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Questions Raised and Answered by Laboratory Studies of Religion

Panel Chair: Panagiotis Mitkidis | Friday, August 28, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

After describing the core features of “laboratory experiments” in the social sciences, this panel will spotlight some questions answered and raised by simple experimental studies of religious phenomena. When well-designed, experiments offer tests of competing causal explanations concerning the extent to which aspects of religious phenomena are physiologically and psychologically embedded. We emphasise the value of multidisciplinary teams (historians, anthropologists, psychologists, and physiologists) in identifying suitable hypotheses and finalising designs. Studies designed in this way avoid decontextualisation, in that they are motivated and informed by historical and anthropological records of specific practices and concepts. We will discuss experiments on the practices of kneeling, prostration and meditation, as well as on the concept of "luck". With respect to each, we will show the necessity of a multidisciplinary approach in addressing surprising and tangential findings. Each presentation will be followed by 10 minutes’ discussion.

Radek Kundt

Laboratory experiment as a part of the religious studies scholar´s toolkit

After introducing the strengths and weaknesses of the social-scientific laboratory experiment, I will focus on its ability to decide between competing hypotheses. I will argue that Religious Studies can use it for the same purpose. As a showcase, I will use the hotly debated issue of religious prosociality, an issue in evolutionary research on religion. Here, rival hypotheses compete for supporting empirical evidence (increased cooperation, generosity, reciprocity, trust and altruism; reduced cheating, etc.). One hypothesis considers religious prosociality to be an expression of parochial in-group favouritism, suggesting that it is a mere by-product of our coalitional psychology. The other sees religious prosociality as extending even to out-groups, arguing that it might be an adaptation. I will use this case as an example of how highly influential wide-ranging theories boil down to empirical testing and how experimental research can in the end play the essential role of an arbiter.

Eva Kundtová Klocová

Look up and kneel down before your God: why the position matters

Most religious traditions emphasize strict power distinctions between the human and superhuman/divine and often demand a submissive attitude towards the superhuman agents. This attitude can be enforced not only directly in teachings and theology of the given religious tradition, but also by ritual practices using embodied states of submission, such as kneeling, prostrating or looking up to the representation of deity. I argue that these practices in religious rituals are not mere expressions of subordination; rather, they establish and modulate submissive attitude and behaviour towards the superhuman agents. Experimental evidence supports this assertion for other bodily postures and the vertical orientation of perception. There is however no exhaustive research program focusing on submissive positions and dominance cues in religious rituals. The proposed paper will present experimental research exploring the influence of posture and location of stimuli on the perceptions and self-perceptions of power and dominance.

Silvie Kotherová

New approach to the study of Buddhist meditation: Example of two experimental studies

Research on Buddhist meditation is still dominated by questions like “What can science learn from meditation?”, “What can meditation teach us about our mind?”, “Can meditation help us to be healthier and feel better?” These ideas reflect the idealisation and favourable political position of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation in Western countries. A further implication of this position for experimental research is that Buddhist meditation is viewed as a “pure” psychological/cognitive phenomenon while Buddhist influence on its understanding is permanently overlooked. Thus the paper describes two experimental studies on the specific cognitive process of focusing attention on one´s own breath. The process and its physiological effects are investigated separately from the Buddhist framework. Interdisciplinary collaboration between scholars of religion, cardiologists and psychologists in these studies proved very fruitful. The results necessarily raise the question of “what science can tell us about meditation”. Plans for a future research are discussed.

Anastasia Ejova

Factors underlying human concepts of luck: preliminary results and methodological recommendations

Case studies of “concepts of luck” in ancient and modern societies share the conclusion that luck is conceived of as both a higher power and a personal quality; that is, as both a guardian spirit and a power one is born with. I will present one possible interpretation of this apparent contradiction, focusing on common features of the two conceptions. Psychological studies suggest that, as both a higher power and a personal quality, luck is concluded to be at play when outcomes are of high importance. Likewise, in both its manifestations, luck is conceived of as involving sudden reversals. Underlying the concept might then be the memorability of significant life events and the correct perception of them as arising from a mixture of deservingness (personal skills, just reward by higher powers) and pure randomness. A survey methodology for testing this interpretation will be discussed.


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