Explaining Religion

Project Overview

Funded by a research grant from the European Commission, the 'Explaining Religion' (EXREL) project was a three-year interdisciplinary research initiative that sought to understand both what is universal and cross-culturally variant in religious traditions, as well as the cognitive mechanisms that undergird religious thinking and behaviour. EXREL was large-scale and ambitious in scope, integrating the world’s leading centres for psychological, biological, anthropological, and historical research on religion.

The project had four principal scientific objectives:

  1. To characterize precisely the main elements of the universal religious repertoire and the extent of its variation
  2. To establish the principal causes of the universal religious repertoire
  3. To account for variations in the degree of elaboration (and emphasis) of each element of the repertoire in different religious traditions, contemporaneously and historically
  4. To develop models for simulating future courses of transformation in specified religious systems

These objectives involved ethnographic, historical and psychological research carried out by selected fellows, postgraduate students, and European project partners.

Research Activity

Research Fellow: Dr Quentin Atkinson
Project Partner: Prof Robin Dunbar

This sub-project seeks to devise and apply novel methods for the consolidation of existing data on religious traditions, past and present, enabling us to establish precisely which features of religious thinking and behaviour are universal and the extent to which non-universal features are cross-culturally and historically recurrent (expressed in ways that are statistically measurable). In addition, we plan to use the evidence gathered in this way to project backwards in time so as to produce a broad but reliable reconstruction of the ancestral religious repertoire in human prehistory.

Research Fellow: Nicolas Baumard
Project Partner: Dan Sperber
North American Consultant: Pascal Boyer

This sub-project seeks to establish the contributions of intuitive and reflective ontologies to the establishment and continuation of the universal religious repertoire and to investigate the evolutionary underpinnings of the relationship between intuitive ontological knowledge, on the one hand, and religious thinking and behaviour, on the other.

Research Fellow: Florian Kiessling
Project Partner: Josef Perner
North American Consultant: Henry Wellman

This sub-project seeks to establish the contributions of theory of mind capacities to the establishment and continuation of the universal religious repertoire. In particular, we plan to investigate the production and nature of afterlife concepts, to explore the ways behaviour is modified when actions take place in the presence of supernatural agents, and to examine the disposition to overattribute events to intentional supernatural agents. We aim for both ontogenetic and phylogenetic explanations of these areas.

Research Fellow: Dr Ryan McKay
Project Partner: Ernst Fehr
North American Consultant: Paul Bloom

This sub-project seeks to establish the contributions of moral thinking to the establishment and continuation of the universal religious repertoire. Areas to be examined include: the development of immanent justice beliefs in children, the psychological processes by which strategic information is handled by human minds, and the empirical links between religiosity and cooperation. In each area, we aim to investigate the evolutionary causes and consequences of the relationship between moral thinking, on the one hand, and religious thinking and behavior, on the other.

Research Fellow: Dr Adrian Murzac
Project Partner: Boicho Kokinov
North American Consultant: Dedre Gentner

This sub-project seeks to establish the contributions of creative thinking and analogical reasoning to processes of religious innovation. We aim here to build on research that has shown that creative reasoning about the meaning of rituals is influenced by levels of emotional arousal elicited by ritual performances. In addition, we will focus on the mechanisms by which religious experts (preachers, gurus, orators) creatively use emotive analogies as a technique of holding the attention of audiences and of persuading them to accept principles of dogma. Finally, we plan examine the differences between epiphanic revelations and incremental changes in world-view.

Research Fellow: Dr Yvan Russell
Project Partner: Fernand Gobet
North American Consultant: David Bjorklund

This sub-project seeks to explain the contributions of explicit memory to the stable transmission of religious innovations and expert religious knowledge. Specifically, we aim to investigate the precise mechanisms by which religious knowledge, and especially expert religious knowledge, is encoded, remembered, and recalled. Furthermore, we plan to examine the role that repetition plays in the learning of religious doctrines. Lastly, we will explore the reasons why spontaneous exegetical reflections decrease with repetition and habituation.

Research Fellow: Quentin Atkinson, Nicolas Baumard, Florian Kiessling, Ryan McKay
Project Coordinator: Harvey Whitehouse

This sub-project seeks to explain variations in the degree to which particular elements of the universal religious repertoire are emphasized and/or elaborated in terms of the priming effects of variables outside the domain of religion itself.

