Religion, Ideology & Prosociality: Simulating Secularising Societies
For more information, contact Konrad Talmont-Kaminski (PI at the University of Bialystok, Poland: firstname.lastname@example.org) or F. LeRon Shults (co-PI at NORCE Norwegian Research Centre: email@example.com).
Throughout developed societies, levels of engagement with religion have been falling in recent decades. In some countries, such as Norway, this pattern began over a half century ago and has reached the point where people who participate in religious practices are very much in the minority. In other countries, including Poland, the process has only begun relatively recently, and one finds large generational differences in religious beliefs and practices.
While researchers have been able to use sociological data to describe how secularisation proceeds, the question of why it occurs is still far from settled. The fundamental problem is that to explain secularisation it is necessary to simultaneously consider at least two levels of explanation: the social and the psychological. Secularisation can be defined as a sustained society-wide fall in the levels of religious belief and practice. On the one hand, explaining this change requires understanding individual psychological processes and behaviours as well as the interactions that lead to macro-level change. On the other hand, it also requires understanding how relevant social variables impact the psychological make-up of individuals. Formulating such multi-level explanations has always proved particularly difficult. And even when complex theoretical models are formulated, it has been difficult derive predictions from them.
Two different approaches can be pursued when trying to understand such a complex, multi-level phenomenon. One approach is to consider only one level, be it the psychological or the social, and to make simplifying assumptions about the other. The strength of this approach is that it makes the problem much more tractable and, so long as the simplifying assumptions are sufficiently accurate, can lead to increased understanding of at least part of the overall system. In the case of secularisation, research that has pursued this first path has already led to many insights, including the vital role that anxiety and ritual play in transmitting religion.
A second, and much more difficult, approach is to attempt to represent the interactions among the psychological and social aspects (or micro- and macro-levels) of the secularisation process. Traditionally, this approach has not been tractable because of the complexity and unpredictability of the interactions between levels of analysis. However, recent developments in information technology, and system-dynamics and multi-agent artificial intelligence modeling in particular, have improved our capacity to represent, analyze, and even forecast relevant dynamics within such complex social systems.
The main aim of the RIP project is to utilize these cutting edge developments to provide novel insights about the processes that shape secularising societies. Click here for the original, full project description, which has now been funded by the EEA Norway grant funding agency.
The RIP project will use several different research methodologies to investigate secularisation, including computer modelling techniques as well as a range of empirical (including experimental) methods from a variety of disciplines. All of these will be carried out with constant feedback in dialogue with theoretical considerations that must also be pursued for the overall project to succeed.
The computer modelling aspect of the project will involve both systems dynamics models (SDMs) as well as agent based models (ABMs). An SDM approach will be used to create models of individuals, reflecting aspects of human cognitive systems that are deemed to be of relevance to the dimension of secularisation under investigation. The agents constructed in this way will then inform the construction of ABMs, which will allow us to simulate and study the interactions among thousands or even millions of agents in “artificial societies.” This will enable us to trace how the psychological and the social processes are connected in our models, and provide both analytic and predictive insights into the phenomenon of secularising societies.
The construction of the models will rely upon accurate information about the systems to be modelled. In part this information will come from existing sociological, psychological and cognitive studies. However, previous studies do not adequately reflect the theoretical assumptions of the planned models nor adequately measure the relevant variables. For this reason, the project will also involve: new analyses of existing quantitative sociological data; novel surveys of representative population samples; and a range of experimental studies newly designed to explore and understand aspects of the theoretical assumptions underlying the proposed cognitive and psychological models.
The theoretical aspects of the project draw largely upon the work of the PI (especially the theoretical model presented in Religion as a Magical Ideology), as well as the work of the broader community of researchers that have been investigating secularisation over the last few decades, particularly those working within quantitative sociology of religion and cognitive science of religion. This theoretical focus is intended to help us to draw out some of the implications of the idea that “religions” combine the traits of ideologies – belief systems which function to motivate parochial prosociality – with traits of magical systems of beliefs and practices that find their basis in the cognitive biases that all humans share. Religions make use of and modify people’s natural modes of reasoning by conjoining traits associated with ideology and magic.
To pursue the many avenues that need to be explored in order for this interdisciplinary project to succeed, a team with a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds is in the process of being assembled. The Principal Investigator, Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, comes to the issues with a background in the philosophy of science and years of experience in the study of the evolutionary and cognitive basis of human social behaviours such as religion, providing him with a broad theoretical overview of the issues involved in secularisation.
The Polish team also currently includes a cognitive psychologist, Paweł Łowicki, with experience in the planning and execution of experimental studies into the psychological mechanisms underpinning religious practices and beliefs, as well as a quantitative sociologist, Łukasz Kiszkiel, who has the skills necessary to gather and interpret the sociological data the project calls for. In addition, the team in Białystok will be rounded out by two modellers in post-doctoral positions who will be responsible for developing computer models of some of the aspects of secularisation that will be investigated and two students in receipt of doctoral scholarship who will pursue thesis topics closely connected to the overall project as well as participating in the variety of research activities the project involves.
The Norwegian team is led by F. LeRon Shults, who has studied philosophy and psychology but has spent the last few years focusing on using computer models to understand social processes. It also includes Ivan Puga-Gonzalez, whose experience in constructing such models will provide the practical and methodological basis for much of the modelling work that will be done as part of the RIP project, and Roger Normann, who is director of the Center for Modeling Social Systems at NORCE.
In addition, the project will draw upon the experience of other researchers and subject matter experts, including David Voas, Ann Taves, Wesley Wildman, and Ross Gore.
For the purposes of the RIP project, Bialystok University will be purchasing a computer system that will be powerful enough to carry out the millions of calculations that the complex models used by the project require. This system will be located within the university’s computation centre. Understandably, the Norwegians will refer to this system as Thor. However, the Polish members of the team might sometimes refer to it as Perun.
The RIP project is only the first step in what we hope will become an ongoing collaborative scientific endeavour. It is the intention of the project leaders that RIP will not only further our understanding of secularisation but will constitute the foundation for long-term cooperation between the Polish and Norwegian teams but also serve as a key step in the development in Bialystok of an internationally renowned research centre that focuses on the cognitive bases of social processes, and for which the use of computer modelling methods will be a standard tool.