not necessarily the case that the canonical Tylor, as we’ve called it, is completely, is an inaccurate depiction; it’s a limited one, and perhaps a necessarily limited one. But it’s the fact that when you go and read the primary sources in context, it’s quite a different experience. And sometimes the kind of voice, the nuances, and the humanity of some of the early scholars that you look at can really get lost; that they’re actually far more persuasive, especially in their own context, than we actually give credit for. So, as much as my particular focus has been Tylor, I hope that I’ve at least internalised these lessons. So that with other key theorists that I’m only dimly aware of, or that I’m only aware of the canonical version of, that I might already begin to suspect that there’s more to the picture that I’m missing, and at least try to look for that in future.

Jonathan Jong (JJ): So Liam, you discovered Tylor during your undergraduate studies,

LS: Yes.

JJ: . . .which is to say that your lecturers put him on the reading list, right?

LS: Yes, that’s true.

JJ: And for that reason, I think, it’s kind of surprising that we are surprised that we get a lot out of reading Tylor. Because we must have known this at some level, assuming- I don’t do this kind of work – but, like, the rest of you around this table presumably assign Tylor. So why do you do that?

GH: No, I haven’t.

Miguel Astor-Aguilera (MAA): I assign him, but it’s in the same manor that it was when I was in graduate school in seminars: little snippets. Nobody assigned a complete work of Tylor, Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard, or Frazer. Oftentimes they wind up in readers where: “This is what they meant, so that’s what you get.” So this is one of the fantastic things about not only being in the volume, but it’s also, as you mentioned, going in and actually reading exactly what he said, which makes a world of difference.

JJ: But what motivates people who design syllabi to put the classical – even if snippets of the classical texts – what motivates people who construct theses syllabi to put them there in the first place? Is it for historical interest? Do scholars like yourselves think that there is something of value for today? How does it come about that these people appear in our textbooks? I ask this question because, in the Sciences, this doesn’t really happen. We don’t assign Darwin’s Origin, really, any more, in biology classes, right? We don’t really assign Freud in Psychology classes.

MAA: The question would be: Why not?

JJ: Indeed. But if the question is, what is it that we get out of it, I think it is precisely as you say: why, and why not? Pros and cons of putting in, or omitting the venerable texts of our intellectual traditions in the syllabi. I don’t think we should take it for granted that all the things of the past should be jettisoned in a sort of . . . . Like, Dan Dennet likes to say that he’s never read any philosophy within 60 years prior, or something like that. But that’s ridiculous, right? But just because those two positions are ridiculous it doesn’t mean that we don’t need reasons for there to be no position.

GH: One of the answers to your question, I think, is Liam’s phrase, “the canonical Tylor”. There are a number of canonical figures who are set as readings. So there has been . . . . I don’t know if people are still producing readers, maybe they are – I’ve produced a couple – in which we select short extracts from canonical texts – very rarely saying, I think, that the issues that they engaged with, or the methods that they practised are still current, or should generate more work. However, some of them do do that, very clearly, and I think we’ve demonstrated that very well. Tylor and others do, clearly, have the potential to generate new questions, or to bring us back to the nub of the question we are asking now. So, in my case: what does animism mean? In James’ case, what does monotheism mean? How do they define it? How do they – putatively – among whom you research, what do they think those terms mean?

James L. Cox (JC): Well I think, part of the approach has been, for example, in Eric Sharpe’s classic Comparative Religion: A History, is to provide a kind of basis and understanding of what’s gone before. Sot that the students don’t think that we’re just inventing things as they come along, and: “Aha! Here’s a new idea!” Because many of the new ideas are old ideas (10:00). And they’ve been reworked, and thought through, and so on. And so I think that students need a background, but of course they can make the mistake of – which we sometimes make – just simply critiquing them in the light of a hundred-and-some years later, and applying theories and methods, and ignoring everything that’s come in between. But I do think it’s important to study the classical and important figures in the history. Another thing that I’ve done has been to use these figures, because my area of development has been the phenomenology of religion. And many of the key phenomenologists of religion, writing in the early to mid-20th century, bounced themselves off (early ethnographers), particularly criticising them for their assumptions about evolutionary ideas about development, advancement according to almost an application of Darwinian theory in social contexts. And part of the theory there was to say: “Well, unless we’re aware of these presuppositions that influence the way we think, we won’t be able to critique our own ways of thinking.” And so, just one other thing, and that is – I have most recently been doing work on Australia – the practical effect of these writers. For example, the theories of Baldwin Spencer and his colleague Frank Gillen, about the aboriginal peoples of Australia being the lowest form of human development. And there’s a very famous quote that I use: “Just like the platypus has gone and faded away, so will these people inevitably be taken over by the more advanced civilisations.” And if one thinks about the social consequences of this idea, it could be argued, and has been argued that this way of thinking led to justification for genocide. Because aboriginal peoples are going to be made extinct anyway, naturally: “so we can take over”. And it could be said that these theories are not just in the air – just up in the air – but they actually have social consequences. So these are the three things I would say: they need a foundation; we need to be able to critique them according to other theories; and we need to know the social consequences of our thinking.

PT: That’s interesting. I mean, the way I encountered Tylor as an undergraduate was in a class about definitions. So you had the substantive Tylorian definition, the functional Durkheimian definition, and the pinnacle, at that point, was Clifford Geertz. And maybe we read Talal Asad alongside that, if we had a particularly brave tutor!

All: (Laughter)

JC: Which you probably, usually didn’t! (Laughter)

PT: So, that’s the kind of way in which Tylor would appear in undergraduate curricula. I was thinking of readers. The last anthropology of religion reader I recall is Lambek’s: Michael Lambek. And I think Tylor’s in there. And I think, again, it’s around this definition of religion as belief in spiritual beings – as we all know. And that’s part of the history, the conversation – Eric Sharpe’s is a good example; Brian Morris’ anthropology . . . .

JC: Fiona Bowie

PT: Exactly. And Tylor’s in all of them one way or another.

