Methodological pluralism

If religion is not a singular entity, then it follows that no one method will provide ample insight. CSR scholars thus adopt a range of methods to answer research questions (i.e. methodological pluralism). Examples of the kinds of research methods CSR scholars use to answer research questions are provided in Table 4.1. These examples are illustrative, not exhaustive.

Participation 1: Identifying research

1 Working in pairs, obtain one of the original research articles from the following research topics in Table 4.1 using your resources, such as a the college library, Google Scholar, or Academia (the references are in endnotes).

Answer the remaining questions with your partner.

1 Summarize some of the research questions about this topic based on the introduction (or start) of the chapter, using your own words.

For example, do people in different cultures believe in reincarnation? Why are these ideas about how to identify someone who has died similar?

  • 2 Outline the methods that the author used to investigate these questions (e.g. large historical databases, cross-cultural experiments).
  • 3 In your own words, summarize the author’s conclusions.

Key points

• CSR scholars adopt multiple methods, to address questions in the study of religion.

Interdisciplinarity integration in CSR

The assumption that the human side of religion can be studied scientifically creates a boundary around the type of research that CSR scholars conduct. Within this scientific and naturalistic framework, research in the evolutionary and cognitive sciences is diverse and is characterized by the integration of disciplines and methods. By contrast, research in most academic institutions tends to be compartmentalized, and scholars tend to stay within their own perspectives. For example, sociologists talk largely about the global, cultural anthropologists focus on describing diversity, and cognitive psychologists are more interested in human universals than particulars.







What is cognition?

Philosophy of science analysis, ethnographic data and experimental evidence.

There is disagreement between earlier and later generations of cognitive scientists.

CSR scholars disagree on what cognition is. Some claim that it is primarily formal-logistic mental representations while others expand it to include emotions, embodiment, contexts, and culture.


Which cognitive biases help explain religious belief, paranormal belief, and belief in life’s purpose?

Statistical modeling.

A path model testing the various relationships between cognitive biases and different types of supernatural belief.

Extensions of theory of mind (anthropomorphism, mind body dualism, and teleology) mediate the impact of theory of mind on a variety of supernatural beliefs. Anthropomorphism predicts increased paranormal belief but not belief in God. Anthropomorphic tendencies are also negatively impacted by living in a religious area, but belief in God is increased.'1


How do people represent spirit possession?

Ethnography. Participant- observation and interviews.

18 months of participant- observation and interviews in an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition in northern Brazil.

Intuitive ideas about bodies and minds facilitate the spread and appeal of popular ideas about spirit possession.10


How do people integrate natural and supernatural explanations for the same events?

Experiments, studies, ethnography.

Experiments with individuals and groups in multiple settings, vignette studies, surveys, focus group discussion, key informant interviews, ethnography.

People reconcile natural and supernatural explanations by using them to understand multiple levels of causality'. Natural explanations are often used to explain how something happened; supernatural explanations are often used to explain why something happened.


Why do shamans observe cosdy taboos?

Field experiments. Present participants with stories about shamans who do and do not self-deny and measure their inferences.

Mentawai (Siberut Island, Indonesia) participants were presented stories about shamans to measure their inferences.

Mentawai people infer that self- denying shamans are more cooperative, supematurally powerful, and sincere in their belief.12


Why do gods care about the things we do?

Surveys in naturalistic contexts. Free-list data, a variety of metric scaling techniques, cross-cultural comparisons.

Surveys and interviews with American Christian students and Buddhist-animist Tyvans from southern Siberia.

Cross-culturally, gods care about and punish a relatively narrow set of concerns. When directly asked, however, locally salient deities appear to care about and punish moral transgressions.1''


How does the human cognitive system process ritualized actions?

Experimental studies. Participants watched videos of various functional and nonfunctional (ritual) action sequences and pressed a response button for each segment they could identify.

Two different experiments were conducted on Danish undergraduates to study how participants divide up and represent actions when observing functional and non-functional (ritual) behavior.

People process ritual behaviors in a way that heightens cognitive load and hampers memory encoding. Thus, stimulating expectations (predictive processing).14


Why do people subject themselves to painful religious rituals and what effects do they have?

Experiments in the lab and the field using physiological measures (heartbeat, blood pressure, impedance cardiography and respiration), videos of facial expressions, painful electrical stimulation, pre-scan tests and post-scan interviews and economic games.

