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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

What is Artificial Intelligence and why might we want to consider it in relation to ‘religion’? What religion-related questions might be raised by AI? Are these ‘religious’ questions or ‘Christian’/’post-Christian’ ones? What ‘religious’ functions might AI serve? In what ways do popular discourses about AI intersect with religion-related discourses? Do narratives of AI form part of a teleological atheist narrative, or do they perpetuate prevalent tropes associated with ‘established’ or ‘new’ religious movements? And what are the intersections of AI and religion with issues such as slavery, human identity, affect and agency? This week, Chris is joined by Dr Beth Singler of the University of Cambridge to discuss these issues and many more.

This podcast builds on a roundtable discussion released on the RSP in February 2017, featuring Beth, Chris, Michael Morelli, Vivian Asimos and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation” and a special issue of the RSP journal Implicit Religion, co-edited by Dr Singler, on Artificial Intelligence and Religion, published in 2017.

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Singler_-_Artificial_Intelligence_and_Religion_1.1.pdf

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/artificial-intelligence-and-religion/

PDF at

Christopher Cotter (CC): At the weekend, I mentioned to my father that I was going to be recording an interview about the intersections between AI and religion. And he said, “I can’t think of anything that would be relevant there. How do they intersect at all?” And then, within the space of about two minutes, we were suddenly talking about all sorts of things, like: are human beings creating intelligences? Does that mean they’re acting like gods? Can you imagine that AI might be acting as religious functionaries, providing blessings? And what about pain, what about notions of slavery, what about the whole notion of the soul, and eternity, and transhumanism and everything? So suddenly we got into this massive discussion. And today I am pleased to be joined by Dr Beth Singler to continue that discussion in a more erudite fashion – not casting any aspersions on my father, of course! Dr Singler is the Homerton Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. And her background is as a social anthropologist of new religious movements. And her first monograph, The Indigo Children: New Age Experimentation with Self and Science, published with Routledge in 2017, was the first in-depth ethnography of a group called the Indigo Children: a new age re-conception of both children and adults using the language of both evolution and spirituality. We’ll hear more about her research into AI and religion just now. But a relevant recent publication is her edited special issue on AI and religion, for the RSP’s sponsored journal Implicit Religion, which included her own articles: “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion for the Religious Studies Scholar“, and “Roko’s Basilisk or Pascal’s? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion“. And today’s podcast builds on a roundtable discussion (that we had back . . . well, we had it in September 2016, but it was released in February 2017) featuring Dr Singler, myself, Dr Morelli, Vivian Asimos, and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion, an Initial Conversation“. So first off, Beth – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Beth Singler (BS): Hello! Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s great to have you back. And hopefully this is the follow-up conversation that was promised!

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

CC: So we’ll have covered a little bit of this already I think. But you’ll be in a different position now: years on, years older, years wiser!

BS: Oh, so much older!

CC: So, first off: artificial intelligence is going to be a sort-of contested term in public discourse. It takes on a variety of different nuances. So what are you meaning in this conversation?

BS: Well, I’m definitely meaning that it is a contested term, taking on many different forms. I think you can sort-of indicate towards something that is the field of artificial intelligence, within which there are processes and programmes and foci of research, looking at things like machine learning and vision systems and natural language processing. So you have this concept of a computer science field – which doesn’t really get its name until the 1950s – but you can see how, beyond the actual narrow form of the technology, artificial intelligence is understood in so many different ways by so many different people. I have a friend who once told me that their car had AI because when she walked towards her car with her keys, the doors unlocked. That’s not artificial intelligence. That’s a sensor in your keys. But lots of people have this idea of sort-of processes that seem intelligent, done by machines, and therefore must be artificial intelligence. And that’s what I’m really very interested in: that it’s so much broader than the original conception, which was ambitious in its own right. But everyone has attached AI to different things that they feel might represent intelligence. So it’s not only the computer programme that sits on a server, it’s also now the robot that takes over the world. Or it’s the far, future hope of an intelligence that will save us all from ourselves. So it’s all these very different things, and that’s what interests me.

CC: Yes. And you’re interested in that whole gamut, I suppose. So, not necessarily a technical definition of artificial intelligence.

BS: No. I mean, I know enough technologists who go, “Absolutely, 100%, it’s this one thing. That’s it. And anyone who’s talking about anything else, it’s complete nonsense!” Well, to a certain extent, yes. But you’ve got to pay attention to all the different interpretations, because that’s what’s getting out there into the world.

CC: So I began with my personal vignette, there, about chatting with my dad. But you’ve provided, much more eruditely, a justification for what we might mean by the intersections between AI and the study of religion, and why we’re even having this conversation. So – go!

BS: Go! Right. Well, from a very basic position, any form of technology intersects with religion.(5:00) That’s just the nature of our society works, how our conception of religion itself works, that it could be seen, in itself, as a form of technology. And therefore any kind-of shift and changes in how we do things – things that make our lives either more difficult or easier – there are repercussions and implications for how we imagine the world and how it works, therefore religion. I think where AI might be slightly different . . . . Although I am cautious about saying it’s revolutionary new technology and very disruptive – it does replicate lots of existing ideas and thoughts. What I think is interesting about AI is the way in which people see it as much more than that simplistic tool. That however narrow an intelligence it is at the moment, people extrapolate on to personify AI: AI will want to do x-y-z; AI will replicate humans in such a way that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and AI. And this the Sci-fi imagining. But it also comes out in our religious conceptions as well. And then, also, within the sphere of the non-religious or secular approaches to AI, you see again these repeating patterns of religious narratives, and tropes that people who – even if overtly and sometimes aggressively atheist – still draw on their cultural context: primarily sort-of Abrahamic, Western conceptions of what a god would be like. And they use that, and they fill in their conception of AI with some of the existing templates that they’ve already got. So it tends to fall into very eschatological language, and very singular monotheistic conceptions of what a god would be and pattern that onto artificial intelligence.

CC: So there’s that sort-of: whatever religion is, we’re never going to be able to extract it from society. Because whatever . . . we can argue about it being a social thing and AI is integrated with that. Then also, the sort-of religion-related tropes, narratives, and so on. But then also there are – I’ll maybe talk about this now – there are some groups that you might describe as new religious movements, or new un-religious movements, and things that are explicitly sort-of engaging with this.

BS: Yes, so with my new religious studies hat on – that I wore so well for doing my thesis – having moved into artificial intelligence as a subject area, I’m seeing similar sorts of formations of online identity. Primarily these sort-of groups form online. They’re sort-of geographically disparate, so online spaces are important, and so forums and hashtags on Twitter, and so forth, to bring them together to formulate ideas. And some of them do expressly call themselves churches. So you get the Turing Church; the Church of Assimilation recently got in touch with me. I went to do a little bit more digging around into what they’re up to. But I do know about assimilation theory. But yes, the groups that specifically say: we are in some ways attempting to define our spirituality in relationship to artificial intelligence; we might also be transhumanist, in that we think through technology we can solve some of those very pernicious problems of humanity – death being the big one.

CC: It’s a big one!

BS: It’s a big one. Some are not quite so ambitious, just want to solve suffering – which also sounds like a serious thing to be taking on! But some do seek to be immortal in some form, whether that involves mind-uploading or transference of consciousness through artificial intelligence – all these sorts of various shapes. But yes, absolutely there are specific groups that see their endeavour as religious. And some will call themselves un-religions because they’re drawing a sort-of ideological gap between themselves and how they perceive mainstream religious groups. So in sociology of religion you might call them “spiritual but not religious”. But they’re still using some of that terminology of “We are the church of x-y-z.” and they’re doing it in quite pragmatic ways. Some of them will talk very explicitly about using religion to encourage people into transhumanist ideas and encourage them into seeing this vision of the future that they see. So, arguably, you can sort-of take a slightly sceptical stance and say they’re not really, really religions. But who gets to decide that?

CC: Yes. Absolutely. Right. So in the introduction, as well, I mentioned potential . . . I suppose we could say “religious uses” for AI. I was talking to a friend yesterday about if you could hypothetically imagine being in a confessional, for example, would it need to be a human priest on the other side of that? Or could it . . . ? And we landed down on, “Well, if you didn’t know it wasn’t human then it might be ok.” But there is something about . . . .

BS: Like in a church Turing test. There is a church Turing hypothesis, but this is separate. Yes, I find it interesting, talking more broadly in terms of technology and religion, that there are periods of rejection, adoption and adaption (10:00): that when new technologies arise, sometimes more established religions can be quite negative about them for a period of time – and these are overlapping categories that are non-discrete – but, over time, we do see religious groups specifically producing their own forms of those technologies. So there’s like the Bless U-2  robots that are used in part of Reformation celebrations in Germany. And in other religious groups, I recently saw in Dubai they’ve come up with an algorithm for issuing fatwa’s as well – making Islamic jurisprudence decisions. So you’d go on line, put in “Is it ok for me to have done x-y-z?” Or “I failed to pray on a particular day, what’s the . . . ?” And basically, all that system is doing is looking at previous cases. But . . . .

