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Explaining religion


Certain elements of religious thinking and behavior appear to be universal, whereas other features vary significantly from one religious tradition to the next, both in terms of a differential emphasis on core features of the universal repertoire and in terms of features that run counter to universal religiosity. The project will seek to identify statistically measurable patterns of recurrence and variation in religious thinking and behavior and to reconstruct core features of religion in human prehistory.

Several leading experimental psychologists and biologists have suggested that our species' susceptibility to the universal religious repertoire results from universal cognitive biases. This project will provide the first systematic testing ground for these new and influential hypotheses. We meanwhile seek to explain variations in the universal religious repertoire in terms of variable priming of the cognitive mechanisms that underpin those features and the role of creative thinking and expert memory.

Finally, we will develop a computational model of religious dynamics that can be used to explain present and past religious traditions and to simulate future developments. The proposed project is large-scale and ambitious in scope, integrating the world's leading centers for psychological, biological, anthropological, and historical research on religion. This work will be highly significant for the formulation of social policy, in such key areas as the teaching of science and religion in schools and the effective promotion of inter-religious and inter-ethnic tolerance.

It will also shed light on the relationship between religiosity and broader ideological commitments (including political affiliation and voting behavior). Finally, this research will have significant implications for our understanding of the rise and spread of various forms of religious fundamentalism and sectarianism.

Call for proposal

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51 banbury road
OX2 6PE Oxford
United Kingdom

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Participants (9)