Various experiments were conducted on Danish, Spanish and Mauritian participants to determine the psychological and sociocultural functions of painful religious rituals.

Painful and extreme religious rituals promote prosociality, not only in participants undergoing the ritual but also among observers of high- ordeal participants. Painful rituals can cause analgesic states and dissociative symptoms, which are sometimes experienced as divine presence.

They also affect memory by cognitive depletion. Prayer seems to modulate the expectations, intensity and unpleasantness of pain.15







How do the special features of ritual influence memory formation?

Field experiments.

Field experiments involving online measurement of excitement, video-recording and post hoc recollection by participants.

Participants’ memory encoding of highly exciting ritual action is impeded, which facilitates post hoc social (re-) construction of events as well as potential meaning. 6


Does participation in extreme religious rituals send costly signals?

Ethnographic fieldwork and experiments in the field, economic games, interviews, and statistical analyses of historical documents.

Various experiments perforated in various parts of the world to determine the costly signal hypothesis.

Basically, they do. However, field studies indicate that extreme ritual behavior is not enough, whereas together with regular temple or church attendance it is more effective.17


How do emotionally intense “imagistic” rituals bond groups?

Mathematical models, online experiments.

Mathematical models generated predictions that a team of psychologists then tested in collaboration with experts on highly fused groups (e.g. military, extreme sports, twins) and via online experiments.

Sharing personally transformative (memorable, meaningful, and self- defining) experiences with other group members produce identity fusion (a visceral sense of oneness motivating strong forms of progroup action).1


What are the functions of ritual?

Developmental and cross- cultural research.

Experiments with individuals and groups in multiple settings, vignette studies, surveys, focus group discussion, key informant interviews, ethnography.

Rituals serve a variety of functions; practical (e.g. solving problems), psychological (e.g. reducing anxiety), and social (e.g. cooperation, initiation).1


What are the neural correlates of religious experiences?

Neuroscience. Pre-scan psychological tests, functional magnetic resonance imaging (tMRI) using various experimental conditions, followed by post-scan interviews.

Three different experiments were conducted on Danish participants from various denominations (mostly Inner Mission Lutherans and Pen- tecostals) and a secular control group (mostly BA students in the humanities).

There are no specific neural mechanisms dedicated to religious experiences. Even simple phenomena such as prayer draw on various areas and mechanisms in the brain and are influenced by individual expectations (predictive processing).


How do assumptions about speakers’ charismatic abilities change how information is processed?



Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRl) in response to speakers who Christian participants believed had healing abilities.

Participants’ recognition of charismatic authority enhances their susceptibility to charismatic influence by down regulating their executive system.21


Can religious experiences (sensed presence, healing, miracles) and paranormal beliefs be induced experimentally?

Card games, interviews, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, Virtual Reality, eye tracking and fMRl.

A variety of experiments with and observations of Dutch and Danish participants.

Tests indicate that the use of suggestion can induce religious and paranormal experiences. When manipulating with the senses, predictive processes take over in the brain and meet the cultural and individual expectations of the participants.“


Must young children think of God the same as a human being?

Developmental cross-cultural research: knowledge- ignorance Theory of Mind (ToM) task.

Three- to six-year-old children in four different countries (the UK, Israel, Dominican Republic, and Kenya) participated in a version of the classic “false- belief’ task.

Though preschoolers may mistake God for a human being, they do not have to. Children in four different cultures distinguished between God’s knowledge and their mother’s even before they had a stable understanding of what their mom knows and does not know.23








Do people more easily remember minimally counterintuitive ideas (MCI)?

Recall and memory experiments using 15 coded types of MCI.

A variety of recall and memory experiments have been conducted on Western and non-Western participants.

The results are mixed. Results contradict each other, and cognitive architecture is often more complex than assumed.-4


Do people have a hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD)?

Biological motion perception tasks, point-light displays, ethnographic evidence, threat-inducing experiments and Virtual Reality experiments.

Experiments to test whether American, Dutch and Danish participants show illusory' agency' detection.

Studies show that people do occasionally detect agents in ambiguous situations, but threatening situations do not intensify agent detection. Thus, the tenn “hypersensitive” is unwarranted.25


Why do people look for physical marks and behaviors that imply continued memory?

Cross-cultural experiments using imaginative perspective-taking tasks.

