Autism, Religion, and Imagination

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


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, Wu-Tang CD’s, Ramen, and more.

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

Autism, Religion and Imagination

Podcast with Ingela Visuri (5 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TC: Right.

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

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

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

TC: Right

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

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

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

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

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

TC: How so?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Yes. That’s correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TC: Really? Ok.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Thanks Tommy.

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

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

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DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

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

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


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

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

Religion as an Evolutionary Organism

Norenzayan, Shariff, Willard, Slingerland, Gervais, McNamara & Henrich, Thomas Coleman asks evolutionary biologist Dr. David Sloan Wilson (DSW): ‘Can religion be known as an evolutionary organism?’

sui generis category, in which the blind forces of natural selection carefully pick out ‘religions’ and only ‘religions’, DSW notes: ‘what’s more general than religions, are meaning systems… every human is not religious, religion is one kind of meaning system’.  Wilson goes on to support the idea that functional groups are necessary for a science of religion. He puts forth some examples of evolutionary hypotheses on religions that have been tested, yielding both confirmations and rejections of these hypotheses. In closing, DSW emphasizes that the theory of evolution should not be held in conflict with the religious understandings it seeks to explain.

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


For example, see the article published in Nature by Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson (2010) and the five published responses from 117 scholars and scientists combined.

  • Boyer, P., & Bergstrom, B. (2008). Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion. Annu. Rev. Anthropol.,    37(1), 111-130. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.37.081407.085201
  • Fedyk, M. (2015). How (not) to bring psychology and biology together. Philos Stud, 172(4), 949-967. doi:10.1007/s11098-014-0297-9
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A., Willard, A., Slingerland, E., Gervais, W., McNamara, R., Henrich, J. (in press). The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions. Behavioral And Brain Sciences.
  • Pinker, S. (2012). THE FALSE ALLURE OF GROUP SELECTION | Edge.org. Edge.org. Retrieved 14 March 2015, from http://edge.org/conversation/the-false-allure-of-group-selection
  • Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L.  Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Wilson, D. (2002). Darwin’s cathedral. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind

Do you believe that unseen forces have the causal power to move physical objects and intervene in everyday human affairs? Of course you do. You are probably like most other humans alive today who effortlessly place great explanatory weight on these hidden forces. However, such unseen forces are not the local forest spirits, or gods in the sky, per se, but as Gervais (2013, p. 380) writes: “These entities are called minds”. Conversely, it just so happens that we attribute to the forest spirit, to the gods, and even to the Christian God (Barrett & Keil, 1996) for example, a mind that has the same conceptual limitations as our own (e.g. being limited in action by both time and space). A core tenet of cognitive science of religion (CSR) is that the folk-psychological ability to explain human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions – known as theory of mind (ToM) – is also a system that makes us receptive to belief in the supernatural (Banerjee & Bloom, 2013; Gervais, 2013). But why?

In his interview with Thomas Coleman, cultural and evolutionary psychologist Dr. Will Gervais talks about the role that ToM plays in explaining both belief, and nonbelief in supernatural agents. Gervais begins by discussing some of his prior research in the field, and draws salient the various phenomena that falls under the ability, he terms as “mind perception”. Further, he touches on how, and why ToM is an important construct in CSR for explaining god beliefs, and gives the listener insight into how unseen mental states can be measured.* In closing, Gervais answers important questions such as “Is ToM a religion specific system?” and even weighs in on the suggested autism-atheism connection prevalent in CSR.

A short video clip of Heider and Simmel’s classic 1944 experiment mentioned in the podcast can be found here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, rubber ducks, dandelion seeds, and more.


  • Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2013). Would Tarzan believe in God? Conditions for the emergence of religious belief. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 17(1), 7-8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.11.005
  • Barrett, J., & Keil, F. (1996). Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219-247. doi:10.1006/cogp.1996.0017
  • Gervais, W. (2013). Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains, and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 8(4), 380-394. doi:10.1177/1745691613489836

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.


