The Explaining Religion conference in Bristol

Posted on September 6, 2010


There’s something that doesn’t get mentioned often enough by academics. When you’re an academic your work is often a whole lot of fun. For example, the two day conference I just attended in Bristol was in some ways a very serious affair but at the same time thoroughly enjoyable, both intellectually and socially. I mean what could be better than spending a couple of days talking to extremely intelligent and knowledgeable people about things you find fascinating.

I think the conference organisers Finn Spicer, Thalia Gjersoe, Andrew Atkinson and Samantha Barlow can all be very proud of what they managed to achieve. From personal experience I know how difficult it is to get a meeting to come together in terms of scheduling, choice of participants and just basic logistics. The second of these considerations becomes particularly important when you wish your conference to include presentations that approach the topic from a variety of different disciplines. This, of course, was the case with the meeting in Bristol and the organisers made it work. What helped was that many of the people who attended already knew each other’s work so there were pre-existing connections between what they did. Still, when that is the case there is always the danger that nothing substantially new gets said during a meeting but this was definitely not the case here. It simply worked.

The first talk was by Sue Blackmore. In the talk, she aimed to show that memetics can explain a number of religious phenomena that other approaches are incapable of dealing with. Something that I think became quite clear first during the talk and then during the discussion was that the one approach that Sue particularly needs to consider is the dual inheritance approach, as it is this approach that seems the most likely to be able to deal with exactly the kinds of cases that Sue thinks memetics is needed for. Of course, from her point of view, the problem is that a number of people are working within the dual inheritance approach while very few if any are doing research on the basis of memetics. That is a self-perpetuating problem in that the lack of people working in that tradition entails the lack of results that might attract other people to it. The difficulty could be at least partially diminished if Sue were able to clearly relate memetics to dual inheritance theory, I suspect.

I was up right after Sue and the presentation went smoothly thanks, I am sure, to the amount of preparation I had put into it. I even managed to finish in good time, allowing a few questions. The content of the talk was received quite positively which I was very glad of as I had been concerned that, thanks to their knowledge of religion, the audience may have obvious objections to the thesis I was putting forward. I have put up the slides for the talk.

The next speaker was Paolo Mantovani. His talk focussed on a paper by Justin Barrett that I have been thinking about quite a bit recently. The paper – Why Santa Claus is not a god – tries to argue that the concept of Santa Claus fails to be cognitively optimal for a number of reasons and, therefore, is unsatisfactory as a potential god-concept. By ‘cognitive optimality’ Barrett means the particular mix of properties that makes a concept especially likely to be believed, one of these being minimal counterintuitiveness. Paolo argued that Barrett was wrong in his assessment of Santa Claus and that, in fact, the concept fits all of the requirements that Barrett puts forward. I suggested to Paolo that he should look at the Gervais and Henrich paper on the Zeus Problem to see that there is more to the difficulties that Barrett fails to deal with. Of course, that paper, which shows that it is not enough to consider the content of a religious belief to explain why people hold it, the other significant consideration being the cultural context in which people find themselves in, essentially shows that a purely cognitive approach is inadequate and that one must be working with a dual inheritance picture. Barrett, however, cannot accept that conclusion as his religious commitments lead him to want to claim that the concept of the Christian deity is the most cognitively optimal concept of all, this being for him indicative of God’s handiwork.

After lunch, the first person to speak was Bruce Hood. His talk concerned the way in which people tend to think of individual and group identity in essentialist terms, i.e. as not reducible to any other properties. Bruce does a lot of work with these ideas including arguing that they play a vital role in the cognitive basis of religious belief. I had initially been somewhat sceptical of this claim but he’s managed to convince me that this is the case and that essentialism is definitely part of the complex picture that is needed to explain religion.

Ryan McKay’s talk, which followed Bruce’s, concerned the various ways in which religion may help to motivate prosocial behaviour. It was a very careful presentation of the various of theses that have been proposed and the ways in which they can be teased apart empirically. It is of obvious significance for my own work, since Ryan was talking about the various mechanisms that may underpin the prosociality of religion and which of those mechanisms will ultimately prove to be at work will have significant implications for the picture that I seek to put together.