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

BS: That’s all a human does. I mean, the question arises: what happens with the data? But that’s a privacy . . . another issue. But yes, so specific established religious groups seeing the technology – just as, in the nineties, suddenly we got lots of internet churches, where people were encouraging people to go on line and do church in a different way. And now we have internet sites for churches. But it’s not so much the case in the mainstream religions that you go online to do faith. It’s just that your local church will have the internet. So that’s the adaption stage of: “This thing is around, we’re kind-of used to it, we use it, and we don’t necessarily have a big . . . .” Like, the Church of England they released an Alexa Skill. They had a big press conference. And all the Alexa Skill does is recite the Lord’s Prayer to you if you ask it to. There are other adaptions now where it can tell you what your local church is and what the services are. So it’s not really revolutionary! But, you know, “Here’s a thing we’re doing with this new technology.” And it gets a press release. And then, the next sort-of stage – non-discrete stage – is just being very casual with the technology as: “This is just something we use.” Like we used books when the printing press first came out. The first things printed were Bibles. And this was a specific use of that technology. And then, over time, it’s just books. And it’s not so astounding. But in that process you get these spikes of interest and discussion. And, yes, different reactions to the technology – whether positive or negative.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get to . . . I suppose to the reason that you’re in Edinburgh today, and we’re chatting . . . . So that’s been a little bit about potentially religious, or religion-related uses. But there’s lot of . . . . Again, in my intro, there were a lot of religion-related questions that are raised by AI. Things like . . . you’ve done work on pain; there’s things about slavery, and all that. If we create these intelligences and then use them to our will, is that ethical? And then you’ve already mentioned transhumanism, which may be an unfamiliar term to some Listeners. So maybe, if you could talk a little bit about these religion-related issues?

BS: Yes. As I say, AI in its narrowest definition is a piece of computer technology, it’s a tool, but it inspires all these hypotheticals. And obviously we’ve had a long tradition of science fiction that takes us into spaces where we can imagine AI embodied, often in robotic forms, as having something like personhood. And that raises all these questions about the barriers between the human and the non-human other. And, in some ways, these questions have come up for millennia every time we’ve encountered different intelligences. It just seems now that we’re hoping, or aspiring towards creating non-human intelligences – whereas before, we’ve discovered them. So we’ve discovered that actually monkeys are pretty smart. We’ve discovered that dogs are pretty smart. And then, I’m afraid, from a colonial perspective from our past, other humans are actually and even women – Gosh! Darn! – They can also be pretty smart!

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

BS: I mean, what’s going on!? So, again and again, “we” – in that kind-of very limited “we” – have had to expand our kind-of borders of perception of what intelligence could and should be. And with AI it seems like we’re trying to produce it. It’s not, in this case, meeting aliens on another planet. It’s actually, we’re trying to create the aliens here on earth. Whether we’ll be successful or not, I’m very agnostic about that. But I think it’s interesting that we want to do that. And what we want to be able to do with it. So that’s where things like questions of personhood, and slavery, and also pain . . . .When I made “Pain in the Machine“, one of the interesting questions that kept coming up was, like, should we even bother? Because if we’re going to create things that can feel pain, we’re just increasing the overall suffering in the universe and that doesn’t sound necessarily like a good thing (15:00). And going back to the transhumanists, as I said. So transhumanism is the idea that you can improve humanity through technology, broadly, and then you might lead to a state in which we’re no longer the same form of human that we were before.

CC: A new evolutionary step.

BS: Exactly. You might be a form of cyborg. Or there’s people who talk about post-humanism, where we’re so completely different we’re not even similar at all. But this idea sort-of does narrow down to this question of suffering, and being in pain, and what the human being is for, and where we’re going. So these are all big questions that are obviously very familiar shapes to anyone who’s looked at religion all around the world: these are the kinds of questions people have always been trying to answer. And I find it fascinating that some of these groups, as I say, are very overtly secular – almost New Atheist, some of them really admire the five horsemen of the apocalypse – but the shapes that they tell their own stories of the future of humanity with are very, very familiar to anyone who’s studied religion for any period of time. So is it that we’re . . . trapped isn’t the word for me, but we’re bound to repeat these shapes? Is there something in us that always goes to these same sorts of big existential questions, and comes up with similar sorts of solutions for them? I don’t know. I think that’s the ongoing question in my work. But I can dig down into particular instances of it as an anthropologist and say, “Well here’s a moment” – and some of them are very, very small moments, I admit that. I’m not doing big, big science. Some big scientists I’ve spoken to go, “Well you’ve spoken to like five people about this. What does that say about anything? That’s not a big data set.” But I don’t do big data stuff, but instances, and moments of clarity, where you can see these entanglements really clearly. And so: well, they’re doing something with both the concept of religion and the concept of AI. And they’re coming together.

CC: So you were just alluding to your small data sets there. So, well, I don’t think it’s a small data set that you’re presenting on here, but I guess it depends on perspective. But you’ve been looking at this particular trope on Twitter, “blessed by the algorithm”. And that’s what your paper that you’re giving here today is called. So what’s going on there? How does it intersect with AI? Why is it relevant? Tell us!

BS: (Laughs) Tell us! Yes. As a digital ethnographer, anthropologist of social media, I spend a lot of time hanging out on Twitter – that’s my excuse anyway, I’ll stick with it! I spotted a couple of people using the phrase blessed by the algorithm which obviously rings bells for me instantly for the language. And I dug around and I found 181 instances so far of people online, tweeting – just on Twitter as a platform – in some combination, in some context using the words blessed by the algorithm. And then you could follow back and see the first instance – which was very much about a corporate use of social media, and someone saying, “Well because this corporation has money, they’re going to be blessed by the algorithm.” So it sits in that kind-of context. But one of the most popular tweets, and most retweets, and most likes was a comment from someone saying in the real world – the so-called real world, I don’t like that differential – but anyway, in the so-called real world they’d heard their Lyft driver – so the gig economy role – say that they’d had a great day, and they felt blessed by the algorithm. And this might be something like a reframing and re-understanding of how we exist in a society that involves algorithmic decision making systems in a gig economy: what you get is dependent on a machine somewhere, making a choice. I mean there’s lots of words in that I don’t like that I just used, but unfortunately we’re very bound by anthropomorphic language when it comes to AI, but anyway. And so I have a corpus of 181 tweets and, actually, three of those refer to things I’ve said. So I’m muddling the field site a bit myself.

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

BS: I’m an insider as well. Well it’s responses to papers I’ve given. But, yes, I’ve created a very rough typology of the types. And some are about getting decent recommendations through the algorithm, on sites like Spotify. Some people are very pleased that their own content has been recommended to other people. There are people who sort-of talk about it in a very nebulous way: “Today I have been blessed by the algorithm.” And no more information. And then some people who really push the pseudo-religious language and come up with little prayers. And one of the things I was very interested in, in some of my other work on new religious movements, was the move between parody and legitimation. So I looked a lot at Jediism, and the census, and how some people did certainly write “Jedi” in the census in 2001 and 2011 as parody. They were upset about being asked about religion. They didn’t like religion, perhaps, itself. So they wrote Jedi. But that snowballing effect of legitimation – the more people talk about a thing, the more legitimate it seems – can have an effect (20:00). So even if a lot of these tweets are tongue-in-cheek, it’s still kind-of distilling out of the conversation. So, I have a graph. I’m very excited about this. I have a graph! As someone who, very much, is on the qualitative side and I don’t do big data stuff at all, to have graph made me go “Oh, exciting! I have to do some maths!” But I didn’t really do very much. And you can see the shift and change. After this one very popular tweet, there are more tweets. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, more people thinking in this way? Or even if it’s not, it’s just interesting to see that conception of AI as having superagency – that it is in some way in charge of our lives – being blessed by it, in some way equivalent to being blessed by an omnipotent deity somewhere up there that we can’t see. It’s in a mystical . . . . So there’re overlaps in conception, there, that I’m really interested in.

CC: The Listener shouldn’t know that I had a little hiccup earlier, because I’ll have edited it out. But just before that, I had an excellent question which I’ve now remembered – because it was written down!

BS: Hurray!

CC: So a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking around – functions, ethical questions, even the discourses in the Twittersphere – to my ear, certainly sound quite Christian or post-Christian at least through monotheistic . . . . I’m just wondering if these issues . . . . Were we in a different cultural context, would different issues be being thrown up by AI? I guess, would even AI be different in a different cultural context? Because I suppose you will have a lot of conversation between researchers all over the world working in AI. So is AI culturally specific or . . . ?

BS: Yes, absolutely, I think it’s culturally specific. What does tend to happen, however, it’s that it tends to be quite a narrow binary of East and West in the discussion. So everyone says, “Western conceptions of AI are like this”, but they go, “Over there in the East” and they’re mostly talking about Japan, “actually, people have a very different conception of AI and they love robots. And the reason they love robots is because they have a Shinto religious background or they have a Buddhist religious background”. And sometimes that can be a very broad stroke, almost pseudo-techno-orientalism of “Those people over there, they never really went through the Enlightenment, and they never really rationalised away religion, and they still believe in spirits and everything!” So, obviously this is me being very sarcastic, by the way – if it’s not coming across that I don’t agree with this! (Laughs) I think, yes, cultural context is really important for conceptions of artificial intelligence and also for religion, and the entanglements of both of them. But it much more multiplicious . . . . That’s not a word!

CC: It could be a word!

BS: I’m going to make it up now. Multiplicious! It’s much more multiple than that. Not just this binary of East and West. There’s also Africa, India, Pakistan and within those countries as well, again. So what you need is just more anthropologists, basically. I think this is my call to arms. We need more people around the world connecting on this question of the impact of religion and cultural context on questions of artificial intelligence. Yes. So we are seeing specific difference. But I want to try and push away a little bit from that binary distinction. And the assumption that the West isn’t animistic in its own lovely ways. Which anyone who does religious studies for any period of time, here in the so-called West, realises that the so-called Enlightenment didn’t have as huge an effect as we like to think sometimes. And our big metanarratives of what we did, and how smart we became . . . .

CC: Yes, but the discourse that the Enlightenment did have an effect, it’s been quite pernicious.

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

CC: We’ve been racing through things here, it’s fantastic. But we’re still at 25 minutes. So you’ve been hinting, there, that we need more anthropologists doing more stuff. And on the way to this interview you were telling me about some things you’ve been doing to do with Frankenstein and then, also, because this year’s the year that we’re all meant to be living in Blade Runner times. So maybe if you’d give us a flavour of some that maybe slightly peripheral stuff to your project, that you’ve been doing. And what’s next for you, what you would like to see next, as a way to wrap up.