LS: But that’s exactly how I encountered it first. It was in a class talking about the definition of religion and I . . . because sometimes you’re just given a slight quote. And obviously, students can’t be interested in every quote that they’re fed. The thing is that sometimes you’re only given a little piece and then you’re not given the materials to read them on your own. You might not be given a chapter to read or anything like that. In my case, though, it really sparked my curiosity, because I wanted to know a bit more about what this actually meant. And when we went on to explore theories, for example, in greater detail, I found that James Fraser . . . . One of the texts we were using was Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion, and I think it’s a very, very good introduction, actually. But he puts Tylor and Fraser together, because they do have similar theories in many respects, but they’re actually quite different. So they just a get a chapter in and of themselves. And he rushes through the material, because he has to, at quite a pace (15:00). So the issues and the nuances can really get lost.

JC: They can, but undergraduates need to have this. And they can be introduced to the primary sources, but if they don’t have the foundation . . . . You’re not going to assign a first year undergraduate student to read two volumes of Primitive Culture!

PT: No!

JC: So you have to give them a kind-of basis. And that can generate their interest and go further. And they might go on to post-graduate work.

MAA: There are seminars where I have colleagues that assign Pals. But it’s because, at the introductory level, they may be coming in from other disciplines.

JC: That’s right.

MAA: So Graham, as you mentioned, you have a reader. And this is where I was actually introduced to your work, and others. So, like a stepping stone to many of these larger works, I think they certainly have their place. Within being a third year into a graduate school, I think it’s certainly time to start reading some of the major heavyweights that we’re talking about, certainly including Tylor.

GH: That’s interesting that we, in the book, most of us engage with primitive cultures and we go right back on that. But you went somewhere very different, somewhere that I’m not even sure that I knew that you’d written anything on it before!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: Well, indeed!

GH: And you’d been to London to hang out with spiritualists and so on, but the whole idea of going to Cuba and Mexico . . . . So is that book used by anthropologists?

  1. No. Most of my colleagues, when I told them about this chapter that I was writing, they were like: “He did what?!”

All: (Laughter)

JJ: “Are you talking about that Tylor??” “Yes, yes!”

GH: The father of armchair anthropology!

JC: I know; it’s all you hear!

JC: But it was not one – that (Pals) book – that was a reader. But we used it in a first year course many years ago. But it had little introductions, and in the introduction it mentioned that Tylor went to Mexico, and that he wasn’t just an armchair anthropologist. It was trying to give the students and idea that: he’s noted for that, he’s criticised for that, but he actually did do some field studies.

All: Absolutely, yes.

JJ: The Pals thing is interesting I think. Because one way of reading the Pals book, as opposed to An Introduction to – now Nine, I believe – Theorists of Religion– of course the title is now Theories of Religion, right? So what Pals does with these figures is uses them as paradigmatic examples of ideas. And that seems like a perfectly reasonable way to think about what to do with these classical texts: as just very good examples of – maybe a terrible thing – but, nonetheless, very good examples of the thing.

LS: I think you’re both absolutely correct. But because you’re introducing these ideas to students you can only package them in so many ways. And obviously, you cannot cover everything to the same degree. And actually, I think what was interesting is, that there’s actually . . . . Because Tylor seems to be one of these figures that people develop a periodic interest in that sometimes is not quite as sustained as figures such as Durkheim. And there’s not even, necessarily, always the scholarship to cover every kind of theorist that has had an input in the process. No, I certainly agree that you cannot . . . that you have to package these ideas in one way or another, and you’re always going to leave something out. So I don’t mean that as a critique of Pals, per se.

GH: There seems to be something different between the ways that Durkheim and others in Sociology, as kind-of the founding figures, are much more positively quoted. Whereas Tylor, my impression is, is usually set up as: “Ok, that was fine in the 19th-century, but we don’t do that anymore!”

LS: (Laughs)

PT: Yes. Absolutely.

GH: “He was stuck in his armchair” – and even if we know (differently), he didn’t do enough of it to allow us to be enthusiastic.

PT: I want to mention Anne Kalvig’s chapter at this point, because Anne’s chapter is all about the séances and Tylor’s interest in spiritualism

GH: Don’t tap the table!

PT: Indeed! Well if the chairs dance, what are we going to do?

All: (Laughter)

PT: And I think – like Miguel’s chapter – that it really contributes to . . . . All I remember, as an undergraduate student, was that Tylor didn’t do any fieldwork. Turns out he actually did quite a lot!

LS: Quite a lot, yes!

PT: And the posthumously published fieldwork notes about the séance that were published by Stocking – that Anne Kalvig works with – I thought they were really interesting. And there’s a very ambivalent Tylor there – about what’s taking place – that reveal quite a lot about his own relationships with mortality,(20:00) with his class, with his background as a Quaker, with what he wants to, I think, perhaps, believe about science and superstition – but at the same time being emotionally and intellectually challenged by being at these events.

GH: I think that’s like in Mexico. Things happened in the séances and things happen when he’s wandering about, he gets a taste for certain kinds of food and these experiences that he has. And he obviously wants to be more celebratory. And then, perhaps, retreats into this more distant version, for whatever reason, I mean.. So that’s the kind-of interesting “multiple Tylors” that we discover. And maybe there wasn’t one, even for him – that he’s a kind-of conflicted figure, being attracted to things that he then wants to dismiss as superstition, you know: “They must have been manipulating the table for this to happen!” So yes, a very interesting character.

MAA: So coming back to what gets assigned and why, these are very . . . . he’s obviously a genius, but like most people of that intellect, he’s very complicated. In Mexico, it would be great to have a photo of him in a sarape as he says he used to wear. I can just see him (Laughter- audio unclear) to the Mexican gods.

GH: There’s a quest there, in the archive, is to find such a picture!

MAA: So one of the things that happens, I think, in studies – and I think it’s a symptom just of academia – is having a knee-jerk reaction to who these people were : “This is what I learned in a seminar: Tylor was this – or this other academic – however great they were in their time. But I want nothing to do with them!” Without actually ever reading their work.

