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Testing Functional Hypotheses of Religion: Announcing a New Public Database with Worked Examples for Scholars of Religion

Panel Chair: Joseph Bulbulia | Thursday, August 27, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

From its inception, the academic discipline of Religious Studies has been home to debates about the origins and functions of religions. Until recently, however, scholars of religion have lacked the tools for resolving the enduring controversies. This panel describes exciting new methods for leveraging publically accessible datasets for addressing fundamental questions. The panel opens with the world premiere of Pulotu, the first publicly available database purpose-built for testing evolutionary hypotheses about religion. Pulotu contains rich information from a diverse sample of over 100 Austronesian cultures, and comes free-of-charge. A second talk raises the question, “Why have the Abrahamic faiths been so successful?” and models the relative importance of key drivers of success, both internal and external. A third talk considers whether the pattern of religious change across Christianity’s history has been defined by key historical moments or occurs more slowly at denominational fragmentation. Evidence is used to evaluate functionalist controversies. A final talk illustrates how fine-grained environmental data can be combined with global ethnographic datasets to predict the worldwide distribution of beliefs in moralizing-high-gods with an accuracy of 91%. The supported model portrays religion’s role in history as neither one of pure cultural transmission nor of simple ecological determinism, but rather a complex mixture of social, cultural, and environmental influences.

Joseph Watts

Announcing Pulotu! A Public Database of Pacific Supernatural Belief and Practice

Pulotu is the first publicly available database designed specifically to test evolutionary hypotheses of supernatural belief and practice. It contains a diverse sample of over 100 Austronesian cultures, spread across half the world’s latitude, with belief systems that range in focus from localized ancestral spirits to powerful creator gods. Each culture has variables on a wide range of supernatural beliefs and practices, as well as their social and physical environments. Here I will present the key features of Pulotu and illustrate the power of phylogenetic methods to reconstruct the history of cultures and test theories about the coevolution of supernatural beliefs with social structures while controlling for the historical non-independence of cultural histories. I conclude by offering scholars of religion a hands-on-introduction to Pulotu’s user-friendly graphical interface, and offer tips about how scholars might get started in leveraging Pulotu power for address field-specific questions.

Quentin Atkinson

Modelling the spread of Abrahamic religions

In 1900, 45% of people on the planet were Christian or Muslim. Today the number is 55%. Understanding the factors that determine the success of Christianity and Islam across cultures has the potential to explain how and why these religions have become globally dominant today. Here I present a range of quantitative cross-cultural models that investigate the relative importance of religious features and features of the host culture - existing religious beliefs and practices, economic systems, and political structures - in determining the success of a set of Abrahamic religious traditions around the world. This model highlights the features of religious systems that are most resistant to change, and lay the foundation for nomothetic laws of cultural diffusibility with the potential to explain the global success of Abrahamic traditions.

Joseph Bulbulia

The Punctuated Evolution of Religion

Evolutionary theories of religion hold that religions evolve to enhance group unity, but what is the evidence? “Recognition signaling” argues that religions function to delineate group boundaries and predicts that religious change will be most pronounced at religious schisms. Against the “schismogensis” of religious diversity, several historians have argued for defining moments – a “punctuated evolution.” We test rival models by applying cultural phylogenetic methods to a large sample of Christian denominations (n=50). Despite previously reported evidence for schismogensis from small samples, and in line with punctuated evolution, we find that most change in Christianity occurred at the Protestant Reformation. Moreover, despite a superficial resemblance of change within Christianity to an evolutionary tree, results indicate that historical change was exceedingly un-treelike, suggesting substantial borrowing between denominations. Results illustrate the power of cultural phylogenetics to test long-debated theories of religion, and reveal the limitations of tree-like approaches in the evolutionary study of religions.

Russell Gray

The ecology of religious beliefs

a broad range of biological taxa, their role in shaping human behavior is currently disputed. Both comparative and experimental evidence indicate that beliefs in moralizing high gods promote cooperation among humans, a behavioral attribute known to correlate with environmental harshness in nonhuman animals. Here we combine fine-grained bioclimatic data with the latest statistical tools from ecology and the social sciences to evaluate the potential effects of environmental forces, language history, and culture on the global distribution of belief in moralizing high gods (n = 583 societies). After simultaneously accounting for potential nonindependence among societies because of shared ancestry and cultural diffusion, we find that these beliefs are more prevalent among societies that inhabit poorer environments and are more prone to ecological duress. In addition, we find that these beliefs are more likely in politically complex societies that recognize rights to movable property. Overall, our multimodel inference approach predicts the global distribution of beliefs in moralizing high gods with an accuracy of 91%, and estimates the relative importance of different potential mechanisms by which this spatial pat- tern may have arisen. The emerging picture is neither one of pure cultural transmission nor of simple ecological determinism, but rather a complex mixture of social, cultural, and environmental influences. Our methods and findings provide a blueprint for how the increasing wealth of ecological, linguistic, and historical data can be leveraged to understand the forces that have shaped the behavior of our own species.


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