A Social-Psychological Theory of Religion

So…, just why are people religious?

It’s not a question everyone asks, since many scholars today are more concerned with what it means (often to the participants themselves) to be religious. But there are those in the academy today who, like those who helped to establish the study of religion in the late 19th century, are interested in explaining the historical (even evolutionary) cause of religion or its contemporary function. Often, though, they are found outside Religious Studies, in other academic fields, like sociology or anthropology.

If we define religion as belief in a supernatural being, as many do, and aim to answer questions of cause or function, then here’s an almost hour-long podcast from last summer, posted at NPR’s Hidden Brain, on the work of Azim Shariff, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia.


If the embed doesn’t load, try here.

Learn more at the MOOC (massively open online course) he co-designed.

Making Our Theories Explicit

Nyx (/nɪks/;[1] Greek: Νύξ, Nyks, “Night”;[2] Latin: Nox) is the Greek goddess (or personification) of the night

So opens a Wikipedia article that caught my eye the other day, because of the theory of religion buried in it. For by means of a misleadingly simple parenthetical aside, one that hearkens back to a much earlier approach to understanding religion, the writer tells us a great deal about their thoughts on why people tell tales of the gods. Continue reading

Symposium Recap

Last week, the Department of Religious Studies hosted its annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at Gorgas Library. Students from Religious Studies courses collaborated with advisors on written projects before presenting their work at the event. The unique topics, challenging question-answer portion, and free coffee made for a refreshing Friday morning. Professors, alumni, MA students, and undergraduates used social media to keep up with the event.

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Spotlighting Graduating MA Students

Emma Gibson and Sierra Lawson have spent the last two years developing their skills in research, social theory, and the public and digital humanities among other useful accomplishments. This spring, both students will graduate with a Master’s of Arts in Religion in Culture and plan to put their analytical tools to work as they further their education. Emma will pursue a Master’s of Architecture while Sierra earns a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. Find out what these young women have planned after graduation.

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Spotlighting REL Graduating Seniors

The Department of Religious Studies will have a variety of students graduating in May after earning a Bachelor of Arts as majors in the Department of Religious Studies. Over the last four years, each senior has learned and applied social theory through various research projects, independent studies, and a number of unique REL courses. Taking classes like Religions of the World, Theories of Myth, and Religious Existentialism, students were able to shape a unique study of religion that best fit their personal interests. From Medical School to Museum Studies, the Class of 2019 has diverse plans for the application of their undergraduate studies in the Department. Several of these students are spotlighted below.

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It’s Worth Taking A Closer Look

The 2019 call for papers has just come out from NAASR — the North American Association for the Study of Religion — asking for respondents to invited papers that will each address one of four aspects of the field in which we do our work (a format the meetings have used for the past 5 years); the association also announced its upcoming workshops for grad students, all of which will take place at its November annual meeting in San Diego. As someone who has been involved with NAASR my entire professional life, either as a member, a co-editor of its journal, or, on a couple past occasions, playing a role on its executive — in fact, my first time attending the combined American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meeting, in San Francisco back in 1992, was also my first time attending a NAASR meeting — I admit that I’m quite proud of the work carried out by the organization and its members. So I find it pretty frustrating when stories get back to me — as they have on many occasions, long ago and very recently — about someone asking a person attending a NAASR session what it’s like.

Or, to be a little more specific, asking them how they can tolerate being around all those guys — you know, the guys who do theory. Continue reading

Whose Evangelicalism is in Ruins?

Inside of Old Sheldon Church ruins

The American Academy of Religion, the national scholarly association for religious studies in America, just sent out its program of plenary addresses for its upcoming annual meeting this November. The abstract for David Gushee’s Presidential Address caught my eye.

There are a number of things to say about this. First of all, I told ya’ll this would happen during the nomination process three years ago. Looking closely at the abstract, the phrase “will perform ‘religion in public’ in a confessional vein” jumps out at me right away. The theme of the annual meeting, chosen by Gushee as president, is “religion in public” and this sentence shows the versatility of that phrase. The phrase “religion in public” usually connotes the area where scholars investigate how things called “religion” show up in the public sphere. Or sometimes, especially within the AAR and it’s mission to “enhance the public understanding of religion,” religion in public means that scholars share their knowledge about things called religion with the public. But this is neither of those. Gushee will be performing religion in public. He will be bringing the thing called religion into the public. But what public? A room full (or maybe not full) of scholars in a massive conference center who paid the exorbitant registration fees of the AAR? That’s not exactly Times Square or a CNN studio.

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In Other Words…

Like some of you, I woke today to an email soliciting submissions for a special issue of the open access online journal Open Theology. The email opened as follows:

A person who reads texts from other religious traditions sometimes encounters what the reader understands to be a transcendent encounter with ultimacy.  Encounters with the ultimate – not only with texts but also with practices and persons – need to be taken into account theologically….

Now, I’m not going to harp on why a scholar of religion received this email but, instead, say that theologians of course have every right to pursue such lines of inquiry. That many who identify as scholars of religion yet use that old Tillichian nugget “ultimacy” is indeed a problem, I’d argue, but even that’s not what occurred to me as I first read that message. Instead, two other things dawned on me: (1) how nicely the call makes evident the second order work going on when people study other people — or the things those people produce or leave behind, such as texts, and (2) how quickly we often forget that our analysis is not simply innocent description of so-called facts on the ground. Continue reading

Coming Attractions: REL 490 Capstone Senior Seminar

REL 490 is the Department’s senior seminar, that’s offered each Spring. Required of all majors, its topic regularly changes as does the professor who offers it. The goal of the course is to offer some sort of test case or example that can provide an opportunity for students with wide interests to mull over the skills that were gained throughout the degree.

This Spring it’s Prof. McCutcheon who is teaching the course and the topic is the work of Jonathan Z. Smith.

But is it…? Continue reading