JJ: Well Freud would have a field day with that!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: I don’t know about the other classical thinkers but certainly one good reason to read the Victorian theorists is that nobody writes like that anymore!

LS: That’s true!

JJ: I don’t want to give the audience the impression that the two-volume, dusty Primitive Cultures – four inches of book – is a hard read, because it’s not. But it’s a cracking read! And this is true of so many Victorian theorists. I don’t know what happened, really. I don’t know why we started writing terribly, but it isn’t true of Tylor.

GH: There’s a wealth of examples that he brings together, and whether he does that in the strange cabinet of curiosities thing sometimes, not quite like The Golden Bough, but something of that flavour, with all these weird and wonderful things. And you think, some of it, he’s got this information, data that has been sent to him and he’s presenting it back to people to say, “Look. Humans do amazing things! What are we going to do with that?” So yes, very rich.

JJ: I’m going to be so bold – as the person who is not an anthropologist – to suggest that it is entirely Durkheim’s fault!

All: (Laughter)

JJ: So in scholarship we generally learn about thinkers from the debates that they get into, right? So we read Tylor and Durkheim at the same time. If we work on early Christianity, a lot of what we know about early Christian heresies are from orthodox people who write about them, and not from them themselves. And a similar thing has happened, I think, and has always happened in academic work. So, because we learn about and teach about figures via these debates, I think what you get, necessarily, are these polarised caricatures, which by necessity lack richness, depth and nuance. So I don’t know if there’s something in particular about our history, per se. I think it has something to do with our pedagogical tools, and our tools of the transmission of ideas. So, for whatever reason, this is how we transmit ideas: by pitting people against each other.

MAA: So within anthropology . . . . So, when I was an undergrad I never heard of any of these folks, or just very slightly. Going into graduate school at phase one at the MA level, one of the people who turned into one of my professors – not on my advisory or my supervisory committee – but when I told him I was interested in religion, the first thing that came out of his mouth was (25:00): “You must really love Durkheim!” And I was like, “Durkheim? Who’s Durkheim?”

All: (Laughter)

MAA: But then, it’s curious as to why Durkheim? He becomes like the champion of actually studying religion, where apparently Tylor is dealing with other things.

LS: That’s kind of understandable in the 20th century, I think. Because if you have a book that’s called The Elementary Forms of Religious Life and you have book called Primitive Culture, there’s, like, a political zeitgeist which means you might want to recommend one book and not the other, for purely optics reasons.

GH: There’s also the thing about the armchair in the early 20th century and mid-20th century – that the whole Oxford style is just put aside, demonised in that sense. So then, I don’t know, maybe it becomes impossible to find that other Tylor again out of old Stockings’ notes, there’s a few bits of a diary, or whatever it was. Somebody else has to represent it.

JJ: But Durkheim didn’t go to Australia!

All: Exactly! (Laughter)

LS: He focussed on one case study and drew all his conclusions about all of human religion from it!

PT: Brilliantly!

LS: Brilliantly – yes! I think we should not get into Durkheim bashing!

All: (Laughter)

GH: But does Sociology . . . . Do you have to do that? Can’t Sociology stay in the study?

JC: What I was trying to do in my paper was to underscore that Tylor, like many others, had certain criteria for determining the validity of a statement, you might say. So, in the issue of the question of whether humans were originally monotheistic, or whether they were at lower levels and developed higher a social evolutionary scale, what I tried to argue was that Tylor had already decided the answer to this, not on the basis of his empirical investigations – although he cited empirical investigations, as so did Lang, both did, and so did Wilhelm Schmidt. Wilhelm Schmidt was fantastic in his ethnographies – but he started from a position and he proved his position. So one way that I tried to look at these influential scholars is to try to help students see these fundamental starting points. And show how, therefore, the starting point produces the conclusion. And then examine how it would be possible to insert actual empirical evidence into this, in order to determine the value of their arguments. That’s one thing. But then, the other point I tried to make in the paper was that all of these things, all of these discussions – at least in the study of indigenous peoples – is about people who are just there as sort of laboratory agents and not really agents themselves. But they’re there to be studied to prove the theory with which I began. And what I’ve tried to do is to say, if we look at the some of the ways in which indigenous people have been depicted: as passive; as powerless; as incapable of thinking, or dreaming, or whatever; and they just do things because they’re caught in this horrible existence, and they have to solve their problems. But actually, to let them have the voice, or a voice, a prominent voice in how these questions are addressed and answered. And to my mind, if you go back to Tylor or any of these classical theorists, one can begin looking at ways which will impact on the ways we do our own studies. And that, to me, is an important way of using these scholars.

LS: A point that another contributor to the book, Martin Stringer, likes to point out is that it’s very easy to classify Tylor in certain respects because he was writing at was the very early stage in the generation of the social sciences. That he, in some ways, lacked the kind of language to actually discuss some of the things he wanted to get at (30:00). So one of the things that can get quite . . . . Actually reading the text, and then comparing that with the way Tylor was often interpreted, he was interpreted as someone who’s just talking about individuals, who are just kind of reflecting . . . . The term “savage philosopher” makes you think of an individual. If I actually recall the text accurately, I think he actually only uses this expression once or twice. I don’t think he uses it very often.

GH: That’s right.

LS: It’s quite an over-played term, because it’s the term to explain Tylor. But he actually only refers to it once or twice. I think something that really gets missed . . . . Martin likes to talk about the fact that Tylor was fascinated with language and with different groups – always remember that these were ethnological examples. So sometimes these things were far more social than they sometimes appeared. And to relate that to the kind of work that is going on in the cognitive sciences of religion now, we seem to be talking about “cognitive capacities”. This is where the psychic unity of mankind comes in. What are patterns of thought that are widely shared? But behind this is very much a social context. So there’s a brilliant quote where he talks about the fact that when people encounter dreams and visions, these are always in a very, very specific local form. If you’re a Catholic you’re encountering dreams of the Virgin Mary, and this is produced by your social context. So, for example, a 1st century Catholic – inasmuch as you can talk about Catholicism at the that time – is not encountering the kind of 16th century vision of the Madonna with all of the tiaras and the stylised – the stylised depiction of the Madonna has already become an important part – and that’s inherently social, what he’s talking about. If I may just expand on one point: in terms of his, he actually, at one point tried to explain the evolution of the concept of ideas. That’s a word that we take for granted: idea. But actually, we trace that to . . . I think it was Democritus, I think – one of the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. And he actually tried to explain this as a product of a sort of animistic culture, where what would be termed ideas were actually encountered as almost personalities. And he tried to locate this in the context of Greece itself.