  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

Over one hundred years ago, William James dedicated an entire chapter in The Varieties of Religious Experience to “The Reality of the Unseen”. When we typically imagine religion, we imagine that religion has to do with something perceivable, yet paradoxically something that we cannot see, taste, smell, or touch. James characterized the relationship of the individual psyche and belief in the supernatural realm as “…if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there’…” (1985, p. 55 [emphasis in original]).

While the impulse to believe may be there, one’s relationship to this unseen realm is not easy to cultivate and maintain. Our evolved psychology was not ‘built’ with the intuition that, even though we have minds, there is an unseen – ultimate mind – that has access to our own and shares thoughts with us (Boyer, 2013). Such ideas require cultural scaffolding, and are not easily sustained in the absence of social systems. Although often ignored, “all our ethnography and history suggests that there is learning involved in the practice of religion…” (Luhrmann, 2013, p. 147). How does one learn to experience God as really real?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman, psychological-anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann discusses her multiyear ethnography of American evangelicals where she sought to understand how some of these individuals come to have close, personal, intimate relationships with God (Luhrmann, 2012). She begins by providing the background into her extensive research on the Vineyard Church movement, where she attended sermons, house groups, prayer groups, and many other opportunities to understand evangelicals, specifically, how God becomes real for them. Luhrmann details the rise of evangelicals in the 60’s and 70’s, and how anthropological work can be informed by evolutionary psychology. This serves as a framework to understand the unique training processes that teach an individual that their mind is not only open to their own thoughts, but God’s as well. Luhrmann goes beyond a purely explanatory endeavor and is interested in understanding the processes that lead some to see God as “a person among people”. One aspect of this learning process, she found, involves pretense and instructs the individual to treat God as an imaginary friend, but with one caveat – God (to them) is real and imaginary friends are not.


Furthermore, while imagining God, Luhrmann uncovered that the individual is often instructed to treat God as they would another person, like a close friend you tell your secrets to. This helps to cultivate an understanding and experience of God that is highly anthropomorphic and cognitively pleasing, rather than thinking of God as Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”, who would hardly be interested in your innermost thoughts. In closing, she details some of the prayer exercises that further help individuals to develop this personal sense of divine presence and answers an RSP listener’s question about the possibility of gender differences in experiencing the divine.

You can visit Dr. Luhrmann’s website to find out more about her work and research at: http://luhrmann.net/

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Os serés matáves: Pentecostalism in the Prisons of Rio

BRASIL-997Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a city of over six million people; it is known for its exotic nightlife, white sand beaches, crystal blue water, and of course, one of the most famous bosa nova songs ever: The Girl From Ipanema. However, beyond the sunny beaches, veritable entertainment, and soothing music lies a very different scene – the Rio de Janeiro prison system. Inside the towering grey concrete walls live Rio’s os serés matáves, or roughly translated into English as, “the killable people”These “killable people” are comprised mostly of proletariat and unemployed minorities with crimes ranging from the benign to the bloody. Gangs rule the prison and every day at 6 pm deafening war cries echo out from within the concrete walls as prison gangs scream allegiance to their “commander” – the head gang leader who runs the prison. The guards largely remain on the outskirts of the prison, they don’t control much of what happens within, as it is too dangerous to go inside. [Note: While the prison system is, of course, very dangerous, the guards’ absence is also due to the penology practiced in that country.]


Dr. Johnson inside the prison with other inmates during worship.

For Brazil’s “killable people”, there are two prevalent ways to deal with the relative hell of prison – both involving allegiance and devotion. You can give your life to the gang or give your life to God. Only three types of people dare to venture into the heart of a Rio de Janeiro prison: the condemned, the pentecostal pastors leading the prison ministry, and curiously brave sociologists such as Dr. Andrew Johnson.