Research Fellows: Quentin Atkinson, Adrian Murzac, Yvan Russell
Project Coordinator: Harvey Whitehouse

This sub-project seeks to explain variations in the degree to which particular religious features are mutually reinforced due to the priming effects of variables within the domain of religion itself (a process we refer to as ‘systemic reinforcement’).

Research Fellows: Quentin Atkinson, Nicolas Baumard, Florian Kiessling, Ryan McKay, Adrian Murzac, Yvan Russell
Project Co-ordinator: Harvey Whitehouse
Visiting Fellow: Joanna Bryson

This sub-project seeks to predict the future trajectories in the domain of religion with two study initiatives. In the first instance, we will identify the minimal set of cognitive capacities and interaction rules that are needed for a society of agents to have religion. The second initiative will involve the development of visualization, measurement, and intervention tools to facilitate observation of collective phenomena such as group beliefs and other emergent group properties as aggregations of mental states of the individual agents.

Organisation

The diagram below illustrates the organisational structure of the project. If you are unable to view the image, there is also a text description of the organisational structure of the project.

Project Coordinator
Harvey Whitehouse
 

Advisory and Administrative Committee
Harvey Whitehouse
Jesse Bering
Justin Barrett
Paulo Sousa
Emma Cohen

Gender and Ethics Committee
Harvey Whitehouse
Jesse Bering

Research Coordinator
Jonathan Lanman

Project Administrator
Jessica Williams

Division Leader
Harvey Whitehouse


Religious recurrence and variation

Research Fellow:
Dr Quentin Atkinson
Project Partners:
Prof Robin Dunbar
Prof Armin Geertz
Division Leader
Jesse Bering

Intuitive and reflective ontologies and inferences

Research Fellow:
Nicolas Baumard;
Project Partner:
Dan Sperber:
North American Consultant:
Pascal Boyer

Theory of Mind and religion

Research Fellow:
Florian Kiessling
Project Partner:
Josef Perner
North American Consultant:
Henry Wellman

Moral thinking and religion

Research Fellow:
Dr Ryan McKay
Project Partner:
Ernst Fehr
North American Consultant:
Paul Bloom
Division Leader
Jesse Bering

Creative thinking and religion

Research Fellow:
Dr Adrian Murzac;
Project Partner:
Boicho Kokinov
North American Consultant:
Thomas Ward

Memory, expertise and religion

Research Fellow:
Dr Yvan Russell
Project Partner:
Fernand Gobet
North American Consultant:
David Bjorklund

The role of ecological primes in religious variation

Research Fellow:
Quentin Atkinson, Nicolas Baumard, Florian Kiessling, Ryan McKay;
Project Coordinator:
Harvey Whitehouse

The role of systemic reinforcement in religious variation

Research Fellows:
Quentin Atkinson, Adrian Murzac, Yvan Russell;
Project Coordinator:
Harvey Whitehouse
Division Leader
Jesse Bering

Simulating future trajectories in the domain of religion

Research Fellows:
Quentin Atkinson, Nicolas Baumard, Florian Kiessling, Ryan McKay, Adrian Murzac, Yvan Russell;
Project Co-ordinator:
Harvey Whitehouse;
Visiting Fellow:
Joanna Bryson

Journal articles

André, J. B. and Baumard, N. (2011). Social opportunities and the evolution of fairness. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 289: 128-135. [see also the Supporting Information]

André, J. B. and Baumard, N. (2011). The evolution of fairness in a biological market. Evolution, 65(1): 1447-1456. [see also the Supporting Information]

Atkinson, Q. D.  (2010). The prospects for tracing deep language ancestry. Journal of Anthropological Science, 88: 231-233.

Atkinson, Q. D. and Bourrat, P. (2011). Beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32: 40-49.

Atkinson, Q. D., Gray, R.D. and Drummond, A. J. (2009).  Bayesian coalescent inference of major human mtDNA haplogroup expansions in Africa. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lon. B., 276: 367-373.

Atkinson, Q. D. and Whitehouse, H. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form: Examining modes of religiosity cross-culturally. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32: 50-62.

Atran, S. (2006). The moral logic and growth of suicide terrorism. The Washington Quarterly, 29: 127-14.

Atran, S. (2007). The Nature of Belief. Science, 317: 456.

Atran, S. and Axelrod, R. (2008). Reframing Sacred Values. Negotiation Journal, 24: 221-246.

