Want to study the science of religion? Start with this MOOC

Computer in libraryA science of religion would help us understand some baffling things. Why do otherwise normal people spend thousands of dollars to flock from halfway around the world to Mecca? What’s with all the fasting and ritual? Why do people people pray to invisible personalities? None of these questions is simple, but a growing community of researchers from diverse disciplines is buckling down to try to answer them – scientifically. From cognitive science to social psychology to evolutionary modeling, the tools of science are turning up insights into how homo religiosus – the religious human – evolved and spread across the planet. This spring, a massive online-only course (MOOC) through the University of British Columbia is offering an overview of this growing field, taught by two of its leading figures. If you’re curious about religion as a human phenomenon, this will be a good opportunity to start learning. 

Edward Slingerland, an expert in ancient Chinese traditions and in cognitive and evolutionary approaches to religion, and Azim Shariff, a psychologist who focuses on the social effects of religion, have teamed up to create the six-week course. The class, called simply “The Science of Religion,” gets rolling on March 15th. It’ll run through UBCx, the online extension school for the University of British Columbia. Students will spend between two and three hours a week of viewing online lectures, doing readings, and interacting with the online teaching assistant(s), who will help explain concepts and guide students through the readings.

If you’ve read this blog before, you may have found yourself intrigued, puzzled, or even frustrated by my posts about research into religion (or, recently, the opinionated social analysis informed by research into religion). Whether you’re a religious believer or a dyed-in-the-wool agnostic, it’s important to understand the role that religion plays in human life. And in today’s world, we have more tools for learning about that role than ever before.

Varieties of the Science of Religion

Roughly, these tools cluster into three different types. Cognitive scientists of religion use computational theories of the mind and information-processing models to understand how and why the human brain comes up with ideas like invisible spirits, or what happens when people chant or dance in perfect synchrony together. The cognitive science of religion grew out of a marriage between cognitive science and anthropology. Its roots go back to Edward Tylor, the great 19th-century anthropologist of religion.

Moral and social psychologists use lab experiments and surveys to discover the relationships between moral outlooks, social commitments, and religious beliefs and values. They’ve tackled such questions as why conservatism and religiosity often overlap, and what happens when people of different faiths interact in tense social contexts. Psychologists study how religious ideas or symbols “prime” people to behave in certain ways – for example, seeing a cross might subconsciously make two Christians more likely to trust one another and cooperate (and simultaneously make them more likely to mistrust an atheist).

Cultural evolutionists use mathematical models, computer simulations, and enormous databases to study how religion influenced the development of cultures over time. One important current concept in cultural evolution is the “Big Gods” hypothesis: the idea that, as societies grew larger and more complex, people’s ideas about gods changed as well, shifting from small forest spirits and ancestor worship to universal, morally concerned high gods. Many researchers in cultural evolution argue that more universalistic, “bigger” gods allowed people to cooperate and treat each other fairly across wider geographic regions. This helped large empires and civilizations to become stable, as nomadic hunter-gatherer groups settled down, started farming, and began to trade goods with one another.

But the growth of religious cooperation isn’t just a happy, kumbaya-singing success story. Many cultural evolutionists, such as historian Peter Turchin, believe that wide-scale cooperation only grew out of conflict between increasingly large societies. According to this theory, violence forced people on both sides to cooperate more intensively – and efficiently. Religion may have been the difference-maker in enabling that cooperation. Upshot? Cooperation – and religion – may have been the product of millennia of war.

Not a pretty picture, is it?

My typology, not UBC’s

Slingerland and Shariff won’t necessarily be teaching this threefold typology, which is far from being set in stone. Many of the leading cognitive scientists of religion are psychologists by training, and many cultural evolution researchers are also cognitive scientists of religion. In fact, you should think of these categories as only a very rough guide to what’s going on in the scientific study of religion. These different strands blend together to make one field, where smart people from many backgrounds argue and struggle to learn more about what makes human beings religious. (I think “bio-cultural study of religion” is a nice catch-all term, but of course I’m biased.)

If you’re looking for an introduction to the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion, UBCx’s MOOC should be a great place to start. The course is open and doesn’t charge a fee, but it seems that if you pay extra you can earn a verified certificate, which you can post to your LinkedIn or other online profiles. Another benefit to paying is, apparently, that the MOOC course completion rate for paying students is around 60% – about ten times higher than the completion rate for nonpaying students. So if you really want to learn the material, the extra incentive and motivation of the certificate might be worth it.

Religion is a tough subject. A lot of people – especially educated people – would love to ignore it in hopes that it’ll disappear, but those hopes are in vain. All you have to do is open up a newspaper to see that religion is still very much with us, and we continue to misunderstand it only at our peril. Reading this blog is one good way to learn about the science of religion. UBCx’s MOOC might be a logical next step.

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