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Overview

Using the tools of scientific inquiry to investigate the nature of religious belief and experience.

Our focus in this area is basic scientific research into how people think about and experience God and other supernatural entities—what is sometimes called “religious cognition”. By this term we mean the processes and mental representations involved in beliefs, emotions, experiences, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to God and other supernatural entities. The term religious cognition is also intended to encompass various (non-equivalent) dual-level distinctions in information-processing theories, such as between propositional and experiential, conceptual and schematic, cold and hot, explicit and implicit, and so on. Building on earlier grant-making, and seeking to engage the expertise of researchers from across the cognitive, behavioral, and social sciences, our focus for the 2019 – 2023 funding cycle will cover four themes:

  1. Measurement. Self-report measures—often limited to a single item—are still the most frequently used approaches to capturing what people believe. But such measures may be limited in their ability to measure how people hold information about supernatural entities in mind. Such limitations in turn are an impediment to progress on major themes within the scientific study of religion (e.g., religious attachment, supernatural attribution). We therefore welcome proposals for the improvement and expansion of the methodological toolbox available for measuring religious cognition, including the cross-cultural validation of such measures. In particular: (a) What do the typical single-item measures of religious belief (e.g., in God) actually measure? How should individual differences—or within-person differences over time—be interpreted? (b) What alternative measures (including via indirect or neuroscientific methods) of explicit and implicit religious belief can be developed and validated? How can people’s propositional beliefs about God and their felt experience of God be distinguished? (c) What measures of knowledge of God can be developed and validated that are sensitive both to the content of that knowledge and the way that such knowledge is held in mind? For example, what methods could capture in-the-moment changes in the salience of different aspects of someone’s representations of God? (d) What measures of experience of God can be developed and validated?
  2. Experiences of the divine. How can we develop a more coherent theoretical account of experiences deemed religious, spiritual, supernatural, paranormal, mystical, anomalous, transcendent, and so on? What is the nature of such experiences, what causes them, and what are their biological underpinnings? When and why do people make supernatural attributions when seeking a causal account of an event? What are the consequences of having such experiences? We are particularly in empirical and theoretical proposals with promise to make conceptually rigorous connections among such ideas as Jamesian-style religious experiences, Luhrmann’s accounts of cultivated experiences, theory from cognitive science of religion, research on psilocybin, religious attachment, spiritual struggles, concepts like “surrender to God”, and scientific perspectives on relevant ideas advanced by religious writers like J. B. Phillips or J. I. Packer.
  3. Religious and spiritual development. Despite the ubiquity of religious beliefs and practices around the world, they are relatively under-studied by developmental psychologists. We therefore welcome proposals that address basic developmental questions, such as these: (a) How do mechanisms of social learning interact with universal cognitive capacities to support the acquisition of religious beliefs? (b) How are religious beliefs transmitted and revised across the lifespan? We are particularly interested in proposals relying on experimental or longitudinal designs and that build capacity to collect data from under-studied populations.
  4. Capacity-building. While there has been a modest increase since the turn of the century in the number of psychologists and other cognitive scientists with an interest in religion, it is still the case that only a minority of psychology departments at leading research universities worldwide have a faculty member whose research interests include religious belief, practice, or experience. We therefore welcome proposals for initiatives that would strengthen the scholarly pipeline for the scientific study of religion, including the training and mentoring of early career researchers. We would also be interested in proposals to strengthen other aspects of the research infrastructure for scientific study of religion, such as capacity for longitudinal research, capacity for cross-cultural research, and support for scholars in non-Western countries.

Learn more in this Strategic Priority Q&A with Nicholas Gibson, Director of Human Sciences.

Featured Grants

Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Kevin Ladd, Wellington Zangari, Mary Esperandio
Grantee(s): Indiana University
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Rebekah Richert, Kathleen Corriveau
Grantee(s): University of California, Riverside
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Adam Green, Jordan Grafman
Grantee(s): Georgetown University
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Kurt Gray, Joshua Jackson
Grantee(s): The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Human Sciences
Project Leader(s): Ann Taves, Michael Barlev
Grantee(s): University of California Santa Barbara
Philosophy and Theology
Project Leader(s): Jonathan Jong
Grantee(s): Coventry University