Baumard, N. (2010). Has punishment played a role in the evolution of cooperation? A critical review. Mind and Society, 9(2): 171-192.

Baumard, N. (2011). Punishment is not a group adaptation: Humans punish to restore fairness rather than to support group cooperation. Mind and Society, 10(1): 1-26.

Baumard, N. (2012).  The restorative logic of punishment: Another argument in favor of weak selection. Comment on Guala's "Reciprocity: weak or strong? What punishment experiments do (and do not) demonstrate", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35(1): 17-18.

Baumard, N., André, J. B. and Sperber, D. (2013). A mutualistic approach to morality: The evolution of fairness by partner choice. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(1): 59-78.

Baumard, N. and Boyer, P. (2013). Explaining Moral Religions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(6): 172-80.

Baumard, N. and Boyer, P. (2013). Religious Beliefs as Reflective Elaborations on Intuitions: A Modified Dual-Process Model. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(4): 295-300.

Baumard, N., Boyer, P. and Sperber, D. (2010). Evolution of Fairness: Cultural Variability, (A Letter in response to Henrich et al.'s "Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment") Science, 329: 388-389.

Baumard, N. and Chevallier, C. (2012). What goes around comes around: The evolutionary roots of the belief in immanent justice. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 12: 67-80. 

Baumard, N. and Liénard, P. (2011). Second or third party punishment? When self-interest hides behind apparent functional interventions (Letter in response to Mathew and Boyd's Punishment sustains large scale cooperation in prestate warfare). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(39).

Baumard, N., Mascaro, O. and Chevallier, C. (2012). Preschoolers are able to take merit into account when distributing goods. Developmental Psychology, 48(2): 492-498.

Baumard, N. and Sperber, D. (2010). Weird people, yes but also weird experiments Comment on Henrich et al.'s "WEIRD people", Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33: 80-81.

Boudry, M., Vlerick, M. and McKay, R. (2015). Can evolution get us off the hook? Evaluating the ecological defence of human rationality. Consciousness & Cognition, 33: 524-35. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2014.08.025

Bourrat, P., Atkinson, Q. D., and Dunbar, R. (2011). Supernatural punishment and individual social compliance across cultures. Religion, Brain and Behavior, 1(2): 119-134.

Bourrat, P., Baumard, N., and McKay, R. (2011). Surveillance Cues Enhance Moral Condemnation. Evolutionary Psychology, 9(2): 193-199.

Boyer, P. (2008). Religion: Bound to Believe? Nature, 455: 1038-1039. 

Buhrmester, M. D., Fraser, W. T., Lanman, J. A., Whitehouse, H. and Swann, W. B. (2014). When terror hits home: Identity Fused Americans who saw Boston bombing victims as "family" provided aid. Self & Identity. 

Chevallier, C., Xu, J., Adachi, K., van der Henst, J. B. and Baumard, N. (2015). Preschoolers' understanding of merit in two Asian societies. PLoS ONE.

Currie, T. E., Bogaard, A., Cesaretti, R., Edwards, N. R., François, P., Holden, P. B., Hoyer, D., Korotayev, A., Manning, J. G., Garcia, J. C. M., Oyebamiji, O. K., Petrie, C., Turchin, P., Whitehouse, H. and Williams, A. (2015). Agricultural Productivity in Past Societies: Toward an Empirically Informed Model for Testing Cultural Evolutionary Hypotheses. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution, 6(1): 24-56.

Emmons, N. A. and Kelemen, D. A. (2014). The development of children's pre-life reasoning: Evidence from two cultures. Child Development, 85(4): 1617-33.

Emmons, N. A. and Kelemen, D. A. (2015). I've got a feeling: Urban and rural indigenous children's beliefs about early life mentality. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 138: 106-25.

Gaviria, E., Ferreira, C., Martínez, M. and Whitehouse, H. (2015). Identity and the developmental origins of fusion: an exploratory approach / La identidad y los orígenes de la fusion en el desarrollo: un enfoque exploratorio. Revista de Psicología Social / International Journal of Social Psychology, 30(3): 531-62. DOI: 10.1080/02134748.2015.1065088.

Harrison, J. and McKay, R. (2013). Give me strength or give me a reason: Self-control, religion and the currency of reputation. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(6): 688-9.

Harrison, J. M. D. and McKay, R. T. (2013). Do religious and moral concepts influence the ability to delay gratification? A priming study. Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis, 10(1): 25-40.