Series of experiments with participants in the UK and India. The distinctiveness of physical marks and memories were manipulated.

People regard physical marks and behaviors that imply a memory' from a past life as strong evidence that a person has been reborn, but for different reasons. They also implicitly assume the body continues, even though they say it changes.26


What is the cultural evolutionary history of modes of religiosity?

Ethnographic, historical, and archaeological data.

Quantitative analysis of data from regional and global samples of ethnographic, historical, and archaeological sources.

Imagistic practices are associated with small-scale group bonding, whereas doctrinal practices are associated with increasing agricultural intensity and the rise of larger and more complex social formations.27


How can we understand ancient initiation rituals in the Roman cults of Mithras (2nd to 4th century СЕ)?

Historical texts and images.

Review of the description of Mithraic initiation rituals based mostly on depictions, such as images.

Initiation rituals documented throughout history show that initiates are subject to “rites of terror.” These rites are memorable, but their significance is locally construed.


Do prehistorical and ancient religions support the modes of religiosity theory?

A combination of historical texts, images, and archaeological data.

A number of studies have been published by historians and archaeologists on the pros and cons of the modes theory.

The results are mixed. The problem of causality' (do cognitive constraints cause modes of ritual organization) is intractable. There is, however, a general acceptance of the theory.29


Is mind-body dualism present in China?

Philosophical analysis, qualitative and quantitative textual analyses.

Three different machine- based techniques—word collocation, hierarchical clustering, and topic modeling analysis of ancient Chinese texts.

Chinese thought is often portrayed as radically different from Western thought. Textual evidence provides support against strong mind-body' holism.10


Can math be used to analyze myths?

Phylogenetic analysis of big data.

Conceptual mapping, bioinformatics, component analysis, and social networks analyses of mythical and folklore corpuses.

Phylogenetic analyses of various textual corpuses divulge relationships and patterns that are difficult or even impossible to find by traditional methods. They' can also resolve conflicting theories of myths.


Can we test evolutionary theories of religion?

Developing large databases consisting of all relevant information in particular parts of the world from the deep prehistorical past to the present in order to statistically test competing hypotheses of the evolution of religion.

Two prominent databases, Database of Religious History'12 and Seshat: Global History Databank11 have been developed to test competing hypotheses. Such as:

1) that moralizing gods play a causal role in the development of complex societies and 2) that complex societies developed before the belief in moralizing gods.

The results are inconclusive. Each of the two databases support the hypotheses of their own research teams. The disagreement rests on very complex statistical procedures.14








Can computer simulations model religious change and religious evolution?

Agent-based statistical modeling.

A statistical analysis of data from the International Social Survey Programme Religion Module (ISSP) and the Human Development Report (HDR).

The modeling provides an accurate forecast of changes in existential security and religiosity in a very large number of countries and periods of time.35 It also can simulate religions as adaptive systems.


Can computer simulations test religious studies theories?

Computer models and computer simulations.

A number of modeling studies have been applied to CSR theories such as Lawson & McCauley’s ritual competence theory and theories in the general study of religion such as Rodney Stark’s theory of religious movements and Robert Bellah’s Axial Age theory.

The procedures necessary to develop computer models requires careful, detailed thought about the intermediate assumptions in particular theories of religion. The modeling can indicate which theories are most robust and can also lead to further unforeseen research questions.'37

Much of the discrepancy in disciplines is due to philosophical and ideological differences, as well as the history of the approaches. Yet early proponents of a cognitive approach to the study of religion had been trained in a variety of methods across many disciplines: including religious studies, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology', and the subdiscipline has continued to study religion from an interdisciplinary perspective. The ultimate goal of CSR is to connect what is known about evolution, brain, cognition, and culture to explain religion by integrating disciplinary approaches. There are four key dimensions of interdisciplinary integration in CSR:'W

/ Unit of integration

The unit of integration refers to the level at which integration takes place. Interdisciplinarity in CSR means multiple things. First, individual researchers master skills and methods in more than one discipline. This kind of interdisciplinary research, where one scholar increases knowledge across disciplines, provides insights but is not the only way that CSR is interdisciplinary. After all, this approach alone risks CSR becoming a jack of all trades and master of none. CSR is also integrated at a higher unit, beyond individual scholars, by promoting the team-based research paradigm. This is evidenced through the many multi- authored papers published in the cognitive and evolutionary sciences today.

