The Dynamics of Religion Lecture Series 2013/14


While many work within the confines of their disciplines, the scientific study of religion has recently witnessed a surfeit of interdisciplinary research. By linking otherwise disparate fields of inquiry, contemporary research sheds light not only on religious belief and practice, but also on human nature, the dynamic nature of social systems, and how the two inform each other.  This year’s series focuses on these relationships by highlighting cutting edge researchers whose work breaks the boundaries set by academic convention.

This year’s seminar series will be held at 5pm at Green College (except where noted):

the Green College Coach House
6201 Cecil Green Park Road, The University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1

Everyone is invited to attend.


September 9th, 2013

Montserrat Soler

University of California, Santa Barbara
“Faith and Sacrifice: Religious Commitment and Cooperation in an Afro-Brazlian Religion”

The idea that religion promotes social cohesion and cooperation is widespread, but the mechanisms by which this occurs remain puzzling. A novel approach by evolutionary scholars suggests that expressions of religiosity that are hard-to-fake can function as honest signals of commitment to a particular group, aiding in the detection of free-riders and facilitating collective action. I investigated this hypothesis during fieldwork conducted over the course of fourteen months in communities of Candomblé, a religion of African origin centered in Northeastern Brazil. Subjects participated in an economic game, responded to a religious commitment scale and reported instances of cooperative acts in the context of their own religious congregations. Results show that individuals who display higher religious commitment behave more generously in the game and report more occurrences of both given and received cooperation. In this talk, I will discuss these findings as well as their implications for the wider study of the adaptiveness of religion and ritual.

October 7th, 2013

Claire White

Cal State University, Northridge
“The Evolution of Mortuary Rituals: An Interdisciplinary Approach”

Cultural rituals in response to the death of an individual are remarkably uniform and this requires an explanation. Scholars have sought to explain these commonalities primarily in terms of benefits incurred to the group, such as the need to signify the social loss of a community member, to reassert social order or to maintain group cohesion amidst uncertainty. In this talk, I outline an alternative explanation of the uniformity of mortuary rituals whereby the primary selection pressure driving them was the resolution of grief.  First, I present evidence suggesting that, in the context of death, grief is maladaptive.  Second, I show the goodness-of-fit between the structure and form of mortuary rituals based on a large scale cross-cultural survey and the optimal conditions for the resolution of grief based on questionnaire data of recently bereaved individuals. Third, and finally, I discuss the implications of this account for general theories of cultural rituals as well as argue for the fruitfulness of employing multiple methods to investigate social phenomena.

November 4th, 2013

Rebekah Richert

University of California, Riverside
“What Makes “Not-So-Special” Thinking “Special”: Children’s Engagement in Prayer and Ritual”

A common conclusion reached by scholars studying the role of cognition and cognitive evolution in religious thinking and behavior is to characterize religious thinking as no different from other human psychosocial processes or to highlight the ordinary psychological processes that contribute to religious behavior. Although religious thinking and behavior certainly rely on many of the same psychological processes on which all other human thought and behavior rely, I will draw on principles from a cultural approach to understanding cognitive development to reconsider the conclusion that religious thinking is “not-so-special.” In particular, I will outline a current line of research in which I am examining how parents teach their children about God by engaging their children in prayer and religious rituals.

January 6th, 2014

Matt Rossano

Southeastern Louisiana University
“The Ritual Species”

Using the “Miracle in the Andes” event as a case study, I will argue that ritual is essential to our humanity. In more detail, the argument is fourfold: (1) humanity is defined by cooperative communities, (2) cooperative communities are defined by shared values, (3) shared values are defined by ritual, and (4) ritual sustains humanity. Primatological, comparative, and archaeological evidence shows that over the course of human evolution, ritualized signals increasingly moved from self-interested manipulation (“I want something”) to honest indicators of useful information (“I want to show you something”). In making this evolutionary transition, ritualized signals became increasingly costly in terms of time, intensity, synchrony, and public scrutiny. Furthermore, they increasingly included supernatural elements which served to transform shared values into sacred ones – that is, values that could not be compromised. This deepened in-group trust but also brought with it potentially more dangerous out-group antagonisms.

February 3rd, 2014

Stewart Guthrie

Fordham University
“Religion as Anthropomorphism”

A classic theory of religion, dating at least to the 1600s, remains robust in light of current knowledge.  The theory is that religion is an elaboration of anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things and events, and that anthropomorphism is deeply ensconced in human cognition.  Scholars including Spinoza, Hume, Feuerbach, Freud, Levi-Strauss, Horton, and Barrett have endorsed some form of this theory, now widely deployed in the cognitive science of religion.  Still, accounts of why we anthropomorphize vary, as reflected in such labels as “projection,” “wishful thinking,” and “counter-intuitivity,” and most are inconsistent with natural selection.  I’ll draw on several disciplines to argue that anthropomorphism is a byproduct of an evolved perceptual and cognitive strategy employing the principle of Pascal’s Wager:  bet first on the possibility that matters most.

March 3rd, 2014

James Beebe

University at Buffalo
“What Makes Supernatural Ideas Memorable?”

Some researchers in the cognitive science of religion (e.g., Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett) claim that the most common kinds of supernatural concepts found in the world’s religions concern ‘minimally counterintuitive’ agents who have strategic (often morally relevant) information about the behavior of human beings. Minimally counterintuitive entities violate our expectations about the kinds of powers entities of that type ordinarily have (e.g., a dog that can talk or a statue that can weep). Boyer and Barrett maintain that the reason these entities are so common in the world’s religions is that being minimally counterintuitive makes them more attention-grabbing and memorable. I offer theoretical and empirical considerations in support of the alternative view that a more important factor in making supernatural concepts cognitively contagious is their connection to moral considerations, such as a god’s authority to hand down or underwrite moral rules, knowledge of who violates them, and ability to punish or reward those who violate or follow them.

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