A couple of talks at the ICPR

Posted on August 26, 2009


The congress is coming to an end. My initial observations of the limitations of the field, posted a couple of days ago, have not been fundamentally altered by the intervening experiences. Indeed, my impression that the field has a very strong pro-religion lean has only solidified. For many people, the field seems to offer a context in which they can carry on research  into religion without having their religious assumptions questioned. As such, the focus upon obtaining data may be a mechanism for avoiding cognitive dissonance. Not surprisingly, a number of the people from the field appear to have received funding from the Templeton Foundation. The existence of such a field is quite fascinating from a sociology of science point of view – an example of how humans are capable of ‘negotiating’ a long term truce within their psyche between paradigms that are, in fact, fundamentally incompatible on methodological and ontological grounds. It is also fascinating from the point of view that allows that cognition takes place on a number of levels, where the result must be seen as a way accommodating the intuitiveness of supernatural beliefs to their nonsensical status when examined rationally. It will be interesting to see how the field reacts to the pressure it appears to be feeling from the development of the cognitive approach to religion.

Two papers at the conference struck me as particularly interesting, both by junior researchers The first was David Bell, a freshly minted PhD working at Georgia State. In his talk he tried to combine work from several different fields understand religious identity. The relevance of the work to D.S. Wilson’s account seems obvious but I will have to look at his work in greater detail to see what to make of it. The second talk that I found must intersting was by Nicholas Gibson who is in the Psychology & Religion Research Group in Cambridge run by Watts, who gave the talk directly before mine. In his talk Gibson gave very clear expression to the kinds of methodological worries about the field of psychology of religion that I’ve had during this conference. Unlike Bell, Gibson thinks of himself as an insider and I am curious how he will navigate the challenging conceptual landscape his dual religious and scientific commitments constitute.

While here I have been reminded of D.S. Wilson’s metaphor of empirical research being like bricks that lie around to be used in constructing future theories. Psychology of religion seems to have produced a great number of bricks, much like the research in social sciences that Wilson originally talked about. Likewise, the research is in need of an organising theory that would help people to see how to start putting all of these bricks together. Wilson identifies evolutionary theory as the theory that is changing the social sciences by providing that overall plan and it could potentially do the same thing for the research that had been done in the psychology of religion. On several occasions, while listening to talks, I felt that the phenomenon described could be better understood if it was recognised as a cognitive by-product. Re-conceptualising the phenomena in that way would lead not just to a theoretical understanding but would drive new avenues of empirical research. Unfortunately, I rather doubt that the field would be open to an evolutionary ‘revolution’ as that would exacerbate the cognitive dissonance implicit within the field’s current approach. In the long term, however, the conclusion is unavoidable. The only question is whether the field will change or come to be overtaken by research from another tradition. Whatever happens, it will be informative about the nature of human supernatural beliefs.