In his interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Dr. Johnson begins by discussing the preparation leading up to his ethnography of the Pentecostal prison ministries in Rio de Janero Brazil. He takes the listener through the streets and slums of Rio, and into a prison cell-block. Here, we learn about the gang life that largely runs the prison, and the “gang like” life (Pentecostal prison ministries) that can provide a temporary escape from the physically and psychologically damaging conditions of the jail, and might just provide eternal redemption through the faith of the pious prisoner. Johnson discusses the role of politics in the prison system, why Pentecostalism dominates the jails in a predominately catholic country such as Brazil, and “answers” the question of how to tell if someone is truly faithful. He discusses how prisoners are viewed by their community after their release, and upon conversion as an allegedly devout pentecostal. In closing, Dr. Johnson speculates about the future of pentecostal prison ministries in Brazil, and argues for “the religious lives of inmates being taken seriously apart from recidivism rates”.

Be sure to check out Dr. Johnson’s plenary address, the world debut of his documentary If I Give My Soul, at the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Indianapolis Indiana October 31st – November 2nd. You can register for the conference here: SSSR registration link.

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.

The Psychology of Prayer: An interview with Kevin Ladd

234_Praying_PalsPrayer. Communicating with a Transcendent deity is a nearly universal and integral part of many ‘religions’ around the world. For many western traditions, prayer can be done anywhere, at anytime and by anyone. There are even Dr. Kevin Ladd.


MonksIn his interview with Thomas Coleman, Dr. Ladd gives an overview on the psychology of prayer. Ladd begins the interview by discussing what it means to pray. Perhaps most important, he explains how prayer is defined for research purposes, emphasizing that there is no essential definition, nor is one desirable. In taking care to uphold a scientific understanding of prayer, rather than a theologically apologetic one, Ladd understands prayer as a “psychological phenomena”, but with a “theological sensitivity to it”. In other words, we can understand prayer from a scientific point of view while also recognizing its (typically) theological basis. Ladd covers ‘types of prayer’ noting that there is more than one way to categorize differences in prayer. However, is there a secular source or equivalent for prayer? Are there differences between males and females? Does an individual’s age make a difference? Furthermore, if you want to know what a small army of undergraduate researchers, digital cameras, ‘casually dressed’ mannequins, and a labyrinth have to do with prayer research be sure to listen to the interview.

A 'labyrinth'

A ‘labyrinth’

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The Burning Saints, Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria

greece-firewalkingIt’s dark outside. The moon hangs in the sky and the soft smell of smoke permeates the warm air as it stings your eyes. Looking down, you notice the glow from burning coals, as hot as 535 degrees C, scattered on the ground below. The trancelike rhythm from the beating drums fills your ears as the Patron Saints Constantine and Helen are honored in the town of Agia Eleni in Northern Greece. The whole village surrounds you and they share in your moment, as the richness of the surrounding imagery and importance of the ritual consumes the senses. You are in a sublime state of ecstasy as the glowing coals lay before you. But, will you walk across? When Saint Constantine calls you to become a firewalker – you answer – at least if you are one of the Anastenaria.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman for The Religious Studies Project, experimental anthropologist, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, discusses his ethnography of the fire walking rituals of the Anastenaria. The Anastenaria are Orthodox Christians in Northern Greece who celebrate the Saints Constantine and Helen in a two part ritual cycle each year. They have no written texts, as the tradition and myths encompassing the firewalkers are passed down orally through story telling and by participation in ritual. Their tradition is, as Xygalatas writes (2012, p. 2) “a good example of a physically and emotionally arousing ritual, and such rituals raise a very important question regarding their participants’ motivation: why do people engage in extreme, costly ritual activities, that offer no obvious advantage but entail evident risks?” Widely known and respected for bringing experimental methods into the tough and fast paced conditions entailed by fieldwork on extreme rituals, Xygalatas combines rich description with scientific explanation to present a portrait of the Anastenaria that holds firm to the ‘anthropological attitude’ of understanding, while also providing an explanation for why people may behave the way they do.


