Homo Experimentalis: The Place of Experimentation in the Scientific Study of Religion

by William “Lee” McCorkle Jr. and Dimitris Xygalatas

In October 2012, the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion (LEVYNA) and the Department for the Study of Religions at Masaryk University, in conjunction with the Czech Association for the Study of Religions (CASR), hosted a conference entitled Homo Experimentalis in Brno. This event, which was the first official academic gathering of people engaged in experimental methods in the study of religion, was attended by over one hundred junior and senior scholars from around the world. The selected proceedings of this conference will be published in a special issue of the Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion.

LEVYNA, the world’s only institution exclusively dedicated to the experimental research of religion, organized a “summit”, inviting the leaders of other major international centers engaged with experimental approaches to religion to discuss the future of the field with attendees and with three towering figures from traditional religious studies. The organizers recorded and posted online a series of video interviews with these key players, making these important discussions available to the international public and other scholars in academia. Presented as a “merging of minds,” these interviews are representative of a growing movement in Religious Studies, Anthropology, History, Philosophy, Psychology, and the Cognitive Sciences towards combining methodological models from the natural, social, and behavioral sciences and humanities and collaborating on complex issues in the empirical study of religious belief and behavior.

The interviews feature the leaders of some of the global hotspots in experimental research on religion. Harvey Whitehouse represented the Centre for Anthropology and Mind (Oxford University), of which he is the founding Director. He argued that anthropologists have long developed well-formed theories of religiosity, and have also provided tons of qualitative evidence from the world’s cultures. What remains to be done is to systematically mine this data and supplement it will controlled studies to allow testing these theories against precise quantitative evidence. In order to do that, Whitehouse is leading a major research grant (among others) called Ritual, Community, and Conflict.

Paulo Sousa is the Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture (ICC) at Queen’s University Belfast, which was founded by Whitehouse in 2004 as the first and foremost center to train graduate students specifically in the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR). Sousa emphasized the ICC’s commitment to training students in research methods designed to tease out certain features of religious belief and behavior.

Armin Geertz, leader of the Religion, Cognition, and Culture unit (RCC) at the Aarhus University, stressed his center’s pioneering role in bringing together cognition and culture in the study of religion and establishing the field of CSR. Aarhus has hosted several of the seminal international conferences in CSR, and is the place where the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion, a book series in CSR, and the Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion were founded.

Aarhus University has recently established a new interdisciplinary centre, the Interacting Minds Centre (IMC), led by Andreas Roepstorff, who is also co-Director of the MINDLab, yet another leading centre for the study of mind and culture. Although the focus of these centres is much broader, some of the most groundbreaking studies on religion and cognition have been produced within their radically interdisciplinary environments. Roepstorff talked about the virtues and challenges of bridging the social sciences and humanities with more experimental approaches and some of the results that have come out of the bridges that have been built in Aarhus.

Edward Slingerland is co-Director of the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture at the University of British Columbia. He is also the primary recipient of one of the largest grants ever to be awarded to a project on religion. The Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC), funded by the Canadian Research Council, brings together over fifty scholars from various institutions and disciplines to study the link between religion and morality. Slingerland, a Chinese historian, argued in his interview that these types of large-scale collaborations are the way of the future for the study of complex phenomena like religion.

Finally, the organizers interviewed the respondents to the summit, three of the people who have help established the scientific study of religion more than most. E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, founding members of the North American Association for the Scientific Study of Religion, commented on the development of the scientific study of religion since its inception, with an emphasis on the cognitive science of religion and the importance and limitations of introducing experimental methodologies in its pursuit.

The full interviews are freely accessible at the LEVYNA Youtube channel (www.youtube.com/user/LevynaProject) and the LEVYNA homepage (www.levyna.cz)

William “Lee” McCorkle Jr. is Senior Research Fellow at LEVYNA (Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion) at Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic. He can be contacted at: williamleemccorkle@gmail.com*

Dimitris Xygalatas is Director at LEVYNA, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic; Department of Culture and Society; Interacting Minds Centre (IMC3) and Religion, Cognition and Culture research unit (RCC), Aarhus University. He can be contacted at: xygalatas@gmail.com

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