The last talk of the first day was by Deb Kelemen. Just like Bruce Hood, she’s a developmental psychologist. Her research has focussed on the ways in which children and, at times, adults tend to explain various natural phenomena using teleological explanations. For example, when asked why rocks are sharp children may reply that is so that animals do not sit on them. Deb has done a lot of research in this area so she has very nicely explored a range of dimensions of this phenomenon, much in the way that Paul Rozin has explored the various dimensions of contagion. I find myself wondering about two aspects of her work that I should examine at some stage. The first is the obvious one and is the relevance of the predilection that people have for teleological explanations for their predilection for supernatural and superempirical explanations. Of course Deb talked about some of this in her presentation but because of my interest in the superempirical aspect I would like to go through some of her results with that particularly in mind. The second aspect is the role of culture in determining to what degree people do accept teleological explanations. This is significant in that, since such explanations do seem to play a role in supernatural explanations, it will be one of the factors that affect the cultural evolution of religious traditions.

The second day’s talks were every bit as interesting to see as those on the first. Michael Blume was the first speaker, and I think it fair to say that his talk woke up anyone who was still feeling groggy. What Michael showed was that there appears to be a very strong correlation between the number of children that people have and how strong their religious beliefs are, with the most fanatical believers generally having the greatest number of children. What is more, Michael claimed that no secular society has even managed to maintain replacement levels of fertility in the long term. He also explored the various kinds of mechanisms which may underlie this phenomenon ranging from religious beliefs that may promote fecundity through to religious institutions that may support women having a greater number of children. Michael’s conclusion was that, despite the significant percentage of children from religious families that become nonbelievers in every generation, the future belongs to the theists. Sue Blackmore expressed an emotion that many people felt when she said that she found herself disturbed by the results Michael presented. While I thought that his data regarding modern societies was very much persuasive I was not so convinced that he had adequate evidence of the same kinds of fertility effects operating in the past. Of course, the demographic data he primarily used was not kept in anything other than modern societies so that the lack of such data was hardly surprising. Still, I thought that this meant he should be a touch more careful with the scope of his thesis. This was only one of a great number of thoughts that Michael’s presentation prompted so I suspect that I will have to go back and talk to him about it on numerous occasions in the future.

After a short coffee break to gather our discombobulated minds, Ara Norenzayan presented the evidence for a dual inheritance account of religion. Not surprisingly, this was one of the talks I was keenest to listen to since I think his approach is essentially the same as mine even though we are exploring different aspects of it since I seek to explore the epistemic aspects while he is concerned with the prosocial mechanisms. It is very clear that Ara is doing a stack of fascinating research right now, with a lot of the results he mentioned still unpublished. The main focus of Ara’s talk was the significance of gods who actively intervene in human existence and who act to support moral behaviour. If this is the kind of belief through which religions primarily achieve their prosocial effect it appears to follow that there must be a correlation between the gods being prosocial and acting in ways that are not open to investigation. This is clearly the case with Christianity, of course, since the primary means by which good behaviour is rewarded and evil behaviour is punished is heaven and hell, the particular destination one arrives at post-death being very much at the safely superempirical end of the possible range of effects. The question is whether this is the case across a range of religions and how to find out if it, indeed, is. Obviously what would be useful is access to a large cross-cultural dataset in which the character of the gods that are believed in and the epistemic character of the threats or potential rewards is indicated. Having talked to Ara about this, it sounds like the dataset he used to obtain some of the results he mentioned in his talk could well include this kind of information but it might prove necessary to code the raw data since the existing ways in which it has been coded may not be relevant to the particular question that I need to investigate.

After another lunch on the freshly mowed grass of the garden behind the building in which the conference was taking place it was time for one more challenging presentation. Jesse Bering argued that any notion of meaning that we might like to hold on to is misbegotten. In terms of empirical results he examined the relationship between the kinds of meaning that people attach to events in their lives and their religious beliefs. In particular, he showed that some atheists tend to hold on to such feelings either fully or to a limited, self-conscious degree.

The last two talks were by two academics who were among the first to pursue cognitive approaches to religion. The first to speak was Bob McCauley with Tom Lawson following. Both their talks depended upon the model of religious ritual they developed together. The model is similar to the picture of practice/effect/supernatural-explanation that I use to distinguish religion and magic, and it struck me that I should think about the relationship between their model and the picture that I use. This is particularly important given how significant their model has been within cognitive science of religion. Central to Bob’s talk was the distinction between cognitive systems that are maturationally natural and those that have practiced naturalness. I had originally been somewhat sceptical of this distinction but both during the talk and also in discussion of it Bob managed to convince me that it is deep enough to support the kinds of claims he makes using it.

At the end of the two and a bit days in Bristol I came away feeling that I had gained more from the conference than from any other meeting I care to think of. What is more, I am quite certain that I was hardly the only one who felt this way, as is evident from, among other things, Michael Blume’s write-up of the meeting.