Herrmann, P. A., Legare, C. H., Harris, P. L. and Whitehouse, H. (2013). Stick to the script: The effect of witnessing multiple actors on children's imitation. Cognition, 129: 536-43.

Hochberg, M. E. and Whitehouse, H. (2013). To Understand Present Day Cultures We Must Study the Past: a Commentary on David Sloan Wilson. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 4: 126-8.

Jiménez, J., Gómez, Á., Buhrmester, M. D., Vázquez, A., Whitehouse, H. and Swann, W. B. (2015). The Dynamic Identity Fusion Index (DIFI): A new continuous measure of identity fusion for Web-based questionnaires. Social Science Computer Review.

Jong, J., Whitehouse, H., Kavanagh, C. and Lane, J. (2015). Shared Negative Experiences Lead to Identity Fusion via Personal Reflection. PLoS ONE. 

Lane, J., Wellman, H., Evans, M. (2010). Children’s Understanding of Ordinary and Extraordinary Minds. Child Development, 81(5): 1475-1489.

Legare, C. H., Wen, N. J., Herrmann, P. A. and Whitehouse, H. (2015). Imitative flexibility and the development of cultural learning. Cognition, 142: 351-61. 

Liénard, P., Chevallier, C., Mascaro, O., Kiura, P. and Baumard, N. (2013). Early Understanding of Merit in Turkana Children. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 13(1-2): 57-66.

McKay, R. (2011). Isn't it ironic? A review of 'Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind'. Evolution & Human Behavior, 32: 444-6.

McKay, R. (2014). Editorial: Religion and Agency. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 2(2): 93-6. DOI: 10.1558/jcsr.v2i2.28574.

McKay, R. and Dennett, D. (2009). The evolution of misbelief (Target article). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(6): 493-510.

McKay, R. and Dennett, D. (2009). Our evolving beliefs about evolved misbelief (Response to commentaries). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32(6): 541-551.

McKay, R. and Dennett, D. (2012). The sleep of reason: Do atheists improve the stock? (Commentary on Johnson). Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(1): 78-80.

McKay, R. and Efferson, C. (2010). The subtleties of error management. Evolution & Human Behavior, 31: 309-319.

McKay, R., Efferson, C., Whitehouse, H. and Fehr, E. (2011). Wrath of God: Religious primes and punishment. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278: 1858–1863. doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.2125

McKay, R., Herold, J. and Whitehouse, H. (2013). Catholic Guilt? Recall of Confession Promotes Prosocial Behavior. Religion, Brain and Behavior, 3(3): 201-9.

McKay, R. and Kinsbourne, M. (2010). Confabulation, delusion, and anosognosia: Motivational factors and false claims. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 15(1/2/3): 288-318. (Also printed in R. Langdon & M. Turner (Eds.) Delusion and confabulation. Macquarie Monographs in Cognitive Science series. Series edited by Coltheart, M. Psychology Press.)

McKay, R., Mijović-Prelec, D. and Prelec, D. (2011). Protesting too much: Self-deception and self-signaling (Commentary on von Hippel and Trivers). Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(1): 34-35.

McKay, R. and Whitehouse, H. (2015). Religion and Morality. Psychological Bulletin 141(2): 447-73.

McKay, R. and Whitehouse, H. (in press). Religion promotes a love for thy neighbour: But how big is the neighbourhood? Commentary on Norenzayan et al. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Mullins, D., Whitehouse, H. and Atkinson, Q. D. (2013). The role of writing and recordkeeping in the cultural evolution of human cooperation. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 90(S): S141-151.

Porubanova, M., Shaw, D. J., McKay, R. and Xygalatas, D. (2014). Memory for expectation-violating concepts: The effects of agents and cultural familiarity. PLoS ONE, 9(4) e90684. 

Russell, Y. L., Gobet, F., and Whitehouse H. (2014). Mood, Expertise, Analogy, and Ritual: an experiment using the five-disc Tower of Hanoi. Religion, Brain and Behavior. 

Salali, G. D., Whitehouse, H., and Hochberg, M. E. (2015). A Life-Cycle Model of Human Social Groups Produces a U-Shaped Distribution in Group Size. PLoS ONE, 10(9): e0138496.

Sperber, D. and Baumard, N. (2012) Morality and reputation in an evolutionary perspective, Mind and Language, 27(5): 495-518.