JC: One thing that appears, at least, when we talk about Tylor’s projection theory, that of the inner individual – you have dreams, you see somebody die, breath goes out of them – it seems to imply that there is a spirit or a soul or that there’s a body and soul and so on. That seems to me, at least, that what appears lacking in this part of it, is the social context, the ritual context, in which these dreams or visions, or relationships with the dead or ancestors, is all, in a sense, socially validated, socially constructed. And then becomes lived out in ritual contexts. For example, the work that I’ve been doing on Australian Aboriginal religions and, in the 1930s what this man I’ve been looking at, TGH Draylaw, has discovered was that the ancestors who then went back into the ground after creating – and then come forth again in the rituals – are actually reincarnated in their ancestors. But these reincarnations in the ritual now become the original ancestor. But none of this, it seems to me, would make sense to . . . . It’s very difficult to make sense of anyway. But to make sense of it in strictly individualistic ways of thinking, it has to be understood in the whole way that this society’s constructed, and the relationships that people have amongst one another, and with other groups within that society. So it’s not directly related to your question, but it is sort of looking at this idea. If you say that Tylor was using a projection theory – that is, projecting out of the individual experience, to create this – it seems to me that, insofar as he did that, he overlooked and was deficient in the concept of the social construction of which these experiences occur. I’m not saying that these experiences don’t occur, but I’m saying that they can only be interpreted and, in a sense, made useful and meaningful in the social context.

PT: And I think that’s what Tylor shows us about the history of anthropology. (35:00) In the beginning Tylor and others are collecting instances of beliefs or practices of X kind, of Y kind and then plotting where they are in populations. And as people start to look at the kind of methodologies, the evolutionist methodologies, then you get that moment where ethnography starts to become, you know . . . . Perhaps following Boas in the United States – the idea that rather than collecting and arranging ethnographic data in that way, one should contextualise it, rather than see it as individual units that have that kind of distribution. But understand them as holistically interdependent with one another. In other words, ethnography fieldwork: going to a particular place, staying there for a sustained period of time during which one learns the language and understands how this data is all connected relationally. That’s partly what studying a figure does, isn’t it? It allows you to have access to the history of a discipline in a slightly different light, and seeing it unfold.

GH: We’ve actually come to end of the time allotted for this conversation. And that maybe actually a perfect point, that we’ve reached, to stop: this thought about why these classic figures remain important and what we pick up from them. So thank you all for joining me in the conversation.

All: Thank you. A pleasure.

LS: Thanks to our audience, as well, for participating!

All: (Laughter)

Citation Info: Harvey, Graham, Liam T. Sutherland, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Jonathon Jong, James L. Cox and Miguel Astor-Aguilera. 2018. “Tylor Roundtable”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 19 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/tylor-roundtable/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

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

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

Tom_White,_Wesley_Wilding_27-Jul-2017

Tom White (left) and Wesley Wildman (right)

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Wildman-_Modelling_Religion_1.1

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

Wesley Wildman (WW): Thanks, Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WW: My pleasure.

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

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

Dear subscriber,

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just send them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com, which is now back in order!

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

Deadline: January 1, 2017

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Conference: Old Norse Myth and Völkisch Ideology

September 6–8, 2017

Basel, Switzerland

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Conference: Apocalypse and Authenticity

July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

Deadline: December 1, 2016

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Conference: SocRel: On the Edge? Centres and Margins in the Sociology of Religion

July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: December 9, 2016

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Conference: British Association for Islamic Studies

April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: November 30, 2016

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Conference: SISR/ISSR: Religion, Cooperation, and Conflict in Diverse Societies

4–7 July 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: American Psychological Association

Special issue: American Atheism, Agnosticism, and Non-Religious Worldviews: Theoretical Models and Psychological Measurement

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Journal: Religion, State & Society

Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

Deadline: August 15, 2017

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Journal: Religions

Special issue: Religion and Genocide

Deadline: March 15, 2017

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Summer School: Prophétologies musulmanes: discours et représentations

June 29 – July 5, 2017

Aix en Provence, France

Deadline: January 4, 2017

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Symposium: 500 years: The Reformation and Its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: April 30, 2017

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Symposium: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Symposium: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: December 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Communicative Figurations

December 7–9, 2016

Universität Bremen, Germany

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SSNB Lecture Series: Evangelical and Tablighi Pioneers on Post-Atheist Frontiers

December 1, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Roundtable: Who cares about unbelief?

December 2, 2016, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

London, UK

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NSRN Annual Lecture: Is atheism a religion?

December 2, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Lecture Series: Jewish atheists in foxholes? Phenomenologies of violence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

December 7, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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Jobs and funding

Faculty Fellowships: Summer Institute for Israel Studies

Brandeis University, USA

Deadline: January 20, 2017

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Lecturer: Modern Jewish Studies

Pennsylvania State University, USA

Deadline: March 19, 2017

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Postdoctoral position: Religion and Its Publics

University of Virginia, USA

Deadline: December 15, 2016

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DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

ARDA database hub.

ARDA Research Hub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Henrich presenting.

Joe Henrich presenting.

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

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

See you in the next life? Cognitive foundations of reincarnation beliefs

Human reincarnation: Same person, different body, another life. From established theological doctrines to local folk beliefs, the idea that deceased individuals may be “reborn” into the body of another can be found all over the world (White, In press). Since the writings of philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, establishing personal identity has primarily focused on memory. The interplay between memories and what constitutes a person’s identity plays an interesting role in reincarnation beliefs. For example, when juxtaposed alongside theologies that teach that the individual undergoes mental or physical changes in the process of rebirth, how can this same individual be identified in the new life if they have undergone changes (White, 2015)? In this podcast, Dr. Claire White brings the tools of cognitive science of religion (CSR) to bear on this question and several others surrounding reincarnation beliefs.  