The interview begins with a discussion of the cultural context of the Anastenaria in Greece, noting widespread discrimination against their religious practices by the government and Greek Orthodox Church. He explains some of the shared beliefs the Anastenaria hold and describes the ritual cycle for the festival of St. Constantine and St. Helen. But, why would anyone be compelled to walk across burning coals? Xygalatas goes on to highlight the underlying cognitive and physiological mechanisms that may contribute to participation in extreme rituals, discusses the transmission of beliefs and revelation in the Anastenaria and highlights the importance and meaning of the rituals. In closing, Dr. Xygalatas shares a very personal moment from additional fieldwork in Spain that turned himself, the researcher, into the subject being researched.

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Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints cognition and culture in the fire-walking rituals of the Anastenaria. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life – An interview with Tatjana Schnell

Psychiatrist and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning (2006), placed an emphasis on the search for and construction of meaning, as a prima facie component of the human condition. Moreover, Frankl proposed that meaning could be found in even the most malignant and desolate of places – even in “the midst of Nazi death camp hell” (p.51). According to this view humans are not only creatures of meaning, but willed to find meaning.

Recently, scholars have placed the concept of ‘meaning making’ as an important area of focus within psychology of religion (Paloutzian & Park, 2005; 2013). Some people find meaning in religious or spiritual experience and beliefs while others find meaning on more secular mediums in life. One way comparisons among religious or secular individuals and worldviews can be made is at the level of ultimate meanings. However, if humans are truly on a “search for meaning”, as Frankl has argued, what might be some of the sources of such meaning?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman recorded at the 2013 International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Conference, Dr. Tatjana Schnell discusses on-going research conceptualizing and measuring sources of meaning and meaning in life. Her work has been examined internationally with promise of cross-cultural application (Silver, Bernaud, Pedersen, Birkeland, la Cour & Schnell, 2013). What makes her work particularly interesting is that meaning making is not dependent on any particular modal identity or value system but rather the profound experience one has in their life.

Schnell begins the interview by explaining the methodology behind the construction of her Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe). She goes on to emphasize the role that meaning plays in not only religious individuals but also the growing secular population around the world. Dr. Schnell discusses ultimate sources of meaning, making space for both secular and religious experiences of transcendence termed horizontal and vertical transcendence. Throughout the podcast Dr. Tatjana Schnell’s message is clear, ultimate sources of meaning in life come from many areas and are meaningful to different people and for different reasons. Some find meaning in religion, others find meaning in more secular ways. Regardless of the label used, meaning is central to the human condition. Towards the end of the interview Schnell builds on an old quote by John Stuart Mill. Schnell asks is it better “to be a satisfied cow, or an unsatisfied Socrates”?

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  • Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C. L. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Paloutzian, R. F. & Park, C. L. (2013). Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Second Edition. Guilford Publications, Incorporated.
  • Silver, C. F., Bernaud, J. L., Pedersen, H. F, Birkeland, M. H., la Cour, P. & Schnell, T. (2013) Three cultural comparisons and inferences using the Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire. Presented at the biannual meeting of the International Society for Psychology of Religion in Lausanne Switzerland.


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.

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  • 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.



Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict

“First came the temple, then the city” –Klaus Schmidt

The above quotation from archaeologist Klaus Schmidt (Norenzayan, 2013) provides a succinct way of phrasing a provocative thesis that has been proposed in the sciences. That is to say, and from this point of view, that religion was not merely a result of the transformation from a hunter-gather lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural, domicile based life – it was the very catalyst. Or, as Norenzayan puts it, “religion transformed cooperation and conflict”.



Archaeological sites such as Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, tell scientists a lot about the priorities of humans with the retreat of the last Ice Age – the Gods demanded worship. This claim, which puts ‘religion’ first in the development of ‘society’, is the result of interpretations of data such as Gobekli Tepe that suggest that Homo sapiens were interested in building places of worship before they were interested in building permanent homes and domesticating livestock (see Schmidt, 2000).

