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This conversation is the sixth in a series of conversations about the Strategic Priorities that the John Templeton Foundation will be funding over the next five years. This interview with Nicholas J. S. Gibson, Senior Program Officer, Human Sciences, was conducted and edited by Benjamin Carlson, Director, Strategic Communication.

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?

I’ve had a relationship with the Foundation of some sort or other going back to before my doctorate. I’d already got interested in psychology of religion while studying with Paul Harris, who was then at Oxford, and I knew I wanted to work next with Fraser Watts, who was then at Cambridge. The problem was finding funding, which was especially hard to come by for graduate study in the U.K. But the Foundation had been encouraging Fraser to propose something, and my goal to put some empirical flesh on the theoretical bones of one of his earlier books [The Psychology of Religious Knowing, with Mark Williams] was a good fit for everyone. He was given a small grant, which was enough to employ me for a couple of years, and that ultimately turned into my Ph.D. dissertation, “The Experimental Investigation of Religious Cognition.” That was followed by several more Templeton grants to Fraser’s interdisciplinary research group, some quite large. I ended up staying in Cambridge for 11 years while leading the basic science activities of the group. But in 2011, at the same time I had a grant proposal in to the Foundation to continue my work, I was offered the grant or a job as a program officer. I took the job.

It’s been a dream job for me—I have a pretty varied set of interests across psychology, scientific study of religion, health, open science, religious ministry, even theology, and I get to play in all of those areas with the best thinkers and researchers there are. I do miss doing my own research but that’s more than offset by being able to help set a broad research agenda and to facilitate others in doing work on a scale I could never have achieved on my own.

How do you define the religious cognition priority?

I’m not sure trying to define religion has ever been a very fruitful endeavor, but there are some definite boundaries around what counts as religious cognition for the purposes of this priority. First, by cognition I mean everything encompassed by an information-processing approach: so, crudely, mental content and processes of all kinds, including what people sometimes call “hot cognition” or affect-laden cognition. In other words, thoughts and feelings are in play here, not just what might be called propositional-level thinking. And by religious, I mean those concepts that have something to do with God or other supernatural beings—gods, ghosts, demons, ancestor spirits, and such like—or else with other specifically supernatural concepts, like souls or an afterlife. There are obviously other aspects of religion that are interesting, but in this priority we’re focusing in on how people think about those supernatural concepts that are unique to the religious domain. So, research on meditation, self-transcendence, inter-group relations, the sacred, and so on—while that’s all within the scope of the Foundation’s broader mandate, it’d almost certainly be out of scope for this priority unless it were explicitly connected back to how people think about some kind of supernatural concept.

What is most exciting to you about religious cognition?

Probably that we’re at such an early stage of understanding what religious cognition is and how it works—so there’s huge opportunity to make progress. But also that it’s a real challenge to make that progress. Part of that challenge is because the theoretical foundations for a robust science of religious cognition are much weaker than one might think at first. Take even the notion of “belief”, for example: we’re interested in how religious beliefs change, and why, and what religious beliefs might influence. But neither psychologists nor philosophers seem to have a good handle on what beliefs are in the first place. What are the natural kinds that beliefs are made of? I’m not sure anyone has figured that out yet. Tackling that problem is one goal of this priority.

A different part of that challenge in how to make progress here is that we don’t have many good options in how to measure religious cognition. It’s easy enough to ask people what they think God is like, but it’s much harder to know what the answers tell us about people’s underlying beliefs. This isn’t a new problem. Some scholars almost four decades ago challenged psychologists of religion to find ways of distinguishing among what people say they believe, what people honestly think they believe, and what they actually do believe. We’re still a long way from being able to do that.

What is the state of research on religious cognition at the moment?