Dr. White begins  by discussing the ongoing research at her laboratory at California State University, Northridge. She goes on to introduce the topic of reincarnation, noting that only recently has CSR paid much attention to these types of beliefs. While conceptual scaffolding surrounding the idea of reincarnation can vary widely from culture to culture, Dr. White draws on some of her recent research pointing out that many similarities exist in how individuals reason about and discern the pre-rebirth identities of the reincarnated. In closing, Dr. White shares some preliminary insights gathered from her ethnography of “past-life groups” in the western United States. Interested in why some individuals may be attracted to these groups, she suggests the groups may function as a form of psychotherapy and self-actualization for those attending.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Memory, and Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, small dinosaur figurines, poppy seeds, and more.

Many thanks to NAASR for facilitating the recording of this interview.

References

  • White, C. (2015). Establishing Personal Identity in Reincarnation: Minds and Bodies Reconsidered. Journal Of Cognition And Culture, 15(3-4), 402-429. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/15685373-12342158
  • White, C. (In press). The Cognitive Foundations of Reincarnation. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.

Mysticism, Spirituality, and Boats at the IAPR 2015 World Congress

The International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) 2015 World Congress was held on August 17th-20th. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Alex Uzdavines, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

It’d be too much to say that I finally “get” horizontal transcendence (Coleman, Silver, & Hood, In Press), but I certainly got a horizontally transcendent experience at the IAPR 2015 World Congress in Istanbul, Turkey. Obviously, I was on a boat. It might have been related to the truly international collection of researchers discussing fascinating things (shop talk and otherwise) while enjoying a flagrantly stunning day on the  Bosphorous. Although on reflection, the sea-sickness meds probably didn’t hurt. Regardless, there were several points along the way where I found myself disconnected, floating for a moment in a sense of overwhelming peace and happiness. Of course, I might have also been primed for this experience by a symposium the day before, which stuck (and has continued to stick) in my mind.

 Jesper Sørensen presenting.

Jesper Sørensen

One could almost describe the first invited symposium of the conference, organized by Heinz Streib, as magical, although not the kind I usually deal with. Magic, Mysticism, Spirituality: Religion’s Fellow Species delivered exactly what was promised, as series of interesting talks on areas which are both components of and discreet from religion more broadly. After an introduction by Dr. Streib which outlined both the usefulness and problems with using prototypical categories like the ones dealt with in the symposium, Jesper Sørensen outlined his work in fractioning the idea of magic. He discussed both the discreet components of what it is (people have a goal with doing it, the causal mechanism is opaque, ritualized, etc.) and that before we can synthesize these components together to study magic as a whole, we need to develop and explore hypotheses about the discreet components. For instance, when thinking about ritual behavior one component might be a need to negate strong causal expectations or develop weak ones. He used the ritual of Christian Communion as an example, “There’s no intuitive schema for why eating bread leads to grace,” but the ritual surrounding the cracker consumption develops a causal link where there otherwise might not be one. For me, this discussion highlighted the furor surrounding the desecration of a communion wafer by PZ Myers, and perhaps explained some of the underlying cognitive reasons behind it.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

symposium from the APA Division 36 mid-year conference. It also, in some ways, ran counter to Sørensen’s discussion of the need to explore the individual components of higher-order factors before working with the factors themselves. Of course, much of this has to do with what one means by, “reductionism.” Nevertheless, Hood described the push to make the psychology of religion fit into mainstream psychology by jettisoning many of the variables and ideas unique to religion and theology. Instead early researchers framed the sub-field using the same variables as the rest of psychology, but with some being more salient within a religious context than others. In doing so, the field might have lost out on exploring some of the more ineffable experiences that are associated with mysticism. This jettisoning is reflected in a lack of critical history among the current crop of handbooks on the psychology of religion and spirituality. They don’t discuss the tensions and interplay between the fields of psychology and theology which have led to the current state of the psychology of religion.

The final talk, presented by Streib, dealt with the semantics of spirituality and his work exploring the subfactors which may comprise this construct. He presented the results of several principal component analyses on data derived from a content analysis of open responses from roughly 1700 Germans and Americans on what they considered to be, “spirituality.” The participants had a wide range of belief identifications within the religious, spiritual, and nonreligious spectrum, allowing Streib and the other researchers to get a wider range of meanings than what might be found in a purely theistic sample. The PCAs generated ten different subfactors nested along three higher-order axes and, when taken together, define the range of meanings which grew out of their content analysis of the qualitative data. In particular, I was interested in how the three axes worked to explain some of the tension which can occur when trying to stitch together the definitions of “spirituality” generated by both believers and nonbelievers. In particular, the axes Mystical vs. Humanistic Transcending (something beyond, higher self) and Theistic vs. Nontheistic Transcending (higher power(s), part of religion) seem to be a big step towards shaving off some of the “fuzz” which often surrounds findings that rely on measures of “spirituality” which don’t take into account that different people can come at that term from very different meanings.

However, the big issue that was (and is) still in my mind after these three talks was the idea of supernaturalism vs. naturalism and the tensions between these that Hood raised. Here, Sørensen’s work seemed to be placed firmly within the realm of the naturalistic by breaking magic down into the cognitive processes that go into the beliefs surrounding it. Yet this doesn’t seem to be hitting on the “ineffable” components that may be unique to religion and mystical experience, which magic certainly seems to be a part of. Similarly, the two axes presented by Streib (which I discussed here) seem to imply a dichotomy of spirituality that is supernaturalistically versus naturalistically derived. Most of the constructs he presented seemed to sit more on the side of the “supernatural” with “natural” spirituality seemingly defined more in opposition, similarly to how theistic nonbelief is defined mostly in opposition to or as absence of theistic belief, rather than being a thing within itself. In effect, is it possible that people who identify as “neither religious, nor spiritual,” yet experience similar feelings of connectedness to those who identify as “spiritual,” have just removed the “spirit” component which implies the supernatural, while still retaining the other components of the term? It’s hard to say, but I’m looking forward to seeing more work (and producing some myself!) to try and figure this out.