Scottish Philosopher David Hume espoused a view that situated religion not in the realm of the supernatural, but in the natural, arising from the inclinations and dispositions of the human mind. Sociologist Emile Durkheim conceptualized religion’s primary function as a social glue that binds individuals together through the establishment of do’s and don’t’s which acted as credible and authoritative sources which enabled the flourishing and maintenance of society. In his book Big Gods, Norenzayan combines both of these prior views with evidential support from various scientific disciplines.

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Cooperation at Gobekli Tepe circa. 10,000 BCE?

Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Ara Norenzayan begins by posing an interesting question. How do we explain the transition from small, tight-knit communities (the norm from a historical perspective) to the large-scale societies we know today? In answering this question Norenzayan puts the idea of Big Gods front and center, Big Gods being those that are omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and act as moralizing agents. Norenzayan then covers what he labels as “The Eight Principles of Big Gods” (Norenzayan, 2013), and closes by presenting an interesting analogy, placing many of the modern secular institutions we have today (e.g. police departments and governments) in the role previously occupied solely by religion.

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  • Norenzayan, A. 2013. Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

‘Religion is Natural and Science is Not’

Communicating with your favorite God or gods, forest spirit, or Jinn – easy. Postulating that the entire universe is held together by theorizing the process of quantum entanglement, informed from a personal commitment to philosophical a priories, which are based on measurements of the physical properties of said universe – harder. Introduction aside: ‘religion is natural and science is not’, at least according to philosopher and cognitive scientist of religion Dr. Robert N. McCauley.

In this view, ‘popular religion’ (i.e. attributing agency to inanimate objects, belief in spirits, belief in the supernatural – not to be confused with creating ‘theologies’ or ‘catechisms’) typically arises naturally from human cognitive faculties. ‘Naturally’, meaning at an early age in the course of normal human development, requiring little-to-no encouragement or support from the environment, and with likely origins stretching far back into our evolutionary history. However, science often proceeds rather counter-intuitively (Feyerabend, 1993) and requires practice (i.e. learning and repetition), as well as institutions to support its proliferation and credibility (e.g. universities and agencies such as the National Science Foundation). Your average 8 year old might hold a belief in what McCauley and Lawson term as a “culturally postulated superhuman agent” (2002) such as a god, Jinn or the Tooth Fairy, but they are unlikely to be donning a white lab coat and analyzing the output from a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the 'religion is natural, science is not' thesis.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the ‘religion is natural, science is not’ thesis.

In Robert McCauley’s interview with Thomas Coleman for the RSP on why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, McCauley begins by presenting a “new twist” in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion by exploring, and comparing, each concept from a cognitive standpoint taking into account the thought processes required to support both religion and science. He gives a brief outline of a dual process model of cognition (e.g. thinking fast vs. thinking slow) drawing an important distinction between two forms of ‘fast thinking’, labeled as “practiced naturalness” and “maturational naturalness”. The former arises only after some type of cultural instruction, arriving late in our evolutionary past and may require a special artifact (e.g. being taught to ride a bike requires a bike!), while the latter arises ‘easily’ in the course of human development, is evolutionarily old and the only special artifact required is the mind (e.g. by age 3 the majority of children in the world are walking).

In exploring precisely ‘what’s in a name’ McCauley clarifies how he uses the terms “religion” and “science” stating that maturationally natural processes are required for religion, whereas, practiced naturalness is required for science. In closing, he addresses an important question. If ‘religious cognition’ is natural, what does this mean for people who lack a belief in God? McCauley offers up one possible avenue of explanation, putting forth the idea that variations may occur in an individual’s Theory Of Mind, or, the degree to which one can perceive the mental states of other conspecifics, thus affecting that person’s ability to mentally represent a super natural agent by giving it ontological veridicality.

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  • Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against method. London: Verso.
  • Mccauley, R. N. & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing ritual to mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Religion as Anthropomorphism

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

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

This piece of drift wood is looking at you!

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

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

See the face on Mars?

See the face on Mars?

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

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

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References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.