Swann, W. B., Jensen J., Gómez, Á., Whitehouse, H. and Bastian, B. (2012). When Group Membership Gets Personal: A theory of identity fusion. Psychological Review, 119(3): 441-56.

Turchin, P., Brennan, R., Currie, T. E., Feeney, K. C., François, P., Hoyer, D., Manning, J. G., Marciniak, A., Mullins, D., Palmisano, A., Peregrine, P., Turner, E. A. L. and Whitehouse, H. (2015). Seshat: The Global History Databank. Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution, 6(1): 77-107.

Turchin, P., Whitehouse, H., François, P., Slingerland, E. and Collard, M. (2012). A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution. Cliodynamics, 3(2): 271-93.

Watson-Jones, R., Legare, C. H., Whitehouse, H. and Clegg, J. (2014). Task-specific effects of ostracism on imitation of social convention in early childhood. Evolution and Human Behavior, 35(3): 204-10.

Watson-Jones, R., Whitehouse, H., and Legare, C. H. (2015). In-group ostracism increases high fidelity imitation in early childhood. Psychological Science. 

Whitehouse, H. (2008). Modes of Religiosity. The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin, 37(4): 108-112.

Whitehouse, H. (2011). The Coexistence Problem in Psychology, Anthropology, and Evolutionary Theory. Human Development, 54: 191-99.

Whitehouse, H. (2011). Whence and whither social anthropology? Annales de la Fondation Fyssen Hors Serie - 30e Anniversaire: 19-29.

Whitehouse, H. (2013). Ritual and Acquiescence to Authoritative Discourse. Religion, Brain and Behavior, 3(1): 76-9.

Whitehouse, H. (2013). Three wishes for the world (with comment). Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 4(2).

Whitehouse, H. and Cohen, E. (2012). Seeking a Rapprochement between Anthropology and the Cognitive Sciences: A problem-driven approach. Topics in Cognitive Science, 4(3): 404-12.

Whitehouse, H., Cohen, E., Lanman, J. A. and McCauley, R. N. (2008) Common Criticisms of the Cognitive Science of Religion – Answered. The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin, 37(4): 112-115.

Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E. and Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: Case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain and Behavior, 2(3): 182-201.

Whitehouse, H. and Lanman, J. A. (2014). The Ties that Bind Us: Ritual, fusion, and identification. Current Anthropology, 55(6).

Whitehouse, H., McQuinn, B., Buhrmester, M. D. and Swann, W. B. (2014). Brothers in Arms: Warriors bond like Family. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(50): 17783-5.

Wilson, D. S., Hartberg, Y., MacDonald, I., Lanman, J. A. and Whitehouse, H. (In press). The Nature of Religious Diversity: A Cultural Ecosystem Approach. Religion Brain and Behavior.

Xygalatas, D. and McKay, R. (2013). Announcing the Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion (Editorial). Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 1(1): 1-4.

Book chapters

Atran, S. (2007). Religion’s cognitive and social landscape: An evolutionary perspective. In S. Kitayama and D. Cohen (eds.) Handbook of cultural psychology, Guilford Press

Atran, S. (2008). The Evolution of Religion. In C. Crawford and D. Krebs (eds.) Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology, London: Psychology Press

Boudry, M., Vlerick, M., and McKay, R. (in press). Don't blame the norm: On the challenge of ecological rationality. To appear in F. Paglieri (ed.) The Psychology of Argument. London: College Publications.

Bulbulia, J., Atkinson, Q. D., Gray, R. D. and Greenhill, S. J. (2013). Why Do Religious Cultures Evolve Slowly? In I. Czachesz and R. Uro (eds.) Mind, Morality and Magic: Cognitive Science Approaches in Biblical Studies, Sheffield: Equinox Publishing

Bulbulia, J., Geertz, A. W., Atkinson, Q. D., Cohen, E., Evans, N., Francois, P., Gintis, H., Gray, R. D., Henrich, J., Jordan, F., Norenzayan, A., Richerson, P. J., Slingerland, E., Turchin, P., Whitehouse, H., Widlok, T. and Wilson, D. S. (2013) The Cultural Evolution of Religion. In P. J. Richerson & M. H. Christiansen (eds.) Cultural Evolution, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 

Russell, Y. I., Dunbar, R. I. M, and Gobet, F. (2011). Euphoria versus dysphoria: differential cognitive roles in religion? In S. Masmoudi, A. Naceur and D. Y. Dai (eds.) Attention, Representation & Performance: Integration of Cognition, Emotion & Motivation, New York: Psychology Press 

