Tag Archives: religion

~$4.8 million John Templeton Foundation (JTF) grant for The Database of Religious History (DRH): Exploring the Cultural Evolution of Religion Employing a Large-Scale, Quantitative-Qualitative Historical Database

Ted Slingerland, M. Willis Monroe, and I were awarded a John Templeton Foundation grant for The Database of Religious History: “Exploring the Cultural Evolution of Religion Employing a Large-Scale, Quantitative-Qualitative Historical Database” ($4,792,151). The grant will take us through to 2023.

We will be hiring several new postdocs to expand the time depth, geographic range, and domains of data collection efforts. If you notice your area of expertise missing from our dataset, please reach out. Otherwise, stay tuned for job ads.

Check out the DRH here: religiondatabase.org

Psychology as a Historical Science

Summary from Twitter thread:

New paper on “Psychology as a historical science” in Annual Review of Psychology. Catalyzing the field of “historical psychology” by reviewing work on: origins of psychology and institutions today, psychology of the past (data from dead minds).


Our psychology is shaped by our societies, and our societies are shaped by their histories. We can do better than butterfly collecting–just measuring cross-cultural diffs. For psychology to develop a full theory of human behavior, we need historical psychology.


Psychology is shaped by millions of years of genetic evolution, thousands of years of cultural evolution, & a short lifetime of experience; yet, much of the field has focused on that short lifetime of experience. The WEIRD People Problem is not only about geography but history.

Past societies can be as culturally distant as distant societies. Cohort effects are a sliver of the cross-temporal variation we would expect in a culturally evolving species. History serves as a kind of psychological fossil record, a source of “data from dead minds”.

We (1) review work in historical psychology; (2) introduce methods including causal inference & how to extract data from dead minds; (3) explore the role of theory in mapping history to psychology; and (4) provide some conclusions concerning the future of this field.


E.g.s: Religious evolution & social psych. Some gods gained the ability to see into hearts & control an afterlife contingent on compliance. In many large-scale societies, these gods became omniscient, omnipotent, & omnibenevolent, coevolving with the scale of their societies.

This historical theory makes predictions not only about expected relationships in the historical record but also about expected contemporary cross-cultural diversity in religious beliefs and cognition. In doing so, the theory links historical psychology to cultural psychology.


WEIRD Psychology may have its origins in suppressing kin networks, changing family structures, & related via one particular religion: The Catholic Church


Institutions rest on invisible cultural and psychological pillars. E.g. a constitution’s proclamations are irrelevant without a belief in the rule of law, or norms of punishment for violations of this rule.


We discuss the importance of causal inference techniques in historical psychology: instrumental variables, difference-in-differences, regression discontinuity. Some e.g. use for slavery & trust in strangers; agriculture & sex diff, gender inequality, collectivism; personality.


Historical psychology includes the psychology of the past – data from dead minds, cognitive archeology. Historical databases are emerging. But sometimes the data is qualitative requiring tools like text analysis.


We discuss some examples of the importance of theory. A society has codependent norms, values, beliefs, behaviors, and institutions. If one takes an exploratory approach and looks for correlations in history, there are many to be found. Theory helps clarify causality.

Collaboration between psychologists, historians, and other humanities scholars is important (see religiondatabase.org for an e.g.). We discuss challenges & strategies.


Taking history seriously is a critical part of moving beyond the WEIRD people problem and making psychology a genuinely universal science of human cognition and behavior.

Durkheim with Data: The Database of Religious History at Future Directions on the Evolution of Rituals, Beliefs, and Religious Minds in Sicily, Italy

I spent the last week in Erice, Sicily, Italy at the Future Directions on the Evolution of Rituals, Beliefs, and Religious Minds workshop at The Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture. Edward Slingerland and I presented “Durkheim with Data: The Database of Religious History”. I focused on some analyses using Database of Religious History data.

The conference included several excellent discussions at the cutting edge of the evolution and cognitive science of religion.