BS: Yes. So interestingly, I suppose, the position I’m in now, my employment post, is a junior research fellowship specifically in artificial intelligence. So I came on board saying, “These are my interests. This is my background in Religious Studies.” They were all very interested and excited in that. But being someone who also can speak more broadly to AI, as well, any time people have a question about AI I’m called upon (25:00). Which is lovely, but it does mean that when a specific theme and AI comes up, I get involved. So last year was the . . . two hundredth anniversary? (I should know that!) . . . two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. And a lot of people start thinking, then, of the parallels and connections with artificial intelligence: this idea that we are creating life (Wa-ha-hah! Mad scientists, all of us!) in some way, and there should be parallels between them. So I did about four or five public talks last year, specifically on Frankenstein. And there are similarities. There are huge differences as well. That was interesting for me, to kind-of return to a text I hadn’t thought about in a really long time and sort-of draw out so many pop culture references. I have a nice slide with all the times you’ve got a robotic Frankenstein. My favourite one was, I think, an issue of a Marvel comic where Frankenstein turns out to be a robot sent back in time by aliens. So all these sort-of mash-ups. That was really interesting. And then, like you say, this is the year of Blade Runner and I’ve just done an essay for Radio Three. And, again – not my academic background. But I’m doing something in that, in terms of sexual politics and Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film, it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test!

CC: No.

BS: A friend of mine, Kate Devlin, who’s written a fantastic book on sexbots, talks about how it has a problem with women. That basically . . . it’s a product of its time. It’s 1980s, but it’s also trying to do 1950s filme noir. So you’ve got the detective, and femme fatale, and the kind-of virginal woman. It’s not a great one for sexual politics. But also, it’s tied into all these questions of consent and slavery. If we’re going to create so-called artificial life . . . . And the Replicants in Blade Runner are as near to human – well that’s the slogan of the company, basically: “as near to human as you can’t tell the difference”. What does it mean that we are a society that wishes for that, or dreams of that? Or, take it a step back and say: what is it, that we tell these stories and that, again, we have predominantly female representations of synthetic lives, who don’t get to choose who they sleep with, and don’t get to choose their fates? And we want slaves? I mean, did we not evolve out of this? We thought we were trying. So, yes, there’s lots of big questions about the ethics and politics of that, as well. So it’s interesting. I’ve always been . . . . Anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a massive geek. So the fact that I ended up somehow trying to mesh that with a job, and an academic role, where legitimately I sat and watched Blade Runner again five times before I wrote my essay – that’s fantastic! I will go on, and other things I have coming up: I will do some work around techno-optimism and techno-utopianism in relation to Sophia the Hanson robot, if you’ve ever come across this creation? She/it is a wonderful example of . . . I’m really picking my words carefully! I think the nicest thing we could call her is a puppet. But she’s presented as the most advanced version of AI around at the moment. She holds conversations with people, but we know they’re actually scripted a lot of the time. There’s puppeteers involved. But you know she was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And she goes and she speaks on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and she’s on the front cover of magazines with her hair done. And, well, what does this say, that we’re so keen to jump on this idea of her actually being alive in some way? People tweet at her, send her, like, “I love you Sophia!”

CC: Didn’t you have an interaction with her?

BS: I did! Well, I had an interaction with whoever runs her social media accounts, where she was tweeting about how wonderful it was to travel around the world and talk in so many places. And I said, “Sophia, as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, where do you travel when you travel? Do you travel on a plane? Do you have a passport? What’s the deal here, if you’re being treated in this way?” She said something like, “For my safety, and the safety of others, at the moment I travel in the hold, in luggage, but I dream one day of being able to sit with the rest of you, and look out of the window.” This is so disingenuous. This is not an artificial intelligence listening to my tweets and responding, having thought through their situation, and projecting into the future where they want to be. This is someone behind the computer screen typing away! And, to be fair to the creators of Sophia, this is not uncommon. Lots of the technology we’re being sold as employing artificial intelligence actually employs people, on less than minimum wage, in third world countries, reading and listening to actual humans and feeding into the machine. They have the aspiration that eventually they’ll take those humans out of the loop. Same thing with Lift and Uber drivers – the whole gig economy. The treatment of those workers, and Amazon workers, is terrible and it’s on a pipeline towards getting rid of them (30:00). So all the work that those people do feeds into the system to replace them. And these big socio-economic changes that are coming because of automation, I’m a big sceptic about the bigger utopian dreams of universal basic income and everyone will get paid to exist and when the robots take our jobs.

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

BS: It’s not happened yet. And these are the sort of impacts on society that religions will respond to, will be a part of, because their communities will be a part of them. And we’ve got parallels. People go “Oh it’s another industrial revolution, and we survived other industrial revolutions, we’ll survive this one.” If you’re against them, you’re a Luddite – they’re back again, apparently! That’s not realistic to the individual lives, and the changes that come to individuals. There were blacksmiths who never worked again. So not to be Debbie Downer, but these are the important questions.

CC: Yes, lots of people have not survived. And I could always point out that colonialism is very much still happening.

BS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: It’s just been exported, and it’s clouded in the language of free trade and globalisation now.

BS: Absolutely.

CC: But just to raise the tone – an example that you may not be aware of, and you may have seen it, South Park did the episode about Alexa.

BS: I saw a picture today, actually. And I haven’t seen the episode so I need to catch up!

CC: It’s excellent, because all of the local people, lower down in the socio-economic spectrum, were kicking off that Alexa was stealing their jobs. And they manged to rally round. And then all to get Alexa’s job. So people would have a (audio unclear) or a Jimbob in their living room who looks things up on a smart phone and says “Boodoopboopboop!”

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

CC: But yes. Sort-of . . . explicitly buying into that.

BS: I need to catch up on that one. South Park are wonderful at doing this social commentary. The number of times I’ve used . . . specifically some of the episodes on their versions of Scientology– not their versions, their actual accounts of Scientology, Mormonism. They’re very useful resources. The parody opens up the possibility of thinking more critically about that, absolutely.

CC: Yes. Which I think we have managed to do today. So Listeners, do check out, we’ll try and link to that issue of Implicit Religion, we’ll link to Pain and the Machine, which is the film that Beth mentioned, and many more things I’m sure. So thank you, Beth, for joining us.

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

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

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.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

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

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

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

Tom_White,_Wesley_Wilding_27-Jul-2017

Tom White (left) and Wesley Wildman (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Wildman-_Modelling_Religion_1.1

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

Wesley Wildman (WW): Thanks, Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WW: My pleasure.

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

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.

Study of Religion in Peru

UnfCTAnTfj8yQGyHYpsbntqMPeru’s religious inheritance has been the subject of inquiry by scholars since the first decade of the twentieth century (Ortmann, 2002). In this RSP interview, we are joined by professor Dorothea Ortmann from the University of Rostock, to discuss the foundations of the study of religion in this country. She first states the major differences between the confessional studies or studies oriented to theological or pastoral matters, and the social scientific study of religious phenomena (Ortmann, 2004). She then follows the conversation by giving some background history of the most notable works from the first attempts at doing research on the sciences of religion. Particularly important are the works of Tello (1943), Larco Hoyle (1946), Valcárcel (2009), and Carrión (2005).

In what remains of the interview, professor Ortmann discusses the public benefits of studying religion. It ends with an interesting discussion about the current institutional and theoretical situations of the field in Peru, taking into account new tendencies coming from Europe and North America (Xygalatas, 2015).

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, drink coasters, T.V. Dinners, and more.

References
-Carrión, R. (2005). Culto al agua en el antiguo Perú. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura.
-Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.
-Ortmann, D. (2004). “Fundamentos de las Ciencias de la Religión”. In Ortmann, Dorothea (compiler). Anuario de Ciencias de La Religión: Las Religiones En El Perú de Hoy. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, pp. 13–29.
-Larco Hoyle, R. (1946). A culture sequence of the north coast of Perú. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Accesed on: August 15, 2016.
http://www.museolarco.org/listapublicaciones/a-culture-sequence-for-the-north-coast-of-peru/
-Tello, J. (1943). “Sobre el descubrimiento de la cultura Chavín en el Perú”. Letras. Lima, No. 26, pp. 226-373.
-Valcárcel, L. (2011). Machu Picchu. Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica
-Xygalatas, Dimitris (2015). IACSR year in review: 2015. Georgia. Accessed on: January 15 of 2016.

Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

science-religionScience and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.

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, Darwin fish stickers, Primordial Soup and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

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, magic wands, faux leather belts and more!

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

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, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

The Interstices of Science and Religion

Science and religion are not ancient concepts. What we think of as inherently scientific today may have carried theological overtones in times past; what we conceive of as religious may have likewise found support in scientific circles. Both categories have emerged through complex and contradictory histories: not only have the ideas and practices associated with each shifted continually, but the very existence of the categories themselves is of relatively recent vintage.

In his interview with the RSP, Peter Harrison sketches out the basics of this historical argument. It’s an essential framework and one that Harrison has explained in far more detail elsewhere. And while we might hope for future elaboration in certain areas—perhaps a look at science as something constituted not only within “Europe” but on the borderlands and at points of encounter[1]—Harrison’s narrative offers a refreshing take on an issue too often staged as a tale of religious decline or scientific triumph.

Yet, though Harrison’s explanation of how science and religion emerged in the West as discrete categories is both rigorous and relevant—public conversation has yet to adopt a similar lens—I personally find the connections he begins to make at the end of the interview equally stimulating, if only perhaps because of their more speculative nature. Harrison takes on, among other things, the emphasis on big history in popular science and education. This is, for him, science attempting to fill the mythical and ethical gaps left after the decline of religion. Having exiled the supernatural, science finds itself left with the task of writing a modern genesis, or a liturgy for a secular age.