In the following illustration, consider how this team-based approach works by imagining that an interdisciplinary team of cognitive scientists of religion is addressing the question, “why and how do ideas and behaviors that have been deemed religious, spread?” This particular team consists of an evolutionary psychologist, a neurocognitive scientist, a cognitive psychologist, and other social scientists.


The evolutionary psychologist is interested in questions about whether and how intuitive responses emerge. Intuitive responses are likely to be based on universal mechanisms, constraints, traits, etc., which may have been selected for during evolution. To understand whether a response is based on an intuitive mechanism, the researcher conducts experiments in different cultures, especially those that differ. If cultures differ in their accepted views, yet people tend to think similarly, then it suggests that evolutionary processes also influence responses. [1]


The cognitive psychologist is interested in cognition and wants to seek out conditions that make it possible to tap into intuitive processes. For example, by designing nifty experiments where people respond based on their off-the-cuff, gut-like reactions rather than relying on people’s carefully thought through responses.


Many other social scientists involved in this hypothetical example are also equipped to study the distribution and stability of religious concepts. These include anthropologists, cognitive scientists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists, and religionists. These researchers use a combination of methods including archaeological surveys, historiographical analyses, textual analyses,39 self-reports, interviews, narrative recall tasks, behavioral tasks, economic games, experimental and quasi-experimental fieldwork,4<) and computer modeling.

For example, those vested in cultural processes also take into account the role of the environment to understand how socialization and cultural input modifies and shapes both intuitive and reflective thought—for example, comparative research with children and adults and large-scale cross-cultural and historical surveys. Unfortunately, the vast amount of what we know about

CSR scholars often work in interdisciplinary teams to conduct research on religion. (Image credit

Figure 4.1 CSR scholars often work in interdisciplinary teams to conduct research on religion. (Image credit: fizkes/

human psychology comes only from WEIRD traditions (i.e. Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic).41 CSR conducts cross-cultural research, often in other non-WEIRD traditions, to address questions about the recurrence of religious concepts in many different cultures.42

Social scientists also draw upon existing archaeological, historical, ethnographic data, and large-scale social surveys to test goodness-of-fit with their theories.43 Others conduct secondary analyses of existing massive ethnographic and historical databases, such as the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) and the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF),44 and the Database of Religious History (DRH45). Such databases make possible analyses of aspects across cultures and throughout time while controlling for effects of historical contact between societies (i.e. Gabon’s problem). These databases also enable scholars to formally test probabilistic models of aspects of religious ideas and behaviors.

Probabilistic models deal with statistical trends in data, enabling researchers to make claims about the frequency of ideas and behaviors in the world. In other words, they can reasonably make claims about how the world tends to be. These include the tendency to engage in physical contact with the corpse by kin during ritual preparation for disposal,4fl the co-occurrence of ritual dynamics and particular socio-political arrangements,47 and the representation of high gods as interested in moral behavior.48

Together, these areas of inquiry and associated methods enable teams of scholars to understand how and why ideas and behaviors that have been deemed religious, spread. Of course, the examples of methods provided here are not exhaustive. For example, many researchers have engaged in the philosophical, historical, archaeological and theological treatment of CSR theories.44

This interdisciplinarity and methodological pluralism result in fluidity and a lack of clear demarcation of who is a CSR researcher and who is not, and throughout this book, scholars are referred to by their primary field of training (e.g. anthropologist, psychologist). As discussed in Chapter 1 (Introduction), the criteria for inclusion is their commitment to some of the main principles outlined in Chapters 1-4 of this book, as well as the nature of research, which typically reflects this commitment.

Participation 2: Create a new research topic

Based on what you have read so far in this book:

  • 1 Come up with a research topic about religion that is typical in CSR. This can be about a religious idea, belief, or behavior, and it could have been asked before or be unique. For example, life after death, goblins, ghosts, fairies, fate, rituals to prevent harm.
  • 2 Write down a list of 3-4 scientific questions about this topic. For example, have people always believed in life after death? Do people in different cultures believe in life after death? How are these ideas about life after death modified by the cultural environment?
  • 3 Outline the methods that you would use to answer each of these questions (e.g. archaeology, large historical databases, neuroimaging, ethnography, field studies, cross-cultural experiments, large databases).
  • 4 Based on the methods you would use, write down who you would want in your research team (e.g. archaeologist, historian, anthropologist, psychologist).
  • 5 Swap your response to another student, give, and receive, feedback. Provide feedback on how they could improve based upon your understanding of CSR.
  • 6 Modify your answers in light of their feedback.

