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We recently sat down with John Templeton Foundation staff member, Erik Gjesfjeld, Program Officer for Human Sciences, to discuss the Foundation’s interests in and goals for its Dynamics of Religious Change research priority.

To get started, why don’t you share a little about your story – what brought you to the foundation? What made you interested in and excited about this place?

Prior to joining the foundation, I served as a Renfrew Fellow in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Society and Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was at UCLA that I first learned of the John Templeton Foundation, when my colleagues and I received a sub-grant from the Foundation as part of the Metaknowledge Network project.

What excites me most about the Foundation is ​​the unwavering focus on exploring the big questions through interdisciplinary scientific approaches. In particular, I have long been fascinated by the concept of change — whether that be cultural, technological, or religious change — and this theme has been a common thread throughout my work. For example, my previous research in archaeology tried to explore how fast or slow certain parts of culture (such as technology) can change. In my role as a Program Officer in Human Sciences, I am more focused on finding and funding research that better helps us understand the reasons for and catalysts of cultural and religious change.

How do you describe the foundation’s work related to the Dynamics of Religious Change? What are the goals of this priority?

Our work within Dynamics of Religious Change explores trends and processes in religious and spiritual beliefs, practices, and identities. This priority is often viewed as one of our broadest and most diverse priorities in Human Sciences. This creates both challenges and opportunities in bringing together research projects that help fulfill the goals of the priority. For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this priority is that many of our research questions can be viewed from multiple scales.

For example, there has been substantial discussion recently about the “rise of nones” (those that do not identify with a specific religion or set of religious beliefs). This question can be examined from the perspective of the individual — looking at why a person may no longer choose to attend religious services or self-identify with a religious tradition — but it can also be explored from broader sociological, demographic, and anthropological perspectives. For example, asking questions about whether the rise in religious “nones” is tied to broader social changes or changes in cultural norms? What consequences do these changes in religious beliefs or non-beliefs have on the structure of societies or the types of social support they provide? Are these same changes occurring across the world or only in a few select countries? I love how inherently interdisciplinary many of these questions are and being able to help facilitate this interdisciplinary research is an important goal for me. One example of this is our recent grant to Jon Lanman and colleagues titled “Explaining Atheism”, which takes a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to investigating the origins of non-belief.

What big questions drive research in this area?

Cross-cultural questions are especially important to research in Dynamics of Religious Change. Specifically, we’re focused on examining whether the many psychological and sociological findings that have emerged out of centuries of research in western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) countries are applicable to our understanding of people living in non-WEIRD countries. Researchers have spent so much time and money examining WEIRD societies — but if we’re after the goal of understanding the fundamental realities of human existence, we have to be able to expand our theories and insights beyond Western cultural contexts (such as work we have supported in Africa, East Asia, South Asia, and Globally). Cross-cultural research is hard and expensive, it takes a long period of time, but it is incredibly valuable if the goal is understanding our what it means to be human. 

What do you find particularly exciting about this work?

The incredible challenges that emerge when attempting to perform cross-cultural research. Most often, producing strong cross-cultural research requires careful selection of field sites, deep understanding of the cultural norms and values of study populations, and a rigorous evaluation of methodological approaches. One great example is our grant to John Shaver, Mary Shenk, Richard Sosis, and Rebecca Sear that examines the evolutionary dynamics of religion, family size, and child success. This project attempts to examine how religion influences fertility decisions using a sample of over 6,000 participants from five different societies, living on three different continents, and practicing six different religions.

As you can imagine, this type of research takes significant time and effort, but if you really want to extend a research theory, it must be done at cross-cultural scales. For me, I see this as a major component in validating our theories and assumptions — if research passes these comparative tests, it only becomes stronger. And if it doesn’t, that raises new questions about why a phenomenon is different across the world.

What is the state of this work in this area now? What are the most interesting or surprising developments in this field?

One of the most significant developments has been the emergence of large, digitized, and open access databases that help facilitate cross-cultural research. Some of these have emphasized cataloging and coding existing cross-cultural data for researchers, but others are attempting to create new knowledge through the collection of existing and new research from across the world.

Cross-cultural research isn’t a new concept, but it hasn’t always been done well. Now, we’re able to build databases at a scale never seen before, and I’m optimistic that these can help spur the exploration of new research questions and hypotheses. I’m also proud that the Foundation has been a catalyst in supporting some of these emerging databases such as the Database of Religious History and the Association of Religious Data Archives.

Why do you think this topic is important now?

The world is currently undergoing significant changes in religious beliefs — along with environmental, political, and economic changes — and the pace of change in many of these domains is intensifying. Understanding how these changes not only influence each other, but also influence the beliefs, values, and norms of people around the world is of critical importance to understand how we will live together in a dynamic, globally connected world.

Cross-cultural research contributes to this goal by helping us understand the similarities and differences in our cultural perspectives. I believe that better understanding the commonalities we share, along with the value of our differences, will ultimately help us live together better.

Where would you like to see the state of this work in five years? What questions do you hope we’ll be asking then? 

Given that cross-cultural research often takes many years, I imagine that the state of this work will probably look similar in five years. However, with each project, we help to increase our understanding of human similarities and differences as well as the potential mechanisms that underlie cultural dynamics. I do hope to see online databases continue to grow and begin to fulfill their promise not just as repositories of information, but also as research tools that can help synthesize what we know about humans and our shared history. I would also like to see more collaborative, team science research with scholars crossing disciplinary boundaries such as economists working with anthropologists, psychologists with demographers, or sociologists with geographers.

I think it is also important to help increase project leadership roles for scholars from diverse cultural backgrounds. I would hope that, in five years, we are beginning to see increased engagement with indigenous scholars especially, who can often provide much deeper insights about their own cultural norms and values.

What should people interested in applying for funding know? What are you looking for – and just as importantly, what are you not looking for?

We are often not looking for projects that describe or narrate historical events or the history of religious institutions. While such projects are valuable sources of information, we prefer projects that look forward into the trends and dynamics of religious and spiritual beliefs and allow us to expand our knowledge and understanding of human culture.

We are very interested in projects that reflect the multiple scales with which we view Dynamics of Religious Change. That’s where we see the greatest potential to produce meaningful and impactful research. We recently updated the Dynamics of Religious Change website to provide more clarity around our areas of interest and have identified four key domains: individual religious expression, transmission of religious information, institutional innovation, and international trends. We strongly welcome projects that can explore any of these domains from multiple disciplinary perspectives and draw on the strengths of previous work to produce novel insights.

Still Curious?

Explore featured grants from Dynamics of Religious Change.