Whitehouse, H. (2006). Appropriated and Monolithic Christianity in Melanesia. In F. Cannell (ed.) The Anthropology of Christianity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press 

Whitehouse, H. (2006). Cognition et religion. In G. Fussman (ed.) Croyance, raison et déraison, Paris: Odile Jacob Editions

Whitehouse, H. (2006). Terror. In J. Corrigan (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion, Oxford: Oxford University Press 

Whitehouse, H. (2006). Transmission. In M. Stausberg (ed.) Theorizing Rituals: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts, Leiden: Brill 

Whitehouse, H. (2007). The Evolution and History of Religion. In D. J. Parkin and S. J. Ulijaszek (eds.) Holistic Anthropology: Emergence and convergence, Oxford: Berghahn Books

Whitehouse, H. (2007). Towards an Integration of Ethnography, History and the Cognitive Science of Religion. In H. Whitehouse, and J. Laidlaw (eds.) Religion, Anthropology and Cognitive Science, Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press

Whitehouse, H. (2008). Cognitive Evolution and Religion; Cognition and Religious Evolution. In J. Bulbulia, R. Sosis, E. Harris, R. Genet, C. Genet and K. Wyman (eds.) The Evolution of Religion: Studies, theories, and critiques, Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press

Whitehouse, H. (2009). Graeco-Roman Religions and the Cognitive Science of Religion. In L. H. Martin and P. Pachis (eds.) Imagistic Traditions in the Graeco-Roman World, Thessaloniki: Vanias

Whitehouse, H. (2009). Religious Universals and Religious Variation.  In I. Czachesz (ed.) Religion and Cognition, Groningen Studies in Cultural Change Series, Leuven: Peeters

Whitehouse, H. (2012). Explaining Ritual. In G. Dawes and J. Maclaurin (eds.) A New Science of Religion, New York: Routledge

Whitehouse, H. (2012). Religious Universals and Religious Variation. In T. Biro and I. Czachesz, Changing Minds: Religion and Cognition Through the Ages, Leuven: Peeters

Whitehouse, H. (2012). Ritual, Cognition, and Evolution. In R. Sun (ed.) Grounding the Social Sciences in the Cognitive Sciences, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Whitehouse, H. (2013). Immortality, Creation, and Regulation: Updating Durkheim's Theory of the Sacred. In D. Xygalatas and L. W. McCorkle (eds.) Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion, Durham: Acumen

Whitehouse, H. (2013). Religion, cohesion, and hostility. In S. Clarke, R. Powell and J. Savulescu (eds.) Religion, Intolerance and Conflict: A Scientific and Conceptual Investigation, Oxford: OUP

Whitehouse, H. (2013). Rethinking Proximate Causation and Development in Religious Evolution. In P. J. Richerson and M. H. Christiansen (eds.) Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion (Strungmann Forum Reports), Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Whitehouse, H. and Laidlaw, J. (2007). Introduction. In H. Whitehouse, and J. Laidlaw (eds.) Religion, Anthropology and Cognitive Science,  Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press

Whitehouse, H., Mazzucato, C., Hodder, I. and Atkinson, Q. D., (2013). Modes of religiosity and the evolution of social complexity at Çatalhöyük. In I. Hodder (ed.) Religion at Work in a Neolithic Society: Vital Matters, Cambridge: CUP

Other Outputs

Lenfesty, H. (2013). Review of Barret, J. L., 'Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology.' Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 1(1): 127-8.

McKay, R. (2014). Is religion a force for good? The Conversation, December 24, 2014.

Whitehouse, H. & McKay, R. (2012). Commentary on Pinker. Edge, June 18, 2012.

Ominous moods may improve ritual performance

To the uninitiated, religious ritual seems like frivolous play-acting. Priests and acolytes follow obscure rules and manipulate symbolic objects, similar to team sports like soccer, or board games like Risk. This connection isn't meant to trivialize the intense subjective meaning of religious rites, but only to point out that both ritual and play are elaborate, seemingly superfluous pastimes that consume enormous amounts of otherwise productive energy. Of what use are either? Yvan Russell, Fernand Gobet, and Harvey Whitehouse hypothesize that the connection between ritual and games is quite significant. Skills acquired by performing rites and playing games should carry over into real world abilities. Their study suggests that the more disturbing a performer's mood is, the more effective that transference will be.

You can read the full article on the Science on Religion blog.

