My employer: The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion

My employer: The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion January 13, 2014

Connor Wood


If you ever read op-eds on religion in major newspapers, or the comments below those op-eds, you know that religion is one of those rare topics about which everyone feels entitled to hold a (usually very strong) opinion, but not everyone feels an accompanying obligation to study in depth. There are a few others out there: economics, evolution. But by and large, because religion brings up people’s deepest concerns and has a reputation for depending on evidence-free faith, many folks assume that they can rely on individual opinion, gut feelings, and popular wisdom to talk about religion. I disagree. I think we can learn real, surprising, concrete things about religion, using both the rigorous methods of science and the robust interpretive tools of the humanities. This is exactly what my employer, the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, does.

The Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, also known as IBCSR, is an independent research institution based in the greater Boston area. Most of its researchers live in Boston and are affiliated with Boston University, but a handful are spread across the country and world, at places like USC in Los Angeles or the University of Navarra in Spain. Everyone associated with the Institute is working on something fascinating, whether it’s the neural underpinnings of religious cognition or the physiological basis for meditation’s beneficial effects on tissue inflammation.

I first got involved with IBCSR when, in 2009, I started writing pop-science articles on religion research for the Institute’s public-outreach site, (Which, at the time, was just called – a name that led to lots of puzzled faces at parties, when kindly, interested people realized they’d never be able to remember such a random assortment of consonants.) Before long, I was becoming deeply interested in – and conversant with – the scientific study of religion, and realized that I wanted to devote a significant chunk of my career to it.

Now, four years later, I’m most of my way through my doctorate and working directly on three separate research projects at IBCSR. I’m lucky enough to have the rare opportunity of standing more or less at the threshold of knowledge for a given field, knowing that the research I do will push that threshold a little further outwards – shedding a little more light on what, for everyone, had previously been darkness. I think this is rad.

IBCSR researchers make use of a staggering variety of different research tools and methods, drawn from a number of fields. To take one example, the Spectrums Project, an investigation of the ideological conservative-liberal continuum in religious communities, has as its main research tool the large, online-based Multidimensional Religious Ideology survey (which you can find and take yourself here, after signing up). But beneath the survey and its development is a theoretical model rooted in evolutionary dynamics and complex systems theory. A team comprised of IBCSR director Wesley Wildman, fellow doctoral fellow Nick DiDonato, and I spent nearly a year combing through the literature and hammering together a theoretical model before we tested the first versions of the survey.

Meanwhile, over at the Boston VA Medical Center, IBCSR director and neuroscientist Patrick McNamara is leading a three-year project to study neuroscience and religious cognition – thinking about religious concepts, like “God,” “heaven,” or “Allah.”  A central element of his project relies on fcMRI (functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging) scans to examine the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients. Parkinson’s (PD) patients were chosen because the illness often leaves advanced left-onset PD patients less interested in, or able to emotionally relate to, religious ideas. By conducting tests and comparing fcMRI scans, McNamara and his research team hope to learn more about which specific areas or circuits of the brain are implicated in this process – and, by inference, which areas are involved in in processing religious concepts.

Alongside Boston University research psychologist Catherine Caldwell-Harris, I’m also spearheading a project to study how synchronous bodily activities – of the sort I’ve described previously on this blog – affect hierarchies in groups. In conversations and lab meetings, Caldwell-Harris and I wondered whether unresolved status tensions and unstable social hierarchies might present a fitness threat for group-dwelling humans in our ancestral past. We then hypothesized that rituals, especially those including shared, rhythmic bodily motions, might help neutralize these status conflicts, allowing groups to function better – and their members to survive longer. This academic year, we’re testing this hypothesis in the lab with research volunteers from Boston University.

The name of the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion gives a clue to its multidisciplinary agenda. Namely, it’s both, well, biological and cultural. You might be familiar with the nature-nurture debates in academia and society at large – for example, are humans blank slates at birth, able to be programmed with anything their culture comes up with? Or are we genetically determined, destined to live out the fate of our species as encoded in our DNA? I think the answer is “neither.” As evolved animals, humans share a genetic history that informs and constrains our cultures and our lives. At the same time, culture is an incredibly potent force in human existence; as anyone who’s ever tried to get along in a foreign country knows, different religious ideas and sensibilities can lead to completely divergent ways of seeing the world.

And so in our scientific investigations of religious phenomena, most of us at IBCSR try to balance our focus on underlying evolutionary universals with a sensitive awareness of the profound effects of culture – we assume that culture and biology feed back on each other, creating unique behaviors and ecosystems that can be wildly complex and unpredictable. (But not so complex that we can’t learn anything about them.)

This is the only way, I think, we’re going to get anywhere on a lot of important questions, including the evolutionary roots and potential functions of religion. If you focus too much on the genetic universals (as evolutionary psychologists sometimes do), you might make sweeping generalizations that just don’t fit the facts of any particular society or culture. If you focus exclusively on unique cultures and refuse to accept a biological basis for any human behaviors (as many humanities scholars do), then you’re at a loss to explain a lot of the recurrent patterns in human societies. You have to split the difference – humans are evolved animals with encoded behaviors and tendencies, but these tendencies can get activated, modulated, changed, co-opted, or suppressed in all kinds of wild ways by culture.

In this way, IBCSR researchers try to do something that’s not very popular in today’s intellectual (and popular) climate: shy away from extremes. In my own work, I tend to assume that blanket statements or black-and-white thinking are going to lead me to dead ends. Religion isn’t all bad, no matter what the Internet atheists say. Humans aren’t completely programmed by their genes, but neither are they completely shaped by culture. (I honestly can’t imagine how anyone subscribes to any of these extremes, but partisans of one side or another sometimes seem like outright majorities in academia and the public alike.)

I’d like to change some of this black-and-white conversation about religion. I’d also like to get people thinking more about evolution, about what it means for us to be evolved animals in a strange, biological world. This doesn’t mean religious people have to be afraid that I or other IBCSR researchers are trying to “explain away” religion or faith. It does mean that certain beliefs are out – the human species isn’t 6,000 years old, for example. But learning about the roles rituals, beliefs, and religion have played in our biological history may give believers profound clues about the meaning and import of their faith – because whatever else we are, we certainly are animals (ever read Ecclesiastes?).

My colleagues at IBCSR are atheists, Catholics, panentheists, agnostics, believers, and nonbelievers. By grappling with the quirky mystery of religion using the tools of research, many of us find that our own spiritual questions become sharper, clearer, and better-articulated. Of course, this doesn’t mean we find answers to these questions. But we don’t necessarily leave our questions at home when we come in to the lab.

This is how religion should be studied, I think – by people who are committed to learning new things, to mastering new methods, and to drawing skillfully (and maybe a bit recklessly) from as many disciplines as it takes to knock open the impassive riddles of religious belief, practice, and culture. This is research that yearns to explain, not to explain away. Explanation, for me, doesn’t mean the anticlimax of suddenly terminating a line of inquiry, the closing of the question. Explanation means opening new avenues of inquiry, uncovering unexpected new facets of the thing to be studied, penetrating its meaning and context. Explanation, in other words, is not so separate from interpretation. It gives us something real and interesting to say, so that we don’t sound ignorant when we write or talk about religion. But it also doesn’t close down avenues for finding even newer and more interesting things to say. And that’s the way it should be.

IBCSR’s website is, fittingly, If you like what we do, think about becoming a member – you get a year’s subscription to the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, and access to the world’s most complete online database of scientific research into religion. Plus you get the inner satisfaction of knowing that you’re contributing, even just a little bit, to bringing about the long hoped-for day when public conversations about religion are informed, intelligent, and backed by good, solid research.

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