Other speakers and attendees included:
Scott Atran (Oxford University)
Jeanet Sinding Bentzen (University of Copenhagen)
Paul Bloom (Yale University)
Pascal Boyer (Washington University at St Louis)
Joseph Bulbulia (University of Auckland)
Russell Gray (Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History
Joseph Henrich (Harvard University)
Cristine Legare (University of Texas at Austin)
Hillary Lenfesty (Arizona State University)
Robert McCauley (Emory University)
Ara Norenzayan (University of British Columbia)
Stefano Parmigiani (University of Parma)
Eleanor Power (London School of Economics and Political Science)
Colleen Shantz (University of Toronto)
Edward Slingerland (University of British Columbia
Jesper Sørensen (University of Aarhus)
Ann Taves (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Harvey Whitehouse (Oxford University)
Aiyana Willard(Oxford University)
David S. Wilson (Binghamton University)
Dimitris Xygalatas (University of Connecticut)

Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture is famous for the 1982 Erice Statement.

Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, CA

I spent the weekend at a productive interdisciplinary workshop on “Religion, Ritual, Conflict, and Cooperation: Archaeological and Historical Approaches” at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University. CASBS is located on the top of one of the beautiful hills around Stanford.

We discussed the challenges and successes in inferring religious belief and practice from the archeological and historical record  and new theoretical models and tools for exploring religious history, including the Database of Religious History (DRH).

Other attendees included:

David Carballo (Boston University)
Chris Carleton (Simon Fraser University)
Jesse Chapman (Stanford University)
Mark Csikszentmihalyi (UC Berkeley)
Megan Daniels (Stanford University)
Russell Gray (Director, Max Planck Institute for the History and the Sciences)
Conn Herriott (University of Jerusalem)
Ian Hodder (Stanford University)
Joseph Manning (Yale University)
Jessica McCutcheon (University of British Columbia)
Frances Morphy (Australian National University)
Howard Morphy (Australian National University)
Ian Morris (Stanford University)
Ara Norenzayan (University of British Columbia)
Beate Pongratz-Leisten (NYU)
Neil Price (Uppsala)
Benjamin Purzycki (University of British Columbia)
Ben Raffield (Simon Fraser University)
Katrinka Reinhart (Stanford University)
Celia Schultz (University of Michigan)
Edward Slingerland (University of British Columbia)
Charles Stanish (UCLA)
Brenton Sullivan (Colgate College)
Edward Swenson (University of Toronto)
Robban Toleno (University of British Columbia)
Robyn Walsh (University of Miami)
Joseph Watts (University of Auckland)

Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) Conference in San Diego, California (2016)

I chaired a symposium on  “Understanding Religions: Integrating experimental, ethnographic and historical approaches” at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) conference in San Diego, CA.

Joe Henrich began by introducing the broader research agenda, describing the two puzzles of (1) the rise of societal complexity and large-scale cooperation and (2) the emergence and spread of particular religious elements, such as big, powerful, moralizing gods and ritual behavior.

Coren Apicella presented recent evidence of high levels of rule bending in the Hadza, a a minimally religious foraging population.

I then introduced the Database of Religious History and presented some preliminary analyses, showing the relationship between ritual and cooperative behavior. I also updated the audience on data collection and some of the directions we’re going in (such as measuring cultural distance–more soon!).

Finally, Ted Slingerland gave an overview of what the humanities can offer the psychology of religion, with an entertaining presentation of how a lack of deep understanding of history and culture can lead to misinterpretations (such as claims that Chinese don’t have religious beliefs, nor mind-body dualism).

Other highlights of the conference included a debate between Leda Cosmides and Joe Henrich (moderated by Jon Haidt) on “Big Questions in Evolutionary Science and What They Mean for Social-Personality Psychology” and a debate between Jon Haidt and Kurt Gray on “Purity and Harm in the American Culture War: A Debate on the Structure of Morality“.

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Leda, Jon, and Joe answering questions after the debate. Photo credit: Cristine Legare