 

EXREL Researcher Ryan McKay is interviewed by The Economist

LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW

Results of the EXREL project are reported in The Economist (20 Apr 2011)

READ THE ARTICLE

Article in New Scientist (28 Mar 2011)

An article by Jonathan Lanman entitled "Religion is irrational, but so is atheism" asks Why are some people religious and others atheists? Do we really know what we mean by atheism? .

READ THE ARTICLE

French National Radio broadcast (29 Jan 2011)

During an interview on the radio show "France Culture" on 29 Jan 2011 EXREL Research Fellow, Nicolas Baumard, talked about “A natural history of morality”.

LISTEN TO THE BROADCAST

Article on Christian values in Le Monde (24 Dec 2010)

EXREL Research Fellow, Nicolas Baumard, discusses Christian values in the French newspaper, Le Monde.

READ THE ARTICLE

Article in Spektrum der Wissenschaft

The latest work of Harvey Whitehouse was the subject of a substantial recent article in the German popular science magazine Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

The article, entitled "Der Sinn von Ritualen", has appeared in the January 2011 issue of Spektrum der Wissenschaft.  

New book by EXREL Research Fellow published

A book entitled "Comment nous sommes devenus moraux" has been published that outlines research undertaken by Dr Nicolaus Baumard.

FURTHER DETAILS 

French National Radio broadcast (25 Oct 2010)

EXREL Research Fellow, Nicolas Baumard, was interviewed on  "French Inter" on 25 October 2010.

BACKGROUND TO THE DISCUSSION

Article by Nicolas Baumard in The Guardian (15 July 2010)

Is witchcraft homeopathy? There's no such thing as "religion" as the different examples of witchcraft and homeopathy show. The question is whether what matters, in homeopathy or witchcraft, is the practice or its theoretical justification. Which came first, the theory or the pill, the spell or the familiar?

READ THE ARTICLE

Harvey Whitehouse discusses “Ritual: its causes and consequences” at colloquium in Berlin (20 May 2010)

Harvey Whitehouse was invited to discuss “Ritual: its causes and consequences” at the 14th Berlin Colloquium of the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation.

WATCH THE VIDEO

Conference presentation (17 May 2010)

Harvey Whitehouse discussed “Religion, cohesion and hostility” at the Science and Religious Conflict Conference at the James Martin 21st Century School in Oxford on 17 May 2010. 

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST

French National Radio broadcast (10 May 2010)

EXREL Research Fellow, Nicolas Baumard, engaged in a debate with Sylviane Giampino and Hervé Chneiweiss on the topic of "Are we naturally good?".

BACKGROUND TO THE DEBATE

French National Radio broadcast (22 Feb 2010)

EXREL Research Fellow, Nicolas Baumard, engaged in a debate with Professor Frans de Waal, Department of Psychology, Emroy University, on the topic of empathy.

BACKGROUND TO THE DEBATE

'New Scientist' (19/26 December 2009) "The secret that makes religion"

You may not be Christian, or religious, but if you live in almost any developed country, you will find it hard to get away from Christmas rituals at this time of the year ....  READ ARTICLE

EXREL is discussed in ‘USA Today’,(20 April 2009):  “What’s love got to do with it?”

READ MORE

EXREL is discussed in ‘Beliefnet’, (18 April 2009), “What does that stick in the mud mean?”

READ MORE

Radio interview with Harvey Whitehouse on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on 29th December 2008

Have you ever been by all by yourself, yet had the distinct feeling that you're not alone? Or communicated - somehow - with a loved one who has passed away? Or knew in your gut that your favorite team would only win if you wore the right shirt?
If so, it's true -- you're not alone. A new breed of anthropologist - armed with research into cognition and neuroscience - thinks all human beings are predisposed to this kind of intuition. And that may help explain why disparate cultures from opposite ends of the earth seem to arrive at strikingly similar conclusions when it comes to religion and spiritual beliefs - from the prevalence of creation myths to ideas about life after death. ...
LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW

'The Globe and Mail' (22nd November 2008) "Religion - what is it good for?"

For most of human history, it has been a bad career move to try to rationalize religious belief and behaviour. But quite apart from the risks involved in defying the religious majority - wave goodbye to your presidential aspirations, if not your life - there is the puzzling question of whether earthly science has any right or reason to enter the realm of omnipotent gods and eternal souls ...
READ MORE

'Geo Kompakt No 16' (September 2008) "Frachtgut aus der Ahnenwelt"

READ ARTICLE

Commentary in the ‘New Scientist’ (5th April 2008) “What is this thing called religion?”