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

My particular focus on this symposium came out of its relationship to my own work and what I feel are some of the major discussions going on in our field rather than out of lack of other fascinating talks to cover, not to mention the boat trip. However, several examples pertaining to nonbelief and nonbelievers can be found in Thomas Coleman’s forthcoming report for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Blog. Further, due to travel difficulties among the other presenters, Peter Hill gracefully carried an entire symposium on measurement with a discussion of his work generating a scale to measure Intellectual Humility and Paul Harris’ keynote about how children only seem to come to believe in magical and miraculous thinking when they have a religious upbringing (as opposed to magical and miraculous thinking being native) is worthy of its own discrete report.

The academic quality of the conference alone was strong enough to make this one of the best conference experiences in my career so far. However, given the stunning beauty of the location, the warmth and kindness of our hosts from Marmara and İzmir Katip Çelebi Universities and the Center for Islamic Studies (special mention going to Kenan Sevinç both for much of the photography throughout the conference and helping me navigate a Turkish pharmacy so I could go on the boat trip), I suspect this conference will stand out in my memory for a long time to come.

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

References

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (In Press). “…if the universe is beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – A ‘Neither Religious nor Spiritual’ Biography as Horizontal Transcendence In Streib, H. & Hood, R. (Eds.) The Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality. Dordrecht, NL:
Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-21245-6_22

2015 APA Convention Report (Religion and Spirituality Research)

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by David Bradley, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

The American Psychological Association’s 123rd Annual Convention was held in Toronto, Ontario from August 6 through August 9, 2015.  Conferences often have an organizing theme, but the APA Convention is simply too big to be focused on one or two themes.  To give you a sense of scale, here is what was happening at 1 PM on Thursday of the convention: 46 symposia or paper sessions, 3 invited talks, and 119 posters.  And that’s just official APA programming – many of APA’s 54 divisions, including Division 36 (the Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality), offer informal programming in hotel suites.  The atmosphere for the APA conference this year was a bit strange, and reminders of the recently released Hoffman Report, which detailed the relationship between the APA leadership and support for enhanced interrogation/torture by the U.S. government.  Several people could be seen wearing t-shirts or pins bearing the statement “First, do no harm,” and the Hoffman Report was often referenced in Q&A portions of talks, even when only tangentially related to the topic at hand (as is standard for post-talk Q&As).

David Bradley with "Super" Phil Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

David Bradley with “Super” Philip Zimbardo. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Despite the thousands of offerings, there were only three or four sessions across the entire convention that hit at the truly important topics (i.e., my own area of research).  I have tried to expand my coverage of the conference to address matters of secondary importance, but I apologize in advance for giving such a limited view of the large, diverse convention.

At any large conference, it’s often the poster sessions that are most engaging, and this was true here as well.  The poster format is well-suited for conversations about the details of a study, and in a large conference like APA, there are enough posters that a handful will be interesting and at least one will be important (see above regarding the definition of important).  Namele Gutierrez (Pepperdine University, abstract available here) conducted a study of friendships at a Christian college.  Participants were asked about their own religiosity, their best friend’s religiosity, and the strength of their relationship.  Students with low self-reported religiosity (below a median-split) reported having friendships that were stronger (deeper and more supportive) if the student reported that the best friend was highly religious (above a median-split).  This relationship was not seen among students with above-the-median self-reported religiosity.  Effect sizes were small but significant.  The reasons for this effect could not be addressed by the data, but I wonder if the context – a Christian university – is important here.  Perhaps the religious nature of the university prevents individuals with low religiosity from being as open and supportive, even with close friends.

Also at the poster session, Courtney Nelson (Texas A&M, abstract available here) reported findings from a study on the relationship between religious vs. nonreligious psychologists’ self-reported ability to do treatment planning for client problems with vs. without religious content.  Predictably, the primary finding was that nonreligious psychologists were more hesitant regarding their ability to accurately conduct treatment planning for religious clients.  The author concluded that this study implied the need for increased training on religious/spiritual matters in graduate schools.  That may be useful for a number of reasons, but since this study included no measure of accuracy of treatment planning, it seems that an equally valid route would be to spend time in training programs reassuring nonreligious therapists of their ability to work with people who are not like them, which would likely increase their self-reported ability to conduct treatment planning.  Or, perhaps, the confidence of religious therapists should be reduced: perhaps religious therapists are too confident in their ability to conceptualize religious material, simply because they themselves are religious, though the meaning of religion in the client’s life may be quite different from the psychologist’s.

Regretfully, I had to pull myself away from the poster session before I could plumb its full wonders to attend another paper session.  The abstracts for the rest of the poster session can be found here.

The next session I attended was the Division 36 Data Blitz featuring six five-minute presentations from graduate students, including your correspondent.  All of the presentations were excellent, but I would like to single out the presentation John Jones (University of Detroit Mercy, abstract available here).  Much has been made about the discrepancies in religiosity between academic psychologists and the general public.  However, this presentation presented data to the effect that while academic psychologists have rates of religious identification much lower than the general U.S. public, their rates of belief in “God or something divine” were close to (though still lower than) the general public.  This might point to psychologists having a more individualistic notion of religion and spirituality, separate from the notions of traditional organized religion.  Whereas before, the conflict appeared to be between nonreligious psychology and religious public, perhaps the conflict is more between liberal notions of supernatural spirituality (popular in academia) and traditional conceptions of religion (popular in the general public, though perhaps less now than in the past).

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

Downtown Toronto, APA Convention. Photo by Alex Uzdavines.