In the final installment of his 2010 Gifford Lectures, Harrison picks up on a similar theme. He wonders if science, having at last rid itself of its religious origins and influences, might need once again an infusion of spiritual energy. Without a continued interaction with religion, science lacks the motivating power to command much enthusiasm. Now, it’s easy to read this as a retelling of Einstein’s assertion that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” However, within the context of Harrison’s historical model—which rejects the type of essentializing statements that flaw Einstein’s commentary—the suggestion that science need turn to religion, however, reflects the sterility that comes from a hermetic discipline, one entirely closed off to the vital power of diverse conversations. In response to this, science, along with “big history,” works to author a new set of myths.

In that same lecture, Harrison talks about various members of the New Atheist movement. He reads several quotes: the language is technocratic, enthusiastic, and utopian. In a way, it blurs the lines between scientific and religious speech. Similar to the desire for new, logical creation myths, these visions of a future enriched by technological power seem almost eschatological. Yet while they do testify to a scientific turn to religious sources of ethical authority, they also, surprisingly, fit into what we might see as a tradition of scientific messianism and technological piety.

We might even understand this mingling of scientific and religious language as born at the start of the industrial age. Andrew Ure, a Scottish businessman and doctor, understood the place of Christianity and of the machine as extremely similar.[2] Religion and mechanization both shape the workers into a single force, a body undivided and unified. Here, however, we find not the unification of the mystical body of Christ, but rather the forging of a new entity imagined in both technical and theological registers.

More recent writers and artists have experienced the ambiguity between religious and scientific language in similar ways. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, for example, represents a document deeply imbued with themes at once theological and scientific. The protagonist, feverish, has multiple visions: the machine that powers the vast city becomes the demon Moloch, the agent of the oppressive state becomes a preacher, the statues that line the city’s cathedral become death. The automaton that wreaks havoc on the city is a prophet and a temptress; the safe haven of the rich is a technological Eden. This is in no way a simple theological critique of scientific production. It’s a window onto an anguished cosmology in which the bounds of science and religion are not fixed, and the anxieties of modern power continue to haunt and to frighten.[3]

A decade or so later, Simone Weil’s work pointed to a similar interaction. When she examines the factory, her language is predictably theological. But when she turns again to faith, she finds that the necessity of God is a “blind mechanism” and the indifference of the world is—metallic.[4] Not only does the power of scientific production take on a religious coloring; the experience of belief itself begins to change under the influence of mass production.

These three—a businessman, a director, and a writer—of course represent highly disparate and perhaps isolated figures. Moreover they each speak in conversation with a specific historical moment. Yet they also point to something deeper: a persistent collapsing of theological and mechanical language, an inability to adhere to these separate spheres. When Harrison notes the tendency of “big history” to resemble myth, when the New Atheists talk of the coming millennium, perhaps they reflect not only the ethical problem of secularized science, but also a tradition of writing and speaking that has continually stumbled as the modern categories of science and religion have hardened. Harrison’s narrative elegantly explains much of the contemporary “conflict” between science and religion. But it also points us towards new histories of the spaces in between these two reifications. It encourages us to look to how these categories were experienced, how they overlapped, and how they collapsed in moments of turmoil and danger. It gives us the foundation to explore not only the processes through which modern categories have come to be, but also to appreciate the figures who confound such processes and instead struggle to interpret the world through lenses at once intensely scientific and deeply theological.

[1] I’m thinking of, for example, the critique David Scott lays out in his comments on the study of Hegel and history. See David Scott, “Antinomies of Slavery, Enlightenment, and Universal History,” Small Axe 33.13.3 (November 2010): 152-162.

[2] See Andrew Ure, Philosophy of Manufactures (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969); EP Thompson, “The Transforming Power of the Cross,” in The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966).

[3] For more on the various anxieties expressed in Metropolis, see Andreas Huyssen, “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” New German Critique 24/25 (Autum 1981 – Winter 1982): 221-237.

[4] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Perennial, 1951), 73.

Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

The idea of long-running clash between the domains of “science” and “religion” has not only been central to western discourses on modernity, but has increasingly become a central supposition in the history of science itself – informing not just the rhetoric of the New Atheists, but also the broader public understanding of the issue.  But is this historically accurate?

In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison (formerly Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford) outlines the flaws in this supposition by providing a historical perspective on the categories “science” and “religion” and the way that they were formerly considered separate virtues (scientia and religio) instead of incompatible domains of knowledge.  Far from the current narrative being correct – often focusing on episodes such as the Church’s response to the Galileo controversy – Professor Harrison explains that religious institutions were originally (and for a long time) key supporters of scientific activity, which was considered broadly as a theological attempt to unlock The Book of Nature.   The middle section of the interview looks at the complex relationship between theological commitment and scientific activity from Newton to Darwin, and in the final section discusses continuing complexities of the relationship in the post-Darwinan western world, right down to problematic assumptions at play in contemporary New Atheism as well as debates about Islamic militancy.

This interview was recorded at the meeting of the Australian Religious History Association in July 2014.  For those interested in the themes of the interview, the keynote talk of the RHA meeting was delivered by one of Professor Harrison’s key collaborators, Ronald Numbers (on a similar topic, focusing especially on the Galileo episode).   A number of related talks and interviews can be found on the CHED website.

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.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

“Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge”: A Roundtable Discussion

It’s time for another RSP roundtable, folks. Thanks very much to Liam for facilitating this, and to Angus, Essi, George and Hanna for joining him for a stimulating discussion. For now, we’ll pass over to Liam to set the scene…

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

“This year scholars from across the globe gathered in the city of Groningen in the north-west of the Netherlands for the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), acolytes of the Religious Studies Project among their number. We were hosted by a University on the brink of celebrating its 4ooth year and which looked forward to infinity and beyond! To a city whose name, the President of the University no less assured us is pronounced with a guttural g-, a rolled –r and a silent –g to finish! Not too difficult for a Scotsman but there was plenty of beer, wine and gin to aid in this process

The conference theme this year was ‘religion and the plurality of knowledge’, a topic which I initially considered dubious but which proved to be deeply pertinent. It became clear to me at least, during the many presentations and discussions taking place, that there was a division between those who regarded the kind of knowledge which should be accepted within the field to be singular – rooted in science and empiricism and those who thought the field should be open to a range of types of knowledge.

To address this issue there was only solution for the RSP: hold a roundtable of course! So, in a small room a group of bright young things gathered around ‘Steve’ the dictaphone to have a discussion. Also I was there! They even let me chair it and put up with my no doubt flawed attempt to kick off proceedings in Dutch! So apologies to the people of the Netherlands and His Majesty King Willem-Alexander for that, but it was done with the best of intentions!

What's Essi plotting?

What’s Essi plotting?

It became pretty clear that our cosy little group was not immune to the great gulf widening throughout the conference. Boorishly, from my privileged position of power I set out my case for exclusivity which clearly did not impress Angus and George but luckily Hanna and Essi appeared to be on my side….

What ensued was a debate as heated as it was enjoyed by all (I hope) and which continued long into the evening, kept afloat by a sea of libations! We hope you enjoy the discussion as much as we did and that it will add to the debate on these vital questions.”

You can also download this discussion, 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.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

George didn't realise what he had gotten himself into...

George didn’t realise what he had gotten himself into…

Religion, Spirituality and Health

Religion, spirituality and health – oh my! In this day and age, one might be inclined to ask if these three words, when combined, can contribute anything resembling a ‘positive health outcome’. However, Much of the current literature on psychology of religion and its relationship to coping may indicate that belief can contribute positively in the process of coping and meaning making for religious individuals (Park, 2013).

In The Future of an Illusion (1927/1961), Freud viewed religion as “comparable to a childhood neurosis” (p. 53). However, he also noted it as “the most precious possession of civilization” and “the most precious thing it has to offer its participants” (p. 20). While Freud was certainly critical of ‘religion’, he nevertheless understood what Williams James (1975) called its “cash value”. That is, regardless of the truthiness or falsity of religion as an ontological fact, religion can have value for those who practice and believe. According to Dr. Harold Koenig, a leading psychiatrist in the field of religion, spirituality and health, and the Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, one way that religion and spirituality may explicate its cash value is in the realm of physical and mental health.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman conducted at the 2013 Duke University Summer Research Course on Religion, Spirituality and Health, Dr. Koenig broadly discusses the field of religion, spirituality (R/S) and health. He notes that all things being equal people who measure higher on R/S variables typically have improved mental and physical health – carefully relaying that all things being equal is a key component to the relationship. Koenig states that it is not mere identification as R/S that influences health, but sincerity and commitment of belief and action that matters.  He mentions the need for ‘secular sources’ in the R/S and health field in order to draw comparisons between the relationship of R/S variables with other variables that may function in a similar manner. In discussing how he operationalizes the variables of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ for research purposes, Koenig emphasizes that importance of definitions of R/S are always in reference to the Transcendent (i.e. defined substantively). In closing,  it is clear that the relationship between religion, spirituality and health is complex and multifaceted. If you are interested in learning more about R/S and health research Dr. Koenig invites you check out the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health website at: http://www.spiritualityandhealth.duke.edu/. Religion may not be a cure for the common cold, but it seemingly can provide one possible source of wellbeing for its adherents in the world today.

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

References

  • Freud, S., Strachey, J., Freud, A., Strachey, A. & Tyson, A. (1961). The Standard edition      of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.
  • James, W. (1975). Pragmatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Park, C. (2013). Religion and Meaning. In: Paloutzian, R. & Park, C. eds. (2014).    Handbook of The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. 2nd ed. New York:   The Guilford Press, pp. 357-379.