As long as religion was untouchably sacred, it was by definition beyond the prying fingers of objective inquiry. Now society has matured enough to empirically scrutinise religion, and late last year a group of nine European universities led by the University of Oxford began to examine religious belief and behaviour, helped by a €2 million European Commission grant.
The project, called Explaining Religion (EXREL), brings together psychology, biology, anthropology and history to investigate both the common and the variable features of "religiosity" ...
READ MORE

'The Economist' (March 19th 2008) "Where Angels No Longer Fear to Tread":

By the standards of European scientific collaboration, 2m ($3.1m) is not a huge sum. But it might be the start of something that will challenge human perceptions of reality at least as much as the billions being spent by the European particle-physics laboratory (CERN) at Geneva. The first task of CERN's new machine, the Large Hadron Collider, which is due to open later this year, will be to search for the Higgs boson, an object that has been dubbed, with a certain amount of hyperbole, the God particle. The 2m, by contrast, will be spent on the search for God Himselfor, rather, for the biological reasons why so many people believe in God, gods and religion in general. Explaining Religion, as the project is known, is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. It began last September, will run for three years, and involves scholars from 14 universities ...
READ MORE

Some of the data collected during the EXREL project can be found here.

Final EXREL Project Conference
University of Toronto, 15 – 21 August 2010
 
The third, and final, conference of the Explaining Religion project was held from 15 to 21 August 2010 in Toronto in concert with the XXth Quinquennial World Congress of the IAHR.
 
The programme and abstracts from the Congress can be found here.
 
Project posters (click to download):
 
Second EXREL Project Conference
University of Oxford
17 – 19 August 2009
 
Hosted by the University of Oxford, this international conference brought together the Project Partners, Research Fellows, North American Consultants, and Advisory and Administrative Committee of the EC-funded Explaining Religion project. It afforded the opportunity for presentation of research and findings since the start of the project in September 2007 and for planning the next phase of the research. 
 
Aspects covered included:
  •  Religious recurrence and variation
  • Intuitive and reflective ontologies and inferences 
  • Theory of mind and religion
  • Moral thinking, moral behaviour, and religion
  • Creative thinking and religion
  • Memory expertise and religion
In addition the findings of the cross-cultural research projects were discussed and there was further planning of field-based psychological experiments in Mongolia, Guatemala, and Ecuador.
The final session of the conference focussed on the next phase of the project including the development of research using agent based computer simulations.

Attendees at Second EXREL conference

 

 

First EXREL Project Conference
University of Groningen
1 - 3 February 2008
 
 
EXREL Project Workshop
University of Aarhus
18 - 19 September 2007
 

Project Coordinator

Professor Harvey Whitehouse, University of Oxford

Project Partners

Dr Jesse Bering, Previously at Queen’s University Belfast
Dr István Czachesz, University of Groningen
Professor Robin Dunbar, University of Oxford
Prof Ernst Fehr, University of Zurich
Professor Armin W. Geertz, University of Aarhus
Professor Fernand Gobet, Brunel University (Now at University of Liverpool)
Professor Boicho Kokinov, New Bulgarian University
Professor Josef Perner, University of Salzburg
Professor Dan Sperber, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Research Fellows

Dr Quentin Atkinson
Dr Nicolas Baumard
Dr Florian Kiessling
Dr Ryan McKay
Dr Adrian Murzac
Dr Yvan Russell

Postgraduate Students

Renatas Berniunas
Natalie Emmons
Hillary Lenfesty

European Consultants

Dr Justin Barrett, University of Oxford
Dr Emma Cohen, University of Oxford
Dr Paulo Sousa, Queen’s University Belfast

North American Consultants

Professor David Bjorklund, Florida Atlantic University
Professor Pascal Boyer, Washington University at St. Louis
Professor Paul Bloom, Yale University
Professor Thomas Ward
Professor Henry Wellman, University of Michigan

Visiting Fellow

Professor Joanna Bryson

Research Coordinator

Dr Jon Lanman

Project Administrator

Jessica Williams


Institutional Links

University of Oxford

Queen's University Belfast

University of Aarhus

University of Groningen

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

University of Salzburg

University of Zurich

New Bulgarian University

Brunel University

 

List of site pages