What Does the “Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium” Hope to Accomplish?

“The Evolution of Religion and Morality” project is the result of a grant of 3 million dollars awarded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to a group of directors from The University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University’s joint Centre for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture (HECC), led by me at UBC. This six-year project brings together the expertise of more than 50 scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars from universities across North America, Europe, and East Asia—along with postdocs and graduate students—into a research network called the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC).

Despite its centrality to human affairs, religion remains, from an academic perspective, one of the least studied and most poorly understood aspects of human behavior. Over the period of our grant, CERC aims to answer the questions of how religious cultural forms have evolved over time, how religion is linked to morality, and why religion plays such a ubiquitous role in human existence. Our theoretical starting point will be that of gene-culture co-evolution. We believe that, although religious cognition originally arose as a byproduct of other human cognitive capacities, apparently maladaptive religious beliefs and behaviors have been maintained and strengthened because certain groups succeeded in integrating them into packages of cultural elements (beliefs, rituals, devotions) that deepened group solidarity by incentivizing trust and cooperation with supernatural punishments and rewards. We believe that the gradual assembly of this cultural package was not only a key to the origin of large-scale societies, but also provides a convincing answer to the historical question of why religions with moralistic gods—rather rare amongst the panoply of human religious variety—have spread at the expense of other types of religion. Cultural groups with religions that best promote within-group cooperation and harmony tend to outcompete other groups. Our hypothesized link between religion, group identity, and morality also potentially explains the persistence of religious belief in the face of countervailing evolutionary pressures, and lends credence to arguments postulating a link between moral evaluations and some sort of metaphysical realism.

CERC’s research activities will revolve around one central question: Are religious beliefs and behaviors linked to within-group solidarity and cooperation? This central question will be broken down into a set of related sub-questions, ranging in scope from cognitive processes at the individual level to broader group dynamics and cultural and historical processes. These questions will be interrogated by two overlapping teams—historical and ethnographic-experimental—spread across CERC, and under my overall direction. Each team will address the sub-questions using the data and tools particular to their own specializations, and design their studies in such a way that our central hypothesis can be tested against competing, alternative theoretical models that have recently been advanced to explain the evolution of religion.

Historical team members will perform analyses of textual traditions in the original languages, covering a broad range of human religious experience from ancient Chinese and Near Eastern religions to contemporary Islam, indigenous religions, and spiritualist movements in 20th-century Britain, including both traditional qualitative work and novel quantitative techniques that can be employed to analyze large-scale, digital archives—either previously existing or created by our grant—in order to discern broad trends and discover novel patterns. By the end of the six-year period, we also hope to have assembled a massive database of religious and social history that can be used by the global research community to test hypotheses about the dynamic relations between religious, social, economic, and ecological variables. Experimental-ethnographic team members will coordinate on systematic, comparative studies employing interview-based, observational, and experimental techniques (including fMRI), targeting community samples and field sites in Vancouver, Shanghai, Denmark, New York, the United Kingdom, Fiji, mainland China, Taiwan, India, Brazil, Southern Europe, Vanuatu, Israel, New Zealand, and Mauritius.

By the end of our grant period, we hope to have gone a long way toward answering our central research questions, as well as ruling out alternative hypotheses about the origins of religion, such as pure byproduct, viral meme, or individual or group genetic selection hypotheses.

This research-driven research consortium will be accompanied by the formation of a new, permanent Program for the Study of Religion at UBC, an undergraduate and graduate training and research program with an unprecedented interdisciplinary character. We hope that by the end of the six years, this program will be recognized as the top—and most innovative—religious studies program in North America, producing a new generation of scholars trained from the ground up in both traditional textual and historical studies and new methods from the cognitive sciences.

In addition to exploring our specific research questions, our broader goal is to fundamentally alter the international landscape of the field of religious studies, and to have CERC serve as a model for innovative partnerships that bridge scientific and humanistic training and research, thereby helping to encourage similar interdisciplinary collaborations in the future.

Edward Slingerland is a professor of Asian studies, a Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition, director of the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium, and co-director of the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture at the University of British Columbia.

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