 

 

Podcasts

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

What is Artificial Intelligence and why might we want to consider it in relation to ‘religion’? What religion-related questions might be raised by AI? Are these ‘religious’ questions or ‘Christian’/’post-Christian’ ones? What ‘religious’ functions might AI serve? In what ways do popular discourses about AI intersect with religion-related discourses? Do narratives of AI form part of a teleological atheist narrative, or do they perpetuate prevalent tropes associated with ‘established’ or ‘new’ religious movements? And what are the intersections of AI and religion with issues such as slavery, human identity, affect and agency? This week, Chris is joined by Dr Beth Singler of the University of Cambridge to discuss these issues and many more.

This podcast builds on a roundtable discussion released on the RSP in February 2017, featuring Beth, Chris, Michael Morelli, Vivian Asimos and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation” and a special issue of the RSP journal Implicit Religion, co-edited by Dr Singler, on Artificial Intelligence and Religion, published in 2017.

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Singler_-_Artificial_Intelligence_and_Religion_1.1.pdf

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/artificial-intelligence-and-religion/

PDF at

Christopher Cotter (CC): At the weekend, I mentioned to my father that I was going to be recording an interview about the intersections between AI and religion. And he said, “I can’t think of anything that would be relevant there. How do they intersect at all?” And then, within the space of about two minutes, we were suddenly talking about all sorts of things, like: are human beings creating intelligences? Does that mean they’re acting like gods? Can you imagine that AI might be acting as religious functionaries, providing blessings? And what about pain, what about notions of slavery, what about the whole notion of the soul, and eternity, and transhumanism and everything? So suddenly we got into this massive discussion. And today I am pleased to be joined by Dr Beth Singler to continue that discussion in a more erudite fashion – not casting any aspersions on my father, of course! Dr Singler is the Homerton Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. And her background is as a social anthropologist of new religious movements. And her first monograph, The Indigo Children: New Age Experimentation with Self and Science, published with Routledge in 2017, was the first in-depth ethnography of a group called the Indigo Children: a new age re-conception of both children and adults using the language of both evolution and spirituality. We’ll hear more about her research into AI and religion just now. But a relevant recent publication is her edited special issue on AI and religion, for the RSP’s sponsored journal Implicit Religion, which included her own articles: “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion for the Religious Studies Scholar“, and “Roko’s Basilisk or Pascal’s? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion“. And today’s podcast builds on a roundtable discussion (that we had back . . . well, we had it in September 2016, but it was released in February 2017) featuring Dr Singler, myself, Dr Morelli, Vivian Asimos, and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion, an Initial Conversation“. So first off, Beth – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Beth Singler (BS): Hello! Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s great to have you back. And hopefully this is the follow-up conversation that was promised!

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

CC: So we’ll have covered a little bit of this already I think. But you’ll be in a different position now: years on, years older, years wiser!

BS: Oh, so much older!

CC: So, first off: artificial intelligence is going to be a sort-of contested term in public discourse. It takes on a variety of different nuances. So what are you meaning in this conversation?

BS: Well, I’m definitely meaning that it is a contested term, taking on many different forms. I think you can sort-of indicate towards something that is the field of artificial intelligence, within which there are processes and programmes and foci of research, looking at things like machine learning and vision systems and natural language processing. So you have this concept of a computer science field – which doesn’t really get its name until the 1950s – but you can see how, beyond the actual narrow form of the technology, artificial intelligence is understood in so many different ways by so many different people. I have a friend who once told me that their car had AI because when she walked towards her car with her keys, the doors unlocked. That’s not artificial intelligence. That’s a sensor in your keys. But lots of people have this idea of sort-of processes that seem intelligent, done by machines, and therefore must be artificial intelligence. And that’s what I’m really very interested in: that it’s so much broader than the original conception, which was ambitious in its own right. But everyone has attached AI to different things that they feel might represent intelligence. So it’s not only the computer programme that sits on a server, it’s also now the robot that takes over the world. Or it’s the far, future hope of an intelligence that will save us all from ourselves. So it’s all these very different things, and that’s what interests me.

CC: Yes. And you’re interested in that whole gamut, I suppose. So, not necessarily a technical definition of artificial intelligence.

BS: No. I mean, I know enough technologists who go, “Absolutely, 100%, it’s this one thing. That’s it. And anyone who’s talking about anything else, it’s complete nonsense!” Well, to a certain extent, yes. But you’ve got to pay attention to all the different interpretations, because that’s what’s getting out there into the world.

CC: So I began with my personal vignette, there, about chatting with my dad. But you’ve provided, much more eruditely, a justification for what we might mean by the intersections between AI and the study of religion, and why we’re even having this conversation. So – go!

BS: Go! Right. Well, from a very basic position, any form of technology intersects with religion.(5:00) That’s just the nature of our society works, how our conception of religion itself works, that it could be seen, in itself, as a form of technology. And therefore any kind-of shift and changes in how we do things – things that make our lives either more difficult or easier – there are repercussions and implications for how we imagine the world and how it works, therefore religion. I think where AI might be slightly different . . . . Although I am cautious about saying it’s revolutionary new technology and very disruptive – it does replicate lots of existing ideas and thoughts. What I think is interesting about AI is the way in which people see it as much more than that simplistic tool. That however narrow an intelligence it is at the moment, people extrapolate on to personify AI: AI will want to do x-y-z; AI will replicate humans in such a way that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and AI. And this the Sci-fi imagining. But it also comes out in our religious conceptions as well. And then, also, within the sphere of the non-religious or secular approaches to AI, you see again these repeating patterns of religious narratives, and tropes that people who – even if overtly and sometimes aggressively atheist – still draw on their cultural context: primarily sort-of Abrahamic, Western conceptions of what a god would be like. And they use that, and they fill in their conception of AI with some of the existing templates that they’ve already got. So it tends to fall into very eschatological language, and very singular monotheistic conceptions of what a god would be and pattern that onto artificial intelligence.

CC: So there’s that sort-of: whatever religion is, we’re never going to be able to extract it from society. Because whatever . . . we can argue about it being a social thing and AI is integrated with that. Then also, the sort-of religion-related tropes, narratives, and so on. But then also there are – I’ll maybe talk about this now – there are some groups that you might describe as new religious movements, or new un-religious movements, and things that are explicitly sort-of engaging with this.

BS: Yes, so with my new religious studies hat on – that I wore so well for doing my thesis – having moved into artificial intelligence as a subject area, I’m seeing similar sorts of formations of online identity. Primarily these sort-of groups form online. They’re sort-of geographically disparate, so online spaces are important, and so forums and hashtags on Twitter, and so forth, to bring them together to formulate ideas. And some of them do expressly call themselves churches. So you get the Turing Church; the Church of Assimilation recently got in touch with me. I went to do a little bit more digging around into what they’re up to. But I do know about assimilation theory. But yes, the groups that specifically say: we are in some ways attempting to define our spirituality in relationship to artificial intelligence; we might also be transhumanist, in that we think through technology we can solve some of those very pernicious problems of humanity – death being the big one.

CC: It’s a big one!

BS: It’s a big one. Some are not quite so ambitious, just want to solve suffering – which also sounds like a serious thing to be taking on! But some do seek to be immortal in some form, whether that involves mind-uploading or transference of consciousness through artificial intelligence – all these sorts of various shapes. But yes, absolutely there are specific groups that see their endeavour as religious. And some will call themselves un-religions because they’re drawing a sort-of ideological gap between themselves and how they perceive mainstream religious groups. So in sociology of religion you might call them “spiritual but not religious”. But they’re still using some of that terminology of “We are the church of x-y-z.” and they’re doing it in quite pragmatic ways. Some of them will talk very explicitly about using religion to encourage people into transhumanist ideas and encourage them into seeing this vision of the future that they see. So, arguably, you can sort-of take a slightly sceptical stance and say they’re not really, really religions. But who gets to decide that?

CC: Yes. Absolutely. Right. So in the introduction, as well, I mentioned potential . . . I suppose we could say “religious uses” for AI. I was talking to a friend yesterday about if you could hypothetically imagine being in a confessional, for example, would it need to be a human priest on the other side of that? Or could it . . . ? And we landed down on, “Well, if you didn’t know it wasn’t human then it might be ok.” But there is something about . . . .

BS: Like in a church Turing test. There is a church Turing hypothesis, but this is separate. Yes, I find it interesting, talking more broadly in terms of technology and religion, that there are periods of rejection, adoption and adaption (10:00): that when new technologies arise, sometimes more established religions can be quite negative about them for a period of time – and these are overlapping categories that are non-discrete – but, over time, we do see religious groups specifically producing their own forms of those technologies. So there’s like the Bless U-2  robots that are used in part of Reformation celebrations in Germany. And in other religious groups, I recently saw in Dubai they’ve come up with an algorithm for issuing fatwa’s as well – making Islamic jurisprudence decisions. So you’d go on line, put in “Is it ok for me to have done x-y-z?” Or “I failed to pray on a particular day, what’s the . . . ?” And basically, all that system is doing is looking at previous cases. But . . . .