It’s a lot better than when I was applying to graduate school, 20 years ago, but it’s still a case of “the harvest is plenty, but the workers are few”, so to speak. Given that belief in the supernatural is so culturally ubiquitous and enduring across human history, it’s strange in some ways just how neglected it is within most psychology departments. If you look at how many psychology departments in U.S. research universities have any faculty member with a declared interest in studying psychology of religion, it’s only around 15%. That’s a significant rate-limiter on growing our understanding in this area. Absent anyone with those research interests, most undergraduates in psychology or other cognitive sciences then don’t get exposed to religion as a legitimate object of scientific inquiry, and those who do don’t have many choices about who to study with for graduate school. This is compounded when you consider that those 15% are distributed across the sub-disciplines in psychology—just a fraction of those are developmental psychologists, for example. So I’m interested in exploring how we can help strengthen the scholarly pipeline.

Besides scholarly capacity, the issues of theory and measurement I mentioned earlier are still big issues for psychology of religion in general. For whatever reason, a lot of research in this area has been rather atheoretical. While it might sound harsh, I don’t think it’s too far from the mark to say that the majority of empirical work on religion consists of correlational studies using self-report scales that themselves have dubious validity. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why scholarly capacity has also remained rather emaciated, actually. But I don’t think there’s any reason that things have to continue that way, and indeed I’m encouraged by the way things are moving. Just as one example, 20 years ago there were really only a handful of true experiments in the psychology of religion literature; we’re much improved from those days.

Why do you think this topic is important now?

Sir John Templeton cared a lot about how people think about God; he had an expansive view of who and what God is, and he wanted to expand other people’s thinking about God too. Doing that of course requires a deeper understanding of what people do think about God and how those beliefs are formed and revised. So this topic ought to be important to anyone who is seeking to know more of God or who is involved in religious ministry trying to help others know God better. J. I. Packer, the Anglican theologian, had a line in his classic book Knowing God that has been a challenge for me ever since I read it: “one can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of Him.” I don’t think psychological science alone can bridge that gap, but maybe it has something to offer.

A very different reason why religious cognition is an important topic is because it’s full of interesting edge cases that can stretch out or challenge our theories of ordinary, everyday cognition. Take how people explain what happens to them in their lives, for example. How people think about the role of God or other supernatural forces could have profound effects on how they make decisions about their health, and eventually on their health outcomes. Do some people delay in presenting with new symptoms because of relying more on prayer than on medicine? Health psychologists and others involved in behavioral medicine should be interested in understanding more about how supernatural attribution works. And social psychologists should be interested too—given that people can be grateful to their surgeon and to God, what are the implications for general theories of causal attribution and meaning-making?

Here’s another example: children can end up believing in a lot of things that they’ve had no direct experience of, like germs, electrons, dinosaurs, Santa Claus, and Australia. How do they learn to distinguish fantasy from reality? There’s a line of research over the last couple of decades suggesting that children are predisposed to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, morally concerned supernatural being—even with minimal cultural scaffolding for such ideas. There’s a lot more we need to know about this claim, but it’s the kind of thing that ought to be interesting even to developmental psychologists who aren’t interested in religion. Knowing more about what makes an idea a good fit for human minds—what makes it interesting, memorable, easily transmitted, and able to support inferences about other things—that’s the kind of insight that could be applied to how science education happens, for example.

What big questions do you see in religious cognition?

In contrast to William James, who was most interested in extraordinary religious experience, I’m consistently drawn to questions about everyday lived religion. How does an average religious person come to know God—or what he or she takes to be God? How do “felt” beliefs about God—heart-level or gut-level beliefs, if you like—relate to more propositional or head-level beliefs? And when people describe themselves as having a relationship with God, how does that manifest itself in psychological terms? We have a pretty robust literature now on social cognition—how people think about others and themselves in relation to others—but just what kind of “other” is God? And then for those who don’t believe in God or any other supernatural entities, how was that not-believing arrived at?

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

There are so many great questions that we could ask: How and why do beliefs develop and change over the lifespan? What’s the impact of religious beliefs on other aspects of life? Will religious beliefs eventually die out? But all of these kinds of questions can seem rather premature until we have stronger psychological theories about the nature of religious beliefs and a more robust toolset for measuring them. That’ll probably take more than five years to achieve, but I’m optimistic that we’re heading in the right direction.