One Division 36 symposium featured four talks relying on religious priming.  Three of the talks used contextual priming (conducting a study in a church vs. a classroom, or in front of a chapel vs. in front of a science center, or in front of a cathedral vs. in a secular civic square) and one study used websites (asking participants to evaluate the design of one of two websites created by the researcher, identical except for religious content).  Priming religiosity was found to: reduce the need for dissonance reduction and increase decision certainty; increase prejudice toward LGB individuals; and increase prosociality. I find priming fascinating as an increasingly controversial method in psychology, but remain skeptical of its importance, though this may be because all of my priming studies have failed so far.

Division 36 also hosted a symposium on the experiences of nonreligious and LGBTQ individuals, featuring three talks.  Two of the talks, by Zhen Cheng (University of Oregon) and Jacob Sawyer (Columbia University), introduced new measures of microaggressions against nonreligious people and experiences of anti-atheist discrimination, respectively.  Both talks linked experiences of anti-nonbeliever sentiment to lower scores on several measures of psychological well-being.  The existence of anti-atheist/anti-nonreligious sentiment has been well-documented, and I’m glad that the psychological impact of these experiences are finally being explored.  The third talk, by Kimberly Applewhite (Yeshiva University), used excellent qualitative, grounded theory methodology to explore the experiences of individuals who currently identified as members of the LDS Church (Mormon) and were LGB identified.  These participants often struggled to progress through the stages of faith development and LGB development simultaneously – indeed, the title of the talk, taken from a quotation from a participant, was “The Conflict is Constant.”  More high-quality qualitative work, please!

11863297_10205742746822141_4995918497479033784_nFinally, my time with Division 36 at APA concluded with a talk by Will Gervais (University of Kentucky), who was given the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award.  His talk was an overview of his research on the psychological underpinnings of belief in God, and therefore nonbelief in God.  For a good overview of his approach, see his article in Trends in Cognitive Science and the RSP interview with Will Gervais.

‘Religious’ and ‘Spiritual’ Struggles: Now in ‘Nonreligious’ and ‘Nonspiritual’ flavors!

The fact that not only do religious believers sometimes question, struggle with, or even doubt their beliefs, but that resolving these issues can lead someone to a greater level of acceptance and understanding of their faith has been embodied in the form of quest-orientation for some time (Batson & Ventis, 1982). But recently, researchers studying the psychology of religion and spirituality have become more interested in how these spiritual stuggles might also lead towards distress as well (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014). But are these struggles only experienced by the ‘religious’ about ‘religious’ beliefs? Or could people, even nonbelievers, also experience analogous struggles which impact their lives, for both good and bad.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Julie Exline talks about her work in developing the Religious and Spiritual Struggles scale, where the original ideas came from and how they interacted with her previous work surrounding anger towards god (Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011). She then goes on to describe how some interesting findings within her previous work led her to be interested in whether or not nonbelievers experience similar ‘spiritual’ struggles, if they could be measured and compared to believers’ struggles, and how to measure them in a way valid for both believers and nonbelievers. She also gives a brief overview of some of her current work and interests in the area of nonbelief and secularity more broadly.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us (but only if you enjoyed it, please). And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, non-academic texts, arcane grimoires, miscellaneous intellectual paraphernalia, and more!

This is our last podcast until September 2015… but don’t forget that you can keep up with the RSP on Martin will be featuring podcasts from the archive on the homepage throughout the summer, and that there will be the occasional feature to keep you entertained. Thanks for listening!

References

  • Batson, C. D., & Ventis, W. L. (1982). The religious experience: A social-psychological perspective. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465
  • Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smyth, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 129–148. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0021716

Self-Report: We Can Do Better (And Are!)

The Religious Studies Project interview with Dr. Luke Galen conducted by Tommy Coleman was an excellent cross-section of some of the a long way to go in figuring out ways to both incorporate nonbelievers into our work as well as to signal when our findings only apply to a particular belief group, instead of all humans (ie. “Increased religiosity helps prevent recurring depression for religious believers” instead of “Religion prevents depression”). The idea that we need to explicitly include nonbelievers in our samples has begun to find solid ground, both in Dr. Galen’s work and others’ (e.g. Galen, 2012; Streib & Klein, 2013), but there have been some issues with developing this idea further. Dr. Galen alluded to one of the major issues in continuing to include nonbelievers, namely the increasing usage of the word “spirituality.” Does it include well-being and having a sense of meaning in life? Feelings of Awe and transcendence? Believing in Ghosts, angels, and demons? Yes, and this lack of clarity is a major problem for studies which try and link “spirituality” with mental health and well-being.

I strongly agree with Dr. Galen’s assertion that the amount of criterion contamination found in most discussions and measures of “spirituality” is problematic, and this point was well-highlighted in Tommy’s point about, “long walks on the beach.” A question that covers so much territory may not even be an accurate reflection of general well-being for people who prefer walking in the woods, let alone serve as a marker of the supernatural component implicit in “spirituality.” While I don’t think Dr. Galen presented a hard-experimentalist view completely dismissing self-report, the criterion contamination introduced by our fuzzy definition of “spirituality” and poorly-constructed self-report measures seem to be bundled up into a problem that exists for self-report measures in general. Just as in the study of moral reasoning, experimental designs which attempt to tap implicit beliefs risk ignoring the fact that humans also seem to be able to exert some conscious control over their beliefs and thus can’t be treated as simply heuristic machines (Cunningham et al., 2004; Turiel, 2008).

Instead, it seems best to attempt to fix the problem of poor self-report measures more directly. We can do this by making measures which don’t use double-barreled questions which nonbelievers can’t straightforwardly answer, explicitly addressing the issue of “supernatural spirituality,” and ensuring that aspects of the measure which tap more general well-being concepts are sufficiently differentiated from supernatural concepts. Additionally, to construct better measures we’ll need to include large enough samples of nonbelievers during all stages of scale development to ensure that the resulting measures are valid for both believers and nonbelievers.

I bring all of this up because there are already measures which have been (or are being) published which meet these criteria, so I can flagrantly advertise them. Cragun, Hammer, and Nielsen’s Nonreligious-Nonspirituality Scale (in press) addresses the problem of fuzzy-spirituality by clearly specifying that respondents should only respond in regards to their beliefs regarding the supernatural aspects of spirituality and not the more general well-being aspects. In addition, their scale was developed for use with believers as well and seems to validly measure the extent of their nonreligious and nonspiritual beliefs, allowing for comparisons between believers and nonbelievers which might not be feasible with “beach walking” measures of spirituality.