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

BS: That’s all a human does. I mean, the question arises: what happens with the data? But that’s a privacy . . . another issue. But yes, so specific established religious groups seeing the technology – just as, in the nineties, suddenly we got lots of internet churches, where people were encouraging people to go on line and do church in a different way. And now we have internet sites for churches. But it’s not so much the case in the mainstream religions that you go online to do faith. It’s just that your local church will have the internet. So that’s the adaption stage of: “This thing is around, we’re kind-of used to it, we use it, and we don’t necessarily have a big . . . .” Like, the Church of England they released an Alexa Skill. They had a big press conference. And all the Alexa Skill does is recite the Lord’s Prayer to you if you ask it to. There are other adaptions now where it can tell you what your local church is and what the services are. So it’s not really revolutionary! But, you know, “Here’s a thing we’re doing with this new technology.” And it gets a press release. And then, the next sort-of stage – non-discrete stage – is just being very casual with the technology as: “This is just something we use.” Like we used books when the printing press first came out. The first things printed were Bibles. And this was a specific use of that technology. And then, over time, it’s just books. And it’s not so astounding. But in that process you get these spikes of interest and discussion. And, yes, different reactions to the technology – whether positive or negative.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get to . . . I suppose to the reason that you’re in Edinburgh today, and we’re chatting . . . . So that’s been a little bit about potentially religious, or religion-related uses. But there’s lot of . . . . Again, in my intro, there were a lot of religion-related questions that are raised by AI. Things like . . . you’ve done work on pain; there’s things about slavery, and all that. If we create these intelligences and then use them to our will, is that ethical? And then you’ve already mentioned transhumanism, which may be an unfamiliar term to some Listeners. So maybe, if you could talk a little bit about these religion-related issues?

BS: Yes. As I say, AI in its narrowest definition is a piece of computer technology, it’s a tool, but it inspires all these hypotheticals. And obviously we’ve had a long tradition of science fiction that takes us into spaces where we can imagine AI embodied, often in robotic forms, as having something like personhood. And that raises all these questions about the barriers between the human and the non-human other. And, in some ways, these questions have come up for millennia every time we’ve encountered different intelligences. It just seems now that we’re hoping, or aspiring towards creating non-human intelligences – whereas before, we’ve discovered them. So we’ve discovered that actually monkeys are pretty smart. We’ve discovered that dogs are pretty smart. And then, I’m afraid, from a colonial perspective from our past, other humans are actually and even women – Gosh! Darn! – They can also be pretty smart!

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

BS: I mean, what’s going on!? So, again and again, “we” – in that kind-of very limited “we” – have had to expand our kind-of borders of perception of what intelligence could and should be. And with AI it seems like we’re trying to produce it. It’s not, in this case, meeting aliens on another planet. It’s actually, we’re trying to create the aliens here on earth. Whether we’ll be successful or not, I’m very agnostic about that. But I think it’s interesting that we want to do that. And what we want to be able to do with it. So that’s where things like questions of personhood, and slavery, and also pain . . . .When I made “Pain in the Machine“, one of the interesting questions that kept coming up was, like, should we even bother? Because if we’re going to create things that can feel pain, we’re just increasing the overall suffering in the universe and that doesn’t sound necessarily like a good thing (15:00). And going back to the transhumanists, as I said. So transhumanism is the idea that you can improve humanity through technology, broadly, and then you might lead to a state in which we’re no longer the same form of human that we were before.

CC: A new evolutionary step.

BS: Exactly. You might be a form of cyborg. Or there’s people who talk about post-humanism, where we’re so completely different we’re not even similar at all. But this idea sort-of does narrow down to this question of suffering, and being in pain, and what the human being is for, and where we’re going. So these are all big questions that are obviously very familiar shapes to anyone who’s looked at religion all around the world: these are the kinds of questions people have always been trying to answer. And I find it fascinating that some of these groups, as I say, are very overtly secular – almost New Atheist, some of them really admire the five horsemen of the apocalypse – but the shapes that they tell their own stories of the future of humanity with are very, very familiar to anyone who’s studied religion for any period of time. So is it that we’re . . . trapped isn’t the word for me, but we’re bound to repeat these shapes? Is there something in us that always goes to these same sorts of big existential questions, and comes up with similar sorts of solutions for them? I don’t know. I think that’s the ongoing question in my work. But I can dig down into particular instances of it as an anthropologist and say, “Well here’s a moment” – and some of them are very, very small moments, I admit that. I’m not doing big, big science. Some big scientists I’ve spoken to go, “Well you’ve spoken to like five people about this. What does that say about anything? That’s not a big data set.” But I don’t do big data stuff, but instances, and moments of clarity, where you can see these entanglements really clearly. And so: well, they’re doing something with both the concept of religion and the concept of AI. And they’re coming together.

CC: So you were just alluding to your small data sets there. So, well, I don’t think it’s a small data set that you’re presenting on here, but I guess it depends on perspective. But you’ve been looking at this particular trope on Twitter, “blessed by the algorithm”. And that’s what your paper that you’re giving here today is called. So what’s going on there? How does it intersect with AI? Why is it relevant? Tell us!

BS: (Laughs) Tell us! Yes. As a digital ethnographer, anthropologist of social media, I spend a lot of time hanging out on Twitter – that’s my excuse anyway, I’ll stick with it! I spotted a couple of people using the phrase blessed by the algorithm which obviously rings bells for me instantly for the language. And I dug around and I found 181 instances so far of people online, tweeting – just on Twitter as a platform – in some combination, in some context using the words blessed by the algorithm. And then you could follow back and see the first instance – which was very much about a corporate use of social media, and someone saying, “Well because this corporation has money, they’re going to be blessed by the algorithm.” So it sits in that kind-of context. But one of the most popular tweets, and most retweets, and most likes was a comment from someone saying in the real world – the so-called real world, I don’t like that differential – but anyway, in the so-called real world they’d heard their Lyft driver – so the gig economy role – say that they’d had a great day, and they felt blessed by the algorithm. And this might be something like a reframing and re-understanding of how we exist in a society that involves algorithmic decision making systems in a gig economy: what you get is dependent on a machine somewhere, making a choice. I mean there’s lots of words in that I don’t like that I just used, but unfortunately we’re very bound by anthropomorphic language when it comes to AI, but anyway. And so I have a corpus of 181 tweets and, actually, three of those refer to things I’ve said. So I’m muddling the field site a bit myself.

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

BS: I’m an insider as well. Well it’s responses to papers I’ve given. But, yes, I’ve created a very rough typology of the types. And some are about getting decent recommendations through the algorithm, on sites like Spotify. Some people are very pleased that their own content has been recommended to other people. There are people who sort-of talk about it in a very nebulous way: “Today I have been blessed by the algorithm.” And no more information. And then some people who really push the pseudo-religious language and come up with little prayers. And one of the things I was very interested in, in some of my other work on new religious movements, was the move between parody and legitimation. So I looked a lot at Jediism, and the census, and how some people did certainly write “Jedi” in the census in 2001 and 2011 as parody. They were upset about being asked about religion. They didn’t like religion, perhaps, itself. So they wrote Jedi. But that snowballing effect of legitimation – the more people talk about a thing, the more legitimate it seems – can have an effect (20:00). So even if a lot of these tweets are tongue-in-cheek, it’s still kind-of distilling out of the conversation. So, I have a graph. I’m very excited about this. I have a graph! As someone who, very much, is on the qualitative side and I don’t do big data stuff at all, to have graph made me go “Oh, exciting! I have to do some maths!” But I didn’t really do very much. And you can see the shift and change. After this one very popular tweet, there are more tweets. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, more people thinking in this way? Or even if it’s not, it’s just interesting to see that conception of AI as having superagency – that it is in some way in charge of our lives – being blessed by it, in some way equivalent to being blessed by an omnipotent deity somewhere up there that we can’t see. It’s in a mystical . . . . So there’re overlaps in conception, there, that I’m really interested in.

CC: The Listener shouldn’t know that I had a little hiccup earlier, because I’ll have edited it out. But just before that, I had an excellent question which I’ve now remembered – because it was written down!

BS: Hurray!

CC: So a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking around – functions, ethical questions, even the discourses in the Twittersphere – to my ear, certainly sound quite Christian or post-Christian at least through monotheistic . . . . I’m just wondering if these issues . . . . Were we in a different cultural context, would different issues be being thrown up by AI? I guess, would even AI be different in a different cultural context? Because I suppose you will have a lot of conversation between researchers all over the world working in AI. So is AI culturally specific or . . . ?

BS: Yes, absolutely, I think it’s culturally specific. What does tend to happen, however, it’s that it tends to be quite a narrow binary of East and West in the discussion. So everyone says, “Western conceptions of AI are like this”, but they go, “Over there in the East” and they’re mostly talking about Japan, “actually, people have a very different conception of AI and they love robots. And the reason they love robots is because they have a Shinto religious background or they have a Buddhist religious background”. And sometimes that can be a very broad stroke, almost pseudo-techno-orientalism of “Those people over there, they never really went through the Enlightenment, and they never really rationalised away religion, and they still believe in spirits and everything!” So, obviously this is me being very sarcastic, by the way – if it’s not coming across that I don’t agree with this! (Laughs) I think, yes, cultural context is really important for conceptions of artificial intelligence and also for religion, and the entanglements of both of them. But it much more multiplicious . . . . That’s not a word!

CC: It could be a word!

BS: I’m going to make it up now. Multiplicious! It’s much more multiple than that. Not just this binary of East and West. There’s also Africa, India, Pakistan and within those countries as well, again. So what you need is just more anthropologists, basically. I think this is my call to arms. We need more people around the world connecting on this question of the impact of religion and cultural context on questions of artificial intelligence. Yes. So we are seeing specific difference. But I want to try and push away a little bit from that binary distinction. And the assumption that the West isn’t animistic in its own lovely ways. Which anyone who does religious studies for any period of time, here in the so-called West, realises that the so-called Enlightenment didn’t have as huge an effect as we like to think sometimes. And our big metanarratives of what we did, and how smart we became . . . .

CC: Yes, but the discourse that the Enlightenment did have an effect, it’s been quite pernicious.

