An Introduction to Cognitive Demons

Hello everyone.

From this week I’ll be launching this new blog, which as the title suggests is partly about addressing research on religion and belief from a cognitive perspective and partly about trying to address the cognitive ‘demons’ and biases that affect (and damage) all of our reasoning and the conclusions we draw from research.

A small cadre of the folks reading this will already know me from my previous infrequent blogging under God-Knows-What, but for those of you who do not here is a short summary of who I am and what I do.

Who I am is Chris Kavanagh, a Northern Irish man living in Sapporo in the north of Japan, who is just about to complete a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Oxford and will be continuing on to post-doctoral study. My research focuses on exploring the bonding effects of dysphoric (unpleasant) collective rituals in both experimental, online, and field studies and has been conducted under the supervision of the famous cognitive anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology. Additionally, although I am a doctoral student at Oxford, I have been hosted by (and benefited greatly from the advice of) the cross-cultural psychologist Masaki Yuki at his Culture, Social Ecology and Psychology lab in Hokkaido University for the past 2 years.

Me, my two academic bosses and some colleagues
Me, my two academic bosses, and some colleagues

What I do is to conduct research into aspects of religion and ritual using approaches which are cognitively and evolutionarily informed that incorporate methods from both psychology and anthropology. The relevant academic field that I am most involved with and mainly publish in is called the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR). Day in and day out this means that I help to design and run online and lab-based experimental studies and occasionally organise field trips to Japanese festivals to collect data from actual ritual events and the associated performers and observers (see the image below for an example).

Group carrying a portable shrine in a firewalking festival held in Northern Japan
Group carrying a portable shrine in a firewalking festival held in Northern Japan

This blog is in the ‘Atheist’ segment of Patheos, and I am an atheist so that seems fitting. However, while I am critical of various oppressive aspects of religious traditions and the damaging influence of religion on politics and science, I am also not someone who regards religion as something inherently negativeThere are various positive aspects to the vast constellations of religious traditions that exist around the world and I agree with those who argue that religion was likely central to human evolutionary history. We have minds that find Gods, demons, and all manner of mystical entities and powers to be intuitive and appealing and far from being the mind virus that Dawkins and others imply, I recognise this as an important part of what has made us able to bind into large imagined communities and achieve the remarkable feats of civilization that we see all around us today.

So in short, if you are looking for a blog that has an anti-theist agenda then this probably isn’t the right place for you. Instead, I’ll be posting mainly about the ever expanding cognitive research literature on religion and giving my own thoughts and criticisms on popular articles and stories that relate to my area of expertise. My current goal is to post twice a week, once with a short commentary on some recent research or article and once with a deeper dive on specific topics related to my research that might be split over a series of posts. I haven’t worked out what days will work best yet but when I do I will post an update of the schedule here, which I will do my best to stick to.

So that’s all for now. If anyone has any questions about me or the blog here is the place to ask, otherwise look forward to the first posts starting next week.

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