Key points

  • • Interdisciplinary integration is the level at which integration takes place.
  • • Integration takes place in CSR at the level of the individual scholar, and in teams of scholars.
  • 2 Scope of integration

The scope of integration refers to the degree of similarity between participating fields. A narrow form of interdisciplinarity involves collaboration between closely related fields, for example, archaeology and history. By contrast, CSR adopts a broad form of interdisciplinarity because collaboration occurs between fields whose key ideas, commitments, and methods tend to differ, such as literature and neuroscience. [2]

Key points

  • • The scope of integration refers to the degree of similarity between participating fields.
  • • CSR integrates fields that are both similar and different.

research, scholars address problems from different disciplinary perspectives. These collaborative efforts often divide up labor and result in the culmination, but not necessarily the integration of knowledge. Religious Studies is an example of a multidisciplinary field. Here, students are often taught different perspectives on religion, while the contributing areas may benefit from added perspectives; they usually remain unchanged by it. By contrast, cognitive scientists of religion also borrow methods, concepts, and theories from one another. This type of interdisciplinarity leads to a pluridisciplinarity form of interaction.

CSR aims to go even further and produce a synthesis of methods, concepts, and theories that is qualitatively different than any single disciplinary approach. This ultimate aim is still a work in progress, but existing examples of the most influential forms of interdisciplinarity in other areas have led to new fields that cut across disciplinary boundaries such as behavioral economics and cognitive science itself. [3]

Key points

  • • The type of integration refers to the ways in which core theories about the nature of the world in different fields are brought together.
  • • CSR is a multidisciplinary and pluridisciplinary approach.
CSR scholars come equipped with a methodological tool kit to solve problems in the study of religion. (Image credit

Figure 4.2 CSR scholars come equipped with a methodological tool kit to solve problems in the study of religion. (Image credit: Emojoez/

Research in the cognitive and evolutionary sciences on religion involves teamwork, collaboration, and continuous interaction between and within groups of specialists rather than uncoordinated efforts by isolated generalists. This results in methodological pluralism and integration. In this format, researchers often combine these methodologies from different epistemological traditions into a single research agenda. Figure 4.3 showcases how interdisciplinary perspectives offer a better explanation of religious phenomena. Table 4.2 provides examples of how interdisciplinary research provides a better account of ritual by answering Tinbergen’s four questions (covered in detail in Chapter 3: Research Methods) about the mechanism, ontogeny, phylogeny, and adaptative significance of ritual behavior.

Key points

• CSR adopts methodological pluralism and methodological integration.

  • [1] NEUROCOGNITIVE SCIENTIST The neuroscientist wants to understand better how cognitive functioning andemotional states are activated in the brain, as well as the connections betweenthem. These gesture towards the neurobiological, and even evolutionarydeep-rooted, basis of ideas and behaviors. This researcher uses methods suchas neuroimaging to see which brain areas are activated in religious activities.
  • [2] Type of integration The type of integration refers to the ways in which core theories about thenature of the world in different fields are brought together. In multidisciplinary
  • [3] Methodological integration One unfortunate consequence of distinctive disciplinary' approaches is thereluctance to go outside them, and scholars who focus on specific aspects ofreligion are often left with a narrow range of tools. As the saying goes, if theonly tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were anail.50 Strong interdisciplinarity requires methodological integration. While many researchers who study religion talk about interdisciplinarity as away to increase knowledge, they often construe interdisciplinarity as obtainingand exchanging more data from different scholars. This approach will result inmore data, of course, but conducting the same protocol in different contextsalso means that any design errors will also be replicated. As anthropologistDimitris Xygalatas notes, “the problem is not that you won’t get data; it is thatyou won’t really know what those data mean.'11” Cognitive scientists of religion concede that there is no one right predetermined way to study religion. Religion can be considered at differentlevels, such as neurochemistry, brain, and culture. CSR scholars use methodsthat are most appropriate to the types of questions they ask concerning thepersistence and prevalence of “religious” ideas and behaviors. To extend theprevious analogy, if scholars who remain in their disciplinary boundaries tendto approach problems in the study of religion with a hammer, then cognitivescientists come equipped with a tool kit.