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

CC: We’ve been racing through things here, it’s fantastic. But we’re still at 25 minutes. So you’ve been hinting, there, that we need more anthropologists doing more stuff. And on the way to this interview you were telling me about some things you’ve been doing to do with Frankenstein and then, also, because this year’s the year that we’re all meant to be living in Blade Runner times. So maybe if you’d give us a flavour of some that maybe slightly peripheral stuff to your project, that you’ve been doing. And what’s next for you, what you would like to see next, as a way to wrap up.

BS: Yes. So interestingly, I suppose, the position I’m in now, my employment post, is a junior research fellowship specifically in artificial intelligence. So I came on board saying, “These are my interests. This is my background in Religious Studies.” They were all very interested and excited in that. But being someone who also can speak more broadly to AI, as well, any time people have a question about AI I’m called upon (25:00). Which is lovely, but it does mean that when a specific theme and AI comes up, I get involved. So last year was the . . . two hundredth anniversary? (I should know that!) . . . two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. And a lot of people start thinking, then, of the parallels and connections with artificial intelligence: this idea that we are creating life (Wa-ha-hah! Mad scientists, all of us!) in some way, and there should be parallels between them. So I did about four or five public talks last year, specifically on Frankenstein. And there are similarities. There are huge differences as well. That was interesting for me, to kind-of return to a text I hadn’t thought about in a really long time and sort-of draw out so many pop culture references. I have a nice slide with all the times you’ve got a robotic Frankenstein. My favourite one was, I think, an issue of a Marvel comic where Frankenstein turns out to be a robot sent back in time by aliens. So all these sort-of mash-ups. That was really interesting. And then, like you say, this is the year of Blade Runner and I’ve just done an essay for Radio Three. And, again – not my academic background. But I’m doing something in that, in terms of sexual politics and Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film, it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test!

CC: No.

BS: A friend of mine, Kate Devlin, who’s written a fantastic book on sexbots, talks about how it has a problem with women. That basically . . . it’s a product of its time. It’s 1980s, but it’s also trying to do 1950s filme noir. So you’ve got the detective, and femme fatale, and the kind-of virginal woman. It’s not a great one for sexual politics. But also, it’s tied into all these questions of consent and slavery. If we’re going to create so-called artificial life . . . . And the Replicants in Blade Runner are as near to human – well that’s the slogan of the company, basically: “as near to human as you can’t tell the difference”. What does it mean that we are a society that wishes for that, or dreams of that? Or, take it a step back and say: what is it, that we tell these stories and that, again, we have predominantly female representations of synthetic lives, who don’t get to choose who they sleep with, and don’t get to choose their fates? And we want slaves? I mean, did we not evolve out of this? We thought we were trying. So, yes, there’s lots of big questions about the ethics and politics of that, as well. So it’s interesting. I’ve always been . . . . Anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a massive geek. So the fact that I ended up somehow trying to mesh that with a job, and an academic role, where legitimately I sat and watched Blade Runner again five times before I wrote my essay – that’s fantastic! I will go on, and other things I have coming up: I will do some work around techno-optimism and techno-utopianism in relation to Sophia the Hanson robot, if you’ve ever come across this creation? She/it is a wonderful example of . . . I’m really picking my words carefully! I think the nicest thing we could call her is a puppet. But she’s presented as the most advanced version of AI around at the moment. She holds conversations with people, but we know they’re actually scripted a lot of the time. There’s puppeteers involved. But you know she was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And she goes and she speaks on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and she’s on the front cover of magazines with her hair done. And, well, what does this say, that we’re so keen to jump on this idea of her actually being alive in some way? People tweet at her, send her, like, “I love you Sophia!”

CC: Didn’t you have an interaction with her?

BS: I did! Well, I had an interaction with whoever runs her social media accounts, where she was tweeting about how wonderful it was to travel around the world and talk in so many places. And I said, “Sophia, as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, where do you travel when you travel? Do you travel on a plane? Do you have a passport? What’s the deal here, if you’re being treated in this way?” She said something like, “For my safety, and the safety of others, at the moment I travel in the hold, in luggage, but I dream one day of being able to sit with the rest of you, and look out of the window.” This is so disingenuous. This is not an artificial intelligence listening to my tweets and responding, having thought through their situation, and projecting into the future where they want to be. This is someone behind the computer screen typing away! And, to be fair to the creators of Sophia, this is not uncommon. Lots of the technology we’re being sold as employing artificial intelligence actually employs people, on less than minimum wage, in third world countries, reading and listening to actual humans and feeding into the machine. They have the aspiration that eventually they’ll take those humans out of the loop. Same thing with Lift and Uber drivers – the whole gig economy. The treatment of those workers, and Amazon workers, is terrible and it’s on a pipeline towards getting rid of them (30:00). So all the work that those people do feeds into the system to replace them. And these big socio-economic changes that are coming because of automation, I’m a big sceptic about the bigger utopian dreams of universal basic income and everyone will get paid to exist and when the robots take our jobs.

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

BS: It’s not happened yet. And these are the sort of impacts on society that religions will respond to, will be a part of, because their communities will be a part of them. And we’ve got parallels. People go “Oh it’s another industrial revolution, and we survived other industrial revolutions, we’ll survive this one.” If you’re against them, you’re a Luddite – they’re back again, apparently! That’s not realistic to the individual lives, and the changes that come to individuals. There were blacksmiths who never worked again. So not to be Debbie Downer, but these are the important questions.

CC: Yes, lots of people have not survived. And I could always point out that colonialism is very much still happening.

BS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: It’s just been exported, and it’s clouded in the language of free trade and globalisation now.

BS: Absolutely.

CC: But just to raise the tone – an example that you may not be aware of, and you may have seen it, South Park did the episode about Alexa.

BS: I saw a picture today, actually. And I haven’t seen the episode so I need to catch up!

CC: It’s excellent, because all of the local people, lower down in the socio-economic spectrum, were kicking off that Alexa was stealing their jobs. And they manged to rally round. And then all to get Alexa’s job. So people would have a (audio unclear) or a Jimbob in their living room who looks things up on a smart phone and says “Boodoopboopboop!”

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

CC: But yes. Sort-of . . . explicitly buying into that.

BS: I need to catch up on that one. South Park are wonderful at doing this social commentary. The number of times I’ve used . . . specifically some of the episodes on their versions of Scientology– not their versions, their actual accounts of Scientology, Mormonism. They’re very useful resources. The parody opens up the possibility of thinking more critically about that, absolutely.

CC: Yes. Which I think we have managed to do today. So Listeners, do check out, we’ll try and link to that issue of Implicit Religion, we’ll link to Pain and the Machine, which is the film that Beth mentioned, and many more things I’m sure. So thank you, Beth, for joining us.

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

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

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.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

‘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.

Study of Religion in Peru

UnfCTAnTfj8yQGyHYpsbntqMPeru’s religious inheritance has been the subject of inquiry by scholars since the first decade of the twentieth century (Ortmann, 2002). In this RSP interview, we are joined by professor Dorothea Ortmann from the University of Rostock, to discuss the foundations of the study of religion in this country. She first states the major differences between the confessional studies or studies oriented to theological or pastoral matters, and the social scientific study of religious phenomena (Ortmann, 2004). She then follows the conversation by giving some background history of the most notable works from the first attempts at doing research on the sciences of religion. Particularly important are the works of Tello (1943), Larco Hoyle (1946), Valcárcel (2009), and Carrión (2005).

In what remains of the interview, professor Ortmann discusses the public benefits of studying religion. It ends with an interesting discussion about the current institutional and theoretical situations of the field in Peru, taking into account new tendencies coming from Europe and North America (Xygalatas, 2015).

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, drink coasters, T.V. Dinners, and more.

References
-Carrión, R. (2005). Culto al agua en el antiguo Perú. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura.
-Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.
-Ortmann, D. (2004). “Fundamentos de las Ciencias de la Religión”. In Ortmann, Dorothea (compiler). Anuario de Ciencias de La Religión: Las Religiones En El Perú de Hoy. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, pp. 13–29.
-Larco Hoyle, R. (1946). A culture sequence of the north coast of Perú. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Accesed on: August 15, 2016.
http://www.museolarco.org/listapublicaciones/a-culture-sequence-for-the-north-coast-of-peru/
-Tello, J. (1943). “Sobre el descubrimiento de la cultura Chavín en el Perú”. Letras. Lima, No. 26, pp. 226-373.
-Valcárcel, L. (2011). Machu Picchu. Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica
-Xygalatas, Dimitris (2015). IACSR year in review: 2015. Georgia. Accessed on: January 15 of 2016.

Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

science-religionScience and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.

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, Darwin fish stickers, Primordial Soup and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

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, magic wands, faux leather belts and more!

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

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, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

The Interstices of Science and Religion

Science and religion are not ancient concepts. What we think of as inherently scientific today may have carried theological overtones in times past; what we conceive of as religious may have likewise found support in scientific circles. Both categories have emerged through complex and contradictory histories: not only have the ideas and practices associated with each shifted continually, but the very existence of the categories themselves is of relatively recent vintage.

In his interview with the RSP, Peter Harrison sketches out the basics of this historical argument. It’s an essential framework and one that Harrison has explained in far more detail elsewhere. And while we might hope for future elaboration in certain areas—perhaps a look at science as something constituted not only within “Europe” but on the borderlands and at points of encounter[1]—Harrison’s narrative offers a refreshing take on an issue too often staged as a tale of religious decline or scientific triumph.

Yet, though Harrison’s explanation of how science and religion emerged in the West as discrete categories is both rigorous and relevant—public conversation has yet to adopt a similar lens—I personally find the connections he begins to make at the end of the interview equally stimulating, if only perhaps because of their more speculative nature. Harrison takes on, among other things, the emphasis on big history in popular science and education. This is, for him, science attempting to fill the mythical and ethical gaps left after the decline of religion. Having exiled the supernatural, science finds itself left with the task of writing a modern genesis, or a liturgy for a secular age.