While Dr. Galen’s assertion that the well-being of nonbelievers has been underestimated due to incorrectly grouping them with believers who might be experiencing religious and/or spiritual struggles seems to be an accurate depiction of the literature at the moment, this also seems likely to be a problem of improperly interpreted self-report measures rather than with self-report in general. There is initial evidence pointing to a U-shaped curve of well-being related to the strength of a person’s (non)belief (Streib & Klein, 2013). Investigating this idea using the level of control afforded by in-lab experimental studies will be important, but it will also be important to leverage the generalizability of broad self-report studies. We just need a measure of “spiritual” struggles which actually works with the kinds of struggles which might point to lower levels of belief for both believers and nonbelievers.

At the risk of continuing to over-toot the horns of projects that I’m involved with, the Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014) seems like it will work in that regard. While two of the sub-scales explicitly contain supernatural items, the scale is modular and our early analyses indicated that atheists experience less spiritual struggles than agnostics, when excluding the explicitly supernatural scales (Uzdavines, Bradley, & Exline, 2014). We are currently working on confirming that the scale is measurement invariant with fine-grained belief identification groups (ie. Atheists, Agnostics, Theists, etc) before investigating the link between non-supernatural “spiritual” struggles and well-being, but our early analyses show that it is invariant when considering nonbelievers and believers as two broad groups.

Which is all to say; those of us within psychology of religion who study secularity are privileged to be working in a time where secular beliefs and nonbelievers are starting to be taken seriously within the field as a whole. Maintaining a high level of rigor in the methodology we employ, while important in and of itself, is even more crucial because of the history of criterion contamination within the field that Dr. Galen discussed in this interview and in his own work. “Spirituality” is an overly broad term and, when interpreted incorrectly, can lead to conclusions that more religion leads to more well-being without considering that more nonreligion might also lead to more well-being. It will take much more work to shift the field towards accepting religious nonbelief as a discreet and important category, separate from religious belief even if we still need to clarify our terminology.

But rigorous does not only mean experimental. Self-report can provide interesting avenues of investigation, but more care needs to be taken in building self-report measures which minimize criterion contamination and allow nonbelievers to indicate their level of nonbelief or well-being without having to dance around double-barreled questions. Fortunately, the rapidly expanding breadth of research communities dedicated to investigating secularity should allow the field of secular studies to continue pooling ideas and methodology to illuminate the nature of nonbelief and nonbelievers.

References

Cragun, R. T., Hammer, J. H., & Nielsen, M. (in press). The Nonreligious-Nonspiritual Scale (NRNSS): Measuring Everyone from Atheists to Zionists. Science, Religion, and Culture.

Cunningham, W. A., Johnson, M. K., Raye, C. L., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., & Banaji, M. R. (2004). Separable neural components in the processing of black and white faces. Psychological Science, 15(12), 806–813.

Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465

Galen, L. W. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876–906. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0028251

Streib, H., & Klein, C. (2013). Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, & J. W. Jones (Eds.), APA handbook of psychology, peligion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research (Vol. 1, pp. 713–728). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Turiel, E. (2008). The Development of Children’s Orientations toward Moral, Social, and Personal Orders: More than a Sequence in Development. Human Development, 51(1), 21–39. http://doi.org/10.1159/000113154

Uzdavines, A., Bradley, D. F., & Exline, J. J. (2014). Struggle and the nonreligious: Do weaker forms of nonbelief increase susceptibility to spiritual struggle? In Religious and spiritual struggles: New research frontiers. La Mirada, CA.

 

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing and Prosociality

Is religion good for your health and wellbeing? Does religion promote prosociality? While positive stereotypes prevail in these domains, studies also typically answer these questions in the affirmative[1] and as such, it is easy to think that there must be something special, sui generis, or even perhaps supernatural at work, which increases psychological health and drives charitable behavior. However, regardless of whether or not a deity may be at work, the Devil is certainly in the details. Recently, methodological critiques have been proposed (Galen, 2012, in press) and empirical studies are accruing (Galen & Kloet 2011; Moore & Leach, 2015) that cast doubt on whether there is anything “special” about the possible effects of religiosity on wellbeing and prosociality.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Luke Galen provides a critical assessment of the literature linking religiosity to wellbeing and prosocial behavior. The interview begins with a short review of Galen’s past research and current projects. Next, he presents an overview of how researchers currently conceptualize the wellbeing and prosociality link before discussing some of the measurement limitations present in these studies. Further, Dr. Galen covers recent priming studies that suggest both religious and secular primes achieve equal ends in terms of behavioral monitoring. In closing, he discusses whether or not there is anything unique to the religion, wellbeing, and prosociality link that couldn’t be accounted for through general naturalistic mechanisms.

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

References

  • Galen, L. (in press) Atheism, Wellbeing, and the Wager: Why Not Believing in God (With Others) is Good for You. [Special issue] Shook, J. R., Hood, R. W. Jr., & Coleman, T. J. III, (Eds.) Science, Religion & Culture.
  • Galen, L. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876-906. doi:10.1037/a0028251
  • Galen, L., & Kloet, J. (2010). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious: evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(7), 673-689.      doi:10.1080/13674676.2010.510829
  • Koenig, H. (2011). Spirituality & health research. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.
  • Moore, J., & Leach, M. (2015). Dogmatism and Mental Health: A Comparison of the Religious and Secular. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality. doi:10.1037/rel0000027
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A., Gervais, W., Willard, A., McNamara, R., Slingerland, E., & Henrich, J. (2014). The Cultural evolution of Prosocial Religions. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 1-86. doi:10.1017/s0140525x14001356

[1] (for a review of religion and health see, Koenig, 2011; for a review of religious prosociality see, Norenzayan, Shariff, Willard, Slingerland, Gervais, McNamara & Henrich, 2014)