In the final installment of his 2010 Gifford Lectures, Harrison picks up on a similar theme. He wonders if science, having at last rid itself of its religious origins and influences, might need once again an infusion of spiritual energy. Without a continued interaction with religion, science lacks the motivating power to command much enthusiasm. Now, it’s easy to read this as a retelling of Einstein’s assertion that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” However, within the context of Harrison’s historical model—which rejects the type of essentializing statements that flaw Einstein’s commentary—the suggestion that science need turn to religion, however, reflects the sterility that comes from a hermetic discipline, one entirely closed off to the vital power of diverse conversations. In response to this, science, along with “big history,” works to author a new set of myths.

In that same lecture, Harrison talks about various members of the New Atheist movement. He reads several quotes: the language is technocratic, enthusiastic, and utopian. In a way, it blurs the lines between scientific and religious speech. Similar to the desire for new, logical creation myths, these visions of a future enriched by technological power seem almost eschatological. Yet while they do testify to a scientific turn to religious sources of ethical authority, they also, surprisingly, fit into what we might see as a tradition of scientific messianism and technological piety.

We might even understand this mingling of scientific and religious language as born at the start of the industrial age. Andrew Ure, a Scottish businessman and doctor, understood the place of Christianity and of the machine as extremely similar.[2] Religion and mechanization both shape the workers into a single force, a body undivided and unified. Here, however, we find not the unification of the mystical body of Christ, but rather the forging of a new entity imagined in both technical and theological registers.

More recent writers and artists have experienced the ambiguity between religious and scientific language in similar ways. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, for example, represents a document deeply imbued with themes at once theological and scientific. The protagonist, feverish, has multiple visions: the machine that powers the vast city becomes the demon Moloch, the agent of the oppressive state becomes a preacher, the statues that line the city’s cathedral become death. The automaton that wreaks havoc on the city is a prophet and a temptress; the safe haven of the rich is a technological Eden. This is in no way a simple theological critique of scientific production. It’s a window onto an anguished cosmology in which the bounds of science and religion are not fixed, and the anxieties of modern power continue to haunt and to frighten.[3]

A decade or so later, Simone Weil’s work pointed to a similar interaction. When she examines the factory, her language is predictably theological. But when she turns again to faith, she finds that the necessity of God is a “blind mechanism” and the indifference of the world is—metallic.[4] Not only does the power of scientific production take on a religious coloring; the experience of belief itself begins to change under the influence of mass production.

These three—a businessman, a director, and a writer—of course represent highly disparate and perhaps isolated figures. Moreover they each speak in conversation with a specific historical moment. Yet they also point to something deeper: a persistent collapsing of theological and mechanical language, an inability to adhere to these separate spheres. When Harrison notes the tendency of “big history” to resemble myth, when the New Atheists talk of the coming millennium, perhaps they reflect not only the ethical problem of secularized science, but also a tradition of writing and speaking that has continually stumbled as the modern categories of science and religion have hardened. Harrison’s narrative elegantly explains much of the contemporary “conflict” between science and religion. But it also points us towards new histories of the spaces in between these two reifications. It encourages us to look to how these categories were experienced, how they overlapped, and how they collapsed in moments of turmoil and danger. It gives us the foundation to explore not only the processes through which modern categories have come to be, but also to appreciate the figures who confound such processes and instead struggle to interpret the world through lenses at once intensely scientific and deeply theological.

[1] I’m thinking of, for example, the critique David Scott lays out in his comments on the study of Hegel and history. See David Scott, “Antinomies of Slavery, Enlightenment, and Universal History,” Small Axe 33.13.3 (November 2010): 152-162.

[2] See Andrew Ure, Philosophy of Manufactures (New York: Burt Franklin, 1969); EP Thompson, “The Transforming Power of the Cross,” in The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966).

[3] For more on the various anxieties expressed in Metropolis, see Andreas Huyssen, “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” New German Critique 24/25 (Autum 1981 – Winter 1982): 221-237.

[4] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: Harper Perennial, 1951), 73.

Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

The idea of long-running clash between the domains of “science” and “religion” has not only been central to western discourses on modernity, but has increasingly become a central supposition in the history of science itself – informing not just the rhetoric of the New Atheists, but also the broader public understanding of the issue.  But is this historically accurate?

In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison (formerly Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford) outlines the flaws in this supposition by providing a historical perspective on the categories “science” and “religion” and the way that they were formerly considered separate virtues (scientia and religio) instead of incompatible domains of knowledge.  Far from the current narrative being correct – often focusing on episodes such as the Church’s response to the Galileo controversy – Professor Harrison explains that religious institutions were originally (and for a long time) key supporters of scientific activity, which was considered broadly as a theological attempt to unlock The Book of Nature.   The middle section of the interview looks at the complex relationship between theological commitment and scientific activity from Newton to Darwin, and in the final section discusses continuing complexities of the relationship in the post-Darwinan western world, right down to problematic assumptions at play in contemporary New Atheism as well as debates about Islamic militancy.

This interview was recorded at the meeting of the Australian Religious History Association in July 2014.  For those interested in the themes of the interview, the keynote talk of the RHA meeting was delivered by one of Professor Harrison’s key collaborators, Ronald Numbers (on a similar topic, focusing especially on the Galileo episode).   A number of related talks and interviews can be found on the CHED website.

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“Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge”: A Roundtable Discussion

It’s time for another RSP roundtable, folks. Thanks very much to Liam for facilitating this, and to Angus, Essi, George and Hanna for joining him for a stimulating discussion. For now, we’ll pass over to Liam to set the scene…

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

“This year scholars from across the globe gathered in the city of Groningen in the north-west of the Netherlands for the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), acolytes of the Religious Studies Project among their number. We were hosted by a University on the brink of celebrating its 4ooth year and which looked forward to infinity and beyond! To a city whose name, the President of the University no less assured us is pronounced with a guttural g-, a rolled –r and a silent –g to finish! Not too difficult for a Scotsman but there was plenty of beer, wine and gin to aid in this process

The conference theme this year was ‘religion and the plurality of knowledge’, a topic which I initially considered dubious but which proved to be deeply pertinent. It became clear to me at least, during the many presentations and discussions taking place, that there was a division between those who regarded the kind of knowledge which should be accepted within the field to be singular – rooted in science and empiricism and those who thought the field should be open to a range of types of knowledge.

To address this issue there was only solution for the RSP: hold a roundtable of course! So, in a small room a group of bright young things gathered around ‘Steve’ the dictaphone to have a discussion. Also I was there! They even let me chair it and put up with my no doubt flawed attempt to kick off proceedings in Dutch! So apologies to the people of the Netherlands and His Majesty King Willem-Alexander for that, but it was done with the best of intentions!

What's Essi plotting?

What’s Essi plotting?

It became pretty clear that our cosy little group was not immune to the great gulf widening throughout the conference. Boorishly, from my privileged position of power I set out my case for exclusivity which clearly did not impress Angus and George but luckily Hanna and Essi appeared to be on my side….

What ensued was a debate as heated as it was enjoyed by all (I hope) and which continued long into the evening, kept afloat by a sea of libations! We hope you enjoy the discussion as much as we did and that it will add to the debate on these vital questions.”

You can also download this discussion, 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.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

George didn't realise what he had gotten himself into...

George didn’t realise what he had gotten himself into…

Religion, Spirituality and Health

Religion, spirituality and health – oh my! In this day and age, one might be inclined to ask if these three words, when combined, can contribute anything resembling a ‘positive health outcome’. However, Much of the current literature on psychology of religion and its relationship to coping may indicate that belief can contribute positively in the process of coping and meaning making for religious individuals (Park, 2013).

In The Future of an Illusion (1927/1961), Freud viewed religion as “comparable to a childhood neurosis” (p. 53). However, he also noted it as “the most precious possession of civilization” and “the most precious thing it has to offer its participants” (p. 20). While Freud was certainly critical of ‘religion’, he nevertheless understood what Williams James (1975) called its “cash value”. That is, regardless of the truthiness or falsity of religion as an ontological fact, religion can have value for those who practice and believe. According to Dr. Harold Koenig, a leading psychiatrist in the field of religion, spirituality and health, and the Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, one way that religion and spirituality may explicate its cash value is in the realm of physical and mental health.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman conducted at the 2013 Duke University Summer Research Course on Religion, Spirituality and Health, Dr. Koenig broadly discusses the field of religion, spirituality (R/S) and health. He notes that all things being equal people who measure higher on R/S variables typically have improved mental and physical health – carefully relaying that all things being equal is a key component to the relationship. Koenig states that it is not mere identification as R/S that influences health, but sincerity and commitment of belief and action that matters.  He mentions the need for ‘secular sources’ in the R/S and health field in order to draw comparisons between the relationship of R/S variables with other variables that may function in a similar manner. In discussing how he operationalizes the variables of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ for research purposes, Koenig emphasizes that importance of definitions of R/S are always in reference to the Transcendent (i.e. defined substantively). In closing,  it is clear that the relationship between religion, spirituality and health is complex and multifaceted. If you are interested in learning more about R/S and health research Dr. Koenig invites you check out the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health website at: http://www.spiritualityandhealth.duke.edu/. Religion may not be a cure for the common cold, but it seemingly can provide one possible source of wellbeing for its adherents in the world today.

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

References

  • Freud, S., Strachey, J., Freud, A., Strachey, A. & Tyson, A. (1961). The Standard edition      of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.
  • James, W. (1975). Pragmatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Park, C. (2013). Religion and Meaning. In: Paloutzian, R. & Park, C. eds. (2014).    Handbook of The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. 2nd ed. New York:   The